Friday links: why zombie ideas persist, environmentalism vs. the Notre Dame fire, Thanos the ecologist, and more

Also this week: the best stats paper you’ll read this week was written in 1962, among-study heterogeneity vs. replicability, living is a way of life in Canada, the intuition behind carbon tax rebates, and more.

From Jeremy:

Roger Peng rereads Tukey’s (1962) “The future of data analysis”. Very interesting. He’s read it 17 times and continues to get new insights out of it, which has convinced me I need to read it at least once. Related to Brian’s old post on exploratory statistics. And to Meghan’s old post on which papers to read over and over.

High among-study heterogeneity doesn’t mean that the studies won’t replicate. Put another way, “generalizability” and “replicability” are two different concepts. I’d have thought that was obvious, but apparently not?

The reason zombie ideas (or really, all prominent ideas) persist is because so frickin’ many papers are published these days. At least, that’s the claim of a new unreviewed (and short) preprint: increasing volume of papers causes scholarly fields to ossify. I’ve skimmed it, the argument is very interesting. Basically, when you have too many papers being published, two things happen. First, authors come under increasing pressure to relate their work to previous work in order to have any hope of attracting even a scrap of attention from busy readers. Second, “clonal interference” among the flood of new ideas sets a speed limit to how fast the field as a whole can “evolve” (that’s not the author’s phrasing, that’s my own gloss.) The linked preprint analyzes masses of citation data that appear consistent with this hypothesis, though I don’t think they clinch the case. Thoughts?

The problem with trying to get people to care more about environmental causes by complaining about how much attention those causes get relative to how much the Notre Dame fire got (example). I agree 100% with this, kudos to Sam Perrin for being brave enough to say so, and to Kirsty MacLeod for first saying the same on Twitter (and maybe others have said the same and I didn’t see them; sorry to anyone I overlooked.) I’d broaden the point and argue that whataboutism (“You care about X. But what about Y?”) is not an effective way to get people to care more about your pet cause.

The intuition behind carbon taxes that are rebated to consumers. How can a tax that’s rebated create an incentive to change behavior? Even I–a PhD-holding ecologist who reads economics blogs–didn’t really “get” it until I read this post. Nick Rowe is a great explainer.

Women grant applicants to the Gates Foundation received lower scores than men on average even though the reviewers were blinded to proposal author identity (link goes to unreviewed preprint). This gender bias remains if you control for reviewer characteristics, proposal topic, or ex ante measures of applicant “quality”. But I don’t buy the authors’ proposed explanation (gender differences in word choice); the analysis is unconvincing to me for a bunch of reasons. So the only lesson I took away is, don’t just implement blind review and then assume that you’ll get gender-neutral outcomes. Gender-biased review outcomes can arise for lots of reasons besides reviewer knowledge of author gender, and if they do then blinding won’t produce gender-neutral outcomes (which isn’t an argument against blinded review, of course). Note that I wouldn’t assume that any of these results generalize to other funding agencies (or that they don’t). The data I’ve seen indicate that grant review outcomes at many (not all) funding agencies are gender-neutral, but I’m not an expert and haven’t exhaustively reviewed the literature. (ht Marginal Revolution).

This is from 2017, but I was just pointed to it and it’s relevant to stuff we’ve talked about recently, so I’m going to link to it. Against Purity by Alexis Shotwell (link goes to an interview with the author). It’s now on my reading list. Money quote:

[P]ersonal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth.

This week in Dumb Things I Refuse To Link To: none of y’all fell for that viral tweet falsely claiming that some non-existent prof was charging students money for recommendation letters, right?

Vaguely related to the previous non-link (or, you know, maybe not): I want to see this movie, and also read this book.

This is very old, but honestly I probably do more good by calling attention to old stuff that’s still worth reading than I do by calling attention to stuff that many of you probably knew about already. So here’s an extended outtake and discussion of the funny, brilliant “In the New Canada, Living Is a Way of Life”. 🙂

The best “Thanos is a terrible ecologist” joke. 🙂

18 thoughts on “Friday links: why zombie ideas persist, environmentalism vs. the Notre Dame fire, Thanos the ecologist, and more

  1. The carbon tax incentive makes sense – except that you have to pay extra to cut your carbon, because – especially in transportation – carbon-free is a long way from cost competitive. So in the end you’re still just spending more of your wealth on transportation than you otherwise would, which means you can’t spend that money somewhere else, and in turn the alternate jobs and wealth are lost. Oh, and – say you’re using an electric vehicle on wind power – who pays for the battery storage and grid upgrades? You do, but you’ll pay out of the other pocket. You wont get any carbon credit for that.

    And of course the folks who work in downtown high rises and use transit anyway will be the big winners, while working stiffs who have to drive to the factory will be the big losers

    Wheehoo! Carbon tax for the poor!

  2. RE the Gates foundation – I know the foundation is not Microsoft and Melinda Gates plays a big role, but the high tech culture was SO sexist (at least when I left it in 1997 and not seeing a lot of indicators of change), that my first instinct is that there is a fairly unique cultural embedding (high tech) that doesn’t carry over to say NSF or NIH or Wellcome trust or Howard Hughes.

    Which might go part of the way to explaining what a disaster the Gates foundation has been in their attempts to improve US education (not to knock their important successes in world health).

    • Relevant anecdote: I use the Gates Foundation’s flawed push for smaller class sizes as a cautionary tale in intro biostats. They wasted millions of dollars based in substantial part on a very elementary statistical mistake:

      (Note that I don’t know anything more than this anecdote about the Gates Foundation’s broader efforts, whether in education or world health or other areas.)

      • I hadn’t seen your friend’s work before. Eye opening how hard it is for billionaires to apply business models to education. I had mostly just followed the Gates foundation as they have been most active during my time on school board.

        Seems to me the things billionaires miss are:
        1) in terms of effect size, homelife >> teacher >> school/curriculum/instructional methods (book length meta-analysis shows this beautifully)
        2) educational outcome is multidimensional and “soft” with motivation, fun, emotional self-regulation, study skills, desire to read and other factors just as important over longer run as short term knowledge demonstratable on a test
        3) #1 & #2 both point to finding and enabling great teachers as the best lever (short of fixing income inequality) with “great” assessed not quantitatively but by people close by (i.e. principals) who are themselves evaluated and accountable on up – in short a very businessy model – but there are SO many systemic challenges on this front starting with teacher pay, teacher accountability, turnover in leadership, etc

      • “finding and enabling great teachers ….with “great” assessed not quantitatively but by people close by”

        So we’re back to this idea that “good teaching” is **so good** you can’t even measure it? 🙂 if a principle can see it, it has to be measurable. The only question is what do you measure?

      • Jim – anytime you have a multidimensional set of evaluation criteria, you either have to: a) come up with a universally applicable (usually linear) weighting of those criteria to collapse things to a one-dimensional scale where you can rank things, or b) trust humans to do a better job recognizing their are a lot of nonlinearities in how to weight and trade-off those criteria.

        I personally think (b) works better.

  3. RE: Notre Dame vs environmentalism – I wouldn’t describe wholesale destruction of habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources, species’ extinction rates orders of magnitude higher than the background, environmental degradation that is affecting people’s health and livelihoods, and the accelerating effects of climate change as a “pet cause”. We’re not talking about raising funds for new books in the local library here!

    Comments on Twitter etc. that contrast the speed with which billionaires are willing to put up hundreds of millions of Euros versus their reluctance of fund far-reaching environmental programmes seem perfectly reasonable to me. No one is saying that the partial destruction of Notre Dame is not a tragedy, but there are many more pressing priorities.

    • Sorry Jeff, but to my mind I think you’re unwittingly illustrating the point of the linked post. So I’m going to reply fairly firmly to try to make the point clearer. Because I confess I’m slightly dismayed by your apparent inability to be able to look at this from any perspective but that of a very committed environmentalist.

      “No one is saying that the partial destruction of Notre Dame is not a tragedy”

      Oh, I saw two different ecologists on Twitter say things to the effect of “it’s just a building, it can be rebuilt” and “I don’t really understand why people care so much about buildings.” Obviously I haven’t randomly sampled ecologists’ opinions, so I don’t know how widely that sentiment is shared. But *someone* is indeed saying that the destruction of Notre Dame is not a tragedy. Or at least, saying things that could reasonably be interpreted in that way.


      Did you include that qualifier because you’re a stickler for accuracy? Or in a rhetorical attempt to minimize the destruction? What if someone said “No one is saying that the partial destruction of Amazon rainforest is not a tragedy, but there are many more pressing priorities”? Would you let this perfectly accurate use of the word “partial” pass unremarked? Just trying to get you to see how you sound to someone who doesn’t already share your unshakeable commitment to environmental causes above all else.

      “there are many more pressing priorities.”

      Tell that to a devout Catholic, or indeed to millions of other people. If the Angel of the North burned, would you tell your neighbors, “Look, I’m not saying this isn’t sad, but don’t sweat it, it can be rebuilt. Plus, saving the many undescribed insect species in the Brazilian Amazon is a much more pressing priority”?

      I also question the implied assumption that money being pledged to Notre Dame reconstruction might otherwise have gone to promote decarbonization of the economy or prevent habitat destruction or whatever. Why do you (and many other ecologists and environmentalists) think that those causes are in any useful sense in competition for attention or money with events like the Notre Dame fire? I suspect the real answer is that deep down, you (and other ecologists and environmentalists) know they’re not in competition. But all the attention given to the Notre Dame fire pisses you (and other ecologists) off. Because it’s a stark reminder that many, many people do not consider environmental causes to be the WWII-level emergency that many ecologists and environmentalists consider them to be.

      Finally, setting aside the rights and wrongs here, let’s talk utilitarian effectiveness. How much better off are environmental causes today thanks to the responses of many ecologists and environmentalists to the Notre Dame fire? Do you really think the answer is “better off than if nobody had tried to use the Notre Dame fire as an excuse to talk up environmental causes”?

      • Jeremy – I don’t disagree with anything you say here, I was merely pointing out that: (1) the term “pet cause” actually belittles the scale of what we are facing; and (2) people do not react to these sorts of events logically, they react emotionally. Hence the initial emotional outpouring of offering millions of Euros to restore Notre Dame is matched by an equally emotional response of “think of all of the other things that we could do with that money”. I wasn’t saying that either was right or wrong (though I appreciate that my comment came across that way) but rather that the push back from environmentalists was a reasonable response.

        I didn’t actually see anyone say “it’s just a building”, hence my comment, and I certainly don’t agree with that sentiment. The use of “partial” was about accuracy, nothing more.

        “If the Angel of the North burned, would you tell your neighbors, “Look, I’m not saying this isn’t sad, but don’t sweat it, it can be rebuilt.”

        I appreciate the attempt to draw in a cultural reference from my home region, but Durham Cathedral (one of the architectural wonders of England) would have been a better choice: Angel of the North is solid steel 🙂 For the record, I shed a tear watching Notre Dame burning, but they are the same tears I shed when watching documentaries about the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef or Attenborough’s recent climate change documentary.

        Finally, your last question: again, drawing parallels between destruction of cultural versus natural heritage seems a reasonable thing to do, and diminishes neither.

  4. I wonder what people whose response to the Notre Dame fire was some variant of “Why does everyone care so much about a building that can be rebuilt, when the world is full of species at risk of extinction?” think of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response to the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso: Because to me it looks like precisely an analogous case. In both cases, somebody responds to a horrifying, dramatic event by saying “hey, how come everyone’s not paying attention to this unrelated, ongoing, undramatic phenomenon instead?”

  5. I think that’s a very good comparison, Jeremy. The difference, of course, is that Tyson got absolutely flamed for what he said whereas those questioning Notre Dame were criticised to nothing like the same extent (the price of fame I guess?).

    There’s also an interesting comparison with what’s happening in the UK with the refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament, a building just as historically important as Notre Dame. Hundreds of millions are being spent on that refurbishment (justifiably in my opinion) because it’s been neglected for a long time and is crumbling. But this has resulted in criticism across the political spectrum, arguing that it’s a waste of money. If the HoP had burned down I wonder if there would have been the same reaction?

    • Surely if Parliament burned down people around the world would be shocked and saddened. Including at least some of the people complaining about the cost of the refurbishment. People are people, we sometimes hold contradictory beliefs.

      • Yes, I agree, I think that would have been the reaction. Perhaps one of the outcomes of extreme, one-off events is that it brings people together who would normally have more diverse or conflicting views?

      • “Perhaps one of the outcomes of extreme, one-off events is that it brings people together who would normally have more diverse or conflicting views?”

        Hmm. Maybe that’s true for some extreme, events in some places. But these days reaction to mass shootings in the US is highly politically polarized.*

        *Worth noting that mass shootings in the US are actually not “one-off” events, because many of them reflect shared systemic factors like Trump and Fox News embracing white supremacist rhetoric. But I know that’s not really germane to your point.

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