When ideas have sex: Matt Ridley

I believe language matters and this is a great example of a title/headline that will draw in people who might otherwise never consider watching a video on sociology and economics. Ridley’s thesis is well organized and delivered. My favorite lines:

“What we’ve done in human society, through exchange and specialization, we’ve created the ability to do things we don’t even understand. It’s not the same with language. With language we have to transfer ideas that we understand with each other.”

“What’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they’re cooperating with each other. Not how clever the individuals are.”

Despite the focus on the centrality of communication and cooperation, with which I could not agree more, I must confess to disappointment with Ridley’s optimism that our collective mind and technology will continue to fuel human progress. Then again, that may be because the two of us understand the meaning of “human progress” in different ways.

WordsCount.info, an Emerging Resource for Word Lovers


Animation of a Hypotrochoid Out Three Fifths made by Sam Derbyshire with MuPAD [source]

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve relied on the SMOG Readability Calculator (SMOG=Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) for years as a quick check on my writing and readability level for specific audiences. Now the SMOG calculator is combined with other useful resources and tools at the new WordsCount.info site. Check it out.

Gmail Gets One-Click Microsoft Word Previews

gmail_logo.PNGGoogle just announced a small but handy new feature for Gmail: one-click previews for Microsoft Word documents. This new features works for .doc and the more recent .docx format. Until now, Gmail’s one-click preview feature only supported PDF files, PowerPoint documents and images in the TIFF format. The new preview feature for Word documents replaces the “view as HTML” option in Gmail.

Now, this is useful for anyone, but particularly those of us who spend a large portion of our days working with words and sharing words with others. One more step toward complete abandonment of the corporate Microsoft Exchange jail. It’s a good example of an added feature that seems so obvious you wonder why no one has done it before. Thank you, Google.


Even With a Cleanup, Spilled Oil Stays With Us


Usually I either tweet or blog or pop something in between here on Posterous, but this article printed in today’s New York Times warrants an exception. It’s not only the quality content that appeals; it’s the quality of the choices made in the use of format/media/channel.

Yes, it’s in dense print with photo images for those relaxing with their Sunday papers away from electronic media. And a reader will learn much from that alone. But the online version at nytimes.com (click link under photo) adds much more meaning and understanding with multimedia images and interactive infographics.

Once again, in the midst of a glut of words and images with little meaning, I am reminded of the value of professional journalism.

Moderate Fear of Falling, Slippery Slopes, and Other Rhetorical Tricks

Fear of Falling

by Richard Thaler
Reaction Essay
April 7th, 2010

There are a lot of things out there to be afraid of, and there seem to be phobias named for each one. For example, you may not be familiar with bathmophobia, which is an abnormal and persistent fear of stairs or steep slopes, or a fear of falling. Less well known is “nudgephobia,” also known as the Whitman-Rizzo syndrome, which is the fear of being gently nudged down a slope while standing on a completely flat surface. This phobia is sometimes associated with other disorders such as the fear of being given helpful directions when lost; the fear of obtaining reliable medical advice when sick; and, in rare cases, some have even suffered from a fear of having someone recommend a book or movie that you will really like.

It is presumably bathmophobia that has led Professor Whitman (and his co-author Mario Rizzo) to be so afraid that the policies that Cass Sunstein and I call libertarian paternalism will eventually lead to society falling down a steep cliff. I attribute this critique to an irrational phobia because I cannot make any other sense of it.

First, let’s be clear about what Sunstein and I mean by libertarian paternalism. We use the word libertarian (small “l”) as an adjective to modify paternalism, and it implies that we advocate policies that maintain people’s freedom to choose at as low a cost as possible. As for paternalism, we say on page five of our book, and repeat ad nauseam, that we call a policy paternalistic “if it tries to influence choices in a way that makes choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” (The emphasis is in the original.) Nonetheless, Whitman accuses us (and some of our fellow behavioral economics travelers) of wanting to push people in the directions that we ourselves prefer. I am not sure how we could have been any clearer that this is precisely not our intent, and I am not sure how we would have decided what to push for since Sunstein and I do not agree ourselves. I am a lover of fine wines; Cass prefers Diet Coke. With fundamental philosophical differences such as these, we wouldn’t get very far in pushing in the directions we prefer! This applies to the rest of our gang as well. Matthew Rabin prefers to dress in tie-dyed T-shirts, but I have never known him to lobby for a subsidy for this article of clothing.

Another basic point that Whitman does not recognize is that paternalism of some sort is inevitable. Consider the following common problem. Most firms have an open enrollment period in November when employees can elect their benefit package for the following year. At my employer, the University of Chicago, you have a few weeks to log on to the appropriate web site and make your selections. The question is, what should the employer do for those employees who forget to log on? (Professors’ reputations for absent-mindedness are well deserved.) For each of the choices the employee has, the employer needs to select a default option for those who do not log on, and normally the default is either “same choice as last year” or “back to zero” (meaning, decline this option). At Chicago the default option for the health insurance plan is the same as last year.

Of course it is possible to criticize this choice of the default option, but it is essential to understand that the employer must choose something. Some employers use “back to zero,” which minimizes the costs to the employer; somewhat less drastic would be to default employees into the plan that is cheapest for the employer; one could even choose a default plan at random (don’t laugh — this is the strategy used for some participants in the Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage implemented by the Bush administration); or the employer could somehow force employees to make a choice. The Nudge philosophy here is that the person who designs the plan, whom we call the choice architect, should choose the default that she thinks, all things considered, will make the participants best off. Does Professor Whitman have a better suggestion?

In short, the risk of the slippery slope appears to be a figment of Professor Whitman’s imagination, and clear evidence of his bathmophobia. To be fair to him, this phobia is hardly unique to him and Professor Rizzo. Slope-mongering is a well-worn political tool used by all sides in the political debate to debunk any idea they oppose. For example, when the proposal was made to replace the draft with an all-volunteer army, the opponents said this would inevitably lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences because we were turning our military into a band of mercenaries. The argument is perfectly versatile. If we allow (blacks, women, gays. . . .) into the military then (fill in the awful but inevitable consequence here). If we allow free speech then we will give voice to the next Hitler. “Allowing a partial privatization of Social Security will destroy the moral fabric of our society.” Never mind that Sweden did it a decade ago. You get the idea.

Instead of slope-mongering we should evaluate proposals on their merits. (We devote a chapter of Nudge to an evaluation of the choice architecture used in Sweden’s social security experience.) Helping people make better choices, as judged by themselves, is really not a controversial goal, is it?

As an employer, I often wrestle with questions around whether or note a particular policy or practice encourages “informed choice” or could be considered “paternalistic.” As usual, Thaler places the rhetorical labels into context by explaining the reasoning behind many employers’ default options in a way that reduces the labels to a petty debate.