Nature vs nurture, signals v causes

Criticism of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. From it:

…a study published last May in the journal of Intelligence by Hambrick and colleagues suggested that practice explains only about a third of success among musician and chess masters.

No duh. I have a couple thoughts. First, these studies are usually based on backward-looking estimates of time spent in ‘deliberate’ practice, which may not be accurate.

Second, what’s ‘deliberate’ practice? Seems like that could mean a lot of things and one person’s ‘deliberate’ practice may look much different from someone else’s.

Of course, other factors come into play also. After reading about the 10,000 hour rule, I didn’t think I could become Bill Gates or Michael Jordan simply by putting in my 10,000 hours, but it certainly put a different perspective on their success.

A study linked in the above article claims that we should look at factors other than amount of deliberate practice to explain the difference between professional and non-professional soccer players, like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age.

No duh. For the signal vs. causes tag, it seems like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age could be function of the ability the players were showing at that age.

In my experience, even with players at young ages, coaches interested in winning records recruit the best players, so it’s no surprise that they received what appears to be good coaching at a young age, but I’m not convinced that’s the true difference maker.

Certainly, I think good coaches can have an effect, but when you are already a good player and you get on a team with good players, you’re going to have a lot more good deliberate practice and experience on your side.

Bad cause-and-effect

I just caught a TV news snippet comparing leisure time now to sometime in the 1950s or 60s.

Apparently, we spend 42 hours a week on leisure activities now compared with 36 hours back then. They said something like: We spend more time doing whatever we want now. What has caused this? The rise in the number of part-time jobs.

My guess is that is a result, not a cause.

I’d also guess that we have more leisure time now because we can afford more. We trade work for leisure because things have gotten better and we can afford to — or we can work less to have the lifestyle we prefer.

The rise in part-time jobs may have resulted from being able to afford to choose to work less.

What if we discovered that the average family takes more vacations than they did in the 1950s? What caused this? The rise in the places to go on vacation.

Update: Thanks to ColoComment for the link to the BLS leisure time study press release.

Good Point

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit, sums up Matt Ridley’s last Wall Street Journal column nicely: “Science is about evidence, not consensus.

Neither do I

Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, explains why he doesn’t care about income inequality. I agree. At the end his post, Boudreaux adds a great comment from Steve Horwitz.

I also agree with a couple of comments to the post that say that concern for income inequality isn’t necessarily “envy elevated to public policy,” as Boudreaux claims at one point.

While I think envy plays a role for some of those concerned with the income-inequality-shiny-object, I think others are motivated by what they view as unfair processes for achieving wealth, which is also a concern of Boudreaux’s.

It’s just that Boudreaux and these folks have different views on what constitute unfair processes. Which, I believe, should take the discussion to the next stage: What are those unfair processes and why are they unfair?

Boudreaux and libertarians generally see wealth acquired through market activities as fair and wealth acquired by scratching the back of a politician as unfair.  But, others tend to see it the other way around.

But, those who see it the other way around don’t explain the processes they deem as unfair. They assume income inequality is proof that the processes were unfair.

Here’s something else I’ve noticed. Ask them about the wealth Steve Jobs earned before his death or that of their favorite movie stars and you’ll hear why these particular wealthy people deserve it. It’s because they produced something these folks personally value.

Ask them about the wealth of an oil or pharmaceutical company CEO and you’ll get a sneer.

Their idea of “unfair processes” generally is their own arbitrary assessment of whether the person deserves the wealth or not.

 

Reinhart and Rogoff: Lesson in statistical terms

Advocates of government spending are enjoying the recent news that errors were discovered in an often quoted 2010 analysis by economists Reinhart and Rogoff that showed countries with debt at levels (resulting from high spending) greater than 90% of GDP had an average GDP growth rate of -0.2%, which was statistically lower than countries with lower debt levels.

Recent corrections show that these countries actually had averaged 2.2% growth, not -0.2%, which is not statistically different from countries with lower debt levels.

Critics have accused R&R’s analysis of spurring irresponsible austerity in government spending and may have prevented more beneficial government stimulus spending around the world.

But, wait. The corrected analysis shows that countries with lower debt had higher GDP growth rates ranging from 3.1% to 4.2%. Yep. In this data set, apparently 2.2% is not statistically different from 4.2%.

That doesn’t mean that the data shows that government spending helps (or hurts) GDP. It also doesn’t mean that ‘austerity’ hurts or helps.

To be clear…it means nothing. Government spending advocates are not wise to use the the corrected stats bolster their case.

Not statistically different means that from the size and sample of this set of data, it cannot be concluded with high confidence that the differences in GDP growth rates are caused by the differences in debt levels.  But, it doesn’t rule it out either.

If anything, the analysis still provides directional support that debt may hurt, rather than help.

Personally, I’m not a fan of GDP. I explain why herehere and here. Basically, it’s because GDP treats an expense like an income.

The golden rule of liberty

In discussions about what government ought to do, rarely does one consider:

What if I’m wrong?

If there’s a chance that your policy causes more harm than good, or even any harm, shouldn’t you be more concerned? 

Good intentions and the gotta-do-something attitude are often accepted as valid justification for causing harm, but I think that’s a mistake.

If I’m walking by someone on the street who is having a heart attack, I could attempt to perform open-heart surgery. That would cause him more harm since I have no medical experience. Even though I had good intentions and a gotta-do-something attitude, most people wouldn’t give me a pass for with that reasoning.

Yet, we let so many people and politicians get by on that reasoning when it comes to public policy.

I hear proponents of the minimum wage, for example, support their position with a ‘greater good’, cost benefit analysis that sounds like this: Sure, it might make it harder for some to find a job, but it’s worth it if some people get paid more than they otherwise would.

My response: The folks who will have a harder time finding a job want to thank you for making that decision on their behalf.

They usually chuckle and say something like: Well, that’s okay. The ones who get paid more will also thank me.

What amazes me about such exchanges is how blase folks are about making decisions that might harm others, even if their cost-benefit analysis is correct, and how little they care about whether they are right or wrong. They act as if their good intentions gives them a pass for being wrong and causing harm. That’s reckless.

A key reason I appreciate liberty isn’t because I believe the costs (like those in the above example) outweigh the benefits (though I do believe that), it’s because I believe I should be very careful when I’m thinking in terms of who to harm — even if I believe the benefits exceed the costs.

I don’t like it when others decide it’s okay to harm me for what they think is the greater good, so what entitles me to inflict harm on others? Treat others as you, yourself, would like to be treated.

Few of the reckless greater-do-gooders like it when others decide it’s okay to harm them. Yet, they rarely make the connection that because they don’t like it, maybe they should refrain as much as possible from advocating harming others.

I’m not a fan of society-level cost-benefit analysis, because it separates the analyzers from the direct costs and benefits and makes it too easy to be careless and support the outcome that garners the most favorable agreement with peers.

It’s to easy to say this: I support this because I think we* have to do something. We* just can’t sit by and let these people suffer.

*Of course, by ‘we’, they usually mean others.

It’s not so easy to say: You know, it may be unfortunate, but we all have unfortunate things happen to us and need to make adjustments. Besides, if we do something to help them though government, that just means we’re causing harm to others. Maybe, if we really do believe it is worth it to help them we should open our own checkbook, volunteer our time or start an organization to help them, rather than just make empty declarations.

More Signals v Causes

I came across a couple good examples of confusing signals and causes this week.

1. Does language cause culture? In this case, do languages that “grammatically associate the future and the present, foster future-oriented behavior”? More likely: Language is shaped by culture. Cultures that save for the future evolve words that convey that part of their culture.

2. Does consumption of processed meats shorten life?  More likely: Folks who eat things that have been considered bad for you for the last 50 years also have other unhealthy behaviors that may contribute to shorten lives.

Thanks to the What We Think and Why blog for republishing my earlier Signal v Causes post.