How do we get rid of gerrymandering?

Nov 18 JDN 2458441

I don’t mean in a technical sense; there is a large literature in political science on better voting mechanisms, and this is basically a solved problem. Proportional representation, algorithmic redistricting, or (my personal favorite) reweighted range voting would eradicate gerrymandering forever.

No, I mean strategically and politically—how do we actually make this happen?

Let’s set aside the Senate. (No, really. Set it aside. Get rid of it. “Take my wife… please.”) The Senate should not exist. It is fundamentally anathema to the most basic principle of democracy, “one person, one vote”; and even its most ardent supporters at the time admitted it had absolutely no principled justification for existing. Smaller states are wildly overrepresented (Wyoming, 580,000 people, gets the same number of Senators as California, 39 million), and non-states are not represented (DC has more people than Wyoming, and Puerto Rico has more people than Iowa). The “Senate popular vote” thus doesn’t really make sense as a concept. But this is not “gerrymandering”, as there is no redistricting process that can be used strategically to tilt voting results in favor of one party or another.

It is in the House of Representatives that gerrymandering is a problem.
North Carolina is a particularly extreme example. Republicans won 50.3% of the popular vote in this year’s House election; North Carolina has 13 seats; so, any reasonable person would think that the Republicans should get 7 of the 13 seats. Under algorithmic redistricting, they would have received 8 of 13 seats. Under proportional representation, they would have received, you guessed it, exactly 7. And under reweighted range voting? Well, that depends on how much people like each party. Assuming that Democrats and Republicans are about equally strong in their preferences, we would also expect the Republicans to win about 7. They in fact received 10 of 13 seats.

Indeed, as FiveThirtyEight found, this is almost the best the Republicans could possibly have done, if they had applied the optimal gerrymandering configuration. There are a couple of districts on the real map that occasionally swing which wouldn’t under the truly optimal gerrymandering; but none of these would flip Democrat more than 20% of the time.

Most states are not as gerrymandered as North Carolina. But there is a pattern you’ll notice among the highly-gerrymandered states.

Alabama is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

Arkansas is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

Idaho is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

Mississippi is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

As discussed, North Carolina is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.
South Carolina is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

Texas is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

Wisconsin is close to optimally gerrymandered for Republicans.

Tennessee is close to optimally gerrymandered for Democrats.

Arizona is close to algorithmic redistricting.

California is close to algorithmic redistricting.

Connecticut is close to algorithmic redistricting.

Michigan is close to algorithmic redistricting.

Missouri is close to algorithmic redistricting.

Ohio is close to algorithmic redistricting.

Oregon is close to algorithmic redistricting.

Illinois is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Democrats.

Kentucky is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Democrats.

Louisiana is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Democrats.

Maryland is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Democrats.

Minnesota is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Republicans.

New Jersey is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Republicans.

Pennsylvania is close to algorithmic redistricting, with some bias toward Republicans.

Colorado is close to proportional representation.

Florida is close to proportional representation.

Iowa is close to proportional representation.

Maine is close to proportional representation.

Nebraska is close to proportional representation.

Nevada is close to proportional representation.

New Hampshire is close to proportional representation.

New Mexico is close to proportional representation.

Washington is close to proportional representation.

Georgia is somewhere between proportional representation and algorithmic redistricting.

Indiana is somewhere between proportional representation and algorithmic redistricting.

New York is somewhere between proportional representation and algorithmic redistricting.

Virginia is somewhere between proportional representation and algorithmic redistricting.

Hawaii is so overwhelmingly Democrat it’s impossible to gerrymander.

Rhode Island is so overwhelmingly Democrat it’s impossible to gerrymander.

Kansas is so overwhelmingly Republican it’s impossible to gerrymander.

Oklahoma is so overwhelmingly Republican it’s impossible to gerrymander.

Utah is so overwhelmingly Republican it’s impossible to gerrymander.

West Virginia is so overwhelmingly Republican it’s impossible to gerrymander.

You may have noticed the pattern. Most states are either close to algorithmic redistricting (14), close to proportional representation (9), or somewhere in between those (4). Of these, 4 are slightly biased toward Democrats and 3 are slightly biased toward Republicans.

6 states are so partisan that gerrymandering isn’t really possible there.

6 states are missing from the FiveThirtyEight analysis; I think they couldn’t get good data on them.

Of the remaining 9 states, 1 is strongly gerrymandered toward Democrats (gaining a whopping 1 seat, by the way), and 8 are strongly gerrymandered toward Republicans.

If we look at the nation as a whole, switching from the current system to proportional representation would increase the number of Democrat seats from 168 to 174 (+6), decrease the number of Republican seats from 195 to 179 (-16), and increase the number of competitive seats from 72 to 82 (+10).

Going to algorithmic redistricting instead would reduce the number of Democrat seats from 168 to 151 (-17), decrease the number of Republican seats from 195 to 180 (-15), and increase the number of competitive seats from 72 to a whopping 104 (+32).

Proportional representation minimizes wasted votes and best represents public opinion (with the possible exception of reweighted range voting, which we can’t really forecast because it uses more expressive information than what polls currently provide). It is thus to be preferred. Relative to the current system, proportional representation would decrease the representation of Republicans relative to Democrats by 24 seats—over 5% of the entire House.

Thus, let us not speak of gerrymandering as a “both sides” sort of problem. There is a very clear pattern here: Gerrymandering systematically favors Republicans.

Yet this does not answer the question I posed: How do we actually fix this?

The answer is going to sound a bit paradoxical: We must motivate voters to vote more so that voters will be better represented.

I have an acquaintance who has complained about this apparently paradoxical assertion: How can we vote to make our votes matter? (He advocates using violence instead.)

But the key thing to understand here is that it isn’t that our votes don’t matter at all—it is merely that they don’t matter enough.

If we were living in an authoritarian regime with sham elections (as some far-left people I’ve spoken to actually seem to believe), then indeed voting would be pointless. You couldn’t vote out Saddam Hussein or Benito Mussolini, even though they both did hold “elections” to make you think you had some voice. At that point, yes, obviously the only remaining choices are revolution or foreign invasion. (It does seem worth noting that both regimes fell by the latter, not the former.)

The US has not fallen that far just yet.

Votes in the US do not count evenly—but they do still count.

We have to work harder than our opponents for the same level of success, but we can still succeed.

Our legs may be shackled to weights, but they are not yet chained to posts in the ground.

Indeed, several states in this very election passed referenda to create independent redistricting commissions, and Democrats have gained at least 32 seats in the House—“at least” because some states are still counting mail-in ballots or undergoing recounts.

The one that has me on the edge of my seat is right here in Orange County, which several outlets (including the New York Times) have made preliminary projections in favor of Mimi Walters (R) but Nate Silver is forecasting higher probability for Katie Porter (D). It says “100% of precincts reporting”, but there are still as many ballots uncounted as there are counted, because California now has almost twice as many voters who vote by mail than in person.

Unfortunately, some of the states that are most highly gerrymandered don’t allow citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives (North Carolina, for instance). This is likely no coincidence. But this still doesn’t make us powerless. If your state is highly gerrymandered, make noise about it. Join or even organize protests. Write letters to legislators. Post on social media. Create memes.
Even most Republican voters don’t believe in gerrymandering. They want to win fair and square. Even if you can’t get them to vote for the candidates you want, reach out to them to get them to complain to their legislators about the injustice of the gerrymandering itself. Appeal to their patriotic values; election manipulation is clearly not what America stands for.

If your state is not highly gerrymandered, think bigger. We should be pushing for a Constitutional amendment implementing either proportional representation or algorithmic redistricting. The majority of states already have reasonably fair districts; if we can get 2/3 of the House and 2/3 of the Senate to agree on such an amendment, we don’t need to win North Carolina or Mississippi.

The sausage of statistics being made

 

Nov 11 JDN 2458434

“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

~ John Godfrey Saxe, not Otto von Bismark

Statistics are a bit like laws and sausages. There are a lot of things in statistical practice that don’t align with statistical theory. The most obvious examples are the fact that many results in statistics are asymptotic: they only strictly apply for infinitely large samples, and in any finite sample they will be some sort of approximation (we often don’t even know how good an approximation).

But the problem runs deeper than this: The whole idea of a p-value was originally supposed to be used to assess one single hypothesis that is the only one you test in your entire study.

That’s frankly a ludicrous expectation: Why would you write a whole paper just to test one parameter?

This is why I don’t actually think this so-called multiple comparisons problem is a problem with researchers doing too many hypothesis tests; I think it’s a problem with statisticians being fundamentally unreasonable about what statistics is useful for. We have to do multiple comparisons, so you should be telling us how to do it correctly.

Statisticians have this beautiful pure mathematics that generates all these lovely asymptotic results… and then they stop, as if they were done. But we aren’t dealing with infinite or even “sufficiently large” samples; we need to know what happens when your sample is 100, not when your sample is 10^29. We can’t assume that our variables are independently identically distributed; we don’t know their distribution, and we’re pretty sure they’re going to be somewhat dependent.

Even in an experimental context where we can randomly and independently assign some treatments, we can’t do that with lots of variables that are likely to matter, like age, gender, nationality, or field of study. And applied econometricians are in an even tighter bind; they often can’t randomize anything. They have to rely upon “instrumental variables” that they hope are “close enough to randomized” relative to whatever they want to study.

In practice what we tend to do is… fudge it. We use the formal statistical methods, and then we step back and apply a series of informal norms to see if the result actually makes sense to us. This is why almost no psychologists were actually convinced by Daryl Bem’s precognition experiments, despite his standard experimental methodology and perfect p < 0.05 results; he couldn’t pass any of the informal tests, particularly the most basic one of not violating any known fundamental laws of physics. We knew he had somehow cherry-picked the data, even before looking at it; nothing else was possible.

This is actually part of where the “hierarchy of sciences” notion is useful: One of the norms is that you’re not allowed to break the rules of the sciences above you, but you can break the rules of the sciences below you. So psychology has to obey physics, but physics doesn’t have to obey psychology. I think this is also part of why there’s so much enmity between economists and anthropologists; really we should be on the same level, cognizant of each other’s rules, but economists want to be above anthropologists so we can ignore culture, and anthropologists want to be above economists so they can ignore incentives.

Another informal norm is the “robustness check”, in which the researcher runs a dozen different regressions approaching the same basic question from different angles. “What if we control for this? What if we interact those two variables? What if we use a different instrument?” In terms of statistical theory, this doesn’t actually make a lot of sense; the probability distributions f(y|x) of y conditional on x and f(y|x, z) of y conditional on x and z are not the same thing, and wouldn’t in general be closely tied, depending on the distribution f(x|z) of x conditional on z. But in practice, most real-world phenomena are going to continue to show up even as you run a bunch of different regressions, and so we can be more confident that something is a real phenomenon insofar as that happens. If an effect drops out when you switch out a couple of control variables, it may have been a statistical artifact. But if it keeps appearing no matter what you do to try to make it go away, then it’s probably a real thing.

Because of the powerful career incentives toward publication and the strange obsession among journals with a p-value less than 0.05, another norm has emerged: Don’t actually trust p-values that are close to 0.05. The vast majority of the time, a p-value of 0.047 was the result of publication bias. Now if you see a p-value of 0.001, maybe then you can trust it—but you’re still relying on a lot of assumptions even then. I’ve seen some researchers argue that because of this, we should tighten our standards for publication to something like p < 0.01, but that’s missing the point; what we need to do is stop publishing based on p-values. If you tighten the threshold, you’re just going to get more rejected papers and then the few papers that do get published will now have even smaller p-values that are still utterly meaningless.

These informal norms protect us from the worst outcomes of bad research. But they are almost certainly not optimal. It’s all very vague and informal, and different researchers will often disagree vehemently over whether a given interpretation is valid. What we need are formal methods for solving these problems, so that we can have the objectivity and replicability that formal methods provide. Right now, our existing formal tools simply are not up to that task.

There are some things we may never be able to formalize: If we had a formal algorithm for coming up with good ideas, the AIs would already rule the world, and this would be either Terminator or The Culture depending on whether we designed the AIs correctly. But I think we should at least be able to formalize the basic question of “Is this statement likely to be true?” that is the fundamental motivation behind statistical hypothesis testing.

I think the answer is likely to be in a broad sense Bayesian, but Bayesians still have a lot of work left to do in order to give us really flexible, reliable statistical methods we can actually apply to the messy world of real data. In particular, tell us how to choose priors please! Prior selection is a fundamental make-or-break problem in Bayesian inference that has nonetheless been greatly neglected by most Bayesian statisticians. So, what do we do? We fall back on informal norms: Try maximum likelihood, which is like using a very flat prior. Try a normally-distributed prior. See if you can construct a prior from past data. If all those give the same thing, that’s a “robustness check” (see previous informal norm).

Informal norms are also inherently harder to teach and learn. I’ve seen a lot of other grad students flail wildly at statistics, not because they don’t know what a p-value means (though maybe that’s also sometimes true), but because they don’t really quite grok the informal underpinnings of good statistical inference. This can be very hard to explain to someone: They feel like they followed all the rules correctly, but you are saying their results are wrong, and now you can’t explain why.

In fact, some of the informal norms that are in wide use are clearly detrimental. In economics, norms have emerged that certain types of models are better simply because they are “more standard”, such as the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models that can basically be fit to everything and have never actually usefully predicted anything. In fact, the best ones just predict what we already knew from Keynesian models. But without a formal norm for testing the validity of models, it’s been “DSGE or GTFO”. At present, it is considered “nonstandard” (read: “bad”) not to assume that your agents are either a single unitary “representative agent” or a continuum of infinitely-many agents—modeling the actual fact of finitely-many agents is just not done. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine any formal criterion that wouldn’t at least give you some points for correctly including the fact that there is more than one but less than infinity people in the world (obviously your model could still be bad in other ways).

I don’t know what these new statistical methods would look like. Maybe it’s as simple as formally justifying some of the norms we already use; maybe it’s as complicated as taking a fundamentally new approach to statistical inference. But we have to start somewhere.

Why are humans so bad with probability?

Apr 29 JDN 2458238

In previous posts on deviations from expected utility and cumulative prospect theory, I’ve detailed some of the myriad ways in which human beings deviate from optimal rational behavior when it comes to probability.

This post is going to be a bit different: Yes, we behave irrationally when it comes to probability. Why?

Why aren’t we optimal expected utility maximizers?
This question is not as simple as it sounds. Some of the ways that human beings deviate from neoclassical behavior are simply because neoclassical theory requires levels of knowledge and intelligence far beyond what human beings are capable of; basically anything requiring “perfect information” qualifies, as does any game theory prediction that involves solving extensive-form games with infinite strategy spaces by backward induction. (Don’t feel bad if you have no idea what that means; that’s kind of my point. Solving infinite extensive-form games by backward induction is an unsolved problem in game theory; just this past week I saw a new paper presented that offered a partial potential solutionand yet we expect people to do it optimally every time?)

I’m also not going to include questions of fundamental uncertainty, like “Will Apple stock rise or fall tomorrow?” or “Will the US go to war with North Korea in the next ten years?” where it isn’t even clear how we would assign a probability. (Though I will get back to them, for reasons that will become clear.)

No, let’s just look at the absolute simplest cases, where the probabilities are all well-defined and completely transparent: Lotteries and casino games. Why are we so bad at that?

Lotteries are not a computationally complex problem. You figure out how much the prize is worth to you, multiply it by the probability of winning—which is clearly spelled out for you—and compare that to how much the ticket price is worth to you. The most challenging part lies in specifying your marginal utility of wealth—the “how much it’s worth to you” part—but that’s something you basically had to do anyway, to make any kind of trade-offs on how to spend your time and money. Maybe you didn’t need to compute it quite so precisely over that particular range of parameters, but you need at least some idea how much $1 versus $10,000 is worth to you in order to get by in a market economy.

Casino games are a bit more complicated, but not much, and most of the work has been done for you; you can look on the Internet and find tables of probability calculations for poker, blackjack, roulette, craps and more. Memorizing all those probabilities might take some doing, but human memory is astonishingly capacious, and part of being an expert card player, especially in blackjack, seems to involve memorizing a lot of those probabilities.

Furthermore, by any plausible expected utility calculation, lotteries and casino games are a bad deal. Unless you’re an expert poker player or blackjack card-counter, your expected income from playing at a casino is always negative—and the casino set it up that way on purpose.

Why, then, can lotteries and casinos stay in business? Why are we so bad at such a simple problem?

Clearly we are using some sort of heuristic judgment in order to save computing power, and the people who make lotteries and casinos have designed formal models that can exploit those heuristics to pump money from us. (Shame on them, really; I don’t fully understand why this sort of thing is legal.)

In another previous post I proposed what I call “categorical prospect theory”, which I think is a decently accurate description of the heuristics people use when assessing probability (though I’ve not yet had the chance to test it experimentally).

But why use this particular heuristic? Indeed, why use a heuristic at all for such a simple problem?

I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that these simple problems are weird; they are absolutely not the sort of thing a tribe of hunter-gatherers is likely to encounter on the savannah. It doesn’t make sense for our brains to be optimized to solve poker or roulette.

The sort of problems that our ancestors encountered—indeed, the sort of problems that we encounter, most of the time—were not problems of calculable probability risk; they were problems of fundamental uncertainty. And they were frequently matters of life or death (which is why we’d expect them to be highly evolutionarily optimized): “Was that sound a lion, or just the wind?” “Is this mushroom safe to eat?” “Is that meat spoiled?”

In fact, many of the uncertainties most important to our ancestors are still important today: “Will these new strangers be friendly, or dangerous?” “Is that person attracted to me, or am I just projecting my own feelings?” “Can I trust you to keep your promise?” These sorts of social uncertainties are even deeper; it’s not clear that any finite being could ever totally resolve its uncertainty surrounding the behavior of other beings with the same level of intelligence, as the cognitive arms race continues indefinitely. The better I understand you, the better you understand me—and if you’re trying to deceive me, as I get better at detecting deception, you’ll get better at deceiving.

Personally, I think that it was precisely this sort of feedback loop that resulting in human beings getting such ridiculously huge brains in the first place. Chimpanzees are pretty good at dealing with the natural environment, maybe even better than we are; but even young children can outsmart them in social tasks any day. And once you start evolving for social cognition, it’s very hard to stop; basically you need to be constrained by something very fundamental, like, say, maximum caloric intake or the shape of the birth canal. Where chimpanzees look like their brains were what we call an “interior solution”, where evolution optimized toward a particular balance between cost and benefit, human brains look more like a “corner solution”, where the evolutionary pressure was entirely in one direction until we hit up against a hard constraint. That’s exactly what one would expect to happen if we were caught in a cognitive arms race.

What sort of heuristic makes sense for dealing with fundamental uncertainty—as opposed to precisely calculable probability? Well, you don’t want to compute a utility function and multiply by it, because that adds all sorts of extra computation and you have no idea what probability to assign. But you’ve got to do something like that in some sense, because that really is the optimal way to respond.

So here’s a heuristic you might try: Separate events into some broad categories based on how frequently they seem to occur, and what sort of response would be necessary.

Some things, like the sun rising each morning, seem to always happen. So you should act as if those things are going to happen pretty much always, because they do happen… pretty much always.

Other things, like rain, seem to happen frequently but not always. So you should look for signs that those things might happen, and prepare for them when the signs point in that direction.

Still other things, like being attacked by lions, happen very rarely, but are a really big deal when they do. You can’t go around expecting those to happen all the time, that would be crazy; but you need to be vigilant, and if you see any sign that they might be happening, even if you’re pretty sure they’re not, you may need to respond as if they were actually happening, just in case. The cost of a false positive is much lower than the cost of a false negative.

And still other things, like people sprouting wings and flying, never seem to happen. So you should act as if those things are never going to happen, and you don’t have to worry about them.

This heuristic is quite simple to apply once set up: It can simply slot in memories of when things did and didn’t happen in order to decide which category they go in—i.e. availability heuristic. If you can remember a lot of examples of “almost never”, maybe you should move it to “unlikely” instead. If you get a really big number of examples, you might even want to move it all the way to “likely”.

Another large advantage of this heuristic is that by combining utility and probability into one metric—we might call it “importance”, though Bayesian econometricians might complain about that—we can save on memory space and computing power. I don’t need to separately compute a utility and a probability; I just need to figure out how much effort I should put into dealing with this situation. A high probability of a small cost and a low probability of a large cost may be equally worth my time.

How might these heuristics go wrong? Well, if your environment changes sufficiently, the probabilities could shift and what seemed certain no longer is. For most of human history, “people walking on the Moon” would seem about as plausible as sprouting wings and flying away, and yet it has happened. Being attacked by lions is now exceedingly rare except in very specific places, but we still harbor a certain awe and fear before lions. And of course availability heuristic can be greatly distorted by mass media, which makes people feel like terrorist attacks and nuclear meltdowns are common and deaths by car accidents and influenza are rare—when exactly the opposite is true.

How many categories should you set, and what frequencies should they be associated with? This part I’m still struggling with, and it’s an important piece of the puzzle I will need before I can take this theory to experiment. There is probably a trade-off between more categories giving you more precision in tailoring your optimal behavior, but costing more cognitive resources to maintain. Is the optimal number 3? 4? 7? 10? I really don’t know. Even I could specify the number of categories, I’d still need to figure out precisely what categories to assign.

Demystifying dummy variables

Nov 5, JDN 2458062

Continuing my series of blog posts on basic statistical concepts, today I’m going to talk about dummy variables. Dummy variables are quite simple, but for some reason a lot of people—even people with extensive statistical training—often have trouble understanding them. Perhaps people are simply overthinking matters, or making subtle errors that end up having large consequences.

A dummy variable (more formally a binary variable) is a variable that has only two states: “No”, usually represented 0, and “Yes”, usually represented 1. A dummy variable answers a single “Yes or no” question. They are most commonly used for categorical variables, answering questions like “Is the person’s race White?” and “Is the state California?”; but in fact almost any kind of data can be represented this way: We could represent income using a series of dummy variables like “Is your income greater than $50,000?” “Is your income greater than $51,000?” and so on. As long as the number of possible outcomes is finite—which, in practice, it always is—the data can be represented by some (possibly large) set of dummy variables. In fact, if your data set is large enough, representing numerical data with dummy variables can be a very good thing to do, as it allows you to account for nonlinear effects without assuming some specific functional form.
Most of the misunderstanding regarding dummy variables involves applying them in regressions and interpreting the results.
Probably the most common confusion is about what dummy variables to include. When you have a set of categories represented in your data (e.g. one for each US state), you want to include dummy variables for all but one of them. The most common mistake here is to try to include all of them, and end up with a regression that doesn’t make sense, or if you have a catchall category like “Other” (e.g. race is coded as “White/Black/Other”), leaving out that one and getting results with a nonsensical baseline.

You don’t have to leave one out if you only have one set of categories and you don’t include a constant in your regression; then the baseline will emerge automatically from the regression. But this is dangerous, as the interpretation of the coefficients is no longer quite so simple.

The thing to keep in mind is that a coefficient on a dummy variable is an effect of a change—so the coefficient on “White” is the effect of being White. In order to be an effect of a change, that change must be measured against some baseline. The dummy variable you exclude from the regression is the baseline—because the effect of changing to the baseline from the baseline is by definition zero.
Here’s a very simple example where all the regressions can be done by hand. Suppose you have a household with 1 human and 1 cat, and you want to know the effect of species on number of legs. (I mean, hopefully this is something you already know; but that makes it a good illustration.) In what follows, you can safely skip the matrix algebra; but I included it for any readers who want to see how these concepts play out mechanically in the math.
Your outcome variable Y is legs: The human has 2 and the cat has 4. We can write this as a matrix:

\[ Y = \begin{bmatrix} 2 \\ 4 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_1

What dummy variables should we choose? There are actually several options.

 

The simplest option is to include both a human variable and a cat variable, and no constant. Let’s put the human variable first. Then our human subject has a value of X1 = [1 0] (“Yes” to human and “No” to cat) and our cat subject has a value of X2 = [0 1].

This is very nice in this case, as it makes our matrix of independent variables simply an identity matrix:

\[ X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_2

This makes the calculations extremely nice, because transposing, multiplying, and inverting an identity matrix all just give us back an identity matrix. The standard OLS regression coefficient is B = (X’X)-1 X’Y, which in this case just becomes Y itself.

\[ B = (X’X)^{-1} X’Y = Y = \begin{bmatrix} 2 \\ 4 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_3

Our coefficients are 2 and 4. How would we interpret this? Pretty much what you’d think: The effect of being human is having 2 legs, while the effect of being a cat is having 4 legs. This amounts to choosing a baseline of nothing—the effect is compared to a hypothetical entity with no legs at all. And indeed this is what will happen more generally if you do a regression with a dummy for each category and no constant: The baseline will be a hypothetical entity with an outcome of zero on whatever your outcome variable is.
So far, so good.

But what if we had additional variables to include? Say we have both cats and humans with black hair and brown hair (and no other colors). If we now include the variables human, cat, black hair, brown hair, we won’t get the results we expect—in fact, we’ll get no result at all. The regression is mathematically impossible, regardless of how large a sample we have.

This is why it’s much safer to choose one of the categories as a baseline, and include that as a constant. We could pick either one; we just need to be clear about which one we chose.

Say we take human as the baseline. Then our variables are constant and cat. The variable constant is just 1 for every single individual. The variable cat is 0 for humans and 1 for cats.

Now our independent variable matrix looks like this:

\[ X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_4
The matrix algebra isn’t quite so nice this time:

\[ X’X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 1 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 2 & 1 \\ 1 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ (X’X)^{-1} = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & -1 \\ -1 & 2 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ X’Y = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 2 \\ 4 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 6 \\ 4 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ B = (X’X)^{-1} X’Y = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & -1 \\ -1 & 2 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 6 \\ 4 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 2 \\ 2 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_5

Our coefficients are now 2 and 2. Now, how do we interpret that result? We took human as the baseline, so what we are saying here is that the default is to have 2 legs, and then the effect of being a cat is to get 2 extra legs.
That sounds a bit anthropocentric—most animals are quadripeds, after all—so let’s try taking cat as the baseline instead. Now our variables are constant and human, and our independent variable matrix looks like this:

\[ X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ X’X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 2 & 1 \\ 1 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ (X’X)^{-1} = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & -1 \\ -1 & 2 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ X’Y = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 2 \\ 4 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 6 \\ 2 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ B = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & -1 \\ -1 & 2 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 6 \\ 2 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 4 \\ -2 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_6

Our coefficients are 4 and -2. This seems much more phylogenetically correct: The default number of legs is 4, and the effect of being human is to lose 2 legs.
All these regressions are really saying the same thing: Humans have 2 legs, cats have 4. And in this particular case, it’s simple and obvious. But once things start getting more complicated, people tend to make mistakes even on these very simple questions.

A common mistake would be to try to include a constant and both dummy variables: constant human cat. What happens if we try that? The matrix algebra gets particularly nasty, first of all:

\[ X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \]

\[ X’X = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 2 & 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \]

reg_7

Our covariance matrix X’X is now 3×3, first of all. That means we have more coefficients than we have data points. But we could throw in another human and another cat to fix that problem.

 

More importantly, the covariance matrix is not invertible. Rows 2 and 3 add up together to equal row 1, so we have a singular matrix.

If you tried to run this regression, you’d get an error message about “perfect multicollinearity”. What this really means is you haven’t chosen a valid baseline. Your baseline isn’t human and it isn’t cat; and since you included a constant, it isn’t a baseline of nothing either. It’s… unspecified.

You actually can choose whatever baseline you want for this regression, by setting the constant term to whatever number you want. Set a constant of 0 and your baseline is nothing: you’ll get back the coefficients 0, 2 and 4. Set a constant of 2 and your baseline is human: you’ll get 2, 0 and 2. Set a constant of 4 and your baseline is cat: you’ll get 4, -2, 0. You can even choose something weird like 3 (you’ll get 3, -1, 1) or 7 (you’ll get 7, -5, -3) or -4 (you’ll get -4, 6, 8). You don’t even have to choose integers; you could pick -0.9 or 3.14159. As long as the constant plus the coefficient on human add to 2 and the constant plus the coefficient on cat add to 4, you’ll get a valid regression.
Again, this example seems pretty simple. But it’s an easy trap to fall into if you don’t think carefully about what variables you are including. If you are looking at effects on income and you have dummy variables on race, gender, schooling (e.g. no high school, high school diploma, some college, Bachelor’s, master’s, PhD), and what state a person lives in, it would be very tempting to just throw all those variables into a regression and see what comes out. But nothing is going to come out, because you haven’t specified a baseline. Your baseline isn’t even some hypothetical person with $0 income (which already doesn’t sound like a great choice); it’s just not a coherent baseline at all.

Generally the best thing to do (for the most precise estimates) is to choose the most common category in each set as the baseline. So for the US a good choice would be to set the baseline as White, female, high school diploma, California. Another common strategy when looking at discrimination specifically is to make the most privileged category the baseline, so we’d instead have White, male, PhD, and… Maryland, it turns out. Then we expect all our coefficients to be negative: Your income is generally lower if you are not White, not male, have less than a PhD, or live outside Maryland.

This is also important if you are interested in interactions: For example, the effect on your income of being Black in California is probably not the same as the effect of being Black in Mississippi. Then you’ll want to include terms like Black and Mississippi, which for dummy variables is the same thing as taking the Black variable and multiplying by the Mississippi variable.

But now you need to be especially clear about what your baseline is: If being White in California is your baseline, then the coefficient on Black is the effect of being Black in California, while the coefficient on Mississippi is the effect of being in Mississippi if you are White. The coefficient on Black and Mississippi is the effect of being Black in Mississippi, over and above the sum of the effects of being Black and the effect of being in Mississippi. If we saw a positive coefficient there, it wouldn’t mean that it’s good to be Black in Mississippi; it would simply mean that it’s not as bad as we might expect if we just summed the downsides of being Black with the downsides of being in Mississippi. And if we saw a negative coefficient there, it would mean that being Black in Mississippi is even worse than you would expect just from summing up the effects of being Black with the effects of being in Mississippi.

As long as you choose your baseline carefully and stick to it, interpreting regressions with dummy variables isn’t very hard. But so many people forget this step that they get very confused by the end, looking at a term like Black female Mississippi and seeing a positive coefficient, and thinking that must mean that life is good for Black women in Mississippi, when really all it means is the small mercy that being a Black woman in Mississippi isn’t quite as bad as you might think if you just added up the effect of being Black, plus the effect of being a woman, plus the effect of being Black and a woman, plus the effect of living in Mississippi, plus the effect of being Black in Mississippi, plus the effect of being a woman in Mississippi.

 

Statistics you should have been taught in high school, but probably weren’t

Oct 15, JDN 2458042

Today I’m trying something a little different. This post will assume a lot less background knowledge than most of the others. For some of my readers, this post will probably seem too basic, obvious, even boring. For others, it might feel like a breath of fresh air, relief at last from the overly-dense posts I am generally inclined to write out of Curse of Knowledge. Hopefully I can balance these two effects well enough to gain rather than lose readers.

Here are four core statistical concepts that I think all adults should know, necessary for functional literacy in understanding the never-ending stream of news stories about “A new study shows…” and more generally in applying social science to political decisions. In theory shese should all be taught as part of a core high school curriculum, but typically they either aren’t taught or aren’t retained once students graduate. (Really, I think we should replace one year of algebra with one semester of statistics and one semester of logic. Most people don’t actually need algebra, but they absolutely do need logic and statistics.)

  1. Mean and median

The mean and the median are quite simple concepts, and you’ve probably at least heard of them before, yet confusion between them has caused a great many misunderstandings.

Part of the problem is the word “average”. Normally, the word “average” applies to the mean—for example, a batting average, or an average speed. But in common usage the word “average” can also mean “typical” or “representative”—an average person, an average family. And in many cases, particularly when in comes to economics, the mean is in no way typical or representative.

The mean of a sample of values is just the sum of all those values, divided by the number of values. The mean of the sample {1,2,3,10,1000} is (1+2+3+10+1000)/5 = 203.2

The median of a sample of values is the middle one—order the values, choose the one in the exact center. If you have an even number, take the mean of the two values on either side. So the median of the sample {1,2,3,10,1000} is 3.

I intentionally chose an extreme example: The mean and median of these samples are completely different. But this is something that can happen in real life.

This is vital for understanding the distribution of income, because for almost all countries (and certainly for the world as a whole), the mean income is substantially higher (usually between 50% and 100% higher) than the median income. Yet the mean income is what is reported as “per capita GDP”, but the median income is a much better measure of actual standard of living.

As for the word “average”, it’s probably best to just remove it from your vocabulary. Say “mean” instead if that’s what you intend, or “median” if that’s what you’re using instead.

  1. Standard deviation and mean absolute deviation

Standard deviation is another one you’ve probably seen before.

Standard deviation is kind of a weird concept, honestly. It’s so entrenched in statistics that we’re probably stuck with it, but it’s really not a very good measure of anything intuitively interesting.

Mean absolute deviation is a much more intuitive concept, and much more robust to weird distributions (such as those of incomes and financial markets), but it isn’t as widely used by statisticians for some reason.

The standard deviation is defined as the square root of the mean of the squared differences between the individual values in sample and the mean of that sample. So for my {1,2,3,10,1000} example, the standard deviation is sqrt(((1-203.2)^2 + (2-203.2)^2 + (3-203.2)^2 + (10-203.2)^2 + (1000-203.2)^2)/5) = 398.4.

What can you infer from that figure? Not a lot, honestly. The standard deviation is bigger than the mean, so we have some sense that there’s a lot of variation in our sample. But interpreting exactly what that means is not easy.

The mean absolute deviation is much simpler: It’s the mean of the absolute value of differences between the individual values in a sample and the mean of that sample. In this case it is ((203.2-1) + (203.2-2) + (203.2-3) + (203.2-10) + (1000-203.2))/5 = 318.7.

This has a much simpler interpretation: The mean distance between each value and the mean is 318.7. On average (if we still use that word), each value is about 318.7 away from the mean of 203.2.

When you ask people to interpret a standard deviation, most of them actually reply as if you had asked them about the mean absolute deviation. They say things like “the average distance from the mean”. Only people who know statistics very well and are being very careful would actually say the true answer, “the square root of the sum of squared distances from the mean”.

But there is an even more fundamental reason to prefer the mean absolute deviation, and that is that sometimes the standard deviation doesn’t exist!

For very fat-tailed distributions, the sum that would give you the standard deviation simply fails to converge. You could say the standard deviation is infinite, or that it’s simply undefined. Either way we know it’s fat-tailed, but that’s about all. Any finite sample would have a well-defined standard deviation, but that will keep changing as your sample grows, and never converge toward anything in particular.

But usually the mean still exists, and if the mean exists, then the mean absolute deviation also exists. (In some rare cases even they fail, such as the Cauchy distribution—but actually even then there is usually a way to recover what the mean and mean absolute deviation “should have been” even though they don’t technically exist.)

  1. Standard error

The standard error is even more important for statistical inference than the standard deviation, and frankly even harder to intuitively understand.

The actual definition of the standard error is this: The standard deviation of the distribution of sample means, provided that the null hypothesis is true and the distribution is a normal distribution.

How it is usually used is something more like this: “A good guess of the margin of error on my estimates, such that I’m probably not off by more than 2 standard errors in either direction.”

You may notice that those two things aren’t the same, and don’t even seem particularly closely related. You are correct in noticing this, and I hope that you never forget it. One thing that extensive training in statistics (especially frequentist statistics) seems to do to people is to make them forget that.

In particular, the standard error strictly only applies if the value you are trying to estimate is zero, which usually means that your results aren’t interesting. (To be fair, not always; finding zero effect of minimum wage on unemployment was a big deal.) Using it as a margin of error on your actual nonzero estimates is deeply dubious, even though almost everyone does it for lack of an uncontroversial alternative.
Application of standard errors typically also relies heavily on the assumption of a normal distribution, even though plenty of real-world distributions aren’t normal and don’t even approach a normal distribution in quite large samples. The Central Limit Theorem says that the sampling distribution of the mean of any non-fat-tailed distribution will approach a normal distribution eventually as sample size increases, but it doesn’t say how large a sample needs to be to do that, nor does it apply to fat-tailed distributions.

Therefore, the standard error is really a very conservative estimate of your margin of error; it assumes essentially that the only kind of error you had was random sampling error from a normal distribution in an otherwise perfect randomized controlled experiment. All sorts of other forms of error and bias could have occurred at various stages—and typically, did—making your error estimate inherently too small.

This is why you should never believe a claim that comes from only a single study or a handful of studies. There are simply too many things that could have gone wrong. Only when there are a large number of studies, with varying methodologies, all pointing to the same core conclusion, do we really have good empirical evidence of that conclusion. This is part of why the journalistic model of “A new study shows…” is so terrible; if you really want to know what’s true, you look at large meta-analyses of dozens or hundreds of studies, not a single study that could be completely wrong.

  1. Linear regression and its limits

Finally, I come to linear regression, the workhorse of statistical social science. Almost everything in applied social science ultimately comes down to variations on linear regression.

There is the simplest kind, ordinary least-squares or OLS; but then there is two-stage least-squares 2SLS, fixed-effects regression, clustered regression, random-effects regression, heterogeneous treatment effects, and so on.
The basic idea of all regressions is extremely simple: We have an outcome Y, a variable we are interested in D, and some other variables X.

This might be an effect of education D on earnings Y, or minimum wage D on unemployment Y, or eating strawberries D on getting cancer Y. In our X variables we might include age, gender, race, or whatever seems relevant to Y but can’t be affected by D.

We then make the incredibly bold (and typically unjustifiable) assumption that all the effects are linear, and say that:

Y = A + B*D + C*X + E

A, B, and C are coefficients we estimate by fitting a straight line through the data. The last bit, E, is a random error that we allow to fill in any gaps. Then, if the standard error of B is less than half the size of B itself, we declare that our result is “statistically significant”, and we publish our paper “proving” that D has an effect on Y that is proportional to B.

No, really, that’s pretty much it. Most of the work in econometrics involves trying to find good choices of X that will make our estimates of B better. A few of the more sophisticated techniques involve breaking up this single regression into a few pieces that are regressed separately, in the hopes of removing unwanted correlations between our variable of interest D and our error term E.

What about nonlinear effects, you ask? Yeah, we don’t much talk about those.

Occasionally we might include a term for D^2:

Y = A + B1*D + B2*D^2 + C*X + E

Then, if the coefficient B2 is small enough, which is usually what happens, we say “we found no evidence of a nonlinear effect”.

Those who are a bit more sophisticated will instead report (correctly) that they have found the linear projection of the effect, rather than the effect itself; but if the effect was nonlinear enough, the linear projection might be almost meaningless. Also, if you’re too careful about the caveats on your research, nobody publishes your work, because there are plenty of other people competing with you who are willing to upsell their research as far more reliable than it actually is.

If this process seems rather underwhelming to you, that’s good. I think people being too easily impressed by linear regression is a much more widespread problem than people not having enough trust in linear regression.

Yes, it is possible to go too far the other way, and dismiss even dozens of brilliant experiments as totally useless because they used linear regression; but I don’t actually hear people doing that very often. (Maybe occasionally: The evidence that gun ownership increases suicide and homicide and that corporal punishment harms children is largely based on linear regression, but it’s also quite strong at this point, and I do still hear people denying it.)

Far more often I see people point to a single study using linear regression to prove that blueberries cure cancer or eating aspartame will kill you or yoga cures back pain or reading Harry Potter makes you hate Donald Trump or olive oil prevents Alzheimer’s or psychopaths are more likely to enjoy rap music. The more exciting and surprising a new study is, the more dubious you should be of its conclusions. If a very surprising result is unsupported by many other studies and just uses linear regression, you can probably safely ignore it.

A really good scientific study might use linear regression, but it would also be based on detailed, well-founded theory and apply a proper experimental (or at least quasi-experimental) design. It would check for confounding influences, look for nonlinear effects, and be honest that standard errors are a conservative estimate of the margin of error. Most scientific studies probably should end by saying “We don’t actually know whether this is true; we need other people to check it.” Yet sadly few do, because the publishers that have a strangle-hold on the industry prefer sexy, exciting, “significant” findings to actual careful, honest research. They’d rather you find something that isn’t there than not find anything, which goes against everything science stands for. Until that changes, all I can really tell you is to be skeptical when you read about linear regressions.

The replication crisis, and the future of science

Aug 27, JDN 2457628 [Sat]

After settling in a little bit in Irvine, I’m now ready to resume blogging, but for now it will be on a reduced schedule. I’ll release a new post every Saturday, at least for the time being.

Today’s post was chosen by Patreon vote, though only one person voted (this whole Patreon voting thing has not been as successful as I’d hoped). It’s about something we scientists really don’t like to talk about, but definitely need to: We are in the middle of a major crisis of scientific replication.

Whenever large studies are conducted attempting to replicate published scientific results, their ability to do so is almost always dismal.

Psychology is the one everyone likes to pick on, because their record is particularly bad. Only 39% of studies were really replicated with the published effect size, though a further 36% were at least qualitatively but not quantitatively similar. Yet economics has its own replication problem, and even medical research is not immune to replication failure.

It’s important not to overstate the crisis; the majority of scientific studies do at least qualitatively replicate. We are doing better than flipping a coin, which is better than one can say of financial forecasters.
There are three kinds of replication, and only one of them should be expected to give near-100% results. That kind is reanalysiswhen you take the same data and use the same methods, you absolutely should get the exact same results. I favor making reanalysis a routine requirement of publication; if we can’t get your results by applying your statistical methods to your data, then your paper needs revision before we can entrust it to publication. A number of papers have failed on reanalysis, which is absurd and embarrassing; the worst offender was probably Rogart-Reinhoff, which was used in public policy decisions around the world despite having spreadsheet errors.

The second kind is direct replication—when you do the exact same experiment again and see if you get the same result within error bounds. This kind of replication should work something like 90% of the time, but in fact works more like 60% of the time.

The third kind is conceptual replication—when you do a similar experiment designed to test the same phenomenon from a different perspective. This kind of replication should work something like 60% of the time, but actually only works about 20% of the time.

Economists are well equipped to understand and solve this crisis, because it’s not actually about science. It’s about incentives. I facepalm every time I see another article by an aggrieved statistician about the “misunderstanding” of p-values; no, scientist aren’t misunderstanding anything. They know damn well how p-values are supposed to work. So why do they keep using them wrong? Because their jobs depend on doing so.

The first key point to understand here is “publish or perish”; academics in an increasingly competitive system are required to publish their research in order to get tenure, and frequently required to get tenure in order to keep their jobs at all. (Or they could become adjuncts, who are paid one-fifth as much.)

The second is the fundamentally defective way our research journals are run (as I have discussed in a previous post). As private for-profit corporations whose primary interest is in raising more revenue, our research journals aren’t trying to publish what will genuinely advance scientific knowledge. They are trying to publish what will draw attention to themselves. It’s a similar flaw to what has arisen in our news media; they aren’t trying to convey the truth, they are trying to get ratings to draw advertisers. This is how you get hours of meaningless fluff about a missing airliner and then a single chyron scroll about a war in Congo or a flood in Indonesia. Research journals haven’t fallen quite so far because they have reputations to uphold in order to attract scientists to read them and publish in them; but still, their fundamental goal is and has always been to raise attention in order to raise revenue.

The best way to do that is to publish things that are interesting. But if a scientific finding is interesting, that means it is surprising. It has to be unexpected or unusual in some way. And above all, it has to be positive; you have to have actually found an effect. Except in very rare circumstances, the null result is never considered interesting. This adds up to making journals publish what is improbable.

In particular, it creates a perfect storm for the abuse of p-values. A p-value, roughly speaking, is the probability you would get the observed result if there were no effect at all—for instance, the probability that you’d observe this wage gap between men and women in your sample if in the real world men and women were paid the exact same wages. The standard heuristic is a p-value of 0.05; indeed, it has become so enshrined that it is almost an explicit condition of publication now. Your result must be less than 5% likely to happen if there is no real difference. But if you will only publish results that show a p-value of 0.05, then the papers that get published and read will only be the ones that found such p-values—which renders the p-values meaningless.

It was never particularly meaningful anyway; as we Bayesians have been trying to explain since time immemorial, it matters how likely your hypothesis was in the first place. For something like wage gaps where we’re reasonably sure, but maybe could be wrong, the p-value is not too unreasonable. But if the theory is almost certainly true (“does gravity fall off as the inverse square of distance?”), even a high p-value like 0.35 is still supportive, while if the theory is almost certainly false (“are human beings capable of precognition?”—actual study), even a tiny p-value like 0.001 is still basically irrelevant. We really should be using much more sophisticated inference techniques, but those are harder to do, and don’t provide the nice simple threshold of “Is it below 0.05?”

But okay, p-values can be useful in many cases—if they are used correctly and you see all the results. If you have effect X with p-values 0.03, 0.07, 0.01, 0.06, and 0.09, effect X is probably a real thing. If you have effect Y with p-values 0.04, 0.02, 0.29, 0.35, and 0.74, effect Y is probably not a real thing. But I’ve just set it up so that these would be published exactly the same. They each have two published papers with “statistically significant” results. The other papers never get published and therefore never get seen, so we throw away vital information. This is called the file drawer problem.

Researchers often have a lot of flexibility in designing their experiments. If their only goal were to find truth, they would use this flexibility to test a variety of scenarios and publish all the results, so they can be compared holistically. But that isn’t their only goal; they also care about keeping their jobs so they can pay rent and feed their families. And under our current system, the only way to ensure that you can do that is by publishing things, which basically means only including the parts that showed up as statistically significant—otherwise, journals aren’t interested. And so we get huge numbers of papers published that tell us basically nothing, because we set up such strong incentives for researchers to give misleading results.

The saddest part is that this could be easily fixed.

First, reduce the incentives to publish by finding other ways to evaluate the skill of academics—like teaching for goodness’ sake. Working papers are another good approach. Journals already get far more submissions than they know what to do with, and most of these papers will never be read by more than a handful of people. We don’t need more published findings, we need better published findings—so stop incentivizing mere publication and start finding ways to incentivize research quality.

Second, eliminate private for-profit research journals. Science should be done by government agencies and nonprofits, not for-profit corporations. (And yes, I would apply this to pharmaceutical companies as well, which should really be pharmaceutical manufacturers who make cheap drugs based off of academic research and carry small profit margins.) Why? Again, it’s all about incentives. Corporations have no reason to want to find truth and every reason to want to tilt it in their favor.

Third, increase the number of tenured faculty positions. Instead of building so many new grand edifices to please your plutocratic donors, use your (skyrocketing) tuition money to hire more professors so that you can teach more students better. You can find even more funds if you cut the salaries of your administrators and football coaches. Come on, universities; you are the one industry in the world where labor demand and labor supply are the same people a few years later. You have no excuse for not having the smoothest market clearing in the world. You should never have gluts or shortages.

Fourth, require pre-registration of research studies (as some branches of medicine already do). If the study is sound, an optimal rational agent shouldn’t care in the slightest whether it had a positive or negative result, and if our ape brains won’t let us think that way, we need to establish institutions to force it to happen. They shouldn’t even see the effect size and p-value before they make the decision to publish it; all they should care about is that the experiment makes sense and the proper procedure was conducted.
If we did all that, the replication crisis could be almost completely resolved, as the incentives would be realigned to more closely match the genuine search for truth.

Alas, I don’t see universities or governments or research journals having the political will to actually make such changes, which is very sad indeed.

Actually, our economic growth has been fairly ecologically sustainable lately!

JDN 2457538

Environmentalists have a reputation for being pessimists, and it is not entirely undeserved. While as Paul Samuelson said, all Street indexes have predicted nine out of the last five recessions, environmentalists have predicted more like twenty out of the last zero ecological collapses.

Some fairly serious scientists have endorsed predictions of imminent collapse that haven’t panned out, and many continue to do so. This Guardian article should be hilarious to statisticians, as it literally takes trends that are going one direction, maps them onto a theory that arbitrarily decides they’ll suddenly reverse, and then says “the theory fits the data”. This should be taught in statistics courses as a lesson in how not to fit models. More data distortion occurs in this Scientific American article, which contains the phrase “food per capita is decreasing”; well, that’s true if you just look at the last couple of years, but according to FAOSTAT, food production per capita in 2012 (the most recent data in FAOSTAT) was higher than literally every other year on record except 2011. So if you allow for even the slightest amount of random fluctuation, it’s very clear that food per capita is increasing, not decreasing.

global_food.png

So many people predicting imminent collapse of human civilization. And yet, for some reason, all the people predicting this go about their lives as if it weren’t happening! Why, it’s almost as if they don’t really believe it, and just say it to get attention. Nobody gets on the news by saying “Civilization is doing fine; things are mostly getting better.”

There’s a long history of these sorts of gloom and doom predictions; perhaps the paradigm example is Thomas Malthus in 1779 predicting the imminent destruction of civilization by inevitable famine—just in time for global infant mortality rates to start plummeting and economic output to surge beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Still, when I sat down to study this it was remarkable to me just how good the outlook is for future sustainability. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare was created essentially in an attempt to show how our economic growth is largely an illusion driven by our rapacious natural resource consumption, but it has since been discontinued, perhaps because it didn’t show that. Using the US as an example, I reconstructed the index as best I could from World Bank data, and here’s what came out for the period since 1990:

ISEW

The top line is US GDP as normally measured. The bottom line is the ISEW. The gap between those lines expands on a linear scale, but not on a logarithmic scale; that is to say, GDP and ISEW grow at almost exactly the same rate, so ISEW is always a constant (and large) proportion of GDP. By construction it is necessarily smaller (it basically takes GDP and subtracts out from it), but the fact that it is growing at the same rate shows that our economic growth is not being driven by depletion of natural resources or the military-industrial complex; it’s being driven by real improvements in education and technology.

The Human Development Index has grown in almost every country (albeit at quite different rates) since 1990. Global poverty is the lowest it has ever been. We are living in a golden age of prosperity. This is such a golden age for our civilization, our happiness rating maxed out and now we’re getting +20% production and extra gold from every source. (Sorry, gamer in-joke.)

Now, it is said that pride cometh before a fall; so perhaps our current mind-boggling improvements in human welfare have only been purchased on borrowed time as we further drain our natural resources.

There is some cause for alarm: We’re literally running out of fish, and groundwater tables are falling rapidly. Due to poor land use deserts are expanding. Huge quantities of garbage now float in our oceans. And of course, climate change is poised to kill millions of people. Arctic ice will melt every summer starting in the next few years.

And yet, global carbon emissions have not been increasing the last few years, despite strong global economic growth. We need to be reducing emissions, not just keeping them flat (in a previous post I talked about some policies to do that); but even keeping them flat while still raising standard of living is something a lot of environmentalists kept telling us we couldn’t possibly do. Despite constant talk of “overpopulation” and a “population bomb”, population growth rates are declining and world population is projected to level off around 9 billion. Total solar power production in the US expanded by a factor of 40 in just the last 10 years.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are serious environmental problems, and we need to make policies to combat them; but we are doing that. Humanity is not mindlessly plunging headlong into an abyss; we are taking steps to improve our future.

And in fact I think environmentalists deserve a lot of credit for that! Raising awareness of environmental problems has made most Americans recognize that climate change is a serious problem. Further pressure might make them realize it should be one of our top priorities (presently most Americans do not).

And who knows, maybe the extremist doomsayers are necessary to set the Overton Window for the rest of us. I think we of the center-left (toward which reality has a well-known bias) often underestimate how much we rely upon the radical left to pull the discussion away from the radical right and make us seem more reasonable by comparison. It could well be that “climate change will kill tens of millions of people unless we act now to institute a carbon tax and build hundreds of nuclear power plants” is easier to swallow after hearing “climate change will destroy humanity unless we act now to transform global capitalism to agrarian anarcho-socialism.” Ultimately I wish people could be persuaded simply by the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the carbon tax/nuclear power argument, but alas, humans are simply not rational enough for that; and you must go to policy with the public you have. So maybe irrational levels of pessimism are a worthwhile corrective to the irrational levels of optimism coming from the other side, like the execrable sophistry of “in praise of fossil fuels” (yes, we know our economy was built on coal and oil—that’s the problem. We’re “rolling drunk on petroleum”; when we’re trying to quit drinking, reminding us how much we enjoy drinking is not helpful.).

But I worry that this sort of irrational pessimism carries its own risks. First there is the risk of simply giving up, succumbing to learned helplessness and deciding there’s nothing we can possibly do to save ourselves. Second is the risk that we will do something needlessly drastic (like the a radical socialist revolution) that impoverishes or even kills millions of people for no reason. The extreme fear that we are on the verge of ecological collapse could lead people to take a “by any means necessary” stance and end up with a cure worse than the disease. So far the word “ecoterrorism” has mainly been applied to what was really ecovandalism; but if we were in fact on the verge of total civilizational collapse, I can understand why someone would think quite literal terrorism was justified (actually the main reason I don’t is that I just don’t see how it could actually help). Just about anything is worth it to save humanity from destruction.