Friday, June 29, 2007

Look, just because we're bereaved, that doesn't make us saps!

This week I read the book Freakonomics, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I borrowed it from the library, but I would have had no buyer's remorse had I purchased a copy.

The subtitle is "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything." I really enjoyed it because (1) it addresses the type of questions I ask and (2) it's a bit of a sociological study.

This book, then, has been written from a very specific worldview, based on a few fundamental ideas:
  • Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.
  • The conventional wisdom is often wrong.
  • Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes.
  • "Experts"--from criminologists to real-estate agents--use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda.
  • Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so. (pp.13-14)

"Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work--whereas economics represents how it actually does work." (p.13)

I appreciated the thoughts on incentives and how influential they are. "There are three basic flavors of incentive: economic, social, and moral." (p.21)

For example, take the anti-smoking movement of recent years.
"The addition of a $3-per-pack 'sin tax' is a strong economic incentive against buying cigarettes. The banning of cigarettes in restaurants and bars is a powerful social incentive. And when the U.S. government asserts that terrorists raise money by selling black-market cigarettes, that acts as a rather jarring moral incentive." (p.21)
The problem is that we often try to use the wrong incentive to encourage/discourage a certain behavior.

As one with an interest in sociology and wonders why people do that which they do, I found my thinking about incentives drifting from the world, to myself, and then to how I raise my children. How do I use the 3 different flavors of incentives? How do I misuse them?

The data analysis on why people cheat and how they do it was also interesting. In sports, cheating is frowned upon, but only a venial sin, presuming one is cheating to win. But cheating to lose is heinous, yet it has happened and it does happen. Why and how?

Cheating on taxes is cliche, but I never realized the justification for the jokes until I realized what happened on April 15, 1987. That day in America 7,000,000 children went missing. That year the IRS required not merely the listing of dependents for a tax break, but also a valid social security number for each child. The children were not kidnapped or murdered, but had been fabricated to cheat the government.

As long as there are tests, there will always be prayer in school. Likewise, as long as there are tests, there will be cheating in school. Yet, did you know just how prevalent cheating is ... by the teachers? Teachers have great incentives to produce good test results on standardized tests, so much so that they have resorted to various means of cheating, ranging from teaching to the tests based on previous tests or giving extra time for the exam to actually changing answers on student exams. Why do they do it? How do they do it? How can they be caught?

As an armchair sociologist mybadself, I find the laws of depravity and W.I.I.F.M. (What's in it for me?) coming to bear across social studies, as folks operate according to the incentives most effective for theirbadselves.

I said all that to say this, I don't use this venue so much for book reviews or recommendations (other than those for the Desiring God Ministries sale), especially for the "non-Christian" book, but this book really scratched where I itch.

What I think the Christian parent might find most interesting is results of empirical studies showing just what factors do and do not have any correlation with how children turn out academically.

[Aside: I don't want to insult anyone's intelligence, but we have to distinguish between a correlation and causation/causality. The first means A & B occur together. A could cause B or vice versa, or they could have independent causes. Causation means that A caused B or vice versa. Far too often statistical sin is committed by giving a correlation a cause & effect label.]

Much of what we buy into is conventional wisdom, which varies dramatically over the years and often has little to do substantiation. For example, the following 8 factors do not have a statistical correlation to a child's standardized test scores:
  1. The child's family is intact.
  2. The child's parents recently moved into a better neighborhood.
  3. The child's mother didn't work between birth and kindergarten.
  4. The child attended Head Start.
  5. The child's parents regularly take him to the museum.
  6. The child is regularly spanked.
  7. The child frequently watches television.
  8. The child's parents read to him nearly every day.
Again, these are factors that didn't have correlation with good or bad standardized test scores. In other words, watching lots of television was not a factor, in helping or hindering.

The following factors, however, were strongly correlated with test scores:
  1. The child has highly educated parents.
  2. The child's parents have high socioeconomic status.
  3. The child's mother was 30 or older at the time of her first child's birth.
  4. The child has a low birthweight.
  5. The child's parents speak English in the home.
  6. The child is adopted.
  7. The child's parents are involved in the PTA.
  8. The child has many books in his home.
(All were a positive correlation, except for a child having a low birthweight and being adopted, both of those factors showed correlation to poor(er) scores on standardized tests.)

The authors go into some great detail with regard to each of these, particularly those that fly in the face of conventional wisdom (pp.166-76), but the difference between the 2 lists can be generalized/characterized as those things parents are (8 factors of strong correlation) versus those things parents do (8 factors without correlation).

We enter the whole nature vs. nurture conversation conversation, but the data leave one seeing things a bit deterministic. That's not a problem, if you acknowledge an omnipotent, omniscient Creator/Governor who is also omni-benevolent, but I can imagine such would give others fits.

What difference do we make as parents? Better yet, what difference can we make? Much, though a child's peers are much more influential, studies show, than his/her parent(s). This is why, I would imagine, we parents obsess about our children's friends.

There are other things in the book of great interest, like perceived risk vs. actual risk. For example, it's more likely that a conscientious parent would never let his/her child play at a neighbor's house where a gun was housed, preferring instead to allow the child to play at a neighbor's house where a pool is in the backyard. This is despite the fact that a child is 100 times more likely to be killed in a backyard swimming pool than by a neighbor's gun.

There are reasons why this is, but, according to "risk communications consultant" Peter Sandman, "The basic reality is that the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different." (p.150)

Which do you think people act on? Which do you think people address with their money? What do you think industries do to make a profit off of that (e.g., car safety seats)? Risks that are scary get addressed and federal funding (e.g., terrorist attacks vs. heart disease).

Others might find interesting the way the common man or woman is taken advantage of when there is a great gap in information between the customer and the business. For example, real estate agents sell their own homes differently than they sell yours, where the financial incentive is dramatically less. They're not alone, doctors and morticians have been known to take advantage of the ignorance of the customer to their own financial gain, often using fear or guilt to their advantage.

Look, just because we're bereaved, that doesn't make us saps.

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At 30 June, 2007 10:36, Blogger Rev. said...

It's too bad you didn't list the 9th factor: those who, for recreation, bowl, drive around, or have the occasional acid flashback, generally tend to do more poorly on the standardized tests.

Sounds like a very interesting read.

At 30 June, 2007 10:47, Blogger GUNNY said...

Obviously, you're not a golfer.

Rev, I can get you a toe. I can get you a toe by 3 o'clock ... with nail polish!


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