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What I Learned from a Year Spent Studying How to Get Policymakers to Use Evidence

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The past year I was a senior research analyst at Northwestern University's Global Poverty Research Lab on a study of evidence-based policy. Specifically, our goal was to work on a question often on researchers' minds: how can I get my ideas acted upon?

To do this, I dug through a number of bodies of evidence on how science influences policy. One area I looked at is what is called "implementation science" in medicine, which looks at how to get doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators to adopt evidence-based practice. Another was a series of papers by social scientist Carol Weiss and her students on how policymakers in government agencies claim to use evidence. There is also a small literature on how to implement evidence-based policy in public schools, and a little work on policymaker numeracy. I've included a bibliography below that should be helpful for anyone interested in this topic.

Most of my year was spent on delving into attempts to scale up specific pol…

How I'm Voting in California's Overwhelming June Primaries

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I've finished going through the June 5th California primary election for Oakland, and below are my picks. If anyone disagrees with my choices, please make your case—most of these I do not feel strongly about, and I did not have time to thoroughly research all of them.

In general, the issue I care most about is opposing or at least not supporting animal agriculture. In most cases that's irrelevant, as I could not find any relevant positions. The rare exception is incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein, who spearheaded the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which is disqualifying. On top of that, she's historically supported mass incarceration and has buckled under to Trump until she started fearing primary challengers. Senator Feinstein deserves to lose badly. Everyone should vote for her most plausible opponent from the left, Kevin DeLeon, both now and in November. On top of that, if you can state publicly that you voted against her because of the AETA, that would be powerful.


As …

I'm Not Running a Marathon Because #YOLO

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A few months ago, I posted on my Facebook wall that I was considering running a marathon and asked for advice. I'd started training low-key in October for no particular reason. I've been a runner since I was eleven or twelve, and one day after going for a slightly longer run than normal, my fiancé Lucas and I talked about how cool it would be if I ran a marathon, so I decided I'd give it a try.

Then one day, again for no particular reason, I researched the health effects of running a marathon. I expected to find that it was positive, at least mildly. Instead what I found were articlesuponarticles pooh-poohing marathons as unhealthy wastes of time. Now as much as I appreciate science writers for spreading important findings, I also know they frequently get things wrong. So I searched Google Scholar, and I found roughly the same thing. I'd decided to do the marathon for no particular reason except that it would be an achievable accomplishment with presumably only positive…

Cheers for Animal Charity Evaluators

Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) released a long-overdue report on protest effectiveness. I'm biased because I'm quoted there, but I thought I would take the occasion to note how much I think ACE has grown in the past few years. I'm tremendously grateful to ACE's founders, but when ACE started out (as "Effective Animal Advocacy"), its advice was rudimentary, based on little science, and made by a very small staff. I'm struck by the careful and nuanced conclusion the report reaches:

Overall, we would like to see the animal advocacy movement invest slightly more heavily in protests. Protests currently receive a tiny portion of the movement’s resources and, given the limited evidence we do have, it’s plausible they are at least as cost-effective as interventions that receive much more of the movement’s resources, such as leafleting. Moreover, we think that the use of protests contributes to the diversity of tactics in the movement, which can help attract a gre…

Rewatching West Side Story: Four Things I Noticed

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I watched West Side Story this weekend for the first time in years, and I'd really forgotten what a gem it is. I'd always liked the movie, but I'd mostly seen it as a top-notch adaptation of an already excellent musical and not a unique work of art in its own right. In this viewing, I realized what a special piece it is, and there were four things that stuck out to me:

1) Visual Storytelling



It seems paradoxical, but musicals can in some way rely more on visuals to tell their stories than non-musicals can. Because music exists on its own, untethered from specific visuals, musical sequences in some ways resemble silent film more than sound film. I was struck by the use of gestures, dance, and camera techniques to tell a story without dialogue, particularly in the opening sequence.

2) The Interplay of Camera and Dance



Cinematography and choreography are challenging art forms; combining them is even more difficult. I was struck by how the camera deftly moves with the motion witho…

What I've Been Reading/Watching/Listening to:

Reading:
Can It Happen Here?—A collection of essays on whether fascism or something like it can come to America. It's not all about Trump, but envisions a lot of different scenarios.

Audiobooks:
Jane Eyre—Regarded as one of the first psychological novels, it follows a young woman's journey through 18th century England. I find it remarkably similar to Wuthering Heights by Brontë's sister and also found antecedents of parts of recent works (Harry Potter and Beauty and The Beast).
The Bhagavad Gita—I've been meaning to read the great works of the world's most common religions. The Bhagavad Gita is captivating in its beauty and wisdom. From my lay understanding, it seems to anticipate a lot of modern ideas in psychology and physics.

TV:
How to Get Away with Murder—I love this show. How had I not seen it yet? The plot is salacious, and the characters pop off the screen. 

Film:
Love, Simon—Finally a gay movie with a happy ending. I had hoped Call Me By Your Name would be it, but…

The Holocaust Analogy for Animal Agriculture Matters—And It Drives My Activism

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I can remember where I was the first time I learned that a man named Hitler had killed members of my family. It was on a hill in the Bay Area that we drove up to get to our house. I drove on it a few months ago and remembered the conversation. My great-grandfather loved me and always showed care to me in the few years I knew him, and it shocked me to learn that his brothers, sisters, and parents were murdered.

Like most Jews of my generation, I grew up with this legacy on my mind. In every history class I had that covered the 1940s, I would wonder when and how they would talk about the Holocaust. (It wasn't until high school that we did.) I did not know how the Holocaust happened until I was in fourth grade, when I overheard a friend describing how Hitler would get Jews to go into showers and then gas them. My friend clearly found it wrong, but he did not feel the outrage of if it had been done to him. I felt personal outrage. I could see that image in my head viscerally forever af…

The Largest Randomized Controlled Trial in History

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Chinese researchers released what appears to be the largest experiment in history, with over a thousand researchers involved. The authors list alone is dumbfounding. The study is on the diffusion of modern scientific agricultural techniques in China. There is so much to ponder here that I can barely get started, but a few things:

(1) This shows an inspiring, awesomely grand application of the most rigorous social science tool and should expand the horizons of what's possible.

(2) This shows the growing power of China in combination with social science. I don't quite understand how this worked, but it seems like the type of thing that has got to be far more difficult in a democracy. That makes it somewhat disturbing, but it also raises the question of what interesting findings will come out of China.

(3) This study might worry those concerned about animal agriculture. It's not directly connected, but such efficiency when applied to raising animals could become even worse tortu…

Why Can't Steven Pinker and AI Safety Altruists Get Along?

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There are few books that have more influenced to my thinking than Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. The book makes a powerful case for effective altruism by showing that much of what effective altruists try to spread—reason and empathy, chiefly—has led to a sweeping decline in virtually every form of human violence over the course of human history. At the same time, I think that Pinker's thesis and evidence in that book are compatible with an understanding that tail risks to human civilization, such as catastrophic risks, may have increased, and animal suffering, has clearly increased in recent history. (Humans' moral views on the latter do clearly seem to be improving, though.) 
I've found it puzzling, then, that to coincide with the publication of his book Enlightenment Now, Pinker has been publishing multiplearticles criticizing altruists who are focused on addressing long-term risks, primarily from artificial general intelligence. Pinker disagrees wit…

The Groffscars ("Oscars") of 2017

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Thanks to the advent of MoviePass, I've decided to return to my high school cinephile days, and with them, a round up of the best of the year. But before I get into this, I must say, if you have not seen Black Panther yet, see it. It would rank toward the top of my list had it come out in 2017 (and surely will be one of the tops in 2018).

Without further ado, then, here are my top choices for 2017 in film:

8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I love Star Wars movies, and I'm not ashamed to say that the current round are worthy of recognition for their craftsmanship. This one in particular was a work of art in ways most Star Wars movies are not. The plot was complex and ever-changing, and the visuals were brilliant. I'm happy to see major Hollywood franchises–Marvel, Star Wars, etc.–start putting solid directors behind the camera to make pop entertainment into pop art. (Warner Brothers, could we fire Zack Snyder and get a real director for the Justice League movies?) Let's have mor…

Fooling Ourselves into Believing Things

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A New York Times piece I'd had in my backlog writes about an issue most atheists struggle to understand: how does one come to believe something one does not believe? Can we make ourselves have faith?

I was struck by the piece because as time has gone on, I've seen how real this phenomenon can be–and how it may even be something useful to rational people. I've experienced moments when I've thought of getting myself to believe something I did not believe or feel something I did not feel.

Most saliently, as with most gay men, I tried to be straight. I took it a step further in college and did a program called the Vaad, which attempted to turn Yale students into Orthodox Jews. They were damn good at it, too, full of references to the surprisingly difficult fine-tuned universe argument and Kurt Vonnegut. Some people in the program did go on to go to Israel, study at Yeshiva, and so on, and from what I hear there are many others like that. And of course, in some ways, I've…