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Scientific American

Surviving Statistics

published September 2014 | comments (6)
How the survivor bias distorts reality
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When I purchased my latest vehicle, I was astonished to get the license plate 6NWL485. What are the chances that I would get that particular configuration? Before I received it, the odds would have been one in 175,760,000. (The total number of letters to the power of the number of letters on the plate times the total number of digits to the power of the number of digits on the plate: 263 x 104). After the fact, however, the probability is one.

This is what Pomona College economist Gary Smith calls the “survivor bias,” which he highlights as one of many statistically related cognitive biases in his deeply insightful book Standard Deviations (Overlook, 2014). Smith illustrates the effect with a playing card hand of three of clubs, eights of clubs, eight of diamonds, queen of hearts and ace of spades. The odds of that particular configuration are about three million to one, but Smith says, “After I look at the cards, the probability of having these five cards is 1, not 1 in 3 million.” (continue reading…)

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ClimeApocalypse

published August 2014 | comments (9)
Or just another line item in the budget?
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In the year 2393 a historian in the Second People’s Republic of China penned a book about how scientists, economists and politicians living in the 21st century failed to act on the solid science they had that gave clear warnings of the climate catastrophe ahead. As a result, the world experienced the Great Collapse of 2093, bringing an end to Western civilization.

So speculate historians of science Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Erik Conway of the California Institute of Technology in their book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia University Press, 2014), a short scientific- historical fantasy. During the second half of the 20th century— the “Period of the Penumbra”—a shadow of anti-intellectualism “fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world…preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.” (continue reading…)

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The Myth of Income Inequality

published July 2014 | comments (74)
The American dream is not dead yet
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One of the best-selling books of 2014 is Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, a 696-page doorstop tome on economic history. Why is a data-heavy treatise from the “dismal science” so appealing? Because it is about income inequality and immobility, which in a December 2013 speech President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time,” concluding that it poses “a fundamental threat to the American dream.” But does it? Maybe not.

The rich are getting richer, as Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless found by analyzing tax data from the Congressional Budget Office for after-tax income trends from 1979 through 2010 (including government assistance). The top-fifth income earners in the U.S. increased their share of the national income from 43 percent in 1979 to 48 percent in 2010, and the top 1 percent increased their share of the pie from 8 percent in 1979 to 13 percent in 2010. But note what has not happened: the rest have not gotten poorer. They’ve gotten richer: the income of the other quintiles increased by 49, 37, 36 and 45 percent, respectively. (continue reading…)

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Nuclear Nada

published June 2014 | comments (3)
Does deterrence prohibit the total abolishment
of nuclear weapons?
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When I was in elementary school in the early 1960s, we were periodically put through “duck and cover” drills under the risibly ridiculous fantasy that our flimsy wooden desks would protect us from a thermonuclear detonation over Los Angeles. When I was an undergraduate at Pepperdine University in 1974, the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, spoke at our campus about the effectiveness of mutual assured destruction (MAD) to deter war. He said that by stockpiling many weapons neither side has anything to gain by initiating a first strike because of the retaliatory capability of both to send the other back to the Paleolithic.

So far MAD has worked. But as Eric Schlosser reveals in his riveting 2013 book Command and Control, there have been dozens of close calls, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Titan II missile explosion in Damascus, Ark. And popular films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove have played out how it could all go terribly wrong, as when General Jack D. Ripper becomes unhinged at the thought of a “Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” and orders a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. (continue reading…)

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The Genesis of Justice

published May 2014 | comments (1)
Before all learning, an infant’s mind has a sense of
right and wrong
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On the platform of a subway station, a woman and two men are talking a few feet away from the open track pit. Without warning, one of the men shoves the woman. She staggers backward toward the edge. The other man reaches out to catch her, but he is too late, and down she goes onto the tracks. In an instant, he reacts. He turns on his heels and coldcocks the culprit. It is a magnificent roundhouse to the face that snaps the wrongdoer’s head back. Satisfied with this act of revenge, he turns, hesitates and dashes over to pull the woman to safety. He reassures her, then takes off after the malefactor, who has beat a hasty retreat. The entire incident takes 20 seconds, and you can see it yourself on YouTube (at the 1:47 mark).

In that moment—too brief for rational calculation—a conflict of pure emotionality unfolds between rescue and revenge, helping and hurting. In a flash, two neural networks in the rescuer’s brain are engaged to act: help a fellow human in trouble or punish the perpetrator. What is a moral primate to do? In this case, because no train was coming, he could afford that problematic first choice. Rescue is sweet but so is revenge. (continue reading…)

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