Worldly philosophers

by Henry Farrell on January 31, 2004

Quote of the week from “Tyler Cowen”:

bq. I’ve been an economist for so long that I don’t flinch when the paper abstract starts as follows:

bq. “This paper models love-making as a signaling game. In the act of love-making, man and woman send each other possibly deceptive signals about their true state of ecstasy. Each has a prior belief about the other’s state of ecstasy. These prior beliefs are associated with the other’s sexual response capacity…”

Fooling the shrinks

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2004

The Guardian has “a readable and disturbing piece”:,3605,1134105,00.html about what happens if you try to fake your way into a mental instutution:

bq. In 1972, David Rosenhan, a newly minted psychologist with a joint degree in law, called eight friends and said something like, “Are you busy next month? Would you have time to fake your way into a mental hospital and see what happens?”

Lauren Slater reports on the extreme hostility this researcher faced when he published and since, on the fact that his fellow inmates could tell he was sane even when the doctors couldn’t, on how he wrote down his experiences and had this labelled as “writing behavior” (which I suppose it was). But what would happen if you tried to do the same thing today? Slater tried ….

Economists and Society

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2004

This should really be a comment to John’s post, because he beat me to the punch on this story. Nevertheless I will abuse my privilege as a CT member and rail at the Times item about McCleary and Barro’s paper on religion and economic growth. Religion is now officially relevant to economic growth because the McCleary and Barro paper “uses a sophisticated analysis of a huge set of data to quantify the arguments of anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.” Just as a place cannot really be said to exist until it has been photographed by Japanese tourists, it seems no research question in the social sciences can be said to have been investigated until the economics department hears about it.

[click to continue…]

European anti-Semitism

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2004

It is a great pity that so much of the media is disappearing behing subscription-only walls. This includes the Financial Times where the estimable Simon Kuper has “a subscription-only article”: debunking the common American perception of a rise in European anti-Semitism. Some facts from the article. Kuper reports on two opinion polls conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in Western Europe in 2002. These found that roughly a quarter of Europeans had some anti-Semitic attitudes. This compares with a similar ADL survey in the US in the same year which has 17 percent of Americans espousing anti-Semitic views. Not a great difference, and one brought further into perspective when we learn that most anti-Semitic Europeans are over 65 whereas age is not a good predictor of such views among Americans. True, there has been a significant increase in anti-Jewish violence (especially by young Muslims in France), but in the US the FBI recordes 1039 hate crimes against Jews in 2002. There also doesn’t seem to be a very good correlation between attitudes to Israel and anti-Semitism: 7 per cent of the Dutch population are judged to be anti-Semitic by the ADL which is a lower figure than anywhere else in either Europe or the US, but 74 per cent of the Dutch view Israel as a threat. Attitudes to Israel are pretty mixed though, with Europeans more likely to blame Israel than the Palestinians for the current situation (but only by 27 per cent to 20, with the rest presumably “don’t knows” or distributing blame equally). 86 per cent of Europeans see no justification for suicide bombers. None of this is reason for complacency, of course, but the view peddled by US-based commentators such as Thomas Friedman and their blogospheric echo-chamber of Europe as a seething cauldron of ancient Jew-hatred is plainly garbage.

ID Rebutted c.1805

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2004

An episode of Blackadder I just watched makes a point relevant to recent discussion on the plausibility of alternatives to the theory of evolution:

Blackadder [to Baldrick]: If I don’t come up with an idea soon, in the morning we’ll both go to meet our maker. In my case, God; in your case, God knows — but I doubt he’s won any design awards.

Elephants and camels

by John Q on January 31, 2004

Via David Appell, I came across this marvellous quote from Freeman Dyson

In desperation I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, “How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?” I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, “Four.” He said, “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

It came to mind when I read this story in the NYT with the introductory claim What really stimulates economic growth is whether you believe in an afterlife — especially hell.The report is of some estimations done by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro (the story notes that the two are married) published in American Sociological Review.

Barro is probably the biggest name in the field of cross-country growth regressions (a field in which I’ve also dabbled), and I’m sure he’s aware that thousands of these regressions have been run and that, with very limited exceptions, results that particular factors are conducive to growth have proved highly fragile. I haven’t read the paper, so for all I know, the results have been checked for robustness in every possible way. But my eyebrows went up when I saw this para

Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance tended to depress economic growth. Mr. Barro, a renowned economist, and Ms. McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard’s government department, theorized that larger attendance figures could mean that religious institutions were using up a disproportionate share of resources.

What this means is that at least two parameters have been used in fitting growth to religiosity and that the two have opposite signs – most likely it’s some sort of quadratic. In my experience, there’s always at least one arbitrary choice made in the pretesting of these models (for example once you have a quadratic, the scaling of variables becomes critical). That gives three free parameters, if not more.

I’m no John von Neumann, but with two parameters I can fit a dromedary and with three I can do a Bactrian camel.

New discoveries in evolutionary psychology

by John Q on January 31, 2004

I just got the latest issue of Scientific American, and noted with interest the Table of Contents, in which the Skeptic column promised an evolutionary explanation of the mutiny on the Bounty. I vaguely expected the usual stuff about alpha and beta males or somesuch, but I found that the ev psych boffins have come up with a startling new discovery. Young men like having sex. At this point the mathematics and biochemistry get a bit complicated for me (oxytocin is in there somewhere), but apparently this has something to do with the survival of the species.

Even more startling, though, is the fact that

Although Bligh preceded Charles Darwin by nearly a century,

he managed to anticipate this discovery. Who would have thought that a former governor of New South Wales (and not a successful one) would share with EO Wilson and Stephen Pinker the honour of founding evolutionary psychology? In Bligh’s words

I can only conjecture that they have Idealy assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheitians than they could possibly have in England, which joined to some Female connections has most likely been the leading cause of the whole business.

Delivery times are somewhat strange here in the Antipodes, and I thought perhaps I had an advance copy of the April edition, but the cover says February.