Archive for the 'bad logic' Category

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.

Nudging our way to freedom?

[by JSC7]

There’s been some debate in the blogosphere this last week about an article on nudging*. It’s in the Bill Easterly vein of saying, hey, nudging is cool and all but it’s no panacea, and sometimes you need to push. From an economics point of view, I find the topic fascinating, and worked on a few research projects that dealt with these sorts of nudging questions while at school. From a policy side, though, there’s always been something that bugged me about the nature of the debate, though I could never put a finger on what exactly that was, until I read Chris Blattman’s response to the aforementioned article. Key quote:

…if we really want to change a behavior, we have to change incentives (like prices) or impose restrictions. We don’t nudge people away from domestic violence, for instance, we criminalize it. We don’t just encourage people to stop smoking, we tax the socks off cigarettes.

The obvious rejoinder is that not everyone is comfortable with regulating and taxing and messing with prices. Nudging’s appeal is that it preserves free choice and minimizes state manipulation.

Italics mine. Blattman’s characterization of nudging’s appeal is 100% accurate, but I think the appeal itself is misguided. Worse, the nature of the appeal suggests that many of nudging’s advocate don’t understand the point of nudging.

The underlying thought behind nudging, and much of behavioral economics, is that mental costs are often as important as monetary ones. Classical economics assumes that the most important characteristic of a product is its price. Changing the price of gallon of milk by five cents will have much more impact than, say, where in the supermarket you put that milk (in fact, the latter is assumed to have no impact at all). Behavioral economics comes along and says, hang on a minute, let’s use cool experiments to prove otherwise. What we’ve concluded from these experiments is that non-monetary costs are not negligible. Okay, so rather than just having monetary costs in your equation for how much milk you buy, you now have to factor in both monetary and mental costs.

Is there some kind of fundamental difference between these two kinds of costs? As far as the economics is concerned, no. And yet, policy people seem to be enamored with the idea that raising the monetary costs of a transaction reduces free choice while raising the mental costs of a transaction does not. They’re turning a semantic difference into a normative one. The point of nudging is that we take advantage of the peculiar irrational wiring of our brains in order to unconsciously change our actions. The point is to circumvent our usual (suboptimal) decision-making apparatus. How does that retain free choice any more than a tax (if anything, I can see an argument for the reverse)?**

The idea that nudging ‘minimizes state manipulation’ also seems to stem from strange logic. I think people who think this are conflating the how much a particular state manipulation costs with how much is actually being manipulation. The nice thing about nudges is that there are certain tricks we can implement to get people to do particular things, and often these tricks are quite easy to implement. It may be cheaper to nudge than to pass a tax law, collect the tax, audit, enforce, etc.*** On the other hand, a consumer will probably see none of this. If you buy two packs of cigarettes a week with no intervention, and one pack a week with either a tax or some nudge in place, would the state be manipulating less if it implemented the nudge instead of the tax?  No, it would be the same manipulation, only more efficient. The state is still meddling in your consumption. Ron Paul should still be upset. It can just meddle on the cheap.

The big picture problem is that behavioral economics puts into question some traditional assumptions about human rationality, and offers some cool byproducts of doing so. Policy people snatch up those byproducts, but continue to hang onto dated ideas about human rationality, and thus can say with a straight face that nudging both actively changes people’s choices and gives them more freedom to choose at the same time. They should ask themselves, what is the value of a choice that we know, ex ante, we will not choose?

* If the word nudging means nothing to you, it’s an idea in behavioral economics that has made its way into pop public policy via this book. The gist is that there are certain problems we can solve by making small structural changes that seem trivial but actually matter a lot, like improving health by making unhealthy foods slightly harder to reach or increasing bank use among the poor by making forms easier to fill out.

** Interesting aside: with taxes, we have progressive and regressive taxes, the former taxing rich people proportional to their wealth, like the income tax, and the latter taxing everyone equally, and usually hurting the poor more, like a hike in subway fares. A nudge is like a mental tax (or subsidy, depending on which way it goes). Is it regressive if it disproportionately affects stupid people? What happens to people with non-standard thought patterns?

*** Although not necessarily. I’m sure there are plenty of nudges that would work but would be a pain to implement, like putting an actor posing as a hobo next to liquor stores.

Star Wars vs. Star Trek, part 2: you and what army?

For the second post in a series critiquing George Lucas’s construction of the Star Wars universe, we focus on how small the galactic armed forces are, especially compared to the much more believable size of the Federation’s military in the Star Trek universe.

Continue reading ‘Star Wars vs. Star Trek, part 2: you and what army?’

Star Wars vs. Star Trek: hyperdrive, take 2

One quick follow-on to my previous post on how the Star Wars hyperdrive really should make the Star Wars universe much different than it is.

In addition to the economic, political, and social effects noted in my last post, there is the issue of the broader universe itself. We all know that Star Wars takes place “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” … and the action really is confined within that far away galaxy. But should it be? If we assume that the average spacing between galaxies is ~30 times their average diameter, and if we assume the time to travel across the galaxy in hyperdrive is 2 days, then the Star Wars hyperdrive technology should be able to propel us to a neighboring galaxy in just two months.

It took Columbus 3 months to sail from Spain to the New World in the late 15th Century. Even though that was a rather long travel time, the radical differences in technology levels between the New and Old worlds meant that Europeans had a big effect on New World societies from the get go.

We would assume that, since the Star Wars galaxy is teeming with life forms, other galaxies would be similarly-endowed. And given the large number of galaxies in the universe, we’d also assume a broad distribution of technology levels among them, with all the disruption that entails. So where are all the other galaxies in the Star Wars universe? Just another way in which the modesty of Star Trek’s Warp Drive rescues that universe from such complications.

Star Wars vs. Stark Trek, part 1: hyperdrive >> Warp Drive

I’ve now watched Star Wars episodes I to VI twice in the last year (with two different groups of people – it’s weird how often people say ‘ok’ when you suggest a Star Wars marathon). I’m a fan. I’m a big fan of Star Trek, too, and I sometimes get miffed when Star Wars fans make fun of their Trekkie brothers and sisters in arms. They’ll always trot out a slew of critiques, from “it’s too boring: all talk, no action” to “the Federation society is too unbelievably perfect. Who are these people who work for no monetary reward, and follow the Prime Directive religiously?”. Fair enough. But I’ve always secretly thought that the Star Trek universe is at least well-realized, with a great number of interlocking characteristics that make sense as a unified whole. In contrast, while I still think Star Wars is pretty cool as space opera, it’s narrative universe is full of glaring and obvious holes.

Today, in the first of a series of posts on the subject, we focus on Star Wars’ hyperdrive as a disruptive technology that should lead to some important characteristics that are lacking in the movies. In contrast, Star Trek’s Warp Drive is well-suited to the types of societies we see in that narrative universe.

Continue reading ‘Star Wars vs. Stark Trek, part 1: hyperdrive >> Warp Drive’

Stupid, Counterstupid

New York Times’ “Room for Debate” blog, which poses questions and asks panels of experts to submit short position statements on the questions, recently tackled the issue of pot legalization and risks of addiction. The specific question: “What would be the effect of legalization or decriminalization on marijuana abuse and addiction?” The experts?

Continue reading ‘Stupid, Counterstupid’


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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