Here are three links to pieces I’ve read and learned from:
1. William Easterly on stereotypes.
Three laws guide this bogus analysis of groups. First, define the group by the outcome you are trying to explain. Second, invoke a stereotype and exaggerate it. Third, endow the group with innate permanent properties, akin to racial characteristics. Together, these errors establish a kind of collective guilt, blaming an entire ill-defined group for the failings of its individuals, even if the offenders are a tiny minority. This is both divisive and false — and all the more toxic because of its flavor of intellectual propriety.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote a memoir in 2006 — “Infidel” — that was roughly the Muslim equivalent of “Hillbilly Elegy”. I respect Ali for her intelligence and courage, but question her group analysis. She defines “genuine” or “devout” Muslims by whether they support terrorism: “Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam — the Muslim Brotherhood Islam, the Islam of the Medina Quran schools — even if they didn’t actively support the [9/11] attacks, they must at least have approved of them…. It was about belief.”
HT@Tyler Cowen (I think it’s Tyler: I’ve seen it posted in multiple places.)
2. Andrea O’Sullivan on the Russian hacks. The best piece I’ve seen yet.
Obviously, it is crucial that America maintain a fair electoral process–flawed though “democracy” may be–and the prospect of a foreign power deliberately sabotaging this can strike a primal fear in Americans’ hearts. Yet this kind of mass anxiety can also be opportunistically stoked by government operatives to further their own agendas, as history has demonstrated time and again. Responsible Americans must therefore approach claims made by unnamed intelligence officials–and the muddying media spin on them–with clear eyes and cool heads. And we must demand that these extraordinary claims be backed by appropriate evidence, lest we allow ourselves to be lead into another CIA-driven foreign fiasco.
3. Excellent story on Hans Rosling. I highly recommend taking the test of your knowledge that’s in the piece. My results were humbling, but in a good way; the world is doing even better than I had thought.
An excerpt on Castro:
Take an outbreak in Cuba that Rosling investigated in 1992. The Cuban embassy in Sweden had asked him to find out whether toxic cassava could have caused roughly 40,000 people to experience visual blurring and severe numbness in their legs. On his first morning in Havana, Rosling met local epidemiologists in a conference room. “Then, two men walk in with guns, and in comes Fidel Castro,” he recalls. “My first surprise was that he was so kind, like Father Christmas. He didn’t have the attitude you might expect from a dictator.”
With Castro’s approval, Rosling travelled to the heart of the outbreak, in the western province of Pinar del Río. It turned out that there was no link with cassava. Rather, adults stricken with the disorder all suffered from protein deficiency. The government was rationing meat, and adults had sacrificed their portion to nourish children, pregnant women and the elderly.
Reporting back to Castro, Rosling couched his conclusions carefully: “I know your neighbours want to force their economic system on you, which I don’t like, but the system needs to change because this planned economy has brought this disease to people.” After his presentation, Rosling went to the toilet. A Cuban epidemiologist approached him to thank him. He and his colleagues had come to the same conclusion several months earlier, but they were removed from the investigation for criticizing communism. Corroboration of their work from Rosling and other independent researchers supported the policy changes that stemmed the outbreak.
What’s not said: did Castro do anything to allow Cubans more access to meat? Deregulate the economy, say, so that people could invest and hire? In an otherwise good story, this failure to close the loop is a big flaw.
Rosling’s charm appeals to those frustrated by the persistence of myths about the world. Looming large is an idea popularized by Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University in California, who warned in 1968 that the world was heading towards mass starvation owing to overpopulation. Melinda Gates says that after a drink or two, people often tell her that they think the Gates Foundation may be contributing to overpopulation and environmental collapse by saving children’s lives with interventions such as vaccines. She is thrilled when Rosling smoothly uses data to show how the reverse is true: as rates of child survival have increased over time, family size has shrunk. She has joined him as a speaker at several high-level events. “I’ve watched people have this ‘aha’ moment when Hans speaks,” she says. “He breaks these myths in such a gentle way. I adore him.”
And a passage that affirms my own strategy as an academic:
But among his fellow scientists, Rosling is less popular. His accolades do not include conventional academic milestones, such as massive grants or a stream of publications in top-tier journals. And rather than generating data, Rosling has spent the past two decades communicating data gathered by others. He relays facts that he thinks many academics have been too slow to appreciate and argues that researchers are ignorant about the state of health and wealth around the world. That’s dangerous. “Campuses are full of siloed people who do advocacy about things they don’t understand,” he says.