Monday, September 19, 2005

Finally, a ranking of universities that isn't terrible.

As with almost all other attempts to do this sort of thing, universities in the English-speaking world got a boost. For example, here is what the analysis writes about Russia's best university:

Lomonsov(sic) Moscow State University's appearance is especially impressive given the severe financial and political problems of operating in Russia. It is well-liked by academic peers across the world but shows up poorly in citations per staff member.

Or about Japan's top university:

Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, has six of the top 40 universities in the rest of the world, including Tokyo and Kyoto,traditional sources of the country’s most prominent political and business leaders. Tokyo is by some distance the highest ranking university in this group on the peer review criterion and overall. Its strong peer review success also propels it to 12th place in
the world overall. By contrast, it is poor at attracting both staff and students from overseas and middling at citations.

Obviously, universities outside the English-speaking world will do poorly in citations if you measure citations in English-language journals. (And actually the effect will still be present, though in lesser form, if you extend your citations ranking to non-English language journals. This is because there are more citations per person in bigger academic communities, and communities restricted to a given country are , as a rule, smaller).

Another strange thing about this ranking is the freakishly high placement of the University of Massachusetts - above Duke, Brown, NYU, and Rice.

Overall, though, this is arguably the best ranking to date. It is also a nice counterpart to the horrible US News, which has an annoying bias in favor of liberal arts colleges with mediocre faculties.

Two recent events lend some perspective to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

i. The burning of the remaining Synagogues in Gaza by Palestinian throngs:

Flames shot skyward from four abandoned synagogues in the Gaza Strip on Monday, as thousands of celebrating Palestinians thronged through former Jewish settlements and headed straight for the only buildings left standing....Helpless Palestinian police stood by and watched, admitting they were outnumbered by the crowds and had little motivation to stop them.

ii. The public asassination of Moussa Arafat, former head of security in Gaza.

In my view, these events undermine the case for continuing the peace process (and the case was extraordinarily weak to begin with). If the Palestinian government cannot control its people, it has effectively nothing to offer, its ability to stop terrorism being nonexistent.

Further, given the stated aim of Palestinian terrorists to destroy Israel, and their stated intention to continue with this regardless of the peace process, there is no reason anything would change following an agreement with the Palestinian government.

The only solution - given the lack of an effective negotiating partner - is for Israel to unilaterally impose a practical solution on the ground. Further, given the inability and unwilligness of the Palestinians in the past and present to engage in negotiations, the solution should maximize Israeli security, subject to, of course, to reasonable consideration for the well-being of Palestinians.

The security fence being constructed is precisely such a solution. It will encompass roughly 80% of the Jewish population of the West Bank (with almost all the rest presumably t o be relocated), and less than 0.4% of the Palestinian population (also presumably to be compensated and relocated). Though Palestinians complain - the new Palestinian state will ecompass 93% of the West Bank, which is less than the 100% most Palestinians want - it is a reasonable solution given the circumstances.

The security fence will drastically reduce the capability of Palestinians to engage in terrorism. Unfortunately, it will not stop them from launching rockets into Israeli border cities, as they have done repeatedly in the past. However, I'd argue this is much less of a problem: the casualties from these attacks are more or less manageable, and Israel can respond for them in a tit-for-tat manner, making incursions to arrest suspected terrorists after each attack.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The NYT has a piece on how things are starting up in New Orleans:
Jason Mohney, owner of the Hustler and three other local strip clubs, arrived with a few dancers and bouncers and some high-powered flashlights, and found little damage to the red velvet heart-shaped couches and shiny disco balls, just a little moisture and mold on carpets - probably flooded, but perhaps from spilled beer.

"As soon as we have power, that will be the only thing that's keeping us from opening," Mr. Mohney said. "There'll be couch dances as soon as we can get open," he promised, though one of the dancers, Dawn Beasley, offered one on the spot ($30).

Monday, September 05, 2005

Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has a post entitled "Why Most Research Findings are False." His source is a research paper which boldly claims "it can be proven that most claimed research findings are false."

It turns out that "it can be proven that X" means "I can write down a model that exhibits feature X, and give you a couple of general reasons why my model is not so bad." Which, if you like writing down models, results in a lot of "proofs" - the results of which can be presented without any qualifications (I am referring here to Tabarrok's summary).

This, in my experience, has been rather typical of economics papers (though the paper in question is published in a medical journal). Assume some model, give some qualitative justifications for this or that feature, derive a result, and claim that this justifies policy Y. The fact that the model does not claim to be a close approximation of reality does not usually prevent people from advocating practical policies based on this thought experiment.

I can easily for example write down a model that has the majority of research findings being true (it would involve every claim followed up in multiple subsequent studies). This gives me just about as much claim to "truth" as the paper Tabarrok summarizes.

Keep this in mind while reading over Tyler Cowen's assessment of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. Cowen comments:

I agree with most of the arguments but would have called it The Political War on Science. Democrat politicians are excessively enamored of government regulation, for instance, and many of them do not pay enough attention to incentives. (Admittedly these issues are not as clear cut as the theory of evolution; Mooney in fact suggests a scientific approach will lead to more regulation.) The left often treats human beings as excessively malleable.Both Carter and Clinton committed some gross errors out of self-deception; they violated the simple principle of dominance rather than any complicated scientific hypothesis. (What exactly should count as an error of science?)

Allow me. Science is the reasoned investigation of nature driven by the scientific method. An error in science involves basing a policy on reasons that go against accepted scientific theories. Obvious, one would think.

None of the other examples Cowen cites involve science. Economics is not a science, contrary to Cowen's previous reflections on the topic. No it does not matter that economics uses math or that economics uses "real" data. Unless you are able to test your predictions, you are not a practitioner of the scientific method. Nor does gathering some laboratory subjects and having them trade money count - one cannot say what changes are brought about by having a laboratory experiment (as opposed to what people would do in the "real world") and how far one can generalize based on the idealized laboratory games.

But now, why is my definition of science the correct one? Cowen might say that a sufficient criterion for being a science is dealing with "empirical" data. Who is to say that he is wrong?

Well any encyclopedia for one thing. For another, Cowen and other economists are trying to ride the coat-tails of the success of the hard sciences. Look around you and you will see repeated success of science - from the computer you are reading this on to the myriads of electrical devices all around your home. Calling economics a science has the implication that we should have roughly as much confidence in the theories currently believed by economists as in, for example, the theory of gravity or quantum theory. Considering how thoughroughly the former have been tested, and the natural limitations to testing economic theories, I consider this to be ridiculous.

It is interesting to note that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein both received military aid from the Reagan administration in the 80's.

Saddam received military hardware to fight against Iran - including permission to buy components in the US that could be used to build biological weapons - even as the US knew of his massacres of the Iraqi kurds. Many members of Al Qaeda - including Bin Laden himself - received money from Pakistan to fight the Soviet Union - money given to Pakistan by the United States precisely to supply anti-Soviet fighters.

What the Reagan administration was guilty of was remarkable shortsightedness. No doubt it served the short-term purpose of the United States to fund opponents of the Soviet Union and of Iran. And though funding Iraq was clearly irresponsible, it was by no means easy to predict the actions of Bin Laden and other radical muslim anti-Soviet fighters.

Unfortunately, we don't seem to be learning from past mistakes. A year or so ago, the United States announced the sale of F-16s to Pakistan - see here for an overview.

It might be in the short term interest of the United States to sell these to Pakistan, as its cooperation is needed for operations in Afghanistan. Long term, however, we are selling weapons to a country that is within a hair's breadth of being controlled by Islamic extremists. We may get lucky, but clearly this is a move that does not make sense.