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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Unintended Consequences of Fuel Efficiency


Social scientists often refer to unintended consequences, which are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a particular action (e.g., social policy, congressional legislation). The idea has been around for a long time, but it was formally named and popularized by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton. According to Wikipedia, unintended consequences can be grouped into three broad categories:
  1. A positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall)
  2. A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis)
  3. A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse)
A recent Freakonomics podcast considered one of the unintended consequences of fuel efficiency ("The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon"). In particular, it notes that because the Federal gas tax is the primary source of funding for road repair, the available funds has been falling and probably will continue to fall as cars get even more efficient. What's more, because the tax is a fixed amount (18.4 cents per gallon) rather than a percentage, gas-tax revenues don’t rise even when gas prices do. Thus, we are facing a future where keeping our roads in good working condition will be harder and harder under the current tax scheme.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sequestration, Bipartisanship, and Every-Day Civility

In light of the potential sequester cuts from the federal budget, one would hope that there was more bi-partisanship between Republicans and Democrats. However, can we really expect them to be civil with one another given the lack of everyday civility between people of different ideological beliefs? I routinely come across examples of people on the left and right slamming their ideological opponents (enemies?), portraying them as stupid, immoral, or both. If we really want our representatives and senators to work together, maybe what needs to happen first is that we (i.e., everyday Americans) need to stop vilifying those with whom we disagree as if they are somehow less than human.

Perhaps we can take a lesson from the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt's latest book: "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion." Note that the subtitle doesn't say "Why Good Liberals (or Conservatives) Are More Informed About Politics and Religion than Conservatives (or Liberals)." No, it says that folks on both the left and the right are GOOD people who happen to disagree about politics and religion. In other words, Haidt's asking us to adopt a position of moral humility and start seeing our ideological opponents for whom they are: human beings worthy of our respect.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Guns, Guns, Guns

When economist Steven Levitt was a young professor at the University of Chicago, his wife gave birth to their first child, Andrew. When Andrew was about one year old, he came down with a fever, and a day later he died of pneumococcal meningitis. Overcome by their loss, Levitt and his wife joined a support group for grieving parents, and Levitt was struck by how many children had drowned in swimming pools. He wondered whether this was merely a coincidence or reflective of some larger pattern. And after digging into the relevant data, he discovered was that swimming pools are far more hazardous to children's lives than are guns.  More children die from drowning in swimming pools than they do from being shot by a gun. Indeed, as Levitt himself has noted, "If you both own a gun and have a swimming pool in the backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is" (Freakonomics, p. 146). It's curious that more people aren't clamoring for swimming pool control.

Levitt, of course, is the co-author of Freakonomics, and few have studied the relationship between guns, crime, and violence as much as he has, which is why his Freakonomics co-author and regular host of the Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner, decided to interview Levitt for one of the Freakonomics podcasts after the shootings at Newtown back in December. Not surprisingly, Levitt holds some unconventional views. For example, he’s skeptical of most proposed gun control legislation, he doesn’t think gun buy-back programs work, and as I have noted in previous posts ("The Surprising Decline in Violence"; "Sandy Hook, Gun Control, and America's Gun Culture"), gun violence has been in decline for some time.

You, of course, can listen (or read the audio transcript) to Dubner’s interview of Levitt for yourselves, either by downloading from iTunes or listening to it at the Freakonomics website (“How to Think About Guns”). As always (or at least, almost always), the podcast is very entertaining.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Law of Liking

A study in the 1950s by Theodore Newcomb found that college students who lived near to one another in the same fraternity (e.g., next door) were much more likely to become friends than students who didn't (e.g., different floors). Why? For the simple reason that those who lived close to one another tended to interact with one another more, and there is a wealth of evidence that suggests that people who repeatedly interact with one another are far more likely to become friends than are people who only interact with one another sporadically. The sociologist George Homans referred to this phenomenon as the "law of liking," but it goes under other names as well.

That's why most of our friends come from those clubs, groups, and faith communities where we spend most of our time. For example, as Larry Iannaccone has observed ("Why Strict Churches Are Strong") stricter churches often demand that members attend worship weekly (if not more) and limit their participation in secular groups and activities. As a consequence, members of stricter churches tend to report that a higher percentage of their close friends are members of their church (Stark and Bainbridge, "The Future of Religion").

To be clear, Homans's law of liking does not claim that if you repeatedly interact with someone you will become friends. Almost all of us have interacted repeatedly with people whom we will never like and we only interact with them because we have to. No, all Homans's law claims is that repeated interaction raises the probability that two people will become friends. So what do you need to do to make new friends? Join a new club, play for a new team, attend a new faith community.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Top Twelve Baseball Movies (Expanded Repost)



Back in 2000 Baseball America chose its top 10 baseball movies of all time. Two important criteria for choosing the movies (developed with the help of film critic Gene Shalit) was that a movie had to be worth watching ten years after its release, and its characters had to be interesting enough to be enjoyed by people who knew nothing about baseball. Its top ten are:
  1. Bull Durham (1988)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
  4. Eight Men Out (1988)
  5. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
  6. The Bad News Bears (1976)
  7. The Natural (1984)
  8. A League of Their Own (1992)
  9. The Sandlot (1993)
  10. Major League (1989)
I don't think there is too much to argue about this list although I'd probably rearrange it a bit -- I'd switch "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham," move "The Pride of the Yankees" up to #3, "The Natural" to #4 and "Major League" to #5. I'd also add "The Rookie" (2002) and "Damn Yankees" (1958) to the list, and I'm tempted to drop "The Sandlot" because it never did much for me, but because everyone else seems to like it, I'll keep it in my list. So I guess I'm stuck with a top 12, rather than a top 10. Here's how my list looks, but what do I know?
  1. Field of Dreams (1989)
  2. Bull Durham (1988)
  3. Pride of the Yankees (1942)
  4. The Natural (1984)
  5. Major League (1989)
  6. Damn Yankees (1958)
  7. The Rookie (2002)
  8. The Bad News Bears (1976)
  9. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
  10. Eight Men Out (1988)
  11. A League of Their Own (1992)
  12. The Sandlot (1993)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Has Apple Lost Its Magic?

One should never generalize from a single event. However, it is OK to let single events cause you to wonder whether the conventional wisdom is correct (a number of great studies have begun that way), which is why when I walked into the Apple Store in Valley Fair in San Jose yesterday, I was taken aback by how busy it was. It was hopping, and Apple employees were being run ragged (with a smile, of course). To be sure, it was a holiday, but there was barely a trickle of people making there way into the Microsoft Store across the way. So, I had to wonder: has the precipitous drop in the price of Apple shares over the last few weeks been warranted? I suspect that it was overpriced, but it may be a very good deal right now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Liturgical Fundamentalism

The term, "fundamentalism," derives from a series of tracts, called The Fundamentals, that were published by theologically conservative Protestants in the early 20th century. Twelve tracts were published in all, containing 90 different essays that defended orthodox Protestant beliefs over against ideas such as higher biblical criticism, liberal theology, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, socialism, etc.

Although the term was originally associated with theologically conservative Protestant groups, over time fundamentalism has come to refer to any religious group (usually conservative) that rigidly adheres to a set of beliefs, which is why it is not unusual to here people write or speak about Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, and so on.

Not all fundamentalists are conservative, however. One of the more humorous varieties are those whom I call liturgical fundamentalists, who are often quite liberal on theological issues but are quite legalistic when it comes to following the lectionary or displaying liturgical colors. I know clergy who possess a low Christology (i.e., Jesus may have only been a human not God incarnate) and don't take the Bible literally (or too seriously, for that matter), but heaven forbid you show up during Advent wearing a red stole (Hint: Red is for Holy Week -- see the chart above). I'm preaching on St. Paddy's day, and I hope people don't get too upset when I show up wearing a green stole (Hint: I should be wearing purple -- see the chart above).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Remembrance of Things Not Past

Last week, while discussing a research project on the venture capital (VC) industry that I'm working on with a friend, the conversation became quite animated because I believed the regional variable included in the dataset was tied to VC firms and he believed it was tied to the companies that received VC investments. Since I've worked with the dataset more than he has, I was certain he was wrong. I was mistaken, however.  I was the one who was wrong.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one whose memory doesn't work perfectly. As it turns out, false memories are quite common. In fact, it just happened to Hillary Clinton. Reminiscing about her time as Secretary of State, she recalled that one time her entourage landed "under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." The problem is, it never happened. Hillary remembered wrong. Reflecting on this, UC-Irvine Professor Elizabeth Loftus remarked,
What I love about this example is that it shows you that all that education, all that experience, all those IQ points -- that Yale Law School degree, it doesn’t protect you from having a false memory.
Indeed, all of us are prone to false memories. Loftus and her colleagues just completed a study involving 5,000 participants (which is quite large) that looked into how well people remember political events. As it turns out, we don't remember them too well, and this tendency cuts across educational and ideological lines. Moreover, our ideological beliefs affect what we remember. That's to say, both Democrats and Republicans are just as likely to have false memories; it's just that they're memories are more likely to confirm their ideological convictions than not. And just in case a few of you are thinking you're an exception to the rule, that you're immune to false memories: You're wrong.

False memories are the subject of the latest Freakonomics podcast ("Sure, I Remember That"), which can be downloaded from iTunes or found at the Freakonomics website (click on the above link). The audio transcript is also available at the website.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A (Previous) Pope Who Quit

No doubt, most of you have heard that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down February 28, 2013, as the Bishop of Rome ("Pope Benedict XVI Says He Will Resign"). This is the first time in over 600 years this has happened. A previous Pope who quit was Pope Celestine V, who reigned for only 15 weeks before deciding the papacy wasn't for him. There's plenty of news about Pope Benedict, but if you're interested in learning more about the short reign of Pope Celestine V, there's a podcast (from Research on Religion) about it ("Jon M. Sweeney on the Pope Who Quit"). Here's a brief description of the podcast:
How often has a pope willingly resigned from his position? In our interview with Jon Sweeney, we get insight into the life and times of Peter Morrone (a.k.a., Pope Celestine V) who reigned for 15 weeks in 1294 before quitting his post just before Christmas. This fascinating tale of a spiritual hermit who lived a humble life, yet ascended to the papacy in one of the more incredible tales of the Church’s history, reveals the 13th century struggles between the ecclesia spiritualis (spiritual Church) and the ecclesia carnalis (the worldly church of power). It also tells us a great deal about our contemporary religious life.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Myths Not to Live By

There are a lot of myths that pass for facts these days. Some I've addressed in previous posts, but I thought this might be a good time to gather several of them into a single post. So here are a few facts that some people still find surprising:
  1. Catholic priests sexually abuse minors at greater rates than the rest of the male population. No, they don't. I've posted on this several times, highlighting how frequently non-Catholic priests (e.g., school teachers, high school coaches, US swimming coaches) abuse minors (see e.g., "USA Swimming Child-Abuse Scandal,""Not to Beat a Dead Horse, But...""Celibacy and the Pastoral-Abuse of Minors").
  2. American Evangelicals are the most politically active religious group in the US. No. Black Protestants are. This may come as a surprise to some, but a 1998 analysis found that contrary to popular opinion, American evangelical congregations are less politically active than Black congregations. Building upon this study, I tracked where John Kerry, George Bush, John Edwards, and Dick Cheney visited during the 2004 Presidential campaign, and Kerry and Edwards visited and spoke at far more churches than did Bush and Cheney ("Whose Faith-Based Initiative?"). This is not to suggest that Bush and Cheney did not cultivate the evangelical vote. Of course they did. But that doesn't mean that evangelicals are the most politically active group.
  3. The Super Bowl Causes Domestic Violence. It's amazing that this myth still circulates, considering that it's been 20 years since the claim was refuted. For more information see my recent re-post "The Myth of the Super Bowl and Violence Against Women". 
  4. American Evangelicalism is in decline. In spite of the wishful thinking of some mainline Protestants and secularists, American evangelicalism isn't fading away  ("The Myth of Evangelical Decline"). 
  5. Christianity is no longer the largest religion in the world. Actually, it is, and all signs indicate that it will be for a very long time "The Triumph of Christianity").
  6. Terrorists are poorly educated, come from lower-class backgrounds, and attended religious institutions. Wrong. Just the opposite. Not sure why this my continues to circulate; probably because there are so many in the West who believe that education is the answer to everything. Education is great, but it isn't the panacea that many people believe it to be. See ("Terrorist Stereotypes and Misconceptions").
  7. Athletes engage in criminal behavior a higher rates than the general population. No. They just get more press when it happens ("Athletes Are Less Likely to be Arrested than Average Citizens").
  8. Walking drunk is safer than driving drunk. Just the opposite, actually. Drinking and walking is more dangerous than drinking and driving. If you are drunk and you live one mile from home, if you choose to walk rather than drive home, you are eight times more likely to die than if you drove home ("Friends Don't Let Friends Walk Drunk").
  9. Colonial America was very pious. Not a chance. Things got so out of control at Christmas that the Puritans tried to ban the celebration of it ("Unpious Colonial America"). While it's true that some very pious people fled to the US in order to be able to worship freely (or at least differently from how they worshipped in Europe), they were not the only ones who came to America. Some were fleeing from the law (e.g., a few European countries shipped prisoners to America); others came seeking fortune (e.g., Jamestown was founded as an economic outpost not a religious one); others were social misfits who had no ties keeping them from leaving (i.e., they were social isolates). In short, while some colonists were deeply religious, many were not, which is why early American piety was not widespread.
  10. Individuals with a college education attend church at lower rates than do those with a high school education. No, they don't. People with a college education are more likely to attend church (or mosque or synagogue) than people with a high school education ("Education and Church Attendance: The Conventional Wisdom is Wrong")
  11. Catholics feel more guilt than do other people of faith. It's a nice joke, but it isn't true.  ("Catholic Guilt? Think Again").