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Numbers Game

From a NY Times editorial of the same title (link):

The United States once had the world's top high-school graduation rate. It has now fallen to 13th place behind countries like South Korea, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Worse still, a new study from the Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation, finds that this is the only country in the industrial world where young people are less likely than their parents to graduate high school.

h/t: The Week


Wikipedia is amazing.  I love it as a generally reliable source of a tremendous amount of information.  Sometimes it may not go as in depth as I might desire.  Sometimes it may err on the side of being too even-handed.  Generally, though, it is fantastic.

Several times I've been in online discussions, cited info in Wikipedia, and been told that I need to cite other references because Wikipedia is unreliable (since anyone can edit it).  Ironically, this objection usually comes from people who are not backing up their claims with any citations at all.

Anyway, that arguments sounds good on the surface but fundamentally misunderstands the strength of Wikipedia.

Though Wikipedia is (of course) inferior to primary sources, it is of similar quality to an encyclopedia. The fact that anyone can edit it is actually a strength. Yes, spurious info can creep in (especially for a subject that few people are paying attention to), but there is also an extraordinary community of people who monitor the content, correct errors, make sure the info is balanced and even-handed, etc. This is possible because a large and robust community is in control instead of a small number of information gatekeepers.

In fact, a study by the scientific journal Nature a few years back showed that errors occur in Wikipedia at a rate that is only slightly higher than the Encyclopedia Britannica (link, there are also links there to EB's objections and Nature's response to them).

Wikipedia is not perfect (what source of similar breadth and accessibility is?), but it is certainly trustworthy enough to be useful for silly online discussions.

Despite What You Might Have Heard...

1) Studies show that overweight people have a lower death rate than people who are normal weight, underweight, or obese.  The research is summarized in a recent article in the NY Times by Gina Kolata: link

...overweight people have a lower death rate because they are much less likely to die from a grab bag of diseases that includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, infections and lung disease. And that lower risk is not counteracted by increased risks of dying from any other disease, including cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

The researchers also confirmed that obese people and people whose weights are below normal have higher death rates than people of normal weight.

Critics of the research argue that "Health extends far beyond mortality rates" and that "...excess weight makes it more difficult to move about and impairs the quality of life."  But we're talking about overweight here, not obese.  The struggle to maintain normal weight is such a struggle for so many...trying exercise regularly...trying to watch what we eat.  I suspect that a bit less pressure in that area wouldn't be a bad thing for "quality of life."

2) Bringing up politics over Thanksgiving dinner may be a good idea.  In an opinion piece in the LA Times, Josiah Bunting III summarizes some recent research: link.  A test that gauged college students' "civic literacy", focusing "...on American history, government, international relations and economics."

The students who did the best on the test were those who came from homes where the parents were both college graduates, were still married and living together, spoke English to their children...The most significant factor...was frequent family discussion of current events and history.

3) There does appear to be a racial genetic component to intelligence.  William Saletan discusses the issue in Slate: link

Tests do show an IQ deficit, not just for Africans relative to Europeans, but for Europeans relative to Asians. Economic and cultural theories have failed to explain most of the pattern, and there's strong preliminary evidence that part of it is genetic. It's time to prepare for the possibility that equality of intelligence, in the sense of racial averages on tests, will turn out not to be true.

Among white Americans, the average IQ, as of a decade or so ago, was 103. Among Asian-Americans, it was 106. Among Jewish Americans, it was 113. Among Latino Americans, it was 89. Among African-Americans, it was 85. Around the world, studies find the same general pattern: whites 100, East Asians 106, sub-Sarahan Africans 70. One IQ table shows 113 in Hong Kong, 110 in Japan, and 100 in Britain. White populations in Australia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States score closer to one another than to the worldwide black average. It's been that way for at least a century.

Remember, these are averages, and all groups overlap. You can't deduce an individual's intelligence from her ethnicity. The only thing you can reasonably infer is that anyone who presumes to rate your IQ based on the color of your skin is probably dumber than you are.

How could genes cause an IQ advantage? The simplest pathway is head size. I thought head measurement had been discredited as Eurocentric pseudoscience. I was wrong. In fact, it's been bolstered by MRI. On average, Asian-American kids have bigger brains than white American kids, who in turn have bigger brains than black American kids. This is true even though the order of body size and weight runs in the other direction. The pattern holds true throughout the world and persists at death, as measured by brain weight.

4) The death penalty saves lives, at least according to economists who have been studying the data.  Adam Liptak discusses the issue in an article in the NY Times: link

According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.

The effect is most pronounced, according to some studies, in Texas and other states that execute condemned inmates relatively often and relatively quickly.

The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise. One influential study looked at 3,054 counties over two decades.

“I personally am opposed to the death penalty,” said H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University and an author of a study finding that each execution saves five lives. “But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the conclusions described above continue to evolve and go in different directions in the coming decades as more data are collected and analyzed...but I always find it interesting when studies buck conventional wisdom.

Photos from the Plane

Here are some photos taken from the plane last Friday...just after taking off from Salt Lake City and then just before landing in Cleveland.








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