Thursday, May 2, 2013

Baby's first rifle

Is it any surprise that when we give guns to children, a 5 year old might shoot a 2 year old?  Why is this even a question? 

The above photo is a real photo of a 1 year old with a refurbished rifle, not altered in any way.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Modern poverty: Trading a car for brain surgery, malnourished and dieting, and lost limb reimbursement

Three portraits of modern poverty:

1.  Sometimes I use a nutrition/fitness tracking website.  A woman in WV posted that she wanted to lose weight in time for her daughter's high school graduation, but she wasn't losing weight.  She mentioned that she skipped breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner so that there would be enough food for her daughter.  She earns $735 per month from SSDI, $140 per month from SNAP for her and her daughter, combined, and the local food pantry allows visits only once every 3 months.  She can't work because of her disability.  It seems like her only good option is to move to a more generous state that would give her closer to the average SNAP benefit for a 2 person household. 

2.  A guy posted to Craigslist in Seattle seeking to trade a 2006 Mustang for brain surgery.  He's had the same job for 16 years but no health insurance. Regardless of the specifics here (perhaps this cyst doesn't need to be removed, etc.), it's sad that posting to Craig's list seeking brain surgery is the most reasonable option.  I hope that the Affordable Care Act will make a difference and prevent cases like this in the future. 

3.  Anyone who loses a limb for whatever reason has a hard enough time adjusting to the physical and psychological challenges.  Insurance is supposed to cover the financial costs of disasters, but the victims of the Boston bombing will end up paying a great deal out of pocket, even if they had good health insurance.  They also get partially reimbursed for the costs associated with their lost limbs, but even these funds may not be enough to cover the actual costs.  At least it was in Massachusetts:  it would be interesting to compare the out of pocket costs for a hypothetical person in Massachusetts versus a state without universal health insurance, except there's no way to find out in advance how much health care will cost. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Two academic heroes under 30

I have two academic heroes this week.

The first is U Mass graduate student Thomas Herndon, who replicated Rogoff and Reinhart's austerity paper and discovered a mistake.  Many social scientists encourage replication, but people arguably don't do it enough.

The second is a public high school sophomore Ria Chhabra who began performing experiments on fruit flies during middle school, and discovered that organic food results in better outcomes for fruit flies. 

Their examples can inspire and encourage all of us.  Their achievements are an important reminder of how capable students can be, given opportunity and encouragement, and how it doesn't take elite schools to inspire achievement.  And how important it is to question assumptions, design good work, and work hard to execute it. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Young adults and the Boston marathon bombing

As a 10 year resident of Cambridge, I have been following the Boston marathon bombings, but it wasn't until I saw this tweet from a NYT reporter that I thought about the connection to young adults.
As the story unfolds, we will understand more about the motivations of the bombers:  nationalism, religion, or neither.  Right now we just have questions, such as which factors cause an adolescent to turn into the type of young adult who travels thousands of miles to Boston to become a statistics graduate student as opposed to a boxer or alleged bomber?   

We asked a similar question during my first year in college, when one alienated foreign student killed her socially-integrated roommate in a murder-suicide.  I remember that spring morning in 1995, wheeling a hand truck filled with boxes from my dorm to Dunster House and finding Dunster surrounded by police tape.  The rumors in the street were that a dozen people had been stabbed and the killer was on the loose; ultimately it turned out to be just 2, and the killer had hung herself an hour ago.  Meanwhile, I needed to figure out what to do with my boxes.  I threw them over the wrought iron fence into the side yard and hoped for the best.  Melanie Thernstrom researched the crime and published a book that included intriguing foreshadowing, such as the killer sending letters to strangers from the Boston phonebook asking for help with social skills, but no real answers. 

In this case, the alleged bombers seemed to be well-liked.  A photoessay of the older alleged bomber from 2 years ago is no longer available online, but this article has many photos from it and the key photo captions, such as saying that he has no American friends.

Whatever the reasons for these divergent paths, these patterns emerge during adolescence and young adulthood, although likely they are forged in childhood, infancy, and even before.  

Adolescents and young adults are at a turning point in life, and the uncertainty inherent in that transition is often stressful.  Here one 19 year old has put the entire city of Boston on lockdown.  He has made a huge negative impact on the world.  In the coming days, we will wonder what could have prevented him from taking such a destructive path.

We'll probably never know, but thankfully these extreme situations are rare.  More common are adolescents and young adults who destroy their and others' lives in more quiet ways.  UNICEF just released a report ranking the US at the bottom of rich countries in child well-being, below even Greece.  The entire nation is transfixed by a single demented individual, while entire sectors of US society are impoverished in ways that will increase their propensity for more mundane forms of violence, and we will feel the impact for decades.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lizard people control public opinion research

As reported by Atlantic Monthly, 12 million Americans believe that lizard people run our country.  This finding is based on the survey question:  "Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies, or not?"  As a friend put it, someone went to graduate school to learn to write that question.  

The lizard people finding is a variation on findings reported in David Hemenway's article "the myth of millions of self-defense gun uses", where he reports that about 4% of people report having personally met an alien from outer space.  Even in a nationally representative sample chosen perfectly, small measurement error can be magnified when extrapolated to the nation.

The different conspiracy theories vary in prevalence, from the 4% believing in the lizard people to 51% believing that JFK was killed by a conspiracy, so clearly they are not all due to random error.  

Some of the questions are obscure or old, such as about the government controlling minds with TV (15%), the CIA invented crack cocaine (14%), and fluoride in water is dangerous (9%), which could be from non-attitudes: poll respondents' expressing opinions about matters that they have no opinion about.  Pollsters didn't understand why respondents showed different levels of support for specific issues in repeated polling.  To test whether respondents were reporting opinions about issues that they didn't truly care about, they asked respondents about a fictional bill, and 30% of respondents gave an opinion about it rather than stating no opinion.  The phenomenon was called non-attitudes.

An issue where I'm not aware of research is how non-attitudes change with time due to exposure.  If the lizard people issue gets reported widely, it could gain more exposure and credibility, and more people may endorse the statement in the future.  Can public opinion polling change opinions and give credibility to fringe opinions? 

(After some googling, I discovered that the lizard people theory is not new: it was promulgated in 1999 by a former BBC sports reporter who also included ideas about how the Jews caused 9/11 and control the media, variations on the oldest conspiracy theory around.  And Wired reported it in 2007 in a list of conspiracy theories.) 

The question on the list with the most additional poll data is probably global warming:  37% in this poll said it's a hoax (the exact question was "Do you believe global warming is a hoax, or not?")  That seems on the high side.  Gallup polls has found that 15% say that global warming will never happen, but 40% of people say that the importance of global warming has been exaggerated, which fits in with dozens of other polls.  The word "hoax" is strong and implies that global warming won't happen, and yet the percent endorsing the question is more similar to the 40% on Gallup's question about whether the importance has been exaggerated, rather than the 15% saying that it will never happen.

Context effects could have increased the prevalence of extreme opinions:  when the survey is entirely made up of kooky questions with extreme wording ("hoax" versus "exaggerated"), people may be more likely to give kooky or extreme answers.  If just one of these questions had been included on an otherwise straight-up opinion poll, a lower percentage may have endorsed it.  So maybe 4% belief in the the lizard people isn't so high, after all.  

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Better condoms and bacon condoms

Photo credit:
The makers of vegetarian products that taste like bacon now sell bacon condoms (slogan: "make your meat look like meat").  Probably an April Fools joke, but perhaps this is what Bill Gates had in mind as the next-generation condom that would be more widely acceptable.  Could bacon condoms prevent HIV transmission in Africa? 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Red herrings in abortion

Florida is considering another abortion restriction bill.  During the hearing, they asked what happens if a live baby is born as the result of an abortion.  The answer has raised accusations of infanticide, which is a red herring.

Before 24 weeks, the fetus wouldn't be viable.  After 24 weeks, abortion is exceedingly rare:  only 1.3% of all abortions are after 21 weeks, and even fewer after 24 weeks. 

Abortion after 24 weeks is illegal in Florida unless two doctors approve and agree that the abortion is medically necessary, which is unconstitutional.  No woman is having an abortion after 24 weeks unless the fetus is unlikely to survive in any case.  This particular "born alive" red herring has been used for over a decade, most recently against President Obama in his elections in 2004 and 2008 because he opposed a similar bill in Illinois.  This medical care for accidental babies issue just hurts women facing already difficult and often traumatic circumstances.