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TEDx Meta

The New Yorker's Nathan Heller looks at five of the most popular TED Talks of all time and uses them to explain why, exactly, this series of public lectures is so much more popular than all other public lecture series.

Test, Learn, Adapt: using randomized trials to improve government policy

"Test, Learn, Adapt" is a new white paper documenting the ultimate in evidence-based-policy: government policies that are improved through randomized trials. It's co-authored by Laura Haynes, Owain Service, Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson. Ben Goldacre elaborates:

We also address – and demolish – the spurious objections that people often raise against doing trials of policy (like: “surely it’s unfair to withold a new intervention from half the people in your trial?”).

Trials are widely used in medicine, in business, in international development, and even in web design. The barriers to using them in UK policy are more cultural than practical, and this document will, I hope, be a small part of a bigger battle to get better evidence into government.

More than that, the paper describes several fun examples of trials that have been conducted in UK government over just the past year, reporting both positive and negative findings. The tide is turning, and there are lots of smart people in the civil service.

Anyway, I think (I hope!) that the paper is readable and straightforward, like the Ladybird Book of Randomised Policy Trials, and I really hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

It’s free to download here.

Here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-authored about Randomised Trials of Government Policies

Meritocracies become oligarchies

In The Nation, Christopher Hayes has a brilliant article on the way that "meritocracy" inevitably turns into oligarchy, and what that means for our society today. Hayes's account of the transition from meritocracy to oligarchy isn't just about self-delusion ("I am on top, and I am superior, therefore we live in a meritocracy") but also about the way that those who move to the top cement their position by changing the rules. He relates this to the end of economic mobility in the US, the concomitant concentration of wealth, and the way that these factors were a harbinger of collapse in other societies.

In order for it to live up to its ideals, a meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the challenge of matching the hardest-working and most talented to the most difficult, important and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous, competitive selection process that ensures performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot simply be made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures. When a slugger loses his swing, he should be benched; when a trader loses money, his bonus should be cut. At the broader social level, we hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hard-working are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.”

Hayes goes on to interview various Wall Street titans and hedge fund managers, and gets their own account of how they feel that they are innately superior -- the smartest guys in the room -- and how great it is that the nation takes its cues from them.

Why Elites Fail

Of hermit crabs and home sales

In 2005, my husband I bought a house in Birmingham, Alabama. I was working for mental_floss and we thought we'd live there for a few years.

Read the rest

Do not freak out about the white babies

Shutterstock


In a new Ill Doctrine video, Jay Smooth advises white Americans on "this baby thing"—the recent news that white births are now a minority in the US. Black, Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race births made up 50.4% of new arrivals in the year ending in July 2011. Watch the video at Animal New York, and follow Jay on Twitter.

New evidence suggests people aren't nearly as dickish on the Internet as you might think

A new study, published in the journal Nature, provides evidence that the way people communicate with each other doesn't change very much between offline and different kinds of online situations, including chat rooms—even if the people are chatting anonymously. The catch: This only holds true in places where the same people are coming back to chat over and over. (Via Colin Schultz)

This just in: Internet not actually full of sad, lonely rejects

Personally, I'm about to sprain something from rolling my eyes so hard at all the hand-wringing news stories about how the Internet is disconnecting us from other people and making us more lonely. So it's gratifying to read this piece in the Boston Review that points two key problems with that thesis (besides being fracking obnoxious): First, the evidence doesn't support it; second, humans have apparently been worrying about increasing levels of loneliness since the 1700s.

Hierarchical lists of Chinese snob-appeal in products, services and technology


ChinaSmack has published a translation of "Hierarchies of Snobbery and Contempt by Chinese Netizens" from Southern Metropolis Daily‘s City Weekly which describe "the multi-layered prejudices amongst Chinese when it comes to how the products, brands, sports, media, academic disciplines, music, movies, fashion, etc." It's a fascinating look at the valence and subtext of the familiar in an unfamiliar context.

Video Games: console games > foreign PC games > foreign online games > domestic online games > browser games/QQ games

World of Warcraft: Mage > DK (Dark Knight) > Hunter > Rogue > Warlock > Priest > Soldier > Druid > Paladin > Shaman

Kaixin.com Games: Happy City > Happy Garden > Happy Farm > Happy Restaurant > Happy Life

Hierarchies of Snobbery and Contempt by Chinese Netizens (via Waxy)

Sex is Fun podcast: How sexism affects your sex life

I've been doing periodic appearances on Sex is Fun, a sex-positive podcast aimed at providing fun, informative sex ed. for grown-ups. Last time I was on the show, we talked about some funny animal sex studies and what they can and can't teach you about human sexual behavior. This time around, we talked about a couple of recent studies focusing on sociology and sex.

In particular, we focused on a study from last fall that surveyed students at the University of Kansas to find out how men's and women's internalized sexism affect their relationships with each other. If you've ever watched one of those shows about so-called "pick up artists" and wondered, "Who the hell are the women falling for this crap!?", then this is the show to listen to.

Check out the podcast at the Sex is Fun site!

Image: IMG_9459, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jon_knox's photostream.

Parents' snooping teaches kids to share their passwords with each other


Matt Richtel's recent NYT article on teenagers who share their Facebook passwords as a show of affection has raised alarms with parents and educators who worry about the potential for bullying and abuse.

But as danah boyd points out the practice of password-sharing didn't start with kids: it started with parents, who required their kids to share their passwords with them. Young kids have to share their passwords because they lose them, and older kids are made to share their passwords because their parents want to snoop on them. Basically, you can't tell kids that they must never, ever share their passwords and require them to share their passwords.

There are different ways that parents address the password issue, but they almost always build on the narrative of trust. (Tangent: My favorite strategy is when parents ask children to put passwords into a piggy bank that must be broken for the paper with the password to be retrieved. Such parents often explain that they don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so “in case of emergency.” A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form.)

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

There’s another thread here that’s important. Think back to the days in which you had a locker. If you were anything like me and my friends, you gave out your locker combination to your friends and significant others. There were varied reasons for doing so. You wanted your friends to pick up a book for you when you left early because you were sick. You were involved in a club or team where locker decorating was common. You were hoping that your significant other would leave something special for you.

How Parents Normalized Teen Password Sharing

(Image: Swordfish, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from ideonexus's photostream)

Unpacking the invisible knapsack

Seven years ago, I read an article that completely changed the way I thought about what racism is, and the privileges I experience as an upper-middle class white person. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I'd like to share that article here.

I didn't know it at the time, but Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is kind of a classic of anti-racist thought. The basic idea goes something like this: Racism does not begin and end with Jim Crow and the Klan. It's not just about obvious exclusion and oppression. Fighting racism isn't just about overturning blatantly discriminatory laws or cracking down on hate crimes. Racism, unfortunately, can be a lot more subtle than that.

Racism is also about whole social systems that confer privileges on some people, and deny those privileges to others. What's more, if you're one of the privileged people, the privileges you receive—simply for looking the way you do—are often completely invisible to you. So invisible, in fact, that you don't even think of those things as privileges, and you don't notice how they've made your life easier and better. So, when people who don't have access to those privileges don't live as easily and well as you, it's easy to blame that on some inherent moral or intellectual failing, rather than on the system that denied them privileges you've received since birth.

In the United States, there are many privileges that I get, simply for being white, that are denied to people with different skin tones. That's racism. And this system leads otherwise kind and decent people to act and think in racist ways, without even realizing that's what they're doing. Acknowledging this privilege—realizing that subtle racism exists and that you benefit from it—is the first step privileged people need to take if they want to be effective allies of the un-privileged. Here's what McIntosh says:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. ... As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions:

• I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
• I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
• When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
• Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
• I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
• I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

There is more where that came from, just read the whole piece. And yes, this idea does apply to other problems besides just racism. And yes, people who are privileged in some respects can be un-privileged in others, and vice versa. But acknowledging where you are privileged is important. Whether you're fighting racism, classicism, sexism, or any -ism.

2011's biggest scandals in science

The Scientist magazine has put out their list of the top science scandals of 2011. I'm not normally a huge fan of overblown scandal recaps, but this particular one is interesting, I think, because it gives laypeople a peek into some major stories that many non-scientists probably haven't heard much about.

For instance, number one on their list is the strange case of Diederik Stapel, former head of the Institute for Behavioral Economics Research in the Netherlands. Stapel did social psychology research, publishing media-bait studies that were contrarian and inflammatory to some, and highly supportive of other people's deeply held beliefs about the world. For instance, back in August, Stapel and a colleague put out a press release about some not-yet-published data suggesting that people who eat meat are selfish and anti-social.

Then, in August, Stapel's career began to unravel. Accused of plagiarism and fabricating data, he was fired and, one by one, papers of his are being retracted by the journals that published them. A preliminary report by his former employers found that 30 of his research papers were based on faked data. A deeper report, which will review everything Stapel has ever written—130 papers and 24 book chapters—is ongoing.

Image: anyone local fit this description?, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from streamishmc's photostream

The fine art of the scathing insult

One of the things I enjoy about writing for BoingBoing is the opportunity it's giving me to learn how to write reviews of books. That's not something I'd ever done before I started writing here. And I'm only now getting around to experimenting with not only describing books I like, but figuring out how to talk about books I find to be flawed. Fair criticism is a difficult skill to learn.

That's why I'm sort of simultaneously terrified and in awe of this 1991 book review, published in the International Journal of Primatology. In it, anthropologist Matt Cartmill expresses his opinions about sociologist Donna Haraway's book Primate Visions. I don't know enough about either scholar, or the book, to have an opinion about whether Cartmill is right or wrong. But, wowow, is that a blistering review.

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor.

This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.

Via Evgeny Morozov

Image: Fear and Suspicion, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from alyssafilmmaker's photostream

danah boyd on a nuanced understanding of privacy in the networked age

Sociologist danah boyd has posted her responses to a Wall Street Journal debate on privacy that included Stewart Baker, Jeff Jarvis, and Chris Soghoian. Boyd's responses are nuanced, evidence-based, and humane, and get well past the "privacy is dead" and "kids don't care about privacy, or they wouldn't be using Facebook" simplifications. As ever, she is required reading for anyone who wants to know what's going on beyond the superficial debate.

People should – and do – care deeply about privacy. But privacy is not simply the control of information. Rather, privacy is the ability to assert control over a social situation. This requires that people have agency in their environment and that they are able to understand any given social situation so as to adjust how they present themselves and determine what information they share. Privacy violations occur when people have their agency undermined or lack relevant information in a social setting that’s needed to act or adjust accordingly. Privacy is not protected by complex privacy settings that create what Alessandro Acquisti calls “the illusion of control.” Rather, it’s protected when people are able to fully understand the social environment in which they are operating and have the protections necessary to maintain agency...

I think that positioning privacy and public-ness in opposition is a false dichotomy. People want privacy *and* they want to be able to participate in public. This is why I think it’s important to emphasize that privacy is not about controlling information, but about having agency and the ability to control a social situation. People want to share and they gain a lot from sharing. But that’s different than saying that people want to be exposed by others. Agency matters.

From my perspective, protecting privacy is about making certain that people have the agency they need to make informed decisions about how they engage in public. I do not think that we’ve done enough here. That said, I am opposed to approaches that protect people by disempowering them or by taking away their agency. I want to see approaches that force powerful entities to be transparent about their data practices. And I want to see approaches the put restrictions on how data can be used to harm people. For example, people should have the ability to share their medical experiences without being afraid of losing their health insurance. The answer is not to silence consumers from sharing their experiences, but rather to limit what insurers can do with information that they can access.

Debating Privacy in a Networked World for the WSJ

Why being wrong makes us angry

Christie Aschwanden is a science journalist. Last month, she joined a lot of other science journalists at the National Association of Science Writers conference and gave a short Ignite presentation about why people get angry when presented with evidence that their beliefs are wrong. She's posted a storyboard of the presentation to The Last Word on Nothing blog. It's definitely worth a read.

I’m married to an amazing guy. Dave is like those honeybees that always know the way back to the hive. Me, I’ve gotten myself lost in the Hearst building. We’ll be hiking and we’ll come to a split in the trail and I’ll point one way and say, we need to go here. And Dave will say no, actually, this is the right way (as he points in the opposite direction). And I’ll insist that, no, this is the way.

And then he’ll point out that my way peters out below some cliff face. Which only pisses me off. The more evidence he shows me that I’m wrong, the more insistent I become — I’m right and he’s wrong. And it’s not just me. This political scientist named Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth has documented what happens when you show people evidence that their beliefs are wrong.

So when Dave tells me that his way is right and mine is straight up a cliff, I think, oh yeah? Well I’m smart, independent and capable, so therefore I’m correct. I would never point us in the wrong direction. See, it’s never really about the hiking trail. It’s about some bigger story you’ve told yourself. I’m not taking issue with Dave’s direction. I know he’s right. But the factual mumbo jumbo he’s showing me clashes with the story I’ve told myself. I don’t like what it says about me.

Ouch. I know I've had experiences very much like that one before. I'm sure you have, too. What we believe about ourselves affects how we react to people who show us that we are wrong about something.

What's interesting to me about this, though, is that I don't react this way when I prove my own beliefs wrong. For instance, when I hear about a new study, and then have to dig into the evidence that presents a different perspective than the one I originally came up with. In fact, I kind of like doing that. But, then, challenging my own beliefs makes me feel more capable. It fits the story I tell me about myself.

I came away from this thinking two things. First, maybe we all need more opportunities to comfortably challenge our own ideas. (Although, I'm not sure how to create that space. Especially to cover the things that really matter.) Second, we all (me included) need to remember that being questioned—and being wrong—doesn't mean there's something wrong with us.

Goths age gracefully

Surrey University sociologist Dr Paul Hodkinson conducted a series of follow-up interviews with goths he'd studied as teenagers in the 90s and found that the cohort has made a pretty graceful transition into middle age and parenthood:

"It's a relatively middle-class subculture, so despite … all the going out and being into the music, goths have always had a fairly positive view of people who are also achieving academically."

It means goths may have better career options than an outsider might expect. Succeeding in their chosen career had, Hodkinson observes, become increasingly important to those he interviewed as they moved into their late 20s and 30s, and he was surprised by how much participants in his study were willing to adapt their look to fit in at work. "I even gave people scenarios where they couldn't wear certain things. I expected them to say that they'd have to leave [their job], but they said they'd have to seriously consider it."

Most of his sample said they still were recognised as goths at work, but had toned down their look. "They retained a residual element of the appearance, but felt, for example, that colourful dyed hair wasn't going to work, and they'd stopped painting their nails black."

Growing-up for goths (via Whatever)

(Image: Faust, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from fumtu's photostream)

Hostess life: "What I learned by being a migrant sex worker in Japan"

Bloomberg News has published a two-part, first-person investigative piece by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, on the lives of Filipina sex workers in Tokyo, Japan. To study the living and working conditions of these "hostess bar" migrant laborers, Parrenas became one.

The Bloomberg pieces are excerpts from her new book “Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo,” released this week by Stanford University Press.

Here is part 1. And here is part 2.

The Bloomberg excerpts are fascinating, as is the book, for providing an unusual glimpse inside a world most of us will never witness first-hand.

Read the rest