Archive | Science

Obama on the Integrity of Science

Via Seth Masket, this from Barack Obama’s speech at the National Academy of Sciences today:

One of the things that I’ve tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; that not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science—all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review—but in all the sciences, we’ve got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they’re not subject to politics, that they’re not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us. And that’s why we’ve got to keep investing in these sciences.

And what’s true of all sciences is that in order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars. And I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process. That’s what’s going to maintain our standards of scientific excellence for years to come.

More on this subject from Michael McAuliff and Ryan Grim at HuffPo.

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The Supreme Court meets the fallacy of the one-sided bet

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Doug Hartmann writes (link from Jay Livingston):

Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment in the Supreme Court hearings on the U.S. law defining marriage that “there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.”

Hartman argues that Scalia is factually incorrect—-there is not actually “considerable disagreement among sociologists” on this issue—-and quotes a recent report from the American Sociological Association to this effect. Assuming there’s no other considerable group of sociologists (Hartman knows of only one small group) arguing otherwise, it seems that Hartman has a point. Scalia would’ve been better off omitting the phrase “among sociologists”—-then he’d have been on safe ground, because you can always find somebody to take a position on the issue. Jerry Falwell’s no longer around but there’s a lot more where he came from. Even among scientists, there’s a large enough minority with traditional moral values, that it shouldn’t be hard to find some who feel strongly that it’s harmful to raise a child in a single-sex family.

But what I really want to talk about here is not scientific consensus (which, after all, can be wrong) but a little-noticed (as far as I can tell) aspect of Scalia’s statement, which is that it’s an example of the fallacy of the one-sided bet, an argument that is artificially restricted to go in just one direction. Scalia’s saying that raising a child in a single-sex family might be “harmful to the child” or maybe not. But by framing it this way, he’s implicitly excluding a third possibility, which is that being raised in this way may be helpful to the child. What do I really think is happening? I think that the same-sex-parents environment will be helpful to some kids, harmful to others. Assuming the American Sociology Association report is correct and the research doesn’t find any aggregate effect, that would suggest that some kids are helped and some are hurt, with no clear evidence that the average effect is positive or negative. So, from the data, the effect could be positive, or it could be negative, or it could be small enough on average to consider as zero. And, just from prior reasoning, I could imagine an effect that is positive (gay parents try harder and they could be less likely to have unwanted children) or negative (maybe it’s better to have parents of both sexes and not to have to face prejudice from outsiders). I don’t know, apparently the data don’t know either. But by framing his statement the way he does, Scalia is excluding the possibility entirely.

In all this discussion I’m sidestepping the causal questions, how one might consider formulating hypothetical interventions, whether one would want to consider the “treatment” at the level of individual families or state-level policies, and the difficulties of statistical identification. These issues are important—-indeed, central to any discussion of this issue—-but here I want to focus on the one-sided argument, which is such a pervasive fallacy. I keep hoping that, by giving this error a name, I can reduce its incidence.

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So is Partisanship Really in our DNA?

The following is a guest post from New York University political scientist Christopher Dawes.

*****

Former Vice President Al Gore recently mentioned on CNBC’s Morning Joe that “scientists now know that there is, in human nature, a divide between what we sometimes call ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’.”  Most of the scientists Gore was referring to are political scientists.

Inspired by earlier work done by Nick Martin, John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John Hibbing showed in their 2005 APSR paper, that genetic variation could explain a share of individual differences in political ideology.  Several subsequent studies, employing different samples and methodologies, have corroborated these findings.  In a forthcoming paper in Behavior Genetics, Pete Hatemi and colleagues analyzed data on over 12,000 twin pairs from Australia, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States.  The authors examined data collected at different time periods (1970-2010) as well as several different measures of ideology. Based on the combined sample, Hatemi et al. find that approximately 40% of the variation in ideology could be attributed to genetic factors (meaning the remaining 60% is explained by environmental factors).   Of course, twin studies of political ideology have been the object of criticism in the past.

Scholars have also begun to search for specific genetic variants that may be associated with political ideology.  In the same Behavior Genetics study, Hatemi et al. conduct a genome-wide association study on a sample of over 10,000 individuals from Australia and Sweden.  However, the authors did not find a significant association that could be replicated.  Benjamin et al. also failed to find a significant association for other measures of political ideology.  These two studies, along with what we know from other genetic studies of complex traits, suggest that political ideology is influenced by many genes that each have a very weak effect.  Therefore, much larger samples are likely necessary in order to achieve the power necessary to detect these small effects.

In addition to studying the link between genetics and ideology, political scientists have studied physiological and neurocognitive differences between liberals and conservatives.  In their highly publicized Science study, John Hibbing and colleagues demonstrated that conservatives exhibited a stronger response to threatening stimuli than liberals based on startle eyeblink and skin conductance response tests.  Follow-up work showed that liberals were more responsive to pleasing stimuli than conservatives.  John Jost and colleagues found a positive relationship between liberalism and activity in an area of the brain related to conflict monitoring, suggesting that ideology may be linked to how we process new information.  A group of neuroscientists also recently reported that brain structure is correlated with ideology.

Finally, political scientists have also explored links between biology and political participation, vote choice, trust, civic duty, interest, efficacy, sophistication, and partisanship.  While we are still in the early stages of understanding these relationships, it is nice to get a hat tip from the former Vice President.

Note: For an excellent review of genetics and politics, check out the Trends in Genetics piece by Pete Hatemi and Rose McDermott.

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Sign the Petition: No Death Star!

Last May, this blog published my essay against building a Death Star. And, not to brag,  but at the time I thought we had saved trillions* of lives. With the help of re-posts by WonkblogGizmodo, and legions of social media warriors, the Monkey Cage squelched any thoughts of building a Death Star and saved the lives of countless planets.

Imagine my shock, then, to hear that a petition to the White House had received the 25,000 signatures it needed to force an official response from the White House. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

This cannot be ignored. I urge every Monkey Cage reader to sign this White House petition to:

ban the development or deployment of a Death Star, or any other moon-sized space station capable of destroying a planet.

Allow me to recapitulate the case against a Death Star:

1) Compared to more discrete alternatives, the Death Star is an inefficient strategy for subduing the population and elites of the galaxy.

2) The money and materials used to build the Death Star would be put to better use upgrading the conventional weapons of the Imperial army.


In the current budgetary environment, the second point is especially important. As we all know, the 2011 debt limit agreement included mandatory reductions in defense spending—the “sequester”—starting in fiscal year 2013. The Department of Defense budget is slated to decrease by $259.4 billion. And yet the advocates for a new Death Star plan to launch it in the midst of this austerity despite its$85.2 quintillion price tag.

Perhaps you are wondering, is an anti-Death Star petition really necessary? Surely the Obama administration will treat the pro-Death Star petition like it’s some sort of joke, even if it means enduring criticism that it is “soft on Alderaan.” Perhaps. But having destroyed the argument for the Death Star once, I was surprised to find that the pro-Death Star forces had moved to in another venue, displacing the local population and threatening the galaxy. I fear they will continue to keep trying until the federal government  sets a clear no-Death Star policy.

So please, sign the petition. The planet you save may be your own.

*My best guess, pending CBO scoring.

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Steven Pinker is a psychologist who writes on politics. His theories are interesting but are framed too universally to be valid

From the sister blog:

Psychology is a universal science of human nature, whereas political science is centered on the study of particular historical events and trends. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that when a psychologist looks at politics, he presents ideas that are thought-provoking but are too general to quite work. This is fine; political scientists can then take such ideas and try to adapt them more closely to particular circumstances.

The psychologist I’m thinking about here is Steven Pinker . . .

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“If our product is harmful . . . we’ll stop making it.”

I’m used to hearing the argument that, sure, cigarettes are addictive, but everyone has known forever that smoking caused cancer, and that cigarette manufacturers could hardly be blamed for supplying a consumer good that many people wanted. So I was surprised to learn the following, from historian Robert Proctor:

It’s interesting to see that, at least in public, cigarette executives taking a much more direct position that they did not want to be in the position of giving people cancer: “If our product is harmful . . . we’ll stop making it.”

Further background (including the cartoon of Fred Flintstone smoking) at the sister blog.

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Things that aren’t prisoner’s dilemmas, part 2

Sociologist Brandy Aven writes:

I have been thinking a lot about reproducible science, particularly for the social sciences. Creating norms or policies that enforce reproducible science may not only be cheap insurance to mitigate academic fraud but also improve our field. . . . There are quite a few wonderful archives out there that provide the infrastructure, but they are frightfully empty.

So far, I’m with her. It seems like a good idea to make all research materials available, but not many people do so.

But then Aven continues:

What we have is a good old fashion social dilemma. Why should I make all my data and syntax available if you don’t?

The answer is clear to me: by making your data available, you are making it more likely that others will replicate your results, continue the directions of your research, cite you, etc. Fame and fortune await.

In that case, why not make data and code publicly accessible? If it’s so good to do, why isn’t everybody doing it? Let’s set aside the cheaters and the insecure people, those scholars who are worried that if someone else gets their hands on their data, they will come to different conclusions. And let’s set aside those researchers who are so clueless that they honestly seem to think that their particular analysis is the last word on the subject.

What about the rest of us, the vast majority (I assume) of researchers who are doing science to learn about reality and who would be thrilled if others pick up our torch and continue our research directions where we left off? Why don’t we always share our data? I know I don’t, and it’s not because I don’t want other people to take a look at what I’m doing.

I can think of two reasons we (those of us who would actually like our research to be reproduced) don’t routinely share data and code:

1. Effort. This for me is the biggie. As Aven notes, there are social benefits to making data and code available, and as I note above, there are direct personal benefits as well. But these benefits are all medium-to-long-term and they pale beside the short-term costs of getting my act together to put the data in a convenient place. In fact, when I do actually organize my data, it’s often motivated by a desire to make my life easier when handling repeated requests.

2. Rules. The default is for data and code not to be released. Often there are silly IRB rules or commercial restrictions on data. In other cases it seems like too much effort to find out. Again, though, it can be good self-interest to make data available. For example, in our wildly-popular (not yet but eventually, I hope) mrp package in R, we use CCES data, not Annenberg or Pew, for our examples. Why? Because the people at CCES were cool about it. Not only do they release their (old) data for free, they don’t mind us reposting it. Ultimately CCES benefits from this. The freer the data, the easier it will be for people to do analyses, cite CCES, suggest improvements to CCES, etc.

In short, I agree with most of what Aven wrote in her post, and I agree that it would good to change the incentives to increase data sharing. But I don’t think it’s fundamentally a coordination problem, or a prisoner’s dilemma, or a tragedy of the commons, or a first-mover problem, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s mostly about defaults and laziness (I guess that would be something like “intertemporal preference conflicts” in decision-analytic jargon).

The big picture

The concept of a social dilemma or cooperation problem or prisoner’s dilemma is appealing, I think because it is a crisp way of understanding why something that is evidently a good idea is not actually being done. But sometimes there is a more direct explanation. I think we should be careful about reaching for the “social dilemma” model whenever we see a frustrating or mysterious outcome.

For another example, see this article on something that is not a prisoner’s dilemma but was labeled as such.

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