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From "Idiot Tax" to Subsidized Lotteries

Majikthise and 3 Quarks Daily both have posts up revisiting the "idiot tax" argument against government-sponsored lotteries. In essence, the argument says that if you look at lotteries as an investment, it's irrational to play -- only a fraction of the money going in (though ticket sales) gets paid out to the winner, with the rest going to administrative costs and whatever project the lottery proceeds are meant to fund. Thus the lottery exploits people's inability to understand probabilities. This is especially odious given that the people who are taken advantage of in this way are disproportionately poor and black.

In response, Rants for the Invisible People has a pair of posts explaining how, from the perspective of poor people, playing the lottery isn't really so irrational. The key thing is that looking at lottery tickets as an investment is the wrong way to see them. The prospects for the poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps are mighty slim. It's easy for a small chance event -- losing your bus pass, an unexpected illness, etc. -- to wipe away years of progress. Thus the careful husbanding of money advised by anti-gambling moralizers is an unwise strategy. It makes sense to trade a spread-out dollar here and dollar there for a chance at a big lump sum that could give you access to some of the nice things in life makes sense, even if the mathematical expected value of the lump sum is less.

From the RftIP perspective, then, the lottery sounds a bit like the rotating credit association that's common in the Third World. Rotating credit associations are a practice in which a group of people all put a small amount of money into a pot, and then draw straws to see who gets the pot. The average participant breaks even over the course of many rounds, but the access it grants to a lump sum can be crucial in helping a poor person make an investment, such as buying a goat, that can't be done with the fleeting bits of money that one person puts into the pot each round. Charity raffles in small towns work on something of the same principle, shifting money around into lumps that are useful for the community groups who sponsor them as well as for the winners.

When considered against the model of the rotating credit association (where the expected value breaks even in monetary terms), then, we can see that there's still something to the "idiot tax" argument. While the lottery is still a good enough deal that it makes sense for poor people to play, it's clear how much better a deal it could be if part of the income wasn't siphoned off to pay for other programs. Poor people are still being exploited, but it's their need for lump sums and inability to save that's being exploited, not their inability to understand probabilities.

So what if, instead of lotteries being a sliver of hope extended to the poor on the condition that they pay for some government project, they were turned into a break-even proposition, thus turning more of their benefits back to the poor? Or more daringly, what if the government got in the habit of "sweetening the pot," making it a winning proposition to buy a ticket? In either case, there would be advantages to thinking of lotteries as services provided to their players and potential winners, rather than a means of raising money.

Publication Debate

Here's a story that gives an interesting illustration of two conflicting perspectives on the role of scientific publication.

Wildfire logging debate heats up

Nine scientists wrote a letter to Science asking the journal to withhold a one-page article on the potential risks of post-wildfire logging, arguing the article was short on qualifiers and context. But some forestry scientists say they support the conclusions, and last week, the journal published the paper.

... Editors at Science "encouraged us to submit a technical comment," [letter co-signer John] Sessions said, which he and his colleagues are preparing now.

The letter writers appear to hold to an older, more Hierarchist, view of scientific publication. In this perspective, scientific publications -- particularly high-status and high-public-profile ones like Science -- should be records of scientific conclusions. Controversies should be hashed out within the scientific community, and only results of agreed-upon high quality should be published. A journal article is like a small brick of reliable knowledge added to the edifice of scientific understanding. By this logic, it is reasonable to take extreme measures, such as petitioning a journal to block a paper you disagree with, lest a weak brick be incorporated into the structure.

The alternative view, supported by Science's decision to publish the controversial paper and request a rebuttal article by the letter writers, is that the scientific literature is a debate forum. Rather than exhaustively vetting the quality of results before they appear, this alternative perspective sees publication as the site for hashing out these issues. Here the filters on what gets published should be weaker, meant only to weed out obvious and egregious errors -- a standard that the letter writers' complaint doesn't meet, given that their central claim seems to be that the paper lacks documentation of contextual factors that would delimit the scope of generalizability of the paper's results. Such issues are more appropriate to be worked out in a public debate and through further research.

Am important complication here is that in the wider public debate, scientific publication is too often treated as if it operates under the first model. Already, critics of salvage logging have cited this one paper as proof that salvage logging should be ended -- after all, it was published in Science. This is not to say that advocates shouldn't support their arguments with debatable publications, but rather that they must be prepared to defend their scientific merits instead of just stopping with "if Science says it, it's so." A more generous view of the letter writers' perspective might be that if the public is going to treat journal articles like bricks of truth, then scientists have a responsibility to approximate that ideal as best they can, lest their work be misappropriated and conflicting papers weaken faith in the scientific enterprise. This, however, is only a short term solution. Where policy relevance is high and the ability to do controlled experiments is low, simple cumulative knowledge-building is especially elusive. Thus the danger of substituting orthodoxy for reliable consensus is high. What is necessary is the harder work of shifting public attitudes, from a quasi-religious reliance on scientific pronouncement to a fuller understanding of how science actually works.


Cultural Theory Test

Since I mention Cultural Theory pretty often on this blog, I figured I'd give a link to a little test I made on OK Cupid using some actual survey questions that have been used to measure cultural biases. Obviously it's just for fun and not meant to be a scientific assessment of either you or Cultural Theory.


The War On Eco-Terrorism Is No Big Deal

The recent indictment of 11 people for "eco-terrorism" has the environmental community all a-twitter. Right now I count 7 out of 20 posts on the front page of Gristmill, for example. The folks over there are convinced that this is evidence of a devious plot by our government to demonize environmentalism. They warn of the feds siezing despotic powers, with combatting eco-terrorism as the rationale. Dave Roberts says "It seems to me the Bush administration is using it quite crassly, for political purposes, in a manner all out of proportion to the real danger it poses."

To me, it seems that the environmental community is engaging in a bit of self-flattery here. The fact is that the recent arrest was not all that high-profile -- the major papers appear to have given it all of one story, on a Friday (the notorious slow-news day when the administration likes to release news it doesn't want people to hear). There has been no ongoing coverage, no follow-up stories, no widespread stoking of fear about environmentalists coming to burn your house down. President Bush certainly hasn't said a word about it. It sounds to me like the DOJ had one big ongoing investigation, and they're excited that they've wrapped it up.

Sure, there are threats bigger than eco-terrorism. But I've seen no evidence that tracking down ELF has diverted some major share of resources from efforts against al-Qaida or the Mafia.

Besides, what does this administration have to gain by demonizing environmentalists? It's not like greenies have been successful at thwarting any key elements of the GOP agenda (aside from the minor issue of drilling in ANWR). And insofar as the government wants to slam environmentalists, calling us over-litigious has much more traction -- and has been far more high-profile -- than calling us terrorists. The public is not predisposed to put environmentalists in the "security issues" box, but they will put them in the same category as pro-choicers, pro-marriage campaigners, personal injury lawyers, and others who do their damage through the courts.

Fear of al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorism is doing just fine in keeping Americans scared and convincing them to condone expansion of the government's power. It's attractive to think that environmentalists are being targeted by the government, but I think the much bigger threat is that we'll be ignored by the political world.



Jamais Cascio accuses James Lovelock of "apocaphilia" for his recent article claiming that it's too late to stop global warming. I found Lovelock's article overwrought and not properly pessimistic -- more an exasperated response to the lack of action thus far, and a smug warning that nature would indict us for our foolishness (Egalitarianism rather than Fatalism, to use Cultural Theory terms). But I think Cascio engages in the reverse sin, which we could call "salvophilia" -- the conviction that salvation is always possible, that it's never too late to turn around and avoid danger.

The problem with salvophilia is brought out nicely by this exchange in the comments to Casico's post. First, Pietro offers this scenario in defense of Lovelock:

You will agree that there is a time to act and a time after which acting would not help anymore. If you are on a car, going at 200 km an hour against a solid wall, when you are at 1 meter from the wall it is too late to turn, stop or jump out. The time to act was there, it has just passed.

Frank Shearar gives a typically salvophilic response:

Regarding this 200 km/h analogy, since we know so little about the Earth and its systems, perhaps the analogy might be more accurately described by covering the windscreen. We know we're careening towards a wall, we know that if we don't stop in time we're strawberry jam. So when do we start slamming on the brakes? As soon as we can, of course. Even if we're only 1m from the wall and it's too late, because we don't know it's too late.

There are a couple interesting things to note in Shearar's comment. First is the device of covering the windscreen. This goes farther even than most salvophilics to deny the possibility that knowledge of the future is possible. Pessimism, of course, depends on having an educated guess about what the future will bring, upon which to base the claim that salvation is impossible or at least exceedingly difficult and unlikely. But so does salvation. To save ourselves, we need to be able to predict the potential for disaster as well as the effects of whatever actions we propose to take. If our windscreen is covered, how do we know there's a wall in front of us, and how do we know that slamming on the brakes might save us (as opposed to, say, getting us fatally rear-ended by the tractor trailer behind us)?

But more importantly, salvophilia takes a too-narrow view of the costs and benefits associated with salvation. The choices are made too stark -- either the danger hits or we're saved. The magnitude of the danger is amplified, a la Pascal's wager, such that any finite investment in preventing it is worthwhile. The costs of such an investment are minimized -- after all, what are you really wasting by pushing the brake, even if it does turn out to be useless? At the same time, the possibility of coping is ruled out (note that apocophilia does this as well). A driver who figured that he'd either slam on the brakes successfully or die in a dramatic fireball would not, for example, bother buckling his seatbelt, or even shielding his face with his arms. Yet a proper pessimism is a call for just such coping strategies. It does not argue for doing nothing, as the salvophiles in Casico's post imply. Rather, it argues that given what we know about the likelihood of different scenarios and the difficulty associated with them, we'll ultimately be better off if we save our energy and resources to use for coping, rather than wasting them on a futile attempt to stave off the danger event.

My own assessment is that climate change is deserving of some non-apocophilic pessimism. The danger is real and great, but it is not the world-ending, human-race-ending, or even civilization-ending event that it's often made out to be (including by Lovelock). On the other hand, the options available to us in 2006 that would prevent serious climate change are too small or too difficult (politically and economically) to make much difference. The wise route, then, is to think about ways of coping with climate change.


Gay Witches At The Blood Drive

Abiola Lapite is upset over a recent threat by South African gay activists that they will begin lying to blood donation personnel in order to be able to give blood. The activists argue that the ban on gay donors stigmatizes gays. Lapite's concern is that, given the higher incidence of HIV among gay men, these activists are putting the nation's blood supply at risk.

Pointing out that gays (or any other group) present a higher risk of donating HIV+ blood is not, however, sufficient justification for excluding them. People can't be simply categorized into "risky" and "not risky." Every donor has some risk, however miniscule, of introducing a disease into the blood supply. It's necessary to weigh the costs and benefits of any proposed exclusion. Neither Lapite's judgment that the additional risk is too great to justify the benefits of an increased blood supply, nor the activists' view that the benefits are greater, is prima facie irrational. (This is assuming, of course, that the risk-benefit standard is being applied impartially across all risk factors.)

I'm no epidemiologist, but I can't say I'd be upset if blood donation systems around the world stopped excluding gays' blood (certainly the Red Cross isn't helping the case for broad precautionary exclusions when it constantly tells us how precariously low the blood supply is). Nevertheless, I'm unhappy with the gay activists' tactics -- including the mere announcement of the threat, even if nobody ever follows through on it. This is because I think this tactic will tend to reinforce homophobia.

Gays play a role in the modern worldview similar to that of witches in pre-Enlightenment times. They're both seen as traitors, infiltrators invisibly moving among us, undermining the foundations of the community. Think of the worries about gays "turning" otherwise straight people, or opening the floodgates to other forms of immorality. The idea of gays presenting a higher risk of HIV fits perfectly with this*. Blood is a primal substance, and thus it's the first thing for the Other to be prohibited from sharing.

The threat that gays will lie in order to give blood plays right into this way of thinking. "You're kicking us out for being witches? Well, we'll show you what witchcraft is!" While they may succeed in getting the blood services to give up on asking about donors' sexual histories, they would do so at the expense of reinforcing the idea that gays are secret traitors, infiltrating the center of the community's life.

*This is not to say that gays don't in fact have a higher rate of HIV -- but as the Cultural Theorists are quick to remind us, "it's true" is not a sufficient explanation for why people believe something. And of course what we make of that difference in rates is quite cultural.

Social Science vs. the ACLU

Eugene Volokh raises the question of whether the ACLU has an anti-Christian bias -- specifically whether, as claimed by Clayton Cramer, they fail to defend free speech by Christians on the same terms that it defends non-Christian speech. Volokh makes two main arguments, both of which are expanded by others in the comments: 1) there are many reasons other than bias against the speech that an organization might decline to get involved in a free speech case, and 2) the ACLU has fought for Christians' free speech rights in a number of cases. In the comments, I suggested that a bit of social science would be necessary to really resolve the dispute:

I don't think listing cases is a very helpful way of looking at this -- it's just argument by anecdote. We need to determine the total number of free speech cases in each category that were filed, as well as the proportion of them that the ACLU participated in [update: Richard Aubrey points out that we should count as negative any cases where the ACLU is involved on the anti-speech side]. In other words, whether, over some specified time frame, the following is true:

(number of cases involving non-Christian speech that the ACLU got involved in)/(total number of cases involving non-Christian speech) = (number of cases involving Christian speech that the ACLU got involved in)/(total number of cases involving Christian speech)

Should there turn out to be a statistically significant difference between the two sides of the equation, that would constitute evidence of pro- or anti-Christian bias on the part of the ACLU (though one could [update: definitely should] then go back and refine the equation by factoring in other issues like the legal strength of the cases or the other resources available to the speaker's side).

I'd love to be able to give even some rough numbers as to the answer here, but as a non-lawyer I lack the resources and skills to even calculate my bare-bones equation, much less to incorporate the effect of all the mitigating factors that would be needed for a reliable answer. All I can do is mention my own suspcion, which is that the results would vindicate Volokh and the ACLU.


Consensual Promiscuity

Hugo Schwyzer has a post up arguing that pro-feminist men can't be promiscuous. I won't bother responding to Schwyzer's post, since he manages to write 11 paragraphs without ever offering any evidence or arguments in support of his central idea that one cannot see another as "extraordinarily precious" in the context of a short-term sexual encounter. More interesting -- in part because it has echoes of the theory of structuration, and in part because it does not seem vulnerable to the charges of paternalism leveled against Schwyzer -- was a reply by commenter AB, who offered an alternative pro-feminist argument for why men should refrain from consensual one-night stands.

I'll restate AB's argument in more general terms, since I think it's potentially applicable to many cases of interactions bewteen dominant and oppressed groups. In AB's comment, "group A" is men, "group B" is women, and "X" is "use solely for short-term sexual gratification."

(1) In our current society, group A feels entitled to do X to group B.
(2) In many cases, members of group B do not consent* to having X done to them.
(3) Anytime a member of group A does X to a member of group B, it reinforces (1).
(4) Therefore, any member of group A who sees (2) as being bad is obligated to try to undo (1). Given (3), then, such a member of group A is unable to do X to a member of group B -- even a consenting one -- until such time as (1) is eliminated.

The crux of the argument here is the word "any" in point (3). Is it truly the case that consensual use of a woman for sexual gratification reinforces the belief that many men have that they are entitled to use women for sexual gratification even without consent? It all depends on how people define their categories of thought. If a consensual one-night stand is percieved to be basically the same sort of thing as a nonconsensual one-night stand, then the practice of the former will reinforce the practice of the latter. If not, not.

AB's argument may become easily overbroad. After all, one could easily create an argument against all sex on the same lines. Having a long-term relationship is certainly no guarantee that the man won't feel entitled to sex. And I see no reason to think that consensual one-night stands would be interpreted as endorsement of all one-night stands whereas consensual marital sex would be interpreted as endorsing only consensual marital sex.

What AB's argument gives us is, I think, not so much an argument against one-night stands as an argument for being attentive to how our acts are framed. Insofar as we carry out acts that resemble acts we despise, we must emphasize the criteria that make the meaningful difference.

*Here "do not consent" covers not only overt acts -- in the case of sex, rape -- but also situations in which group A uses its superior power to trick, entice, pressure, or otherwise push unwilling members of group B into giving formal consent.

The Truthiness Of Cultural Theory

I was reminded of Stephen Colbert's recent coinage of "truthiness" when I read John Adams's attempt to defend Cultural Theory from those who point out that it has fared poorly in empirical tests. "Truthiness" is the quality posessed by an idea that feels so right, that accords so well with who we want to be, that quibbling little things like facts don't matter. Adams says:

Cultural theory might best be viewed in the uncertain world we inhabit as the anthropologists' myth of myths. The validity of such a super-myth is not to be judged by the statistician's correlation coefficients and t-tests, but by the degree to which it accords with people's experience. And its utility can be judged only by the extent to which people find it helpful in their attempt to navigate the sea of uncertainty.

Cultural Theory is, in a way, a theory of truthiness. It argues that when the uncertainty is high and the stakes are large -- the types of problems that Funtowicz and Ravetz call "post-normal" -- the gap in science's ability to provide truth is filled by culture's ability to provide truthiness. CT goes on to propose an explanation for why different people are drawn to different types of truthiness, why certain ideas are truthy to some people but not others.

Of course, just because CT is a theory of truthiness doesn't mean that truthiness is the appropriate standard for judging CT's validity. But a certain understanding of CT can give us a more charitable understanding of why CT should be examined for its truthiness.

(Adams himself seems ambivalent about whether he understands CT in the more sophisticated way I'm about to describe. He certainly advocates it in his more theoretical chapters, such as the one the above quote came from. Nevertheless, in his empirical work on seat belt laws, he slips into a sort of "vulgar CT." In vulgar CT, the CT typology of ways of life is drawn on to show why one's opponents are so blinded by their ideologies that they are unable to recognize the plain objective facts that you, having cast off the shackles of bias, are able to present.)

A more sophisticated understanding of CT recognizes that culture is not simply a distortion of reality, an unfortunate set of misconceptions that should be cleared away by good objective science. It argues that there are many arenas of thought that are inherently the domain of truthiness, arenas that are necessarily value-laden and hence not amenable to a final objective scientific answer. Adams's argument, then, can be taken as a claim that CT itself lies in this post-normal realm. (It's unclear which of the four ways of life should be expected to find CT truthy -- certainly not hierarchy, since hierarchy is committed to the view that objective science can and should find the answer to everything. I suspect that CT's appeal is greatest to fatalists, since it easily feeds their view that agreement and cooperation between people of different views is a pipe dream.)

The big question, then, is whether CT really does lie in the post-normal realm. I suspect it does not, particularly when talking about the proposed typology of worldviews (which is the element of CT that has been subjected to the most empirical scrutiny). The choice of adopting one typology of worldviews over another is not particularly high-stakes so far as I can tell (outside of the small group of researchers who have built their careers on it). And it does not seem like a question that uncertainty need remain high on, since widely used psychological research methods should be quite applicable to discerning the validity of any proposed way of grouping worldviews. Of course, I may be misled by the understandable truthiness of this perspective to someone who, like myself, has staked the next few years of their career on doing an empirical test of CT.


Repetitive Academics

Spend enough time reading a specialized segment of the literature on any issue, and you'll start to hit repetition -- people using the same examples, the same illustrations, and even the same jokes. A good example of the latter in the social science of risk is the story of Sydney Smith. As John Adams tells it in his book Risk:

Over 150 years ago the Reverend Sydney Smith was being taken on a conducted tour of an Edinburgh slum. Down a narrow alley between two high-rise tenements he came upon two women shrieking abuse at each other across the alley. Smith stopped, looked up, and listened. He then shook his head and walked on, lamenting "they'll never agree; they're arguing from different premises.

The worst part about this case is that it's the non-punning sense of "arguing from different premises" that's being illustrated when writers tell this story. That is, you have to already understand the concept in order to get the joke that's supposed to illustrate it. I suppose, though, that I should just be grateful I don't have to sit through yet another telling of the story of the blind men and the elephant.


A Better Precautionary Principle, But It's Beside The Point

I've had some harsh words to say about the Precautionary Principle in the past. But I realized today that this was based on a particular interpretation of what the PP means. Typically, the PP is presented as a statement of conservatism or risk aversion, mandating that the burden of proof be on those who want to change things (e.g. by introducing a new chemical that might be carcinogenic). But a paper I just read by Jurskis, Bridges, and de Mar (warning: pdf and academic language) offers an appealing alternative formulation:

The precautionary principle has often been misinterpreted as a caution against taking action where there is risk, however it actually cautions against delaying action to prevent environmental degradation because there is uncertainty.

In other words, the PP advocates a particular hierarchy of values, rather than an attitude toward change. Under the PP, environmental values are given priority over other values in situations where there is doubt. This can be understood as either being an ethical principle of its own, or coming from an ontological view that preservation of nature underlies preservation of other values, e.g. that the economy will collapse if promoting it undermines ecosystems. This formulation of the PP makes it an environmental principle without either unjustifiably limiting its application to environmental risks or depending on questionable assumptions about the environmental effects of technological progress.

Interestingly, though, this alternative PP does not actually help Jurskis et al's argument. Their paper is a strong promotion of the "frequent, low intensity fires are the answer" philosophy, in reaction to the tendency of Australian fire ecologists in recent decades to emphasize the ecological dangers of such fires and the potential benefits of high-intensity fires or fire exclusion. Jurskis et al claim that the PP mandates that we return to low-intensity burning to preserve the environment.

However, the argument made by anti-burning fire ecologists (notably Rob Whelan and Ross Bradstock) is not that we should hold off on environment-preserving actions until more is known -- the counter-argument implicit in the invocation of the precautionary principle. Rather, they argue that not burning is itself the precautionary course of action, and that we shouldn't wait around for ironclad proof before we stop firing the bush all the time.

The precautionary principle as stated by Jurskis et al is only relevant when the potentially more environment-protecting course of action is clear, but its effectiveness or necessity is uncertain. Thus it applies easily to classic cases like climate change mitigation or caution in introducing new chemicals. However, it is beside the point when the issue being debated is which of two courses of action is the environment-preserving one. Neither Jurskis et al nor Whelan and Bradstock are interested in "delaying action to prevent environmental degradation," but there is no agreement about which actions -- increasing burning or decreasing burning -- we should avoid delaying.

2005 Was Good To The GOP

I don't know why everyone seems to think 2005 was such a rough year for the Republican Party. Or rather, I do know, but it's based on a unjustifiably large helping of wishful thinking. Let's take a look at two things widely claimed to indicate the GOP's difficulties last year:

1. Falling poll numbers. What happened in 2005 was actually worse than high poll ratings for the Republicans. If Bush was getting 60% approval, we could still tell ourselves that things would get better once we convince another 20% of the people that the GOP is evil. In 2005, the polls bottomed out, and nothing changed. 2005 was the year that we learned that it doesn't matter how many scandals the government gets involved in, they can still do whatever they want. The only disapproval that matters is armed rebellion. And the GOP has figured out that it can get what it wants without making anyone mad enough to push them over the line from telling a pollster that they don't like things to buying ammo and a bus ticket to DC. Indeed, they've become skilled at creating the kind of disapproval that makes people get fed up with politics and focus on Desperate Housewives, rather than the kind that energizes active opposition.

2. The failure of Social Security privatization. The problem with this idea is that Social Security privatization didn't fail. Sure, it didn't make it onto the lawbooks. But you wouldn't call a 30-yard pass a failure just because it didn't score a touchdown. 2005 was the year that privatization became a respectable position. An idea that a few years ago was the province of a handful of wild-eyed libertarians is now a mainstream viewpoint. It will be reintroduced again and again as long as the GOP controls Congress (i.e., for the forseeable future), until President Romney signs it into law perhaps early in the next decade.


How To Write A Skeptical Post

Here's a challenge: find someone extolling the virtues of blind dogmatism. Everywhere you go, you find nothing but claims to be a clear-eyed rational assessor of the evidence. Even the most deeply religious people will tell you that their faith withstands open-minded scrutiny. Dogmatism is prevalent in today's world, but the Enlightenment has succeeded spectacularly in forcing it to disguise itself, even in the minds of its believers, as rational inquiry.

Why, then, do so many people feel the need to begin blog posts, newspaper columns, and other writings with a long discourse on the virtues of skepticism? There won't be any defenders of dogma popping up to take you on. I suspect that for many people, skepticism is an attitude, not a way of thinking. It makes you cool to extol your clear-eyed commitment to reason and the facts. It makes you righteous to see the truth where the masses have been led astray by unthinking allegiance to an unsupported theory. And it makes me skeptical of the quality of your analysis if you have to preface it by rehashing the same old arguments against dogmatism.

Anti-dogmatic generalities are a cheap rhetorical trick. They make the writer sound more important, since he's battling a grand social ideology rather than just a particular creationist argument, climate model, or Iraq policy. They demand that the reader take your side before the real argument has even begun -- after all, who wants to take the side of dogma?

People making skeptical arguments need to remember the cardinal rule of writing: show, don't tell. Don't tell me about the evils of dogmatism. Show me the evidence and show me how the prevailing conclusion doesn't follow from it. I, and everyone else, will be more likely to give your arguments fair consideration if you don't start off by accusing us of being unthinking sheep, and instead grant us the respect of making an argument about the topic at hand.

Hybrid Irrationality, Hybrid Culture

Tim Haab wonders about the impact of saving gas money by buying a hybrid on consumers' purchase decisions. He notes a recent report that taxi drivers are jumping on the hybrid bandwagon, whereas regular consumers are slower to give up their conventional engines. Yet according to Haab's back-of-the-envelope calculations, the taxi drivers are only saving $455 more over the car's lifetime than the regular consumers. I can think of several reasons why taxi drivers might be more sensitive to the savings from hybrids than ordinary people:

1. The discount rate. Haab uses a typical 5% discount rate on the gas savings. But that assumes a high level of mathematical sophistication within the consumer's perceptual apparatus. A more likely thought process would be for the consumer to consider their gas costs over a more easily imagined short timespan -- say the first month. If those savings aren't a lot, they get rounded down to nothing, or next to nothing, before the consumer multiplies them over the lifetime of the vehicle. Because the savings don't show up as a big chunk (whereas the car price does), they get enervated by rounding. A business, on the other hand, would keep careful records of such expenditures, making it easier to be economically rational about them.

2. Separate budgets. Most people don't conceptualize their budgets as one big pool of money. In particular, big one-off purchases like a car are separate from recurring costs like gas. So when people head down to the car dealership, they aren't going to think very much about, or put very much weight on, trade-offs between gas and the sticker price. A business like a taxi, on the other hand, will tend to conform better to the kind of economic rationality that Haab's calculations presuppose. Both the car and the gas come out of the same bottom line for the taxi driver, so the potential for trade-offs is clear.

3. Culture. This, I think, is the biggest factor driving decisions to purchase or not purchase a hybrid. When you buy a car, you're not just buying just a mode of transportation and making a financial commitment, but you're also making a statement about who you are and what kind of people you associate with. Hybrids are very strongly associated with a particular culture -- the middle-class liberal greenie. This was a key to the early success of hybrids, as people snapped them up as a way of proclaiming themselves to be greenies. But that strong cultural association then inhibits the spread of hybrids to other sectors of society, particularly those who define themselves in part by their rejection of greenies' values and lifestyles. The cultural factor is weaker in the case of taxis, as people don't tend to pick their cab company as a cultural statement.


Science Vs. the Death Penalty

This post by Philip Yam illustrates an common tendency to inflate the proportion of an argument that is proved by science. Yam claims that "Science has shown that our death penalty system is deeply flawed."

Yam makes two "scientific" arguments against the death penalty. First, he points out that science -- specifically DNA testing -- has exonerated at least one person and possibly more. Second, science has demonstrated the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, which is a crucial element of the evidence against most death row inmates.

All that is scientifically shown, then, is that our death penalty system cannot be relied on to be perfect in executing only the guilty. Or rather, that our criminal justice system is imperfect -- after all, eyewitness testimony is used against defendants sentenced to prison, too. It requires additional steps -- steps I happen to agree with, mind you -- to go from "imperfect" to "deeply flawed." One must evaluate the system's mistake rate as being too high, and believe that there's a meaningful difference between sentencing this mix of criminals and innocents to death or to life without parole. Yam treats this step as rather obvious, implying that if Americans only knew how many innocents were sentenced, they would reject the death penalty. But that fact is not so obvious -- after all, the guilty folks are pretty dangerous characters who richly deserve death (according to some ethical systems). Either way, though, this step is not a scientific one.