Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The shortcomings of affirmative consent policies

The main problem with affirmative consent policies is that they don't match how people have sex in the real world, including on college campuses. They are a classic example of policies that sound good in theory but break down in practice.

After all, isn’t it important that people make sure that they have consent for sex? How could it be bad to codify that requirement in the clearest possible terms?

The problem is that what seems clear in principle is often decidedly less so in practice. Most affirmative consent policies, for example, say that consent may only be expressed through unambiguous words or actions. On its face, that is clear enough. Expressing unambiguous verbal consent only takes one word: “Yes.”

Requiring verbal consent seems that it would simplify proof in sexual assault accusations, but it doesn’t. We have seen multiple cases where the complainant acknowledged that they said yes, but claimed that they did not mean it, or that they non-verbally withdrew the consent later. The accused was found responsible for sexual assault in these cases. ...

This brings us to consent through actions. This is where, as most communist nations eventually discovered, what sounds great in theory can be a disaster in practice.

What does unambiguous consent through actions look like? Consider, for example, the last time you had intercourse without verbal consent. How did you know the other person wanted to do it? ...

If you point to any one thing and say that’s what made me think I had consent, you’re going to be found responsible for sexual misconduct. That’s because most sexual misconduct policies explicitly say that consent for one sexual act does not imply consent for another sexual act. So if you say, “I thought because she put my hand on X, she wanted Y,” you’re toast. ...

The problem is that consent through actions is all about context. It’s not any single thing, especially when the participants are in a romantic relationship. ...

But universities, in our experience, default to punishing the accused in these ambiguous cases. Breaking down how consent-through-actions was communicated, in the cold light of a conference room months or even years later, is impossible. The practical result is that the affirmative consent policy allows any student to get his or her former sex partners expelled or suspended.
--Justin Dillon and Hanna Stotland, Harvard Crimson, on a failure of social engineering

Friday, March 17, 2017

The case for tipping generously

[Steve Ross] was also well known in [New Haven’s] restaurants and was a generous tipper, [Rick] Antle said. “He said that extra that you give, that’s where all the action is, and it’s not that much money,” he said.
--Ed Stannard, New Haven Register, on the everyday wisdom of Steve Ross


A great bon viveur, [Steve Ross] would baffle friends with his ability to find tiny ethnic restaurants tucked into obscure corners of southern Connecticut, where the food was delicious and the staff invariably seemed to know and love him.

He was also a great aficionado of wine. At dinners he held for peers, it was decided to put a cap on the price of the wine, to make sure that the meal was within everyone’s budget. “Why would we want constrained optimisation like that?” Ross complained, in the language of economic theory.

He avoided the problem by bringing in ever more exquisite wines — and politely lying about their price.
--John Authers, Financial Times, on the generosity of Steve Ross

Steve Ross and Bernie Madoff

When Stephen Ross went to perform due diligence on the investment firm run by Bernard Madoff, he found himself baffled. His client, an investment group, was unsure Madoff’s great returns could be sustained — and the more the Madoff representatives talked to Ross in generalities about their options trading strategies, the less he understood what they actually did.

As he pressed them, they protested that options pricing was complicated. “I know it’s complicated,” said Ross. “I invented your model for pricing options.” He did not in the end recommend investment in Madoff’s funds.
--John Authers, Financial Times, on the limits of BS

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why professors should ask only tough Ph.D. oral exam questions

My second memory of Steve Ross is of the oral exam that he administered along with Jim Tobin. At that time, Yale students talked in whispers of the "Tobin spiral," caused when Tobin asked an easy question, the student assumed there must be a catch and froze up, prompting Tobin to ask an even easier question, and so on towards failure. I was actually more intimidated by Steve than by Jim, but escaped a Ross spiral when Steve asked what seemed to me abundantly difficult questions.
--John Campbell, a member of my dissertation committee, on a great man and scholar

Why you think you know things you don't

The truth is obvious if you bother to look for it, right? This line of thinking leads to explanations of the hoodwinked masses that amount to little more than name calling: “Those people are foolish” or “Those people are monsters.” ...

Here is the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. ... Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. ...

Consider some simple examples. You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion? ... We’re guessing no. Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

One consequence of the fact that knowledge is distributed this way is that being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t. Recently, one of us ran a series of studies in which we told people about some new scientific discoveries that we fabricated, like rocks that glow. When we said that scientists had not yet explained the glowing rocks and then asked our respondents how well they understood how such rocks glow, they reported not understanding at all — a very natural response given that they knew nothing about the rocks. But when we told another group about the same discovery, only this time claiming that scientists had explained how the rocks glowed, our respondents reported a little bit more understanding. It was as if the scientists’ knowledge (which we never described) had been directly transmitted to them. ...

The key point here is not that people are irrational; it’s that this irrationality comes from a very rational place. People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community. But if you are not aware that you are piggybacking on the knowledge of others, it can lead to hubris.

Recently, for example, there was a vociferous outcry when President Trump and Congress rolled back regulations on the dumping of mining waste in waterways. This may be bad policy, but most people don’t have sufficient expertise to draw that conclusion because evaluating the policy is complicated. Environmental policy is about balancing costs and benefits. In this case, you need to know something about what mining waste does to waterways and in what quantities these effects occur, how much economic activity depends on being able to dump freely, how a decrease in mining activity would be made up for from other energy sources and how environmentally damaging those are, and on and on.

We suspect that most of those people expressing outrage lacked the detailed knowledge necessary to assess the policy. We also suspect that many in Congress who voted for the rollback were equally in the dark. But people seemed pretty confident.
--Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, NYT, on the case for humility before outrage. HT: EP

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hillary Clinton would be even more unlikeable as a man

Maria Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, had an idea. Millions had tuned in to watch a man face off against a woman for the first set of co-ed presidential debates in American history. But how would their perceptions change, she wondered, if the genders of the candidates were switched? She pictured an actress playing Trump, replicating his words, gestures, body language, and tone verbatim, while an actor took on Clinton’s role in the same way. ...

Guadalupe reached out to Joe Salvatore, a [NYU] Steinhardt clinical associate professor of educational theatre who specializes in ethnodrama—a method of adapting interviews, field notes, journal entries, and other print and media artifacts into a script to be performed as a play. Together, they developed Her Opponent, a production featuring actors performing excerpts from each of the three debates exactly as they happened—but with the genders switched. ...

Inside the evening’s program were two surveys for each audience member to fill out...



Many were shocked to find that they couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon what they had admired in Hillary Clinton—or that Brenda King’s clever tactics seemed to shine in moments where they’d remembered Donald Trump flailing or lashing out. For those Clinton voters trying to make sense of the loss, it was by turns bewildering and instructive, raising as many questions about gender performance and effects of sexism as it answered. ...

The gender-swapping technique, Salvatore suggests, could also be used to explore the communication styles of different political figures in other charged confrontations. ...

[Salvatore:] We heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened”—meaning how Trump won the election. People got upset. There was a guy two rows in front of me who was literally holding his head in his hands, and the person with him was rubbing his back. The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman—that was a theme. One person said, “I’m just so struck by how precise Trump’s technique is.” Another—a musical theater composer, actually—said that Trump created “hummable lyrics,” while Clinton talked a lot, and everything she was was true and factual, but there was no “hook” to it. Another theme was about not liking either candidate—you know, “I wouldn’t vote for either one.” Someone said that Jonathan Gordon [the male Hillary Clinton] was “really punchable” because of all the smiling. And a lot of people were just very surprised by the way it upended their expectations about what they thought they would feel or experience.
--Eileen Reynolds, NYU News, on new perspectives on Hillary Clinton's unlikeableness. HT: Marginal Revolution

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The loneliness of the American middle-aged man

...as I ran down the list of those I’d consider real, true, lifelong friends, I realized that it had been years since I’d seen many of them, even decades for a few. ...

I turned 40 in May. I have a wife and two young boys. ...

I love “dada time.” And I’m pretty good about squeezing in an hour of “me time” each day for exercise, which usually means getting up before dawn to go to the gym or for a run. But when everything adds up, there is no real “friend time” left. Yes, I have friends at work and at the gym, but those are accidents of proximity. I rarely see those people anywhere outside those environments, because when everything adds up, I have left almost no time for friends. I have structured myself into being a loser. ...

Beginning in the 1980s, [psychiatrist Richard] Schwartz says, study after study started showing that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right. ...

My wife and I also have other couples we like and see often. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that’s good enough — and for many men it is, at least until their spouse gets the friends in the divorce. ...

In February at a conference in Boston, a researcher from Britain’s University of Oxford presented study results that most guys understand intuitively: Men need an activity together to make and keep a bond. ... That’s why, studies have shown, men tend to make their deepest friends through periods of intense engagement, like school or military service or sports. ...

Researchers have noticed a trend in photographs taken of people interacting. When female friends are talking to each other, they do it face to face. But guys stand side by side, looking out at the world together. ...

But in the middle years of life, those side-by-side opportunities to get together are exactly the sort of things that fall off. ... Planning anything takes great initiative, and if you have to take initiative every time you see someone, it’s easy to just let it disappear.

That’s why Schwartz and others say the best way for men to forge and maintain friendships is through built-in regularity — something that is always on the schedule. ...

“Wednesday night,” Ozzy explained, was a pact he and his buddies had made many years before, a standing order that on Wednesday nights, if they were in town, they would get together and do something, anything.

Everything about the idea seemed quaint and profound — the name that was a lack of a name (such a guy move); the placement in the middle of the week; the fact that they’d continued it for so long. But most of all, it was the acknowledgment from male friends that they needed their male friends, for no other reason than they just did.
--Billy Baker, Boston Globe Magazine, on friendship beyond your 20s