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Maximilian Held

researches, teaches and advocates (progressive) tax reform and (deliberative) democracy. Twitter Facebook Google+ LinkedIn Github Stackoverflow

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Retraction Watch on Förster

Retractionwatch has two pieces out on alleged data irregularities in work published by social psychologist Jens Förster.

They cite an unnamed (!) (LOWI?, UvA?) report dated 2012:

These papers report 40 experiments involving a total of 2284 participants (2242 of which were undergraduates). We apply an F test based on descriptive statistics to test for linearity of means across three levels of the experimental design. Results show that in the vast majority of the 42 independent samples so analyzed, means are unusually close to a linear trend. Combined left-tailed probabilities are 0.000000008, 0.0000004, and 0.000000006, for the three papers, respectively.

While at [Jacobs University](http://www.jacobs-university}, I took two or three classes with Dr. Förster – and he was a great teacher. I don’t know social psychology, nor this research, and have insufficient training in statistics, but I’ve read these reports and comments with great interest.

It strikes me that something is wrong about the tone, and that the scientific community is confused about two standards that may apply here:

  1. A (quasi-criminal) prosecution of potential wrong-doing, concerned with assigning guilt and issuing consequences.
  2. An investigation into, and debate over the reproduceability, statistical rigor (etc.) of the research, concerned with finding truth and communicating doubt.

For 1., we have well-established standards and procedures, epitomized by a criminal proceeding. The powers wielded under this kind of are quite severe, including punishment but also - and clearly the case here - irreparable damage to personal reputation. Because (quasi-criminal) proceedings are such a powerful thing, the rule of law has greatly curtailed its use, and rightfully so. For example, such proceedings happen in well-defined courts – not on random websites and comments threads. Under this kind of proceedings, “defendants” also have quite extensive rights, and these rights must be balanced against other social goods. The balance of proof is always on the prosecution, and until proven otherwise beyond reasonable doubt, we presume innocence.

None of this is the case here, and Dr. Förster may be right to complain:

I do feel like the victim of an incredible witch hunt directed at psychologists after the Stapel-affair.

For 2., however, the standards and procedures are quite different. The powers over individuals under this process are very limited; there is nothing (or ought to be nothing) dishonorable about being wrong, about your hypotheses being disconfirmed, or your findings not being irreproduceable. In fact, science might progress best, if the individual consequences are strictly limited and everyone is free to tinker. Because the powers wielded here are so small and the ultimate subject is the research, and not the person, we can afford much harsher standard. Science needs little gatekeeping, and no singular, regulated arena of adjudication; research should be open for everyone to reproduce and investigate. Of course, transparency and openness also means that everyone signs their work by name, which has not been the case here. Crucially, the balance of proof also shifts. Under (positivist) norms (at least), a hypothesis is assumed false, unless confirmed. That’s how the null-hypothesis convention operates; unless you can show that the result is not a fluke, it’s assumed to be a fluke.

Under this standard, if and to the extent that the (anonymous) report’s findings hold up, there seem to be some questions about the published work by Förster. According to the report, among other alleged irregularities, the shown effects are presumed to be too linear to be likely, that is, the effect (over three levels of the IV) is not only present, but it’s also near-perfectly linear.

Richard Gill notes that:

there is no reason from psychology why the population mean score of control subjects should be precisely half way between population mean scores of “high” treated subjects and “low” treated subjects. In study after study. There is every reason from statistics why, even if this were true in the population, it won’t be anywhere close to true in small samples. And if it is not even true in the population, it is even less likely to be close to true in small samples.

If this argument holds water, under standard 2., it doesn’t matter why these irregularities are observed. Science, again, is not concerned with assigning blame. But as a finding, absent another explanation, it would seem to be very, very unlikely.

It’s the inverse of non-significance; it’s too un-random to be likely true, but maybe a similar logic should apply. Considering the odds of this result – if the report has it right – the published data do not in fact confirm the stated hypotheses, because these hypotheses would imply some non-linearity, or at least, noise.

It is insufficient to note, as the original (UvA?) report cited by Förster does, that

it is always possible (according to the reviewer) that we will understand odd patterns in psychology at a later point in time

It would only be a slight exaggeration then, to consider non-significant findings as confirmation, on the rationale that some later theory might explain the non-significance.

To sum up:

So where does this leave science?

I think we should strengthen our procedures under 2 (reproduceability etc.), and keep far, far, away from the stuff of 1 (prosecution).

This might imply:

Planet Money on TTIP

Planet Money has this slightly naive, but not entirely one-sided piece on TTIP and nontarrif trade barriers:

Today on the show: why can’t you build a car that can be driven anywhere in the world?

There might be a lot to dislike about how TTIP is negotiated (closed-doors, special interest, anyone?) Still, I don’t get the fundamental outrage against Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDS). This, as in car safety regulation, is always the logic of economic integration, and it’s beautiful thing: trade makes us all richer, but sovereignty moves to a higher, international level.

I can find nothing wrong with “investor protection”, per se. It’s also called “rule of law”, domestically.

The question is, however, how we can make these ISDS dispute settlements (democratically) legitimate.

Planet Money on the History of Light

Planet Money has this great story on the history of (artificial light):

The history of light explains why the world today is what it is. It explains why we aren’t all subsistence farmers, and why we can afford to have artists and massage therapists and plumbers. (And, yes, people who do radio stories about the history of light.)

This, and Frédéric Bastiat’s “Candlemakers’ Petition” is for the luddite in all of us.

Radiolab on AUMF

Radiolab on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF):

Over the last decade, those 60 words have become the legal foundation for the “war on terror.”

If you consider the individual-level decision making of the US government on which suspected terrorist to kill, and whom not to kill, it sounds an awful lot like a criminal case (which would be a good thing) – only it’s not. Prosecution and defense are both government.

This is how the rule of law is driven down a rabbit hole of fear.

Rabbi Hartman on Hope, Power, Moral via Tippett

Rabbi David Hartman on power:

I remember the Quakers coming to see me. They wanted to know about my views of power, you know, Quakers. So I said, if you have power, you can have a moral argument. If you’re powerless, there’s no moral argument. So if we want to engage the Palestinians in a moral argument of how to live together, then we can only negotiate if we’re strong. So I have no difficulty even though I’m not a militant person. I have no difficulty of Israel being strong because I feel strength invites discussion; weakness invites manipulation.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. It makes sense, though.

I wonder, though, how this compares to what Haruki Murakami said:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

And then Rabbi Hartman on atheism:

I think within the concrete. I remember my students saying to me, “Rabbi Hartman, I want you to know, but don’t get upset with me. I became an atheist.” I said, “When did you become an atheist?” He said, “Wednesday.” “Oh, boy, that’s a remarkable thing. What were you Tuesday? You were a believer, right? And what happened on Thursday?” I said, “Is there any difference between the way you lived when you were a believer and when you became an atheist?” And that’s the criterion for me.

American Pragmatism, indeed.


Asana, maker of e-mail free collaboration software and “work graph”, on its future:

Imagine this: the year is 2016. It’s the beginning of the day and you’ve just arrived at work. You sit down at your desk (assuming that having a desk is still a “thing”) and open Asana. What do you see?

I’m the biggest fan of e-mail-free-collaboration; but to be fair, Asana also has an ulterior motive here. E-Mail is an open standard. Asana, inspite of all the API-magic of the world, is not, meaning a future in which collaboration is free of email, but full of Asana, also means great revenues for Asana Inc. and (potential) lock-in for users.

So here’s a radical idea for Futurasana 2016: Why not open source (much of) Asana, so as to really make it future-proof and open. Nothing wrong with making a dime, of course – maybe Asana could go the way of and make money on the (proprietary) social graph and the convenience of hosting, all the while keeping user data and software open?

Open-sourcing can also, of course, jumpstart developer creativity and help make any one software the de-facto standard (again, think git).

I want to love Asana. Just like in, say, 2002, I loved Outlook. Didn’t work out for the both of us, and we had an ugly divorce, with lots of data lost. I don’t want to be in that situation again.

The Economist obituary on Mike Parker

The Economist obituary on Mike Parker:

Of the more than 1,000 types he developed, his greatest success was Helvetica. It was he who adjusted it, or corralled it, to the needs of the obdurate, cranky, noisy Linotype machines which then printed almost everything in America. Originally it was the brainchild of a Swiss designer, Max Miedinger, who devised it in 1956. In contrast to the delicate exuberance of 16th-century types, Helvetica was plain, rigidly horizontal—and eminently readable. It became, in Mr Parker’s hands, the public typeface of the modern world: of the New York subway, of federal income-tax forms, of the logos of McDonald’s, Microsoft, Apple, Lufthansa and countless others. It was also, for its clarity, the default type on Macs, and so leapt smoothly into the desktop age.

GS Elevator Gossip once tweeted:

Or maybe, another life goal might be to learn about the amazing lives and great works of the people who are obituarized in (e.g.) The Economist.

The Economists's Crony Capitalism Index

The Economist on its crony capitalism index:

Inventing a better widget, tastier snack or snazzier computer program is one thing. But many of today’s tycoons are accused of making fortunes by “rent-seeking”: grabbing a bigger slice of the pie rather than making the pie bigger. In technical terms, an economic rent is the difference between what people are paid and what they would have to be paid for their labour, capital, land (or any other inputs into production) to remain in their current use. In a world of perfect competition, rent would not exist. Common examples of rent-seeking (which may or may not be illegal) include forming cartels and lobbying for rules that benefit a firm at the expense of competitors and customers.

This is important. Fighting cronyism is about equity and efficiency – something that both libera/tarians and social democrats ought to agree on. Sadly, both sometimes abandon the cause – liberals/tarians wring their hands when robust state intervention might be called for (telecoms?) and social democrats cozy up to cronies, whenever someone so much as mentions “jobs” (coal?). Of course, in Germany, France (which is doing relatively ok on the economists index), we also have “corporatism” (health care? third sector?), “coordinated capitalism” (Deutschland AG?) and “industrial policy” (picking winners in renewables?) to lend respectability to all sorts of rackets to defraud the public.

Edmund Fawcett on Liberalism

Edmund Fawcett in a letter to the Economist:

Liberalism is a doctrine of limits. One of its lessons is that not all political goodies—freedom, equality, prosperity, for example—need be simultaneously achievable. In the democratic marketplace, that lesson is a hard sell. Ought not The Economist, which is impeccably liberal, be more forthright and tough it out?

Yes, exactly, this is the kind of ethical / axiomatic acuity that we need in our polity: to understand another (in this case, liberal) person’s argument on their own terms, including their tradeoffs. Simon Niemeyer and John Dryzek might call this meta consensus. 1 Maybe, hopefully, deliberation (and a thoughtful Economist) can bring us closer to that last end.

  1. Niemeyer, S. J., & Dryzek, J. S. (2007). The Ends of Deliberation: Meta-consensus and Inter-subjective Rationality as Ideal Outcomes. Swiss Political Science Review, 13(4), 497–526. doi:10.1002/j.1662-6370.2007.tb00087.x

The Economist Free Exchange on Bitcoin

That may be for the best, given another Bitcoin quirk. The currency’s “money supply” will eventually be capped at 21m units. To Bitcoin’s libertarian disciples, that is a neat way to preclude the inflationary central-bank meddling to which most currencies are prone. Yet modern central banks favour low but positive inflation for good reason. In the real world wages are “sticky”: firms find it difficult to cut their employees’ pay. A modicum of inflation greases the system by, in effect, cutting the wages of workers whose pay cheques fail to keep pace with inflation. If the money supply grows too slowly, then prices fall and workers with sticky wages become more costly. Unemployment tends to rise as a result. If employed workers hoard cash in expectation of further price reductions, the downturn gathers momentum.

Nailed it, The Economist.

Bitcoin bears many exciting opportunities, among them: - medium of exchange (think: lower transaction costs than Paypal, Visa, MasterCard)

But: - store of value? - medium of account?

Not so much.

Maybe, then, bitcoin serves best as stimulus to tinker, to reflect on, and to disrupt current money institutions.

Here’s one half-baked thought: Given that money is one institution (or policy) but has to serve these three related means, is it maybe a case for the Tinbergen rule? Maybe, it’s not an accident that bitcoin does so well with one, but not the other two functions of money. Could they be disentangled?

Also, could there be an objectified, cryptographic process that automatically tied blockchain growth (aka money supply) to economic activity? If someone could fix that, that’d be nice. No more monetary “policy”.