Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Economics Tuesday 3: Free Market Fairy Tales and Food Safety

You need to be careful when using the term "free markets."  For those who would check the box "free-market fundamentalist" in a questionnaire about one's religion, the term means a deus ex machina: markets as an infinitely wise and objective ruler of our lives, a divine power, something which manages things better than anyone else.  This religious view is extended to apply to all those things which non-market institutions usually manage, including the government (except for wars and legal enforcement of property rights).

That concept has nothing to do with economics, by the way.  Markets do some things very well, others so-so and fail dismally in some areas.  But markets are never the arbiters of fairness or justice, and those concepts, too, the market fundamentalists would leave to the marketplace.

The economic meaning of a term like "free markets" would perhaps be closest to an unregulated market.  Whether not to regulate a market is good or bad depends on the characteristics of a market.  Take health care, for an example:  How comfortable would you feel if anyone at all could set up a business as a heart surgeon, without any formal training or qualifications?  The extremists would support that idea, arguing that customers (patients) would do the necessary work to find out if a person is qualified or not.  But most countries do not let an untrained person do heart surgery, and that's because of the high costs of poor care, the difficulty for customers to actually learn about someone's skills (given that one could lie about them in advertising in a completely unregulated market) and the great asymmetry of information in those types of markets.

I used that example because those who believe in market-solutions for health care argue by analogy:  If the farmers' markets work, why not something similar for heart surgery?

A different economic term that some seem to confuse with "free markets" is the concept of perfectly competitive markets.  The two are not the same, and perfectly competitive markets are pretty rare in reality.

Here is a fairy tale about free markets.  It's relevant for understanding why food safety regulations matter.  More on that topic here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Research Monday 3: Studying Gender in Brains

Now this post (fried girl and boy brains), from last December,  was very hard to write, because it took me ages to research and  because it taught me a lot of unpleasant stuff about science politics in general.  These two posts (the "daring young man on the flying trapeze" and how to popularize gender science) address the popularization problems of studies of this type.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Something Rotten In Denmark, For Pickup Artists. A Re-Post

The post is here.

Horrible events relating to this concept have taken place since I wrote that post, and now I'm much, much more concerned about some of those Manosphere sites which completely objectify women or see them especially feminist women) as Devils Incarnate or as pieces of meat.   Because that's how soldiers have sometimes been trained, to de-sensitize them to the violence that is required from them later.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Breast-Feeding Joke And Related Comments. A Re-Post.

Here is the joke and the comments.  A recent debate about cases where women outside get masturbated at contained one comment (which I can't find now) arguing that breast-feeding and masturbation in public are no different!  If you disapprove of one type of activity, you should disapprove of the other type of activity.  So.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Letters From Vacation: Evolutionary Psychology As Religion

One university in Finland, the University of Turku, is now offering a minor in evolutionary psychology.  The write-up at the university pages tells us weird stuff.  I translate from the statements of Markus Rantala, the guy who is organizing all this:

Evoluutiopsykologiaa sovelletaan laajasti eri tieteenaloilla yhdysvaltalaisissa huippuyliopistoissa, ja Turun yliopisto on nyt mukana eurooppalaisessa eturintamassa tarjoamalla evoluutiopsykologian sivuaineopintoja kaikille kiinnostuneille opiskelijoille, Rantala sanoo.
My translation:
Evolutionary psychology is widely applied in different disciplines at the top American universities, and Turku University now belongs to the European frontier by offering evolutionary psychology studies as a minor to all interested students, says Rantala.


Itse asiassa evoluutiopsykologiaa pitäisi opettaa jo lukiossa, sillä siitä on hyötyä myös käytännön elämässä. Monia sukupuolten välisiä ristiriitoja muun muassa parisuhteessa vältettäisiin, jos ihmiset ymmärtäisivät, miten seksuaalivalinta on muokannut miesten ja naisten aivoja erilaisiksi ja miten se vaikuttaa eri sukupuolten käyttäytymiseen ja ajattelutapaan.

My translation:

As a matter of fact, evolutionary psychology should be taught already in the upper grades of ordinary schools, because it is also useful in practical life.  Many conflicts between the sexes in mating could be avoided, if people understood how sexual selection has modified the brains of men and women to be different and how it affects the behavior and thinking of both sexes.

Rantala also predicts that in a few decades all university students will study evolutionary psychology! 

This smacks of religion more than science, don't you think?  The conclusions have already been made (for instance, that it's sexual selection alone which affects gender differences and not some combination of societal pressures, cultural evolution, sexual selection and so on), and the time to convert all people to the Right Religion is NOW!

One of the new courses in evolutionary psychology at Turku University is about sexual selection!  Yle, the Finnish public television website, chose to write about that course in this context.  The story begins:

Evoluutiopsykologian sivuainekokonaisuus käynnistyy syksyllä Turun yliopistossa. Opintoja vetävä dosentti Markus J. Rantala uskoo, että oppiaine kiinnostaa etenkin nuoria sinkkumiehiä.

My translation:

A minor in evolutionary psychology begins at Turku University in fall.  Docent Markus J. Rantala who leads the studies believes that the discipline will especially appeal to young single men.

Isn't that fascinating?  The reason why young single men would be particularly interested in evolutionary psychology isn't really addressed in the story, except that Rantala believes that young men have been his most eager students because the courses teach you how to find a sexual partner (hint:  sniff at women to find if they are ovulating, measure their waist and hip ratio, go for the youngest women with the biggest rack).*

But surely it is women who are desperate to find a man who will stick around when the children are born?  I thought men just wanted a lot of quick f**ks in the most rudimentary evolutionary psychology?

Never mind.  The only reason I'm writing about any of this is that it presses one of my buttons which is the treatment of what is supposed to be science as religion or something to market.

For instance,  it's utterly unlikely that all university students of the future would take courses in the kind of evolutionary psychology which exists today**, it's not quite true that evolutionary psychology has become a major force in the American universities, many of the studies on which evolutionary psychology bases its sexual selection arguments are about psychology students looking at pictures, and leaping from those choices to evolutionary adaptations is a very very long leap***.

More precisely, academic researchers don't speak like this, as a rule, but tend not to over-generalize, tend to hedge their bets, tend to include opposing arguments and criticisms in their statements.  I've noticed before that evolutionary psychologists of one particular type tend to differ from that general rule.  They are more likely to preach, to act as missionaries and to hint at a future where all humanities and social sciences have been replaced by evolutionary psychology.

This is partly a response, perhaps understandable but wrong-headed, to outside criticisms.  It's wrong-headed, because it is a religious response, not a scientific response, and the same wrong-headedness can be seen in those evolutionary psychology articles which simply ignore all criticism and contradictory findings in their literature surveys, instead concentrating on only a sub-set of findings:  those which agree with the theory that article will proceed to support.  That's how religious dogma is created, not how science is carried out.

But it does tend to suggest a view of the research field as one uninterrupted march of stronger and stronger evidence supporting one simple model or theory!

After all this ranting, it might come as a surprise for some readers that I'm not at all averse to the idea of an evolutionary psychology minor at Turku University.  It's the lack of a minor in the criticisms of evolutionary psychology that I lament, because a proper scientific approach to the kinds of questions the new minor intends to evaluate depends crucially on the inclusion of contradictory theories and findings.
*Sort of joking there, though all the suggestions are based on some evolutionary psychology argument.
**The kinds which are not based on any actual genetic evidence that something IS an evolutionary adaptation.  I notice that Rantala ties genetics with evolutionary psychology in one statement but the two have practically nothing to do with each other today.  And evolutionary psychology of Rantala's type ignores the plasticity of human behavior.
***Not to mention that there are many studies which don't support the simplest evolutionary psychology (Evolutionary Psychology) explanations.


On Body Hair And Gender. A Re-Post.

From last April.  I find the post still funny and informative, though weak on racial and cultural differences in the body hair expectations.

Speaking of cultural differences, when a woman asked her picture to be photo-shopped in several cultures so as to make her beautiful, the results were fascinating in their variation. For instance, one of the American photoshops gives her those eyes Fox News seems to demand for its female talking heads: leopard-like.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Economics Tuesday 2: Learning about the Gender Gap in Wages

This is a topic close to my heart and my brain.  It's also a topic which is almost always subject to a lot of wishful thinking.  Conservatives and anti-feminists argue that women just choose to earn less because they don't want to have risky or dangerous jobs and because they want to be with their babies etc.  Indeed, I frequently read that "everyone knows there's no gender gap in wages at all because men work harder."  On the other side of the political aisle, I frequently read that the whole gross gender gap in earnings is evidence of women not being paid the same for exactly the same work.

The actual evidence doesn't support either one of those stances, though it does demonstrate that there is an unexplained difference in the average earnings of men and women (and also similar unexplained earnings differences between otherwise identical workers of different races and ethnic groups).  This post from last spring gives lots of links to those of you who would like to learn more.  I encourage it, because getting properly informed is important.  The posts on sex segregation at work (post 1, post 2 and post 3) are the most recent ones and come highly recommended by me.  Um.  Also this one, because it's on the politics.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Research Monday 2: When Studies Are Retracted Or Fail Replication

These are important  concerns for those who popularize new studies.  They really should check when studies they have touted end up in the waste paper basket, and they should tell their readers that this was the case.  Otherwise people will remain misinformed.

I have covered several examples recently.  Here is one on men's wallets and women's orgasms, and here is a general discussion of the many ways women's ovulation makes them act weirdly.  A specific example of one ovulation study is here.