Friday, December 26, 2008

Losing Sleep Isn't a Useful Signal of Worth

In certain fields -- I'm thinking of law, medicine, and politics, but there are surely others -- some people have a sort of bravado about how often they skimp on sleep to put in extra hours at work. I understand why this sort of signaling goes on (people are trying to signal that they are truly dedicated), but it's still not a very good signal, particularly in fields that are cognitively demanding. The times that I've worked past midnight (or past the point of sleepiness), I've noticed a definite dropoff in cognitive functioning -- even in the simple ability to quickly comprehend a paragraph. And it's not just me: There are lots of biological reasons why losing sleep literally makes you dumber, such as less neurogenesis, a less accurate memory, lower attention span, less ability to master complicated tasks, etc.

Moreover, sleep helps prevent coronary artery calcification, while loss of sleep turns on dangerous inflammatory processes and is linked to a wide variety of diseases.

Pulling an "all-nighter" ought to be quite a rare event, for anyone who wants to have a well-functioning brain and body. In fact, if you have an intellectual job or task to perform, a better way to signal both that you know how the human body works and that you're dedicated to performing at your peak intellectual abilities would be announcing that you took a nap.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Quote for the Day

Another one from Theodore Dalrymple's "In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas":
It has been one of the great mistakes of contemporary social thought, at least as exemplified by the policies pursued by governments, that the most important aspect of the environment into which children are born . . . is the material or economic aspect. The absence of some physical appurtenance has been regarded as a terrible deprivation, while moral squalor and emotional instability had been attributed to material poverty alone. The solution that suggests itself, then, is the improvement of the material circumstances into which children are born, until such time as they are equal.

However, people who think like this do so because they have asked the wrong question, or looked down the wrong end of the telescope. They have asked where poverty comes from instead of where wealth comes from. You might as well ask how ignorance of cardiac surgery ever came into being, rather than knowledge of it, as if cardiac surgery were an activity natural to man in his most primitive state.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Funny Cooking Video

My sister Sarah LaFon made a video for a cooking contest, which you can see below. The objective of the contest is both to come up with a recipe, and to present it in a creative and humorous video. An accomplished vocalist and musician, Sarah presents her recipe by singing it (with several clever rhymes). It's not that easy to set a recipe to music. Impressive.

Quote for the Day

From Theodore Dalrymple's "In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas":
Hatred of the rich is a much stronger emotion than love of the poor: no rampaging mobs ever went through a city seeking out the poor to whom they could give away their possessions.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jay Mathews on School Buildings

It's a a few months old, but I just saw this excellent column by Jay Mathews arguing that the quality of a school has little to do with the quality of the school building. Reminds me of an elderly black school board member I once spoke to, who scoffed at the notion that his schools needed extra funds: He said, "Abraham Lincoln learned to do math on the back of a damn shovel."


Original Sin

Another recent read was Alan Jacobs' Original Sin. It's a splendidly engaging history (and defense) of the notion of original sin and its detractors. I thought one of the most perceptive observations came in the book's concluding paragraphs:
If there is a proper response, a truly wise response, to the narrative of this book, it surely begins with the recognition that if everyone is bad to the bone -- if all of us strut and fret our hour upon the stage, filled with the consciousness of our injured merit, fairly glowing with self-praise -- then our condition is, first and above all else, comical.


One of the books I read in the past couple of weeks was Shannon Brownlee's Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer. Unsurprisingly, I was fascinated by this book: It explains all of the many studies finding that certain types of medical treatment are ineffective or harmful, why medical care itself is risky, why medical care is overused in so many ways, and how much of modern medicine is unsupported by evidence (typical quote: "David Eddy, a heart surgeon turned mathematician turned health care economist . . . estimates that as little as 15 percent of what doctors do is backed up by valid evidence.")

Adults As Potential Molesters

William Briggs has an excellent post on the irrational fear of adult strangers.

Great Math Website

If you need to review any of hundreds of math topics, check out the Khan Academy. Salman Khan, the creator, has a degree from Harvard Business School and several degrees from MIT. Apparently out of charity (he doesn't seem to be making any money from this), he's made a boatload of YouTube videos in each of which he teaches a particular math concept (or physics or finance). Very impressive.


Quote for the Day

From Theodore Dalrymple's "In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas":
A strange kind of moral fervor supervenes, an illustration of a phenomenon akin to a law of thermodynamics: namely, the law of the conservation of righteous indignation, which, if it does not attach to one thing, will attach to another. It is as if the total fund of such indignation is of constant size. As traditional moral prohibitions, inhibitions, and considerations are destroyed by the gnawing criticism of philosophical disputatiousness, new ones rush in to fill the vacuum.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why Justice Breyer Contradicts Himself

Justice Breyer has been known for arguing that the US Supreme Court should feel free to take foreign law into account when construing the US Constitution.

But the Supreme Court's 2002 voucher case is a good example of implicit self-contradiction. In that case -- which held that Cleveland's voucher program did not violate the Establishment Clause -- Justice Breyer dissented on the theory that vouchers lead to political strife. But Justice Breyer completely ignored the experience of Belgium: as I point out below, Belgium settled on school vouchers some fifty years ago precisely as a way to avoid strife.

Here's Justice Breyer writing in the Zelman case:
I write separately, however, to emphasize the risk that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religiously based social conflict. I do so because I believe that the Establishment Clause concern for protecting the Nation’s social fabric from religious conflict poses an overriding obstacle to the implementation of this well-intentioned school voucher program.

* * *

Under these modern-day circumstances, how is the “equal opportunity” principle to work–without risking the “struggle of sect against sect” against which Justice Rutledge warned? . . . [J]ust how is the State to resolve the resulting controversies without provoking legitimate fears of the kinds of religious favoritism that, in so religiously diverse a Nation, threaten social dissension?

Quite apart from the falsity of Breyer's prediction (as shown by the lack of strife over the past several years), Breyer's only nod at foreign evidence came in this paragraph:
I recognize that other nations, for example Great Britain and France, have in the past reconciled religious school funding and religious freedom without creating serious strife. Yet British and French societies are religiously more homogeneous–and it bears noting that recent waves of immigration have begun to create problems of social division there as well. See, e.g., The Muslims of France, 75 Foreign Affairs 78 (1996) (describing increased religious strife in France, as exemplified by expulsion of teenage girls from school for wearing traditional Muslim scarves); Ahmed, Extreme Prejudice; Muslims in Britain, The Times of London, May 2, 1992, p. 10 (describing religious strife in connection with increased Muslim immigration in Great Britain).
Not very convincing -- Breyer does nothing to show that the level of religious strife in Britain and France has anything to do with the nature of school funding.

Perhaps more significantly, Breyer doesn't even nod at the evidence from Belgium. Belgium used to experience strife over its public schools -- whenever the balance of power shifted in Belgium, conflicts would arise because the authorities now wanted to make the schools more or less Catholic. Belgium finally arrived at the so-called "Schulpakt" -- or "school peace" -- in 1959. Since then, all students have been given what are essentially vouchers to use at any school. The state itself does establish schools where needed, but the funding still flows with the student (as I understand it, from a Belgian friend).

Again, the Belgians call this arrangement "school peace." The notion is that there will be less strife -- not more -- when students and parents are free to select into groups of similar peers if they desire, rather than being forced into a single "public" school where many people are trying to force their own preferences onto everyone else.

Teacher Certification Requirements -- Racist?

Matthew Ladner points out that teacher certification requirements make almost no difference in teacher performance -- about half of uncertified teachers improve their students' learning, and about half of certified teachers have students who get worse. Ladner then points to an Education Next piece arguing that on a nationwide basis, states that allow alternative certification are more likely to allow minorities into the teacher workforce.

To which I'd add: Dan Goldhaber (one of the nation's most prominent researchers on teacher qualifications) and Michael Hansen have a recent article making the same point in a more rigorous manner. To quote the abstract:
[U]sing a dataset of public school teachers and their students in North Carolina spanning ten years, we find both black teachers and male teachers have substantively lower performance on these licensure tests but have few differences in classroom performance. . . . This analysis suggests that black students, in particular, benefit from having a black teacher. These positive mentoring effects are benefits that may be lost if the state were to pursue policies that strictly enforce licensure cutoffs.
And to quote from the article itself:
[W]hen teaching black students, black teachers in the lower end of the teacher test distribution are estimated to perform at approximately the same level as white teachers at the upper end of the distribution. High-performing black teachers are estimated to perform higher still, though this difference (among black teachers) is insignificant. . . .

In summary, we find evidence suggesting the uniform application of licensure standards for all teachers is likely to have differential impacts on the achievement of white and minority students. Specifically, we see that the lowest performers among black teachers enjoy the greatest mentoring effects when teaching black students; and, these mentoring effects to black students are comparable to having the highest-performing white teachers in the classroom. Removing the lowest of performers on the exam would necessarily remove some of the more-effective teachers for this segment of the student population.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Yglesias on Reading

I've often thought of Matthew Yglesias as an intelligent and occasionally wonkish blogger, which is why I can't quite figure out why he recently wrote that he's "so accustomed to the idea of lying about one’s reading habits" that he assumes 100% of people do it, and then adds, for good measure, that "college (at least as we did it at Harvard) largely consists of lessons on how to pretend to have read various books." Just as I once said of Ezra Klein, the amazing thing here is that, even having worked at The Atlantic and at a DC think tank, Yglesias evidently doesn't have a set of friends or colleagues such that he would find it embarrassing to publish such sentiments.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bogus Stats

I've often heard the claim that people will remember less of what they merely read or hear, but much more of what they "do" in some sort of hands-on activity. I just found a lengthy post from 2006 where Will Thalheimer (a researcher and blogger) completely demolishes that myth.

Harvard Law Alumni Bulletin on Obama

I got my Harvard Law Alumni Bulletin in the mail yesterday, and the cover story is a breathless description of all the really important facts about Obama, such as his Stellar Career at Harvard Law School, the Professors Who Presciently Identified Obama's Importance and Have Raised Funds for His Campaign, the Amazing Renewal of Long-Expired Friendships as Former Classmates Try to Ingratiate Themselves With Obama or Anyone Close to Him, etc., etc., etc. It's no surprise that Harvard Law is giddy with excitement: it has had to endure the raw indignity of 12 years of rule by graduates of Yale, and then -- perhaps even worse -- 8 years of rule by a graduate of the Business School (I shudder even to contemplate the wracking horror of having a President who merely attended Eureka College). Time at last for vindication.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Airlines and the Framing Effect

I'm puzzled by the fact that airlines have started charging extra fees for baggage. Haven't they heard of the framing effect? They should charge everyone the price for carrying three bags, and then give a "discount" if you check any fewer bags. As Tversky and Kahneman write:
Thaler (1980) drew attention to the effect of labeling a difference between two prices as a surcharge or a discount. It is easier to forgo a discount than to accept a surcharge because the same price difference is valued as a gain in the former case and as a loss in the latter. Indeed, the credit-card lobby is said to insist that any price difference between cash and card purchases should be labeled a cash discount rather than a credit surcharge.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Education Posts

Jay Greene is on a roll, with this post spoofing the auto bailout and "No Child Left Behind" simultaneously, and this post critiquing the judicial system's handling of education cases (while raising broader questions about the role of judicial review).


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Interesting Research

Tyler Cowen is unimpressed with this scholarly article:
There is inadequate understanding about why people might not own pets. This qualitative study asked eight elderly women and men to discuss why they do not have a pet, whether pets were deemed beneficial to health, and whether they had plans for future pet ownership. Reasons for not owning a pet were Emotional or Pragmatic; Pragmatic reasons were categorized as relating to Convenience, Negative aspects of companion animals and Competing demands on time or energy. Participants expressed mixed feelings in their plans for future pet ownership. Clinical and research implications of these findings are discussed.
I'll match Cowen with this one, purporting to analyze the practice of high-stakes testing in schools:
This study examined elementary students' perceptions of high-stakes testing through the use of drawings and writings. On the day after students completed their high-stakes tests in the spring, 225 students were asked to "draw a picture about your recent testing experience." The same students then responded in writing to the prompt "tell me about your picture. " . . . The researchers examine the prevailing negativity in students' responses and suggest ways to decrease students' overall test anxiety, including making changes in the overall testing culture and changing the role teachers play in test preparation.
The article doesn't even mention a control group -- i.e., 225 students asked to draw pictures about how they felt a non-high-stakes test.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Quick Links

1. Another example of my theory that there's nothing so bizarre that there's not a group of people dedicated to doing it: The winners of a Science Dance contest.

2. Tom Smith has a typically funny take on grandiose plans to restructure the American economy.