Monthly Archives: December 2012

On the other hand, up yours, AT&T

I know I recently praised the pricing of AT&T’s family plan, and I stand by that.

However, when I actually signed up for the plan, I received a long and somewhat complicated .pdf document detailing my new phone contract; after staring at this for a while I understood that it was indicating a a much higher price.  Twenty minutes of online customer support chat alter, I was able to figure out that, rather than renewing my plan as I’d asked for, AT&T had upped me to a plan with more minutes that cost $30 more a month.

I also use AT&T for my home phone and internet service.  (I used to use them for cable TV, too, before I dropped cable for Netflix like all right-thinking people!)  Same story when I signed up for that:  the promised bundle discount wasn’t on my first bill, but after a long conversation with customer support they fixed it.  Until the second bill, when the discount had disappeared again, requiring another long conversation with customer support.  That time it finally stuck.

It’s depressing that from a pure profit standpoint this is probably pretty good business practice: overcharge everyone, and count on the fact that lots of people don’t have the time or cultural capital to both recognize the overcharge and successfully reverse it.

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Let us now praise American Airlines

Did you ever wonder what would happen if your son left the carry-on suitcase he was pulling at the bottom of the jetway before getting on the plane, because that’s what we always do in Madison, but there wasn’t actually a gate-check tag on it?

It turns out that, at least if you do this in Tucson on American, and if you have a luggage tag with your name on it, they’ll cross-reference the name against their passenger record and correctly check the bag through to your final destination.





Guest post: Stephanie Tai on deference to experts

My colleague Steph Tai at the law school wrote a long, amazing Facebook message to me about the question Cathy and I have been pawing at:  when and in what spirit should we be listening to experts?  It was too good to be limited to Facebook, so, with her permission, I’m reprinting it below.

Steph deals with these issues because her academic specialty is the legal status of scientific knowledge and scientific evidence.  So yes:  in a discussion on whether we should listen to experts I am asking you to listen to the opinions of an expert on expertise.

Also, Steph very modestly doesn’t link to her own paper on this stuff until the very bottom of this post.  I know you guys don’t always read to the bottom, so I’ve got your link to “Comparing Approaches Toward Governing Scientific Advisory Bodies on Food Safety in the United States and the European Union” right here!

And now, Steph:


Some quick thoughts on this very interesting exchange. What might be helpful, to take everyone out of our own political contexts, perhaps, is to contrast this discussion you’re both having regarding experts and financial models with discussions about experts and climate models, where, it seems, the political dynamics are fairly opposite. There, you have people on the far right making similar claims to Cathy: that climate scientists are to be distrusted because they’re just coming up with scare models because these allegedly biased models are useful to those climate scientists–i.e., to bring money to left-wing causes, to generate grants for more research, etc.


So when you apply the claim that Cathy makes at the end of her post–“If you see someone using a model to make predictions that directly benefit them or lose them money – like a day trader, or a chess player, or someone who literally places a bet on an outcome (unless they place another hidden bet on the opposite outcome) – then you can be sure they are optimizing their model for accuracy as best they can. . . . But if you are witnessing someone creating a model which predicts outcomes that are irrelevant to their immediate bottom-line, then you might want to look into the model yourself.”–I’m not sure you can totally put climate scientists in that former category (of those that directly benefit from the accuracy of their predictions). This is due to the nature of most climate work: most researchers in the area only contribute to one tiny part of the models, rather than produce the entire model themselves (thus, the incentives to avoid inaccuracies are diffuse rather than direct); the “test time” for the models are often relatively far into the future (again, making the incentives more indirect); and the sorts of diffuse reputational gains that an individual climate scientist gets from being part of a team that might partly contribute to an accurate climate model is far less direct than the examples given of day traders and chess players or “someone who literally places a bet on an outcome.”


What that in turn seems to mean is that under Cathy’s approach, climate scientists would be viewed as in the latter category—those creating models that “predict outcomes that are irrelevant to their immediate bottom-line,” and thus deserve people looking “into the model [themselves].” But at least from what I’ve seen, there is *so* much out there in terms of inaccurate and misleading information about climate models (by folks with stakes in the *perception* of those models) that chances are, a lay person’s inquiry into climate models has high chance to being shaped by similar forces with which Cathy is (in my view appropriately) concerned. Which in turn makes me concerned about applying this approach.
Disclaimer: I used to fall under this larger umbrella of climate scientists, though I didn’t work on the climate models themselves, just one small input to them—the global warming potentials of chlorofluorocarbon substitutes. So this contrast is not entirely unemotional for me. That said, now that I’m an academic who studies the *use* of science in legal decisionmaking (and no longer really an academic who studies the impact of chlorofluorocarbon substitutes on climate), I don’t want to be driven by these past personal ties, but they’re still there, so I feel like I should lay them out.


So what’s to be done? I absolutely agree with Cathy’s statement that “when independent people like myself step up to denounce a given statement or theory, it’s not clear to the public who is the expert and who isn’t.” It would seem, from what she says at the end of her essay, that her answer to this “expertise ambiguity” is to get people to look into the model when expertise is unclear.[*] But that in turn raises a whole bunch of questions:


(1) What does it take to “look into the model yourself”? That is, how much understanding does it take? Some sociologists of science suggest that translational “experts”–that is, “experts” who aren’t necessarily producing new information and research, but instead are “expert” enough to communicate stuff to those not trained in the area–can help bridge this divide without requiring everyone to become “experts” themselves. But that can also raise the question of whether these translational experts have hidden agendas in some way. Moreover, one can also raise questions of whether a partial understanding of the model might in some instances be more misleading than not looking into the model at all–examples of that could be the various challenges to evolution based on fairly minor examples that when fully contextualized seem minor but may pop out to someone who is doing a less systematic inquiry.


(2) How does a layperson avoid, in attempting to understand the underlying model, the same manipulations by those with financial stakes in the matter–the same stakes that Cathy recognizes might shape the model itself? Because that happens as well, so that even if one were to try to look into a model themselves, the educational materials it would take to look into that model can be also argued to be developed by those with stakes in the matter. (I think Cathy sort of raises this in a subsequent post about how entire subfields can be regarded as “captured” by particular interests.)


(3) (and to me this is one of the most important questions) Given the high degree of training it takes to understand any of these individual areas of expertise, and given that we encounter so many areas in which this sort of deeper understanding is needed to resolve policy questions, how can any individual actually apply that initial exhortation–to look into the model yourself–in every instance where expertise ambiguity is raised? To me that’s one of the most compelling arguments in favor of deferring to experts to some extent–that lay people (as citizens, as judges, as whatever) simply don’t have time to do the kind of thing that Cathy suggests in every situation where she argues it’s called for. Expert reliance isn’t perfect, sure–but it’s a potentially pragmatic response to an imperfect world with limited time and resources.


Do my thoughts on (3) mean that I think we should blindly defer to experts? Absolutely not. I’m just pointing it out as something that weighs in favor of listening to experts a little more. But that also doesn’t mean that the concerns Cathy raises are unwarranted. My friend Wendy Wagner writes about this in her papers on the production of FDA reports and toxic materials testing, and I find her inquiries quite compelling. P.s. I should also plug a work of hers that seems especially relevant to this conversation. It suggests that the part of Nate Silver’s book that might raise the most concerns (I dunno, because I haven’t read it) is its potential contribution to the vision of models as “truth machines,” rather than understanding that models are just one tool to aid in making decisions, and a tool which must be contextualized (for bias, for meaningfulness, for uncertainty) at that.


So how to address this balance between skepticism and lack of time to do full inquiries into everything? I totally don’t have the answers, though the kind of stuff I explore are procedural ways to address these issues, at least when legal decisions are raised–for example,
* public participation processes (with questions as to both the timing and scope of those processes, the ability and likelihood that these processes are even used, the accessibility of these processes, the susceptibility of “abuse,” the weight of those processes in ultimate decisionmaking)
* scientific ombudsman mechanisms (which questions of how ombudsman are to be selected, the resources they can use to work with citizen groups, the training of such ombudsmen)
* the formation of independent advisory committees (with questions of the selection of committee members, conflict of interest provisions, the authority accorded to such committees)
* legal case law requiring certain decisionmaking heuristics in the face of scientific uncertainty to avoid too much susceptibility to data manipulation (with questions of the incentives those heuristics create for actual potential funders of scientific research, the ability of judges to apply such heuristics in a consistent manner)
–as well as legal requirements that exacerbate these problems. Anyway, thanks for an interesting back and forth!


[*] I’m not getting into the question of “what makes someone an expert?” here, and instead focus on “how do we make decisions given the ambiguousness of who should be considered experts?” because that’s more relevant to what I study, although I should also point out that philosophers and sociologists of science have been studying this in what’s starting to be called the “third wave” of science, technology, and society studies. There’s a lot of debate about this, and I have a teensy summary of it here (since Jordan says it’s okay for me to plug myself :) (Note: the EFSA advisory committee structure, if anyone cares, has changed since I published this article so that the article characterizations are no longer accurate.)




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Harvard Class of 1906, P-S

More from the 25th anniverary report.

Sad people sounded then much as they sound now.  Howard Frank Shurtleff:

“As I try to put down something vivid and revealing about my last twenty-five years, the conviction grows that the promise I gave at graduation has not been realized.  Five years of teaching in Wisconsin and Connecticut ended with my return to the locality where I was born, chiefly because it was necessary for me to be in the open, and my taking up the work of tobacco growing.  The thing has not prospered, seems destined in fact not to prosper, as we produce mostly binders for cigars, and cigarettes are now rapidly replacing cigars.  I have been writing all these years, but I have printed but little.  My friends ask me what I am waiting for.  I don’t know.  I suppose I must remain to the end a puzzle to myself and to my friends, and consider myself lucky if there are any who really wish to call themselves my friends.”

Theron Finlay Pierce died in 1930, just before the book was compiled.  The editors wrote:

“Business was a secondary consideration in his life.  His nature was affectionate and whimsical, and his real interests social and intellectual.  He was particularly fond of travel.  After leaving college he went around the world with his brother and classmate, Roy, and later made frequent trips abroad.  During the last six or seven years of his life he became deeply absorbed in psychic research.  In 1927 he retired from active business for the purpose of devoting his entire time to this subject.

From 1927 to 1929 he lived at Prides Crossing, Mass., and there entertained many of the leaders in the psychic field.  He became greatly interested in the phenomenon of the Margery mediumship.  In 1929 he visited England and succeeded in arranging the test sittings for this medium which took place that fall under the observation of the British Society for Psychical Research.  During his trip he had the pleasure of being entertained by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other distinguished members of the London Society.”

Pierce had the opportunity to retire from active business because his father was the oil baron Henry Clay Pierce, who famously battled antitrust laws as a member of the Standard Oil cartel.  As for Mina Crandon, the Margery medium, she was a sensation so widely believed in that Houdini himself made it a special mission to debunk her psychic claims.  Houdini went so far as to accuse Crandon’s husband, a surgeon, of altering Crandon’s body to afford her hiding places on her person for the “ectoplasm” she produced in her seances.

Once again, I find myself wondering — where’s the historical costume drama about this story?  Dissipated oil heir, controversial psychic (who often worked nude), Arthur Conan Doyle, Houdini

Anyway, here’s Otto Henry Seiffert:

“Cooking is also my accomplishment.  I have never issued any publications but if I do, it will be a cook book, which I confidently expect will be translated into all the foreign languages, including Hindustani.  I have laid down the violin forever in favor of the saucepan, which I find in my own particular circle of low-brow acquaintances is much the more popular instrument.  I never lack for an audience and am generous about encores.  I can build up an architectural sauce that makes flounder or whitefish better than the choicest sole a chef ever dreamed of.  They say my Princeton orange cake is a song without words, and my scallops smothered in spaghetti an impromptu that should bring me a niche three feet wide in the Hall of Fame.

I can also mix a cocktail.”

Who knew Smoove B was alive in 1931?


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Save a lot of day

Listening to AB talk you learn a lot about the development of syntax.  The other day CJ found her mitten strap, which had gotten wedged into a crevasse in her carseat.  “CJ saved the day!” I said.  AB, who likes to repeat things, said

“CJ saved a lot of day!”

So she knows that “a lot of” is a sort of intensifier but is still learning when and where it can be inserted.


Homological Stability for Hurwitz spaces and the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture over function fields, II

Akshay Venkatesh, Craig Westerland, and I, recently posted a new paper, “Homological Stability for Hurwitz spaces and the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture over function fields, II.” The paper is a sequel to our 2009 paper of the same title, except for the “II.”  It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time, and after giving a lot of talks about this material it’s very pleasant to be able to show it to people at last!

The main theorem of the new paper is that a version of the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture over F_q(t) is true.  (See my blog entry about the earlier paper for a short description of Cohen-Lenstra.)

For instance, one can ask: what is the average size of the 5-torsion subgoup of a hyperelliptic curve over F_q? That is, what is the value of

\lim_{n \rightarrow \infty} \frac{\sum_C |J(C)[5](\mathbf{F}_q)|}{\sum_C 1}

where C ranges over hyperelliptic curves of the form y^2 = f(x), f squarefree of degree n?

We show that, for q large enough and not congruent to 1 mod 5, this limit exists and is equal to 2, exactly as Cohen and Lenstra predict. Our previous paper proved that the lim sup and lim inf existed, but didn’t pin down what they were.

In fact, the Cohen-Lenstra conjectures predict more than just the average size of the group J(C)[5](\mathbf{F}_q) as n gets large; they propose a the isomorphism class of the group settles into a limiting distribution, and they say what this distribution is supposed to be! Another way to say this is that the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture predicts that, for each abelian p-group A, the average number of surjections from J(C)(\mathbf{F}_q) to A approaches 1. There are, in a sense, the “moments” of the Cohen-Lenstra distribution on isomorphism classes of finite abelian p-groups.

We prove that this, too, is the case for sufficiently large q not congruent to 1 mod p — but, it must be conceded, the value of “sufficiently large” depends on A. So there is still no q for which all the moments are known to agree with the Cohen-Lenstra predictions. That’s why I call what we prove a “version” of the Cohen-Lenstra conjectures. If you think of the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture as being about moments, we’re almost there — but if you think of it as being about probability distributions, we haven’t started!

Naturally, we prefer the former point of view.

This paper ended up being a little long, so I think I’ll make several blog posts about what’s in there, maybe not all in a row.

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Distrusters of experts all around

The Wall Street Journal op-ed page is always good for a full-throated demand that we distrust the experts:

The general public is not privy to the IPCC debate. But I have been speaking to somebody who understands the issues: Nic Lewis. A semiretired successful financier from Bath, England, with a strong mathematics and physics background, Mr. Lewis has made significant contributions to the subject of climate change.

…Will the lead authors of the relevant chapter of the forthcoming IPCC scientific report acknowledge that the best observational evidence no longer supports the IPCC’s existing 2°-4.5°C “likely” range for climate sensitivity? Unfortunately, this seems unlikely—given the organization’s record of replacing evidence-based policy-making with policy-based evidence-making, as well as the reluctance of academic scientists to accept that what they have been maintaining for many years is wrong.

Domain knowledge, phooey — this dude is successful!

“Distrust the experts,” as a principle, does as much harm as good.  A better principle would be “Distrust people who are bad and trust people who are not bad.”  Of course, it can be hard to tell the difference — but that distinction is one we have to make anyway, in all kinds of contexts, so why not this one?


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In defense of Nate Silver and experts

Cathy goes off on Nate Silver today, calling naive his account of well-meaning people saying false things because they’ve made math mistakes.  In Cathy’s view, people say false things because they’re not well-meaning and are trying to screw you — or, sometimes, because they’re well-meaning but their incentives are pointed at something other than accuracy.  Read the whole thing, it’s more complicated than this paraphrase suggests.

Cathy, a fan of and participant in mass movements, takes special exception to Silver saying:

This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field. But we’re not at that stage yet.

Cathy’s take:

…I have less faith in the experts than Nate Silver: I don’t want to trust the very people who got us into this mess, while benefitting from it, to also be in charge of cleaning it up. And, being part of the Occupy movement, I obviously think that this is the time for mass movements.

From my experience working first in finance at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis and afterwards at the risk firm Riskmetrics, and my subsequent experience working in the internet advertising space (a wild west of unregulated personal information warehousing and sales) my conclusion is simple: Distrust the experts.

I think Cathy’s distrust is warranted, but I think Silver shares it.  The central concern of his chapter on weather prediction is the vast difference in accuracy between federal hurricane forecasters, whose only job is to get the hurricane track right, and TV meteorologists, whose very different incentive structure leads them to get the weather wrong on purpose.  He’s just as hard on political pundits and their terrible, terrible predictions, which are designed to be interesting, not correct.

Cathy wishes Silver would put more weight on this stuff, and she may be right, but it’s not fair to paint him as a naif who doesn’t know there’s more to life than math.  (For my full take on Silver’s book, see my review in the Globe.)

As for experts:  I think in many or even most cases deferring to people with extensive domain knowledge is a pretty good default.  Maybe this comes from seeing so many preprints by mathematicians, physicists, and economists flushed with confidence that they can do biology, sociology, and literary study (!) better than the biologists, sociologists, or scholars of literature.  Domain knowledge matters.  Marilyn vos Savant’s opinion about Wiles’s proof of Fermat doesn’t matter.

But what do you do with cases like finance, where the only people with deep domain knowledge are the ones whose incentive structure is socially suboptimal?  (Cathy would use saltier language here.)  I guess you have to count on mavericks like Cathy, who’ve developed the domain knowledge by working in the financial industry, but who are now separated from the incentives that bind the insiders.

But why do I trust what Cathy says about finance?

Because she’s an expert.

Is Cathy OK with this?

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Baseball’s triumph in Japan

I always thought the popularity of baseball in Japan was a post-WWII thing, but no — “Baseball’s Triumph in Japan,” part of the LA84 Foundation’s collection of digitized back issues of Baseball Magazine, tells me that Japanese baseball is much older.  According to this 1918 article, baseball teams in Japan were made up of sumo wrestlers who wanted to keep up with Western trends in sport!  If you want to see a bunch of sumo wrestlers in baseball uniforms, click through — there’s a photo.  It looks about as you’d expect.

The wrestler-baseball teams in Japan would look pretty crude, I suppose, to an American audience. Perhaps it will take the wrestler two or three generations to develop teams of skilled ball players who will be able to compete on an equality with crack American nines. But, after all, the beginning is the main thing. The Japanese have begun to take baseball seriously. They play it everywhere and with increasing interest and enthusiasm. Who can say that in some future decade the champion baseball club of the world can justly claim that honor without a trial of strength with the crack nine of Nagasaki or Tokio?

In case you were wondering how I happened to be looking at old numbers of Baseball Magazine, it’s because one of the founders was a member of the Harvard class of 1906.  More Harvard ’06 blogging upcoming — there’s some crazy stuff in this book.

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Beef Rendang

Mostly so I don’t forget:  this beef rendang recipe was sensational.  I tweaked it a lot — no chilis because my wife and kids don’t eat spicy, no fennel seeds because I have no fennel seeds, and I cooked it in the crockpot, which made the texture more like a rich beef stew than classical rendang.  But it tasted great and both children were into it, so into the rotation it goes.

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