Monday, November 30, 2015

The Modern Metrics Fetish: WTF?

 The New York Times had an article recently about school testing and Common Core. Along the way they said that the challenge of comparing children’s progress, state to state, and state and country to country, is "one of the most stubborn problems in education." To which an alert reader/parent said basically: WTF?

As she described it: "I could easily list 500 priorities for my child’s education. But the question of how Massachusetts test scores compare with test scores in Minnesota, in Mississippi, anywhere, wouldn’t make the cut ... Somehow, though, this need to compare is so all-consuming that it has reshaped children’s entire school experiences."

I get what she is saying. When did metrics and measurement become so important that they're worth sacrificing all our other goals for? Why this fetish for metrics? When did the desire to measure become to intense that it gets in the way of actually moving forward with things?

I've got nothing against the gathering of information, but for a lot of things, measurement just doesn't work that well. Some things are hard to quantify, and even when you can quantify them, it's hard to know what data is relevant. Even when you know what to look for, the relevant data is hard to find, gather, and organize. Things keep getting in the way -- like how do you know whether some schools are becoming better by squeezing out the bad students? There are huge problems.

The crazy thing is that everyone knows all of this. It's no secret that some things are hard to quantify and that even when you can quantify you can't get the info that's relevant. It's no secret that what happens if you keep moving forward is that you're measuring the measurable things -- like money or test scores -- and then acting like those are the things you were interested in in the first place, which is ridiculous. It's no secret that people who do this end up by silencing their critics with "There is no alternative! You don't understand: the challenge of measurement is "one of the most stubborn problems in education!"

So if we know all of this why does it keep happening? Why do we keep creating metrics that measure the things we're not interested in and then using those metrics to make plans? Why is it so hard to have a reasoning process that involves people making informed judgments based on things they know and also consultation with the relevant parties?

My guesses, from most obvious to most obscure, with remarks:

1. Maybe the "data" approach just fits with the outcomes desired by the powers-that-be -- so the "data" is just window dressing on decisions made for other reasons. This is the classic "stupid or evil?" debate, and I don't have anything new to add.

2. Maybe the data give you the illusion of having an "answer," where the alternative involves vagueness, uncertainty, and judgment. As I've said before, some people seem to prefer having an answer they know is wrong to not having a clear answer -- which seems to me to make no sense.

3. Maybe underlying 1. and 2. is some misguided idea that judgment involves partiality while metrics and data are objective and neutral. News flash: as has been discussed again and again at least since Weber's work in the early 20th century, every way of using concepts in measurement requires making value-laden judgments about significance. "Metrics" often just makes the values harder to see, where "judgments" would put them right in plain view, where you could, you know, talk about and debate them.

4. Here I'm getting really speculative and into overgeneralizing cultural diagnosis territory, but I feel like somewhere along the way of the last hundred years or so, western culture got lost and started thinking that everything that isn't SCIENCE is somehow RELIGION. For example, I'm still irritated by how this law article refers to non-utilitarian ethical reasoning as "faith-based": as if utiltiarianism is somehow value-free and not just another set of values, and as if anything appealing to values is somehow off-limits for respectable inquiry.

This last is so bizarre I don't even know where to start. If you give up religion or faith, what you get is basically what you always have: people with various values, preferences, opinions, and hopes and dreams for the world. Often these willl be different and often they'll conflict. The great task of living together is figuring out what to do about that. It's a tough task, and it's not one that the little elves of "measurement" are somehow going to do for us.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Diagnosis: Hypersobriety. Or, What's So Bad About Self-Medicating?

I love to drink. I drink more is recommended by the medico-establishment powers that be, but I think in 2015 that's not the shocking thing. The shocking thing is that I don't really worry about it too much.

There are several reasons I'm not in a moral panic about my own drinking. For one thing, I used to have a wide range of bad habits and I've managed to quit almost all of them. Even Diet Coke, which I love and regard as the pinnacle of human taste perfection, I haven't had in about five years. Really, you can't expect a person to give up everything.

For another thing, I suffer zero noticeable bad effects from my drinking. I never have a hangover or feel bad, and pace the omnipresent freak-out over "relationship problems," my loved ones agree: drinking makes me, if anything, kinder, happier, warmer, more patient, and more fun.

Also, and as I've written about before, I feel like drinking makes me more me. A better version of me. I don't know if you remember that book Listening to Prozac, from the early 90s? The author, Peter Kramer, argued that some patients on anti-depressants experience a sense of being more themselves. The widespread fear that psycho-pharmaceuticals always make you less you is wrong, just a prejudice, based on some implicit mistaken metaphysics of personal identity.

Listening to Prozac quotes one patient as saying that being on Prozac makes them feel "Unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic" -- and when I read that I was like, "Yes!" That's how drinking makes me feel. Without drinking, I tend toward sadness and low life-force. When I stop for a while, I run into trouble: my mind gets filled up with stuff, clogged with emotion, the mental equivalent of a hoarder's living room. Drinking, I'm fresh and alive.

Pursuing the medical model analogy, I was thinking about what it is about me that makes this the appropriate treatment, and I noticed that I often have the feeling that two drinks makes me feel normal, well, brought to some imaginary baseline. Feelings of sadness and dread are kept at bay. I was struggling to interpret the underlying feeling. What is this? Anxiety? Depression? Melancholia?

And then it hit me: if drinking is the solution, maybe my problem is just sobriety. I have an excess of it. Hypersobriety. Though there are probably many, this condition has one obvious and natural treatment option: namely, drinking.

The diagnosis actually fits my personality in other ways as well. I'm organized, I don't really procrastinate, and I read books for fun. Plus, I often feel excessively clear-eyed about the world, a characteristic of sobriety that is known to lead to trouble: as we know, self-deceiving, overly optimistic people do well with life while seeing things as they are leads to sadness and depression.

For me, part of being excessively clear-eyed is a deficit in the repression direction. I seem to have trouble blocking out those kinds of facts that, when you're aware of them, get quickly overwhelming. We are all going to die in the not so far away future. And we're either going to die young, or get old. This is going to happen not just to you but to your kids and all the people you love.

The only healthy response to these facts is to frequently repress awareness of them. But if you suffer from hypersobriety -- well, you need a little boost in the repression direction.

I feel like there's a lot of resistance to the use of alcohol and other fun substances to make people feel better. Some of this is based on the very real fact that for a lot of people, using fun substances doesn't work so well in the long run, leading to addiction and other problems. But what about the rest of us? If it's working reasonably well, what's the big deal?

I think a lot of the resistance comes from the idea that self-medicating might come with health risks or side-effects, and this leads to free-rider type indignation, like "OMG, you are doing this thing to make yourself feel better, but that might lead, in some vague and long-term way, to some way in which the rest of us have to pay more to help you down the line. Even though lots of treatments come with other health effects down the line, we'd hate to think that somehow your self-medication might be enjoyable, so that you're somehow having a good time."

But I think this form of indignation is a little overblown and ridiculous. Lots of medical treatments come with downsides and side effects, many of them serious. Just yesterday in the New York Times Ezekiel Emanuel wrote about how astonishingly often more medical care can lead to much worse outcomes. Having the best, most senior cardiac doctors led to more deaths. Stopping medications in elderly patients made them better off.

Again, I'm not denying that in some circumstances self-medication doesn't work. But I don't think the relative frequency of failure justifies the negativity. I guess what I'm saying is, next time you see someone eating a lot of cake or chewing nicotine gum or drinking a lot of Diet Coke or Pinot Grigio or whatever, don't think you have to immediately moralize about it. Maybe overall, it's just the thing they need.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sexual Liberty And Its Discontents

I was thinking recently about sex in the modern world, and particularly the particular rage and indignation that people have related to issues about sex. And I got thinking about how maybe, in unseen ways, some of this bad feeling has to do with deep and unrecognized value conflicts.

Specifically, I found myself wondering about the conflicts between sexual liberty, on the one hand, and sexual equality and justice on the other. All these values are, I think, things that people care about. But -- much more than I think is typically recognized -- these values don't always fit together. More of one often means less of the others.

When I talk about sexual "liberty" here, I'm not thinking of the manifestation of liberty that has to do specifically with LGBTQ rights. Actually I think that form of liberty doesn't create value conflicts.

What I'm talking about is the more general idea that everyone gets to craft their own vision of the sexual good life. If you're into monogamous marriage, do that. If you're into hook-up culture, do that. If you're into polyamory commitments, knock yourself out. If you don't want to have sex at all, that's fine too.

I would say in addition that an important component of sexual liberty is that everyone has a kind of unchallengeable right to decide when and with whom they want to have sex. You don't have to give a reason or justification. In a deep sense, it's your right to choose however you want.

As I've touched on before, if that's sexual liberty, then in some ways more sexual liberty means less sexual equality, in the sense that some people are going to have way more of it, and way more of the kind they want, than other people. Hot young women, rich status-y men, and mysteriously cool people are going to get lots, while a socially awkward 7-11 clerk may get nothing. There are going to be sexual winners and losers. There may even be, effectively, a sexual 1% and a sexual 99%.

Is that a bad thing? Is there a value of "sexual equality" that is thus transgressed? I think the answer is yes. If sex, and especially having the opportunity to have the kind of sex you want to have, with people you want to have it with, is one of the good things in life, then it's pretty sucky if some people don't get any of it. And it's even worse if the have-nots have to deal with the existence of the sexual equivalent of trust-fund children.

The idea of sexual justice might be a bit more multifaceted and complex, but I think one idea out there is that it seems especially egregious if people who are good, kind, and sexually generous turn out to be the ones not getting any sex and people who are unreciprocating assholes do great. It doesn't seem fair.

But sexual liberty does seem to lead to sexual injustice, because the reasons people find other people attractive are complex and mysterious. They often track aspects of ourselves we can take no credit for: looks, or status, or being charismatic. As is often wryly noted, sexual success itself makes people more sexually successful. The result is that there's this great thing in life, and whether you get a lot of it often has little to do with your generosity, or hard work, or other virtues.

As much as I love sexual liberty and wouldn't want any less of it, I think it has to be acknowledged that certain forms of social sexual constraints block some of these effects. When sex takes place only in monogamous marriages (gay or straight), there's a huge levelling off.

With respect to equality, in that context, most people get one or maybe a handful of sex partners. There isn't that sense of huge winners and losers. Plus there's a cascade effect. If everyone has to pair off, this removes the more attractive people from the pool of partners. So if you're one of the people less likely to be found attractive, there will be others around of your preferred sex/gender who might want to pair off with you.

With sexual justice, too, monogamous marriage means that you're only going to want to pair off with people you'll want to spend the rest of your life with: the ones you'll bring into your family, eat breakfast with, share bank accounts with. Of course in that context, all things being equal, good and generous persons will get more sex than self-centered jerks.

If this is at all on the right track, then I wonder if some of the indignation and unhappiness people feel around sex is related to these values conflicts. I'm sure you've heard heterosexual men complain bitterly about being a sexual have-not, and about women having sex with assholes instead of nice guys. It drives straight women crazy when men choose women who are young and good-looking.

Sometimes I feel like there's an attempt to explain what feels wrong about these things in terms of sexual "shoulds": people shouldn't be so shallow, they should want to have sex with these people, in these circumstances, they should have reasons for why they find certain people sexually attractive at certain times in certain contexts.

But for all kinds of reasons I find these shoulds of sex suspicious. Often they're presented as if they're moral truths. But to me they often feel like a sneaky end-run around sexual liberty, an ad hoc way of moralizing to get an end result that seems right.

Why not just acknowledge that, as so often in life, there are trade-offs? Then maybe we can talk about other ways to increase sexual equality and justice, ones that don't require a return to ubiquitous monogamous marriage and don't require the ad hoc moralizing either.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sensory Neuroscience, Snackology, and the Market Failure of Food

I don't know if you saw this article in The New Yorker last week about how the sound of a potato chip, the music in a bar, and the color of your coffee mug can seriously alter the flavor of your

If you think I'm exaggerating you should read the article. They recorded sounds of potato chip crunching, and when they amplified those sounds and sharpened them, people rated the chips as fresher and better tasting. Mellifluous organ music changed a creamy ale into a bitter one. When coffee's in a white mug it tastes "nearly twice as intense but only two-thirds as sweet" than when it's in a clear glass one.


1. This is obviously a philosophical topic, leading immediately to questions like "what is taste, anyway?" More specifically, these results press on us the question of whether the perceptual experience itself changes in the presence of other stimuli or whether we just interpret the experience to ourselves differently in the presence of other stimuli.

If the importance of this question isn't immediate to you, consider that it's a specific instance of the more general question: do we perceive a shared pre-existing world or does everyone kind of live in their own reality? It doesn't really get more profound or disturbing.

2. It's long been known that presentation affects experience. This is why people like me are always going around saying things like "HEY PEOPLE: STYLE IS AN ACTUAL THING." I don't know if it's the long arm of the protestant reformation or what, but I feel there is huge resistance to this idea.

For example, I'm always hearing people talk smugly about how they value substance over style, or the importance of not getting distracted by style, like it's some kind of moral superiority if you drive a plain-looking car or you wear only Dockers (see: "On the Self-Satisfaction of the Casually Dressed.")

I use a Mac, and I love my Mac partly because of small details like the way the font smoothing on the "Pages" app looks. It's so good. I could not be more sick of people having opinions about this, like somehow my selection on aesthetic grounds reflects a poor character.

3. The whole idea of an ale that's creamy when there's xylophone music and bitter when there's organ music reminded me of this post on rationality and preferences. There I mention the example of the person who prefers to eat lobster for dinner, but not if they've just seen the lobster swimming in the tank.

These preferences could seem irrational. But as discussed in the post, it doesn't have to -- all you have to do is attribute to a person different preferences depending on whether they've just seen their dinner. Is that artificial and ad hoc? Maybe not. If you're someone who likes bitter ale, and you prefer X ale to Y, but only when the organ music is on -- given this research, that's seems to me like as real a preference as you're going to get.

4. But the most disturbing thing in the article is the same thing that always seems to come up in the early twenty-first century when we talk about science, namely: who wants to know?

Of course the whole point is food technology.  Of course in 2015 you can't do research like this without funding from the same marketers and food technologists that want to use your findings to sell more things. The scientist in the article estimates that 75% of his research is industry-funded. 

That is, the main thing that's going to happen as a result of this research is you can get people to buy more potato chips if you make the sound of the crunch different without having to bother about things like actual freshness.

Let me be clear: if people want to put their soft drinks in red cans because red-means-sweet, what do I care? Knock yourselves out.

But you know it's not going to stop there. You know that it's going to turn into red peppers that sound crunchy but are mushy and stale inside and crap like that, and pretty soon everything will be like the apples arms-race toward redness and away from flavor, and the market failure of food will become even worse, and eventually nutritionists will move beyond saying "to be healthy, just cook food at home!" to "to be healthy, just grow everything yourself from heirloom seeds!"

5. The article says this:

"We are accustomed to thinking of food and its packaging as distinct phenomena, but to a brain seeking flavor they seem to be one and the same."

Welcome to the modern world. Have a good time!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Just Price Theory: Not So Crazy After All?

When I first heard about the "pharmabro" guy who bought the rights to a drug and then immediately raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750, I knew things would get interesting.

Because from one point of view: isn't that just capitalism? If supply and demand mean you can make a profit at that price, then isn't that the price you should set? But from another point of view, it's pretty outrageous. So I wondered: beyond saying "I hate you," what form would the outrage take?

Back in the day -- way way back in the day -- it might have been easy to explain the outrageousness, because you could simply say that the drug was overpriced relative to its actual value -- its "just price." In "just price theory," there is a price for a good that reflects the value of fairness: to charge $1,000 dollars for a bottle of water in a disaster zone would be unfair because, in some sense, the water isn't worth that much in reality. It's not a "just price."

To our modern ears this sounds weirdly metaphysical. And from the point of view of modern economics, it doesn't really make sense to talk about a "just price." Value is thought to be relative -- there is no value in reality, there are just facts about what people are willing to pay. That is to say: what something is worth is in the eye of the beholder. How could you say what something is "really" worth? You can't. The just price theory faded from view with modern notions of supply and demand.

To see how embedded rejection of the just price concept is, consider examples from this article about how human behavior diverges from what standard economic theory predicts. Here, authors Jolls, Thaler, and Sunstein express puzzlement about laws against price-gouging, usury, and ticket scalping. Why, they ask, would we choose to block mutually desired trades? They describe an experiment where they asked people: what if there were only one cabbage patch doll left, and the store decided to auction it off to the highest bidder? Three quarters of respondents said that would be unfair. But why would fairness be relevant?

Their answer to these questions appeals to the idea of "bounded self-interest." Bounded self-interest, like other forms of irrationality such as weakness of will and other anomalies, gets in the way of economically rational behavior. Bounded self-interest means we let norms like "fairness" influence our judgements for no good reason.

All of this to say: there's a lot of skepticism over the idea that fairness or justice has a respectable role to play in thinking about prices.

So I was very interested to see how often the issue with the drug price was taken to be just that: that the price increase wasn't fair and couldn't be justified given the particulars.

For example, this news story describes the fall out from the pharmabro's Reddit Ask Me Anything, in which a physician gained the applause of Reddit's masses by pressing him with questions about particulars. What improvements did the drug deliver over similar options? What changes had the company made to the drug to "warrant" the price increase?

"This I find is the main problem with your plan," the physician said. "That the solution is not worth $749."

Of course, it's open to anyone to just say that people in general don't understand economics, that their use of an intuitive "just price" theory shows they don't know was is going on. But I think this conclusion would be too quick.

What I think it shows, instead, is that a lot of people have in their minds and intuitive and value-based sense of how things are working when they're working in a relatively fair and just way, and that as long as the results of market activity track, in some vague way, those judgments, things are OK. And when those results spit out $1,000 for a bottle of water in a disaster zone, things are not OK.

There is resistance, I think, to lending credence to these intuitive and value-based judgments as telling us anything meaningful and important because they are vague, and because they rest on different kinds of considerations all mushed in together, and because they're hard to make precise.

As the Reddit discussion exemplifies, intuitive judgments about what's a fair price are probably based on a set of implicit and hazy beliefs about how much work and money the seller put into making a product, and how much money the seller is likely to make, and how much the people who need the product need it, and how much the people who need the product can pay. All of those judgments are relative to what other costs in society are and how money is working. 

All of these are matters about which it's impossible to be precise. But just because these matters are often imprecise and multiple doesn't mean they're the wrong things to consider. Maybe judgments about just prices are complicated, pluralistic, intuitive, and imprecise. That doesn't make them wrong.

After all, the alternative, standard set up requires saying there's nothing wrong with selling $1,000 dollar bottles of water in a disaster zone and making a profit of $999 on each one, and that there's nothing wrong with a drug going from $1 dollar to $750 for no real reason.

And, in the end, isn't it better to have a messy and sensible idea than a precise and misguided one?