Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Carnival of the Africans 8

Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, June 28, 2009 | Category: | 1 comments

Welcome back to the Carnival of the Africans - a carnival of Scepticism and Science, with posts supplied by Africans. I have scoured posts that have been submitted to me and harvested the web for suitable African fruit. Enjoy the African tastes that are spread before you. Also, because the Carnival has experienced an hiatus, I thought that I would extend the time limit to the past two months, rather than only the past month. Consequently, there are a fair number of posts that fitted into the Carnival's outline.

I have decided to cut the Carnival into two parts, the first which covering purely sceptical and scientific concerns, and the second - a more narrative frame - covers science and scepticism as lived by individuals.

Part 1: Scepticism and Criticism
We kick off with a post from my own blog, Amanuensis, about a recent paper by Sam Bowles on the role of warfare (or inter-group violent conflict) in the evolution of human altruism, Bowles, his Critics, the Price equation, and Group Selection. I'd appreciate any comments or criticism.

Two posts look at the role of 'quantum mechanics' in popular culture. Rupert Neethling at Orion's Spur who tells us to take a look at a book of sceptical importance, Quantum Gods. He argues, as have others, that it easily debunks books like The Secret and others that claim some control of humans over 'quantum reality'. In a similar vein, a post at a subtle shift in emphasis provides a valuable post, if it says quantum, it must be true.

Michelle, The Skeptic Blacksheep, discusses The End of the World Part 1: Polar Shifts, so is it happening? Take a look to see. She also goes on to discuss the entertaining Gary Mannion, Psychic Surgeon. Have a laugh while reading.

Angela, the Skeptic Detective, asks,"Should I vaccinate my baby?" And concludes that any rational mother would. She shows us a video conversation between a doctor and some pregnant mothers on this topic.

James at Acinonyx Scepticus calls our attention to how Alternative Treatments will Receive Greater Scrutiny, discussing some of the relevant material as covered by the Associated Press. Bullshit Fatigue offers a brief comment, introduced by a description of frustrating Natura adverts that seem to have made their way onto South African televison, take a look at 'Magic Water, Sugar Pills, and Fairy Dust' for a general comment and some links to sceptical fun.

Owen Swart at 01 and the universe asks Is Science a Religion? He answers resoundingly, 'No!' There are several points worthy of discussion in his post and I think linking to it could stimulate the debate further and take it up a notch.

Shadowshide at Shadowshide's blog posts on some recent commentary on SA education in their post 'Thinking Begins at Home'. It brought a quotation from Emerson to mind, "[Colleges] can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set they hearts of their youth on flame."

George Classen brings us a post from Prometheus Unbound, Taken by a charlatan, in which he comments on problems related to Danie Krugel. He takes particular joy laughing at Krugel's comment that what he himseld does is 'science, science, science.'

Part 2: Sceptical Living
Leonie Joubert, gives us a cross-post from a piece she wrote for the South African Mail & Guardian called 'Pseudoscience: warts and all'. She recounts a childhood anecdote which resulted in her believing a strange pseudoscientific 'cure' for a wart on her knee. It's a good read.

Shadowshide also tells an interesting tale of how he ended up as 'ignostic' in his memoir piece, 'Religion: My Driver'. The author reports the crucial point in his penultimate paragraph, "So to a large degree religion was certainly one of the key drivers in my life, but the direction it drove me in was as far away from religion as possible." Though The Carnival of the Africans isn't strictly about atheism, I found this to be an interesting account of the clash between science, sceptical thinking and religion.

Bongi's Other Things Amanzi provides a description of startling events in the ICU in his article Leaking where he recounts the problems involved in dealing with patients who require substantial pain medication for horrendous burn wounds - what do you do?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Call - Carnival of the Africans

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, June 24, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments

The Carnival of the Africans is returning on the 28th of June and I am hosting. If you're an African science blogger or have blogged about African-related science, please check out the guidelines, then link to your post in the comment section. I will do my best to respond to you promptly.

I had to remove my email address from this post as I began to receive emails from random spammers to my personal address soon after posting. This was highly frustrating and motivated me to change the 'submission' policy. Apologies.

Bowles, his Critics, The Price Equation, and Group Selection

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: , , , | 0 comments

I have read a number of blog posts and articles on Sam Bowles's recent paper in Science, 'Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors?' Apparently, many people who are hostile to the idea for some reason (i.e. that humans, for whatever reason, might have had a violent past, or that our ancestors had behaviour patterns similar to chimpanzees) try to argue against it from poor grounds.Yet others seem to worry that 'Group Selection' differs greatly from gene selection, or kin-selection, which is not strictly accurate, as I discuss below. But not all the news is bad, some commentators make decent criticisms which need to be considered. This post is longer than normal, but I think the topic warrants such length.

One of the poorest criticisms I've seen consists of the 'Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene says' variety. Yes, we all know Dawkins argues against group selection models in animals. But, we also know that he doesn't mention that kin selection (à la Hamilton, 1962) is basically just a sub-class of group selection models defined by the Price equation (Price, (1970, 1972) - For a formal explanation of Hamilton's rule as a restatement of the Price equation see Rowthorn (2006)). Yes, kin selection is just group selection on a small scale. Shock! Horror! Furthermore, as Dawkins points out later in The Selfish Gene, humans are exceptional because of our cognitive abilities and because of culture. As he says, "The arguments I have put forward should, prima facie, apply to any evolved being. If a species is to be excepted, it must be for good particular reasons. Are there good reasons for supposing our own species to be unique? I believe the answer is yes" (Dawkins, 2006, 189).

With this admission we have the opportunity for gene-culture co-evolution. Genes affect our cultural expressions. Culture, because it changes the environment in which a gene finds expressions, affects our genes through evolution. Hence, having a 'cultural norm' of warfare that is culturally transmitted could affect the genetic expression of specific gene complexes, such as one that manifests altruism. Furthermore, in more recent texts such as The Ancestor's Tale, which I am currently listening to, Dawkins discusses the specific role of culture and how it could have shaped human evolution in a co-evolutionary manner.

Moving away from these issues, a commenter on one blog post evidently doesn't understand the Price equation. I reproduce it here for clarity.

Or alternatively, isolate the change in p term:

Now, many people struggle to interpret this equation. It tells us (and I use the first rather than the second version) that changes in the metapopulation will reflect changes in the populations of different genetic expressions, say Altruists (As) and Non-Altruists (Ns). Now the commenter says that Dawkins asserts that it is in a gene's interests to cooperate with the other genes for a body's survival. This elides the problem of the prisoners' dilemma game in which the genes are involved. If all other genes, being As, are cooperating to ensure survival of the host, it is in the interests of any one gene, say an N, not to do anything and to free ride on the exertions of the other genes to produce a healthy and productive gene carrier. This free riding gene can express other characteristics and maximize fitness by not cooperating.

The Price equation enters here. It's also easier at this juncture to aggregate up to the human level to introduce cultural practices and to use th expression of a gene complex to make the argument. The Price equation says that you have between group pressures (the first term, which is positive) and within group pressures (the second term, which is negative). As long as the variance between groups is greater than the variance within a group, the gene will proliferate. But how do you keep the variance of the first term, or the between group differences, sufficiently high to combat the downward selection pressures of the within group dynamic? For example, it's great to have a bunch of Altruists doing their thing as long as you don't get a sufficient number of Non-Altruists who enter their group (through mutation, drift, cultural effects) and undermine them.

The commenter erred because he assumed away within group pressure. If that was the case then the problem would be trivial. Dawkins' 'Cooperative Gene' explanation does not solve the problem unless we can explain how the gene proliferates within a group given within group pressures against it.

Now, let Bowles's example of warfare enter the arena. Bowles argues that warfare was sufficient to ensure that between group variance was kept high, ensuring the success of a sufficient number of Altruists. Assume that Altruists confer benefits 'b' on those with whom they interact, and bear costs '-c' to do so. Non-altruists do nothing. Which implies that: and that . Using those, we can manipulate the Price equation to produce the followin:
This means that altruists will survive as long as the ratio of costs to benefits is sufficient to maintain the variance between the population. Moreover, when there are additional cultural norms which allow reproductive leveling, and which therefore decrease the costs to Altruism, Altruism becomes much more likely. As Bowles (2006, 1569) puts it, "Culturally transmitted norms supporting resource and information sharing, consensus decisionmaking, collective restraints on would-be aggrandizers, monogamy, and other reproductive leveling practices that reduced within-group differences in fitness may have attenuated the selective pressures to which altruists are subject." I don't believe that the blogger on the post I commented on previously understood these phenomena properly.

All of this said, John Hawks makes a decent point about resource scarcity. He argues that Bowles claims that too much falls in the ambit of warfare. But, as far as I could see, Hawks chose to ignore Bowles's hedges. The problem, moreover, is that Hawks's argument does not seem consistent with the archaeological evidence. Consider the counterfactual, if resource scarcity and population growth mediate each other to the extent that Hawks argues they do, then the fossil evidence for inter-group violence should be minimal, or, if inter-group conflict did occur, why would it necessarily be violent or widespread? The fossil evidence indicates the contrary, as does more recent anthropological evidence of hunter-gatherer groups. Now, I admit that this is not my area of expertise, but it seems apparent to me that warfare could constitute an explanation, especially in conjunction with the evidence on resource scarcity.

This brings us to a further criticism. What about Occam's Razor, is the explanation sufficiently parsimonious? Are we offering too many inter-linked factors to explain the surprising existence of sociality in humans? Let me respond as follows. Many, many explanations of cooperation have arisen with many more inter-linked factors arising to explain cooperation. But, we are engaged in an effort to try to reduce the number of explanations into separate cultural and genetic phenomena. Bowles offers one such explanation considering the environmental factors, and gene-culture co-evolution. Evolution, in this sense, is the underlying parsimonious theory with theorists trying to understand the specific parameters that need to be appropriately tooled to apprehend the eventual evolution of something as seemingly counterintuitive as - and as prevalent as - cooperation.

I hope this post adds some clarity to the debate for those of you who are interested. I also admit that I am probably quite partisan in this debate because Sam Bowles is a professor of mine at the University of Siena and, though I disagree with some of his arguments, I find those promoting the role of inter-group violence in human history quite convincing.

Bowles S. 2009. Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors? Science 324:1293-1298. doi:10.1126/science.1168112
Bowles, S. 2006. Group competition, reproductive leveling, and the evolution of human altruism,
Science 314: 1569 - 1572 DOI: 10.1126/science.1134829
Dawkins, R, 2006, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R, 2005, The Ancestor's Tale, Audiobook, Abridged and read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, Orion.
Price, G.R., 1970, 'Selection and Covariance', Nature 227: 520-521
Price, G.R. 1972, 'Fisher's 'Fundamental Theorem' made clear', Annals of Human Genetics, 36:129-140.
Rowthorn, R, 2006, 'The evolution of altruism between siblings: Hamilton’s rule revisited', Journal of Theoretical Biology, 24: 774–790

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Economist - food prices

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, June 18, 2009 | Category: , , | 2 comments

I recently commented on how increasing food prices weren't getting enough press. Well, it looks like The Economist was reading my mind.  Take a look at their graph below, published in their graph-a-day series.

As you can see, food prices in many developing countries have had increases in the past 3 months.  But, even for those that have had decreases in the last 3 months, the year-on-year increase in food prices is substantial.  For some reason China is excepted from this trend. The trend in South Africa is particularly worrying.  Inflation, by itself is not always a problem, but when combined with the endemic unemployment (and underemployment) and poverty it's an ingredient for a recipe of greater social unrest and economic instability.  Zuma and his cabinet are going to have to take on this problem, with the others that they face.  Good luck to them. 


Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 3 comments

William Zinsser - Writing About Your Life -
With Writing About Your Life - a pleasurable and instructional book - Zinsser brandishes his skill with words, while exposing the practice required to hone such skill.  He focuses on writing memoir. He maps the challenges you face when writing a memoir and he provides tactics to avoid common problems, to improve your focus, and to clarify your intentions.  He makes a case study of several texts along the way, drawing on his own writing and his experiences interviewing other writers such as Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and many others.  The book is well-rounded, incorporating Zinsser's peculiar take on a life lived well, on God, on writing as career and passion, and on appreciation of commonplace beauty.  This is the second book by Zinsser that I've read and I plan to read his other books.  In particular, he refers to a book he edited, Inventing the Truth, in which several writers contribute their opinions and advice on writing memoir (including those authors listed above), which I now intend to read. 

I am not centrally interested in writing memoir, but I am motivated to write semi-autobiographical fiction, and writing that biographies my extended family.  Zinsser's Writing About Your Life contributes valuably to that pursuit as much as it does to memoir-writing because many of the same strategies and insights remain true.  Moreover, the strategies would hold for poetry in which I might choose to focus on those close to me: getting the facts right, keeping the images accurate and concrete, evoking the sound, smell, and sense of a place, or a person makes all the difference in the condensed purity of a poem.  Most crucially, Zinsser advocates writing honestly and without judgment, or, if you choose to judge those about whom you write, then do so humbly and forgivingly.  He laments the plethora of memoir-cum-attacks written in the 90s when people profited off of the pain of their families, with Jerry Springer-inspired TV action to promote their books.  He argues that this kind of memoir is best left behind.  Write honestly, faithfully, and forgivingly (of yourself and others) and you will have a beautifully written book. 

I saw upon searching online for Writing About Your Life that Zinsser has a new book, Writing Places, which was published on June 1st in the UK. I will probably wait for the paperback to be released, before I read it.  I will review it and tell you whether it lives up to his previous standards of writing. Dillard - The Writing Life -
Annie Dillard, author of several fiction and non-fiction books, has been recommended to me numerous times by many authors, the first of which was Deirdre McCloskey in her Economical WritingAs with many things, intention finally met reality and I was content. 

Dillard meditates on the processes of writing, doing so without sentimentality or harshness.  She imparts the lore of writing, showing the toil required to obtain quality: the labour to unearth the ore, the vision to ensure its purity, the sweat of crafting and re-crafting.

The book enchanted me, it compelled me to read it.  I was meant to be studying for exams or to be writing myself, but instead I began to read it.  It was not difficult, I used it as a break time pleasure.  The book is slim, it curves alluringly in your hand when you read it. It demands to be read.  I had about ten pages to go while I was in bed reading, but I realised that in my fatigue I was missing some of the rhythms, losing the lyric in the prose.  I put it aside until the next morning when I sat outside to read the last few pages in the morning sun.  What a pleasure. What a joy.  What a reminder of the burden and the privilege of writing.

I have not read any of Dillard's other books.  I now intend to read as many of them as I can buy, or find in libraries once Amy and I are in the UK, or even while we are in SA and I can frequent the Rondebosch Library.  I will report on them later.
Professor Peter N. Stearns - A Brief History of the World  [The Teaching Company - Audio Lecture Series] 
There was much to appreciate and much to frustrate in this series of lectures by Prof Stearns.  Let me explain that I am a novice when it comes to world history, I have read Guns, Germs, and Steel, I have read various history books here and there, in particular as they relate to institutional evolution (consider here Douglas North, Friedrich Hayek), but I am far from an expert.  When he conveyed content, Professor Stearns was interesting, and thus the course was.  When he was wordy, tried desperately to justify the 'role' of world history, or giving lengthy disclaimers before explaining things, he became boring, the tempo of the course dropped, and my interest lagged a bit.  A side concern was his frustrating use of language, we don't need to be told things are 'obvious' and people really don't 'utilize' things as often as he says they do, they 'use' them.  

Nevertheless, let me highlight a few of the things I found fun and interesting.  First, he described how Mansa Musa, during his trip to Mecca, destabilized the Egyptian economy because he carried so much gold with him. The Egyptians recovered when Musa left.  Second, with the advent of Enlightenment the institutions that people employed for things that were lost was very interesting, prior to Enlightenment people hired 'Cunningmen' who were magical, savant-like individuals who would 'find' your good for a fee (somehow). After the Enlightenment, barely a century after widespread use of Cunningmen, Lost and Found centres popped up around cities and people would go to these if they lost something, rather than resorting to magical beliefs.  Another interesting tidbit he recounts was how China and India were the two largest recipients of New World (South American) silver.  Why? Prior to the development of high quality manufacturing in Western Europe, the Western European countries wanted the high quality garments, crockery, and many other goods that were produced by the Chinese and the Indians.  Finally, as a last fun fact, Stearns describes how opium was the most widely traded good in the 18th century.  I knew previously that it was an important good, and that its trade sparked the Opium Wars in China, but I had not realised how dreadfully important its trade was to the Brits and how widespread its consumption was (then again, having read the Romantics, I should have known, ahhh... laudanum).

Because of my interests in the evolution of institutions, or moving toward a theory of what Talcott Parsons calls  'evolutionary universals', I don't believe that Stearns play up enough the strange dynamics of the neolithic transition.  The neolithic transition did horrific things to human nutrition.  Quite aside from the closer proximity with animals and people that resulted in greater exposure to germs, humans were much more poorly fed. Agriculture resulted in decreases in height, similar decreases in weight, weaker bones, and all kinds of other odd results, results that we would not immediately think would enhance fitness.  Stearns also didn't mention at all the advent of private property, which probably occurred around the same time as the neolithic transition: being able to plant stuff on 'your land' was only so good if you could store 'your' stuff and differentiate it from 'other peoples'' stuff.   

Still, I felt educated by listening to the lectures.  Stearns, when he discusses actual content, teaches well and exposes his 'obvious' breadth of knowledge.  I learned a substantial number of facts, as well as more about the trends in non-Western civilizations, an area in which my knowledge is limited.  Like most people of South African Anglo-Saxon heritage, my formal history included spates of Western Civilization with some South African history thrown in, embodied by recurrent encounters with Khoi-San history, the Mfecane, and the Groot Trek.  I believe that the course offers a decent supplement to books like Jared Diamond'd Guns, Germs, and Steel, though only introducing the relevant topics and leaving deeper analysis and reading to the interested listener. 

Fiction & Memoir Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse 5 
Slaughterhouse 5 is one of those books I had intended to read for ages, then I took one of those silly facebook quizzes and it told me 'as a book you are Slaughterhous 5'.  I had to read it. It is strange indeed.  I would not want to listen to it as an audiobook: Vonnegut bounds around t the timeline like a rabbit on cocaine, it's 1967, then it's 1944, then he's in no-time in Tralfamadore being inspected by aliens.  To listen to this would probably the closest I'd come to a psychadelic experience. 

Nevertheless, in the written form it is spectacular and it launched itself easily into a place next to my other favoured anti-war books (Catch 22, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms).  Like Catch 22 it is humorous, yet simultaneously dreadfully sad.  The image of  emaciated Billy Pilgirm  in a poorly fitting fur-lined coat turned to waistcoat, silver stage boots for Cinderella and wandering through the bombed wasteland of Dresden makes phenomenal satire - you become confused with your simultaneous urges to cry and to laugh. Incoherent laugh-sobbing wouldn't be inappropriate. Safran Foer - Everything is Illuminated
Previously, I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I thought it fantastic.  Consequently, I read Foer's books in reverse order.  I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I had hoped I would. 

The author conjures three different wisps of a story: the first involves letters sent from Alex, a Ukrainian teenager working in his father's tour business, to Foer.  The second comprises Alex's recounting of Foer's quest to discover his grandfather's origins in the shtetl of Trachimbrod.  These two strains succeed well, driven mainly by Alex's strange yet systematic errors in English because of his abuse of a thesaurus, as Alex comments, "I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting." The third strain didn't appeal to me at all. Foer tries to invoke a kind of magical realist history of Trachimbrod, of his grandfather, and of his ancestors. I found it weak.  I inevitably wanted to read past these sections to arrive at the sections when Alex wrote his letters, or wrote his own stories for Foer.  The third strain made it seem like Foer was trying to be too clever, trying to ruminate too obviously on themes of memory, dream, and sexuality.  Consequently, I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I enjoyed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Frank McCourt - Angela's Ashes: A Memoir [Audiobook]
The voice of an old Irishman, Frank McCourt, tells the story of a young American boy of Irish descent, his journey to Ireland with his beleaguered family, and his eventual return to the United States.  Frank McCourt reads Angela's Ashes enchantingly, his voice mellifluous and resonant.  He sings the songs of woe, liberty and battle, he chants the poetry, he accents the speech so that each character's 'Och' is unique yet conveys the essential Irishness that the memoir captures so well.

In Angela's Ashes, McCourt triumphs because he writes with the voice of a child, presenting his child-self in such a way that makes the voice credible, that justifies his actions.  In the audiobook this is complemented by his reading because his tone, his pitch, and his manner change consistent with how he wrote. 

The story wrenches you from laughter to shivers of hunger (you feel persistently hungry reading this book) to a moistening of the eyes.  The 'Disease of the Irish' plays a substantial part in this book, how it affects families, how the culture impelled its boys to embrace the bottle of stout, the evening pint.  McCourt engages too with the notions of the Irish state, the politics of liberty from the British, and how the class structure of Ireland, with its correlates of Catholicism and Protestantism, abutted working class sensibilities. 

The book works because McCourt writes honestly, yet forgivingly of his family and himself.  I would strongly recommend Angela's Ashes as a first step into memoir if you have not read much memoir.  I would also recommend listening to the audiobook to hear McCourt's voice, to hear his cries, his 'och's, his singing, and his emotion underpinning the narrative.   

Conversations with Amy
I thought I'd try to introduce another new facet to these book discussions by telling you what my wife, Amy, thought about the books, and what we concluded together in discussions.  Sometimes these chats will inform how the reviews themselves evolve, other times I'll review and then report on Amy's thoughts later.  

Amy read Sebastian Beaumont's Thirteen (which I commented on previously), she enjoyed it, but not as much as I did.  She thought that it was good, but not as good as my review made it seem.  She took longer than than my day-and-a-bit to read it though, which I think contributed to the differing levels of enjoyment.  Two central themes in the book are relevant here: trance states and memory.  For me, reading it quickly was like invoking a trance state to read the book 'as intended'.  Because Amy read the book only of an evening having worked hard during the day, she did not enter the book in the same way.  At least this is my current null hypothesis.  I await discussions with other people who read it quickly or slowly.

Amy also agreed with my assessment of Foer trying to be too clever in Everything is Illuminated.  She also ranks Extremely Loud  above Everything.  That said, we enjoyed how we both laughed out loud while reading Extremely, which potentially means that my three stars rating is a bit harsh, maybe the book is worth more, probably four stars would be justified.  Of the reviews that I read recently, many gush about Foer's genius while other's claim that he's a hack.  I wouldn't go as far as either of those extremes, but I would say that he's creative and someone to watch.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ehrenreich - Too Poor to Make the News

Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, June 14, 2009 | Category: , , , , | 0 comments

Because of the depths of poverty in South Africa, and many other African & Asian economies, I don't sympathise enough with discussions of 'poverty' in the developed world. I think that the kinds of poverty are different, are culturally embedded, and often reach different depths of privation on different scales. Moreover, and particularly in the US, the persistence of inequality over time is immense, yet still people believe that America is the 'land of opportunity'. The rose-tinted opportunity glasses inure them to the poverty, and they remain enamoured of the systems that entrench it (evidenced by GOP behaviour regularly of late in the furour over health care reform).

Notwithstanding these personal failings, I appreciated Barbara Ehrenreich's NYT op-ed piece, 'Too Poor to make the News'. In it she investigates a phenomenon that has been swept away by the waves of media headlines about 'middle class cutbacks' and 'the super-rich giving up private jets'. She talks to people she met while writing her book 'Nickeled and Dimed' and uncovers stories of people whose ends could not be met before the recession, and are even less likely to be met now with increasing layoffs, foreclosed homes, and unavailable loans. She details the problem well, and provides several sad tales, including one about her own nephew and his family's problems.

She raises a crucial issue. Accepting the ways in which poverty is measured, it seems as though poverty will dramatically increase (105-143 million more poor worldwide, 12-16 million more in Africa) over the next year. We must focus on both those who have entered and will enter poverty and those who remain in poverty as a consequence of the recession. A further question arises, what has the recession done to the chance to exit from poverty? I would suspect that these chances tend to zero.

Additionally, world trends that disproportionately affect the poor should garner more publicity. For example, food prices are increasing again. Increases in food prices often affect the poor more than they affect people with higher incomes. When rent and food take up almost all your expenditure, and the costs of food increase while poverty increases then you know you're in for a bad time. Another question follows, are rents decreasing to a sufficient extent such that they counteract the increases in food prices? I don't know, and I haven't seen any references to such commentary.

Amid the recession clamour and the discussion of its burdens on people across the income distribution a question remains: How do we define poverty? For many people in South Asia, for example, it's pretty clear that if you're starving then you should be classified as poor. If you're in debt and struggling to make ends meet, but you have have a roof over your head (the one you're sharing with several other people) in a small apartment, you have a higher education, and you're unemployed or underemployed, are you poor? Is poverty only a measure of 'income'? Or should we take the approach of someone like Amartya Sen and argue it's about capabilities, it's about what you can do or what you can achieve with the resources at hand? It's a nuanced question and not one I am happy to 'answer' except to put out several opinions. A good place to start is with a review of notions of poverty, like that provided by Banerjee and Duflo in their paper on experiences of poverty worldwide - 'The Economic Lives of the Poor' (on which I blogged previously). The effects of this recession have become daunting.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Was there a Hawthorne Effect?

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | Category: , | 6 comments article in this week's Economist covers a recent paper by Steve Levitt and John List where they investigate the data from the original factory studies that elicited the so-called 'Hawthorne Effect'. The basic idea of the Hawthorne Effect was that being studied directly affected the productivity of the women in the factory.  It turns out the effects may not have been so strong, if it even existed at all.  Levitt and List found that the light intensity was changed on a Monday. The original researchers then compared Monday's productivity with Saturday's productivity, and unsurprisingly there was an increase.  What they didn't do was compare Monday's productivity with the lights changed to any other Monday.  Levitt and List found a systematic decrease in productivity as the week progressed which had nothing to do with being experimented upon.

I plan to read the research paper after my exams finish. I will comment on it more comprehensively then.  Though there may not have been a Hawthorne Effect, demand effects or demand characteristics (as they are called in psychology) are fairly well-documented with higher quality data and better research protocols than were adhered to in the Hawthorne studies.  Nevertheless, that the 'Hawthorne Effect' didn't exist as we believed is a pretty big finding. Well done Levitt and List.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

SALDRU Affiliate

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, June 03, 2009 | Category: , , , | 0 comments

I am now a research affiliate for the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) based at the University of Cape Town.  I worked with SALDRU previously when I was in Cape Town, working on the Quality of Life Survey (a survey of land reform projects in South Africa, which is still under embargo from the World Bank, more on this later this year when the data are released).  With the upcoming release of the first wave of the National Income Dynamics Survey (NIDS) and several other researchers based at the unit, I am very happy to collaborate with the unit.  Justine Burns and I are currently working on another draft of a working paper for SALDRU.  She and I also have another project going on risk-aversion (more of which later).  Hopefully you'll see more working papers from me pop up on the SALDRU page in the future.