Does School Kill Your Future?

Well, here is a paper that aligns perfectly with my prejudices against schooling:

The Economic Value of Breaking Bad Misbehavior, Schooling and the Labor Market

Prevailing research argues that childhood misbehavior in the classroom is bad for schooling and, presumably, bad overall. In contrast, we argue that childhood misbehavior reflects underlying traits that are potentially valuable in the labor market. We follow work from psychology and treat measured classroom misbehavior as reflecting two underlying non-cognitive traits. Next, we estimate a model of life-cycle decisions, allowing the impact of each of the two traits to vary by economic outcome. We show the first evidence that one of the traits capturing childhood misbehavior, discussed in psychological literature as the externalizing trait (and linked, for example, to aggression), does indeed reduce educational attainment, but also increases earnings. This finding highlights a broader point: non-cognition is not well summarized as a single underlying trait that is either good or bad per se. Using the estimated model, we assess competing pedagogical policies. For males, we find that policies aimed at eliminating the externalizing trait increase schooling attainment, but also reduce earnings. In comparison, policies that decrease the schooling penalty of the externalizing trait increase both schooling and earnings.

They have studied a cohort information database and looked for correlations between behavioral problems at school and future earnings and have found that they exist and they are positive. That means, the bad boys earn more when grow up and, what is for me much more important, the attitudes and behaviors that guarantee success in school are damaging in reality.
I don’t have time to dive into the numbers and assess the relevance of the correlations found. I have the suspicion that it may be an artefact.  If somebody has the time and is in the mood to do investigate it, please keep us informed.

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link.

Antifragile chapter 24: Fitting Ethics to a Profession

This chapter bring us again the Stoic Taleb, who reflects about money and being rich. Fat Tony, again, gives us the meat on this chapter in a single sentence: “Being self-owned is a state of mind”. You can be a millionaire and still be a slave. By self-ownership Taleb means:

“It simply meant being the owner of your opinion. And it has nothing to do with wealth, birth, intelligence, looks, shoe size, rather with personal courage.

“In other words, for Fat Tony, it was a very, very specific definition of a free person: someone who cannot be squeezed into doing something he would otherwise never do.”

Part of the reason that having lots of money doesn’t assure you self ownership is iswhat Taleb calles the Treadmill effect: You need more and more money to stay in the same place. So you compromise your views and opinions in order to make yourself richer and richer.

The main subject of this chapter is ethics, and Taleb position is clear and simple: one should make profession adapt to some ethics, and never make ethics to adapt to our profession. He also returns to his idea of “skin in the game”, and how you should put some in your professional activities.

Despite his own saying that the section is a little bit technical, I loved his criticism of the fad of “Big Data” and how if you process enough information you are going to to find correlations for sure. He called it “The tragedy of big data”; the more variables you analyze, the more correlations you are going to find, but most are going to be spurious.


23. Skin in the Game: Antifragility and Optionality

Following the schedule of our reading calendar.

The book enters now its final part: “The Ethics of Fragility and Antifragility” and it does so with a long and powerful chapter that conveys probably the core of Taleb’s ideology.
It is centered on what he calls:

(…) the malignant transfer of fragility and antifragility from one party to the other, with one getting the benefits, the other one (unwittingly) getting the harm (p. 375)

This is the oposite of Heroism, which is the sacrifice for the sake of others, and is made acute by modernity and the knowledge economy.
This is similar to what in economics is called the agency problem, the dilemma that arises when one is acting in behalf of other’s people and is tempted to maximize its own interests at the expense of the represented people.
The problem is everywhere in our society. Private firm executives that manage stoke-holder’s money, politicians that manage tax payers money, consultants and advisers, hedge fund managers, rating agencies, etc… All these people in the eyes of Taleb are despicable:

(…) if you don’t take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand, nothing. And when you take risks, insults by half-men (small men, those who don’t risk anything) are similar to barks by nonhuman animals: you can’t feel insulted by a dog. (p. 380)

The only solution to this problem is “skin in the game”. Only those whose risks are aligned with their words are worth being listened. Only those who get the benefits and the downfalls of their actions are to be trusted:

Never ask anyone of their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have -or don’t have- in their portfolio. (p. 389)

Fat Toni has two heuristics:

First, never get on a plane if the pilot is not on board.
Second, make sure there is also a copilot. (p. 381)

that pickup two basic strategies to cope with the complexity of the world: skin in the game and redundancy.
The problem is that the modern world is going away and away from them and modern big corporations are the metaphor of this process. Limited liability corporations, heavily criticized by Adam Smith in the “the origin of wealth”, are machines of transferring antifragility from the whole of the society to a minority with the connivance of the politicians.

A corporation does not have natural ethics; it just obeys the balance sheet. The problem is that its sole mission is the satisfaction of some metric imposed by security analysts, themselves (very) prone to charlatanism. (p. 404)
Only, a sense of honor can lead to commerce. Any commerce. (p 405)

The chapter is full of examples and interesting reflexions. It is really worth reading in its entirety and can be red independently of the rest of the book.

Do You Want To Lose Weight And Improve Your Cholesterol? Try Fasting.

After reading Taleb’s arguments for improving our life and its passionate defense of random, irregular fasting, I was curious if there were any controlled studies on the health effects of fasting in humans.

There is not much. If you go to Wikipedia fasting entry, there appear to be only anecdotal evidence, most of it showing benefits. This article, for instance, talks about the weight losing and cholesterol improving effects of intermittent fasting:

Or, for example, look at this other article:

that begins criticizing the fasting approach but ends up defending it.

We have no empirical evidence on one side or the other and we have the fact that most humans have forcibly fasted for most of human history and that most religions include fasting as a ritual of purification.

You choose.

Why I Hope to Die at 75

The tittle and final paragraphs of our “Antifragile” last commented chapter brought to my memory this text that appeared very recently and got a lot of attention in the Net and ignited a lot of controversy too.

The basic idea is that there is no use in living beyond human dignity and it is unfair to toll our children with the memories of our sad last years that are going to erase the image that we imprinted in them when we were young and lively adults.

He wants to die at 75 (now he says so). But he is against suicide and euthanasia. He just proposes to let nature do its way. After 75 no medical treatments other that palliatives. No antibiotics no chemotherapy no medical checks.

Worth reading.

Antifragile 22: To live longer but not too long

In this chapter Taleb applies the ideas seen in former chapters to describe how can we improve our lives and health.

Following the general concepts described in the former chapter on medicine, Taleb questions the famous argument that now we live longer thanks to progress, technology and medicine. Taleb rightly observes that this is true only in the case of lethal diseases in which iatrogenics is not relevant -after all you are going to die anyway, so why don’t we try some surgery?

In his delightfully ironic style, Taleb defends the via negativa in medicine, avoiding bad stuff -including non critical surgery, with statements like “telling people not to smoke seems to be the greatest contribution of medicine in the last sixty years”.

I find specially relevant his proposal of substituting the pursuit of happiness for the avoidance of unhappiness. I’d say that this is one of the best reccommendations to live a happy life I’ve evern seen.
So, for Taleb being healthy is mostly a substractive activity:

“If true wealth consists in worriless sleeping, clear conscience, reciprocal gratitude, absence of envy, good appetite, muscle strength, physical energy, frequent laughs, no meals alone, no gym class, some physical labor (or hobby), good bowel movements, no meeting rooms, and periodic surprises, then it is largely subtractive (elimination of iatrogenics).”

Another very interesting topic in this chapter is his apology of fasting. For Taleb, religions has a not so obvious function of limiting iatrogenics by substituting dangerous medical practices with harmless one (going to church to pray for your health instead of going to the doctor) and he finds specially relevant the idea of fasting to have a better health. He argues for the wisdom of fasting based on the idea that human bodies were not designed to always eat at certain times similar amounts of food, but to fast for some days untill some food was found and then gorging on it until it was finished. We are not merely vegetarian, or carnivores, or paleo, but we adapt to whatever the environment bring us. Non-linearity is also relevant when considering food intake.

In a similar way, Taleb questions the idea that breakfast is the most important food intake of the day, and we must eat a lot and observes how humans were not designed by nature to eat food first thing in the morning: one eats after some exertion because one spends some energy and need to recover it.
Taleb finishes this chapter with his classical no-nonsense approach observing how living longer is not such an amazing purpose in life. We should care more about the quality of life, and, like the ancients, avoiding a dishonourable death.

Antifragile 21. Medicine, Convexity, and Opacity

Following the schedule of our reading calendar.

Medicine is one of the favorite themes of Mr Taleb. Not only because he extracts from medicine some of the concepts that helped him to give form to his idea of antifragility like “hormesis” and “Iatrogenics”. It is also because history and practice of the medicine are full of the incorrect approaches to science and life that the author so much criticizes.

And it is true that for everybody medical decisions can be among the most relevant decisions involving our philosophy of the world we may have to confront.

His two principles:

1. We do not need evidence of harm to claim that a drug is dangerous. It is the non-natural that has to present evidence. Human bodies swell after a hit. It is a body response evolved after millions of years of selection. Is the option selected by history and nature. It is the guy who argues that swelling has to be removed who has to present evidence showing why this is a good idea.

What Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise. (p. 349)

2. Iatrogenics (harm by medicine) is not linear. It is reasonable to try almost everything on the terminally ill, because the worst outcome is not much worse than the non-action. However, in the case of the almost-healthy, intervention, even when theoretically save can be loaded with hidden downsides.

Which reminds me of one of may favorite Yogi Berra’s sentences:

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

Surgery has been for centuries immune to Iatrogenics for a very simple reason: the lack of anesthesia made such a horrible experience an operation that none was performed unless in the most desperate situations. Medicine, however, lost in his high flying philosophical foundations, was prone to ridiculous bloodlettings at every possible occasion. With the advent of anesthesia surgery has become victim of the human hubris and unnecessary and risky operations are performed everywhere.

We act for the small gains that we see ignoring the huge side effects that are hidden by the complexity and opacity of the world. And in case of doubt, we intervene.