Monday, August 5, 2013

The importance of reading and writing carefully

Two interesting recent blog posts underscore the importance of both reading and writing very carefully when grappling with an argument.

First, AidData's blog The First Tranche (disclaimer -- I'm associated with AidData, though I am not directly involved with the blog) posts a valuable overview of Chinese aid and influence in Zimbabwe, by Amber Will. The post on the whole is very good and well worth reading.

However, there is one key sentence that is problematic: "AidData uncovered $3.82 billion in official Chinese finance to Zimbabwe, accounting for 4.9% of all official Chinese financing to Africa." The issue here is that the second part of the sentence needs the same qualifier as the first: "AidData uncovered". After all, we don't know the total amount of all Chinese financing to Africa -- all we know is the total amount found by AidData's media-combing/crowd-sourcing approach.

Indeed, even the qualifier "AidData uncovered" is less than ideal: strictly speaking it should be "AidData uncovered references to" aid -- whether those references are accurate is unknown. I suspect that both the $3.82bn figure and the 4.9% estimate for the portion of total aid are, if anything, under-estimates. Still, we really don't know enough to be as confident of either as the post suggests.

In a second example, the Duck of Minerva blog recently featured a debate about what caused the Iraq War (here and here), inspired by an article in the current issue of International Organization by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro. Again, the blog posts are well worth reading, but Debs and Monteiro's argument is weakened by the following statement introducing it: "we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework."

I have not yet read the original article in IO, but this is a very lame claim: it is trivially true that the US-led invasion can be accounted for within a rationalist framework -- all you need is to specify appropriate preferences and information. The claim becomes interesting only if you can show that key actors held those preferences and had that information, and that other models fall short.

The invasion can also be accounted for by a divine inspiration framework: all we need to do is posit that Bush believed God talked to him directly and told him to invade Iraq. In the absence of additional data showing what Bush believed, that claim is just as credible as the claim Debs and Monteiro make: constructing a model is only a first step, and not a particularly challenging one at that (in this particular example).

In the remainder of their post, Debs and Monteiro do in fact provide some data to move their argument beyond simply positing a particular model. This suggests that they simply do a poor job of summarizing their main claim at the start (although some critics may not be convinced by the data they supply).

Be that as it may, both of the examples given here underscore the importance of writing (and reading) carefully.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The emptiness of sales language

I spend a lot of time in my research reading what politicians have to say about one issue or another. There are often reasons to doubt that they are being entirely (or even at all) sincere. But generally they are at least saying something.

I just heard an ad on the radio for some medicine (I don't even remember what kind of medicine), which included, near the end, a statement along the following lines: "People who have been addicted to alcohol or other drugs may be more likely to become addicted to this product." Note the "may" — in effect, this sentence says absolutely nothing. Presumably it satisfies some legal requirement somewhere, but I can't imagine what.

I have a similar gripe with the very common sale announcements along the lines of "you could save up to 15% or more" — again, what information is being conveyed here? Taken literally, the statement is beyond meaningless: you could replace the "could" with "will" and it would still be true. I suppose the goal is to convey a particular focal point (15%) to listeners, but wouldn't there be better (less meaningless) ways to say this?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Terrorism, safety, and statistics

Just a juxtaposition of a few items:

A cartoon: "This is why people should learn statistics"

Joe Nocera's "Gun Report", a blog with daily examples of gun deaths.

John Mueller and Mark Stewart's "The terrorism delusion: America's overwrought response to September 11", published last year in International Security.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Transparency in Central Banking (and in the sky :-)

Last week I was at the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. I participated in a panel on the euro crisis, at which Matthias Kaelberer (Univ. of Memphis) presented a thought-provoking paper (available on the ISA conference website) arguing, inter alia, that the transparency of the ECB has made a valuable contribution to its political legitimacy (and that of the euro).

Some audience members disagreed, arguing instead that transparency was bad for legitimacy (national central banks have traditionally not been very transparent and yet quite legitimate; the appearance of indecision or disagreement within the bank will not increase people's faith in the institution) and for economic outcomes (probably because transparency makes it harder for banks to make unexpected moves and thus to affect the expectations of economic actors).

By coincidence, I read an interview today, on Bloomberg Businessweek's website, with the Dutch economist Petra Geraats, based in Cambridge. The interview (by Simon Kennedy) highlights her work on the economic benefits of central bank transparency. Her research indicates quite strongly that transparency is actually good for economic outcomes. Towards the end of the interview, the article provides some nice examples of how central banks are increasing their transparency. Interesting stuff.

Speaking of transparency: apparently Geraats is interested in astronomy, but the skies over Cambridge are insufficiently transparent (too cloudy), so her telescope remains "at her father’s home in the Dutch province of Lindbergh." From this, we can conclude two things:
1. The interview was by phone, and
2. the interviewer has no idea what provinces there are in the Netherlands
    (Geraats, must, of course, have said Limburg)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Where do they find these people?

Alaskan Congressman Don Young (Republican), in an interview with Ketchikan (AK) radio station KBRD:

Young also believes that Americans need to bring industry back to this country rather than relying on imports. Doing so would increase jobs, although he understands that automation has reduced the number of labor positions available.
“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

Two questions:
- How does someone holding national political office in the twentyfirst century not know to avoid
  such an offensive slur?
- How can the radio station report this section of the interview without comment? Surely someone
  there knew that this was offensive?

The mind boggles.

Update: It appears the House Republican leadership has forced Young to apologize. He now states he "meant no disrespect". Assuming for the moment that is true, doesn't that simply underscore just how clueless this guy is?