Monday, July 30, 2007

Three Tidbits from Today's Washington Post

"Bush and Counterfactual Confidence" By Shankar Vedantam, Monday, July 30, 2007
Bush said at a recent press briefing about the Iraq situation, where he faced a barrage of questions about flagging support for the war. "I firmly believe the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."

Bush's argument is based on something known as a counterfactual. In his mind, the president has run an alternate view of history -- one that imagines Saddam Hussein still in power -- and has come to the conclusion that deposing the Iraqi leader was better......

Bush is not alone in using counterfactual thinking. Coming up with what-if scenarios is how people make sense of the world. When we make a financial decision that turns out poorly, we imagine going back in time and not investing in that stock or buying that house. That scenario looks rosier -- it is an upward counterfactual. But let us say we make a good financial decision. When we imagine not buying that stock or that house, we contrast the money we have made with the money we might have lost had we not made the investment -- producing a downward counterfactual.

But what is dangerous about counterfactuals is that while they may seem reasonable, they easily become a way for us to confirm what we already feel.....

Philip Tetlock, a professor of organizational behavior and political science at the University of California, has found that the careless use of counterfactuals is one reason politicians and experts are often wrong in their predictions.
"Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling" By Shankar Vedantam, July 30, 2007
women who work full time and have never taken time off to have children earn about 11 percent less than men with equivalent education and experience.

In one early study, Babcock brought 74 volunteers into a laboratory to play a word game called Boggle. The volunteers were told they would be paid anywhere from $3 to $10 for their time. After playing the game, each student was given $3 and asked if the sum was okay. Eight times more men than women asked for more money.

Babcock then ran the experiment a different way. She told a new set of 153 volunteers that they would be paid $3 to $10 but explicitly added that the sum was negotiable. Many more now asked for more money, but the gender gap remained substantial: 58 percent of the women, but 83 percent of the men, asked for more.

Another study quizzed graduating master's degree students who had received job offers about whether they had simply accepted the offered starting salary or had tried to negotiate for more. Four times as many men -- 51 percent of the men vs. 12.5 percent of the women -- said they had pushed for a better deal. Not surprisingly, those who negotiated tended to be rewarded -- they got 7.4 percent more, on average -- compared with those who did not negotiate......

(A new set of experiments) found that men and women get very different responses when they initiate negotiations. Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women's reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice".

"What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not," Bowles said. "They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not."
"Science Notebook: First, Do the Math," Monday, July 30, 2007.
Researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia analyzed the grades of more than 8,000 undergraduates who took introductory biology, chemistry and physics at 63 colleges and universities. They also looked at how much preparation those students had in high school.

Students who took more high school biology tended to excel in college biology, but they did not do any better in chemistry or physics, the team reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Similarly, those who took more high school chemistry did better in college chemistry, but not biology or physics. The same pattern held true for physics.

The one thing that helped students do well in all college science was having taken an advanced high school math class. That undermines a commonly held belief that math training is not particularly important or helpful for the study of biology.
Comment: Of course, evaluation is all about counterfactual analysis. It always, implicitly or explicitly compares what actually happened with what might have happened. Sometimes the analysis can be pretty factual, as when one decides not to buy a stock on the stock market. The newspaper will tell you quickly what happened to that stock after your decision. On the other hand, who knows what would have happened had Bush decided not to invade Iraq.

The second example shows that apparent irrationality may actually prove rational with deeped understanding. The assumption that the outcomes of bargaining strategies will be the same for men and women seems pretty doubtful, once that assumption has been pointed out.

Finally, the third story suggests that math helps in all the sciences. Sometimes research adds confirmatory evidence to something we all probably suspected. In the old days, people thought learning math helped you to thing logically. JAD

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