16 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.15

Thursday: The misuse of behavioral economics; combining "pay what you want" with charitable donation is better than "pay what you want" alone; the Wason selection task; a new kind of nonsensical syntax; a cave full of fossils of inattentive marsupials; a biography of George Price (of the Price Equation); genetically-modified animals (with a photo of fluorescent kitties); New York prepares for Varèse orgy; a French retrospective on the New Musicology; reflections on Vermeer; a beautiful photo of the Western Hemisphere; the food and drink of Star Trek.


What everyone was reading on Wednesday and Thursday: "Economics Behaving Badly," an op-ed piece in Wednesday's NYT by George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel, on the misuses of behavioral economics by policy makers looking for an easy out. A quote:
Take, for example, our nation’s obesity epidemic. The fashionable response, based on the belief that better information can lead to better behavior, is to influence consumers through things like calorie labeling — for instance, there’s a mandate in the health care reform act requiring restaurant chains to post the number of calories in their dishes.
Calorie labeling is a good thing; dieters should know more about the foods they are eating. But studies of New York City’s attempt at calorie posting have found that it has had little impact on dieters’ choices.
Obesity isn’t a result of a lack of information; instead, economists argue that rising levels of obesity can be traced to falling food prices, especially for unhealthy processed foods.
To combat the epidemic effectively, then, we need to change the relative price of healthful and unhealthful food — for example, we need to stop subsidizing corn, thereby raising the price of high fructose corn syrup used in sodas, and we also need to consider taxes on unhealthful foods. But because we lack the political will to change the price of junk food, we focus on consumer behavior.
To which I can only respond, quoting Meg Ryan, "Yes! Yes! Yes!...."

Commentaries at Mind Hacks and Neuroanthropology.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on an extremely interesting study led by Ayelet Gneezy at UCSD, who shows that mixing a "pay what you want" model with charitable contributions is more effective (that is, it results in higher sales and income) than "pay what you want" by itself.  Here's the core of the article:
At a theme park, Gneezy conducted a massive study of over 113,000 people who had to choose whether to buy a photo of themselves on a roller coaster. They were given one of four pricing plans. Under the basic one, when they were asked to pay a flat fee of $12.95 for the photo, only 0.5% of them did so.
When they could pay what they wanted, sales skyrocketed and 8.4% took a photo, almost 17 times more than before. But on average, the tight-fisted customers paid a measly $0.92 for the photo, which barely covered the cost of printing and actively selling one. [...]
When Gneezy told customers that half of the $12.95 price tag would go to charity, only 0.57% riders bought a photo – a pathetic increase over the standard price plan. This is akin to the practices of “corporate social responsibility” that many companies practice, where they try to demonstrate a sense of social consciousness.
But when customers could pay what they wanted in the knowledge that half of that would go to charity, sales and profits went through the roof. Around 4.5% of the customers asked for a photo (up 9 times from the standard price plan), and on average, each one paid $5.33 for the privilege. Even after taking away the charitable donations, that still left Gneezy with a decent profit.
The article is:
Ayelet Gneezy, et al. (2010), "Shared Social Responsibility: A Field Experiment in Pay-What-You-Want Pricing and Charitable Giving," Science. The article is behind a paywall at Science, and costs $15.00 for 24-hour access.  The article is 3 pages long. All three authors are affiliated with publicly-funded institutions, either University of California, San Diego, or University of California Berkeley.
Yet another article I would really like to read but can't afford.
Here is the abstract:
A field experiment (N = 113,047 participants) manipulated two factors in the sale of souvenir photos. First, some customers saw a traditional fixed price, whereas others could pay what they wanted (including $0). Second, approximately half of the customers saw a variation in which half of the revenue went to charity. At a standard fixed price, the charitable component only slightly increased demand, as similar studies have also found. However, when participants could pay what they wanted, the same charitable component created a treatment that was substantially more profitable. Switching from corporate social responsibility to what we term shared social responsibility works in part because customized contributions allow customers to directly express social welfare concerns through the purchasing of material goods.
I may try this.  Perhaps some of my readers will actually click on my "Donate" button if they know that half of their donation is going to support, say, copyright reform or gay marriage.

I wonder, though, what will happen if a large number of people adopt the model.  I suspect that it may not scale well.  But who knows?


Mark Liberman at Language Log has an excellent post on "The Wason selection test." If you've studied cognitive science or psychology, you will probably have run into the Wason selection task, devised by Peter Wason in 1966. It is a classic means for showing that humans are generally not very good at figuring out some kinds of relatively simple logic problems.  Here is the classic version of the problem, as given in the Wikipedia article:
You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side.
The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown.
Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?
In Wason's original study, not even 10% answered the question correctly, and this general result has been replicated many many times. Instructors in psychology classes often give this test to their students: Liberman describes giving the test to an undergraduate class at Penn around 1999, and only roughly a third of the class got it right (and some of those who did, as he points out, may have found out the answer by reading ahead in the course pack, something students apparently sometimes do at Ivy League schools).

I didn't have any trouble coming up with the right answer when I first ran across the test, but admittedly I am weird.

A second important stream of studies deriving from Wason's work have found, however, that people are much better at solving a problem of this sort if it is formulated in terms of social relations and conventions. Here is a version of this modification given in Liberman's post.
These cards represent drinkers at a frat party. Assume each card has a beverage on one side, and the drinker's age on the other.
Rule: If someone drinks beer, then (s)he is 21 or older.
You can see four cards (one side of each):
diet coke
23 years old
19 years old
Card #1
Card #2
Card #3
Card #4

In order to check whether the rule is true of these cards, which cards do you need to turn over?

Most people find this kind of formulation much easier, even though it is logically equivalent to the version with numbers and colors.

No, I'm not going to tell you the answers.  Try the problems, and then look up the answers.

Speaking of logic puzzles (or puzzling logic): Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log writes with a follow-up on a syntactic oddity discovered by Andrew Dowd.  Dowd's original discovery, which Pullum reported on in December, was:
In Michigan and Minnesota, more people found Mr Bush's ads negative than they did Mr Kerry's.
You don't see the problem?  Read it again.  Still not?  Read it again.  Ah, now you see....

Biology, Paleontology, Evolution

80beats reports on a new trove of marsupial fossils in Australia, "a death trap, an underground limestone cave where hundreds of animals stumbled to their demise." Particularly well represented is the wombat-like Nimbadon lavarackorum.

Twenty-six Nimbadon skulls have been found so far. The skull, although robust, suggests a small brain. Which perhaps is why so many of them fell in the hole.

The article is:
Karen H. Black, et al. (2010), "First comprehensive analysis of cranial ontogeny in a fossil marsupial—from a 15-million-year-old cave deposit in northern Australia," Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.  The article is freely available for download (at least if one follows the sequence of links from 80beats to the site of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to the journal).

Razib Khan at GeneExpression (Discover) has a good review of Oren Harman's new book The Price of Altruism, a biography of George Price, the eccentric genius who discovered the Price Equation, a fundamental result in the mathematical study of evolution and natural selection. Razib writes:
Price began his career as a chemist, shifted to journalism and became what we today would term a professional “skeptic,” then entered into a period of productivity as an evolutionary theorist of some major impact, and finally spent his last years attempting to live the life of a serious Christian who followed God’s commands to the best of his abilities. He died tragically, committing suicide in his early 50s in 1975, homeless, destitute, and serious[ly] ill.
About a year ago, I was first introduced to Price's story by Lee Alan Dugatkin's The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, which covers much of the same ground, including Price's interactions with William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. Another quote from Razib's review:
George Price’s aim was to explain human cooperation, altruism. In short, goodness. This is the domain of angels, but his analytical bent mean that he could not let the phenomenon lay. He had to break it down, reconstruct its fundamentals, and elaborate on how and why goodness, altruism, manifested itself in the world. From the details reported in The Price of Altruism I would have to admit that Price himself was a Janus-like figure, often being in a manifestly selfish fashion, abandoning his family to follow his intellectual bliss, and yet also radically altruistic, allowing himself to be exploited by the dregs of the London underclass near the end of his life because scripture told him so (or his reading of scripture).

From the Slightly Creepy Biology file (cross-indexed in the Do We Know What the Bloody F*** We Are Doing? file):

A story by Bob Holmes at New Scientist on the current state of the science of genetically modifying animals. I'm guessing most of my readers won't realize just how common genetic modification of animals has become—genetically modified mice are now fundamental to much laboratory research—and this article is a good way to get up to speed.

And then go read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

The story at New Scientist includes a photo gallery of genetically modified animals, including these fluorescent kittens:


 Alex Ross writes at The Rest is Noise on the approaching Varèse extravaganza at Lincoln Center Festival, and links to this video that collects together all the clips in which Varèse appeared in minor roles in silent films, with a soundtrack drawn from Amériques.

Musicology Corner

The latest issue of the French journal Filigrane is New Musicology. Critical Perspectives.  Contributors include many of the usual suspects: Lawrence Kramer, Paul Attinello, Fred Everett Maus.  Here is the table of contents:
I've retained the links to the abstracts (partly because it's too much work to remove them).  So far as I can determine, €20.00 will buy you the entire issue, although that is not absolutely clear, and I'm not going to purchase it in order to find out.

Notably missing are any evident critical voices.

Some of my readers will probably see, as I do, the irony that this retrospective should appear in a journal called "Filigrane" (French for "watermark").

I was going to give just a simple reference to the WSJ article on oboist Gonzalo Ruiz's "rediscovery" of the "original form" of J. S. Bach's Orchestral Suite in B minor (allegedly originally in A minor, with solo oboe rather than solo flute). But there is so much there that cries out to be critiqued, that it calls for a separate post.  But here, you can have the link anyway.

The Arts

A nice reflection on Vermeer, on the occasion of a visit to Delft by one of the authors at OnFiction.


A beautiful picture of the Earth from NASA Godard (via io9)

The following is ancient in Internet years; it's from 7 May 2009, just before the release of the most recent Star Trek movie. But I hadn't seen it, it tickles the fancy of my inner Trekhead, and there are a few fellow hopeless Trekaholics among my readers (I won't reveal their names, because we've taken a vow not to, right Mike and Anne?):

Adam Kuban writes "A Primer to 'Star Trek' Food and Drink," at Serious Eats.

Everything from gagh to Plomeek soup, including even a few recipes and cookbooks.
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1 comment:

  1. Reader David Buch contributed the following comment at the Facebook feed of this blog:

    "There is one critical voice in the Filigrane issue: "The issue ends with an article by the Greek musicologist Markos Tsetsos, who provides a violent (though carefully argued) attack on the ‘new musicology'. Tsetsos essentially accuses the new musicologists of relativism, populism and obscurantism (among other things), and of renouncing the idea of autonomy of aesthetics (in favour of ethics). While it is difficult to subscribe to all of the arguments put forth by Tsetsos, his essay does have the merit of initiating the debate. Tsetsos concludes by connecting postmodernism with conservative and authoritarian political views, which seems particularly unfair in view of the campaigns conducted by radical American new musicologists against the war in Iraq, not least through their own work in musicology."