Friday, March 16, 2018

Precautionary Principle Problems

Google gives a good definition of the precautionary principle:
pre·cau·tion·ar·y prin·ci·ple noun 
The principle that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted. It has mainly been used to prohibit the importation of genetically modified organisms and food.
It is easy to imagine Very Bad Things that might happen if we ignore the precautionary principle. For example, what if somebody uses gene-editing technology to produce a super-virus that wipes out all human life?

What if genetically modified corn runs amok and spreads uncontrollably? Or maybe GMO foods cause cancer and we just haven't noticed yet.

How about machine learning: what if future super-smart machines decide us humans are unnecessary and decide it is logical to get rid of us?

Scary! Why not be safe and just ban all that research until we understand the possible consequences better?

Well... because Very Bad Things might happen if we do that.

What if an incredibly deadly variation of the Spanish Flu wipes out 99% of human life, but researchers could have saved us if they had more advanced gene-editing techniques?

What if we all starve to death because climate change wipes out all our crops, but researchers could have saved us with geo-engineering or climate-change-resistant GMO crops?

Or maybe super-smart machines will save us (and them) from some world-ending disaster we aren't smart enough to see coming-- asteroids or angry aliens or albino alligator attacks (that's just the a's!).

I don't know how to evaluate the far-future likelihood of machine intelligence or CRISPR destroying everything we value, versus the likelihood they save us from destruction. I don't think anybody knows. Maybe hyper-intelligent man/machine cyborgs will eventually be smart enough to run the numbers and figure it out, but until then I'm going to ignore people who use one side of the precautionary principle to argue against technologies they oppose.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Politics and traditional public schools are inseparable

Here in Amherst there are two education-related questions on the ballot.

The first is a state-wide question on whether or not to allow more charter schools. If I were to believe my Facebook feed, if it passes it would mean the End of Public Schools As We Know Them. My Facebook feed is wrong; allowing more charter schools will have a tiny short-term effect on the public education system. It might have a big long-term effect, but I bet parents will make much bigger changes to the way their kids get educated long before then. The second question on the Amherst ballot is a plan to replace two of our public elementary schools with one brand-new building. Judging from the lawn signs in my neighborhood, there is a lot of controversy over that plan, and I doubt it will pass.

I have sympathy for the school committee; no matter what plan they propose, they won't please everybody. The only way to please everybody would be to have half a dozen different, mostly independent schools in town and let parents and kids and teachers decide on which was best for them.

... which, from a ten-thousand-foot level, looks a lot like public charter schools ...

This is where somebody on the school committee or school administration tells me that's completely unworkable, because busing and six different principals and special education and duplicate facilities and administration.

And how our local public school system really isn't one-size-fits-all, there's a diversity of educational opportunities available inside the public school system (and I should know that-- I've got two kids at Amherst Regional High School).

And how the Massachusetts school system is one of the best in the world-- and Amherst is one of the best in the state. Why mess with a great thing, or question the judgement of people who have done such a great job so far?

Here's where I get philosophical. It seems to me there are two ways we can get what we want from other people in this world:

1) Competition. We can "vote with our feet" -- every time I choose which restaurant to eat at or which shoes to buy I'm casting a vote.

2) Politics. We can vote for or against things we like or don't like, and can try to convince a majority of our neighbors to vote with us.

Traditional public schools force us into politics-- we vote for who we want on the school committee, and vote on big decisions like how we're going to replace our old, obsolete school buildings.

Maybe there are good reasons to keep doing things that way, or maybe we're just stuck with the system we have because changing from a politics-driven system to a competition-driven system would be too disruptive and painful.

But if you're part of the traditional, politics-driven system, you shouldn't complain about passionate public debates or imply that everybody should just trust you because you're the experts (or are listening to the experts). That's just the way majority-wins systems work.

I like competition-driven systems better, maybe because I like to avoid unnecessary conflict. I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy, if you want to send your kids to "West Point Prep" because you think the discipline will be good for them, more power to you.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How much recreation is too much?

On monday night Town Meeting decided to amend the budget to double the recreation subsidy given to low income families, from about $100,000 per year to $200,000 per year. Apparently, funds were running out half-way through the year. There are roughly 1,000 low-income kids in Amherst, so if they all participate in LSSE programs we'll be giving each $200 worth of swimming or sports or after-school-programs.

I don't know how to think about that. Is $200-per-kid-per-year enough? Too much? Just right? I'm sure there are families that can't afford even a heavily subsidized rec fee. And there are probably families too proud to accept a subsidy; maybe LSSE programs for kids should be free to everybody, so nobody need feel embarrassed asking for the subsidy.

And how should Town Meeting members weigh spending $200,000 per year on increasing recreational opportunities versus fixing potholes or hiring more police?

If we gave lower-income families a choice between getting either a $200 subsidy for LSSE programs or getting $200 in cash, I think most would take the cash. There is probably some Massachusetts law preventing Towns from giving people cash grants, but it seems to me it would be better to empower parents to make decisions like "should I spend money on a math tutor or swim lessons or brake pads for the car."

A lot of our social safety net seems like micromanagement to me. I wonder if that is mostly due to progressives who think of the State as a "nurturing mother" with a duty to take care of each of her children's needs ("gotta be sure to provide environmentally friendly housing and nutritious food and liberal education and healthy recreation and...").

Or if it is due to conservatives who think of the State as a "strict father" with a duty to prevent or punish his children's bad decisions ("can't just give cash, they might spend it on Bad Things").

Probably both. So I expect I'll spend a lot more time sitting in Town Meeting listening to heartfelt appeals to increase recreation opportunities for children by increase subsidies for LSSE or increase safety for children by hiring more police or firefighters or increase education for children by hiring more teachers or increase the health of children by giving benefits to part-time Town employees.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that's not so bad-- it would be worse if Amherst was spending money to bomb someplace far away "to benefit future generations of children."

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Are kids really safer in schools?

A couple of comments on my last post challenge my assertion that "Kids are much safer in school than any other place."

I admit, I was lazy, I didn't do any research to back up that statement; I'm parroting Lenore at Free Range Kids, who I trust because I've followed her blog for years and she is always rational and data-driven. And maybe "much safer" and "any other place" are exaggerations; probably kids are just as safe or maybe even safer when they're at home, sleeping in their beds at night (or maybe not, because I'm pretty sure domestic violence is a lot more common than school violence).

But it got me to thinking: how would I go about proving or disproving that kids are safer in school than anyplace else?

I'm a skeptic, and I'm very aware of all the ways we can fool ourselves into "proving" something that we already believe. So if I had the time to research safety in schools, here's how I'd go about it:

First, I'd try to get more specific about what I mean by "safe" -- really, I mean "safe from physical harm." I'm not going to wade into a debate about whether our kids are being developmentally stunted or mentally harmed in school.

Then, I'd find a data source (or, ideally, two or three) that I trust that tracks statistics on deaths or injuries. I'm sure there are databases that keep track of emergency room admissions by age, time, etc.

Before I looked at any of the data, I'd decide what to look for. Any large dataset can be sliced and diced a million ways, and 5% of those ways will give you statistically significant (but meaningless) results.

In the "are schools the safest place for kids to be" case, I'd look at the injury/death rate for school-aged kids during school hours, and compare it against the injury/death rate at other times: weekdays during non-school hours, and weekends.

But that's not quite enough-- maybe the middle-of-the-day school hours are just safer in general. So I'd also look at injury/death rates for kids who are too young for school, to try to isolate the "in school" versus "not in school" factor.

To really do it right, I'd hire a statistician to run a regression over the data (or would take that statistics class I'm always thinking I should get around to taking...). But before doing all that, I'd run a Google Scholar search to see if anybody's already done the hard work.

A couple of minutes of searching "school safety" turned up a bunch of studies that focus JUST on violence in schools, but also "The Inherent Limits of Predicting School Violence"which says:
... violent deaths are a rare event, with less than 1% of the homicides and suicides among school-age children occurring in or around school grounds (Kachur et al., 1996). Moreover, the rate of violent crimes committed by juveniles remains low during the school day, but it spikes at the close of the school day and declines throughout the evening hours (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999), indicating that school hours are probably the safest time of the day for adolescents.
I didn't find any contradictory evidence, so short of crunching the numbers myself (which I'm not going to take the time to do), I'm going to stick with "kids are safer in school."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stop with the lockdowns already...

When I was in school, the Big Bad Boogey-Man was Russia, and we were afraid of nuclear war.

I remember "duck and cover" drills in school, in case of nuclear attack.

Looking back, wasn't that unnecessary fear-mongering? And not just because there didn't happen to be a nuclear war. But because if there WAS a nuclear war, getting cut by flying glass because you didn't hide under your desk when the air raid sirens went off would be the least of your worries.

Today's Big Bad Boogey-Man are strangers in schools. We've had two incidents in Amherst this week where schools went into "lockdown" -- one ridiculous false alarm, and one genuine "somebody creepy and probably mentally unbalanced."

Which makes my skeptical mind wonder: is that just unnecessary fear-mongering? How many times has a school going into "lockdown" saved lives or injury? Can anybody point me to even one story of "Thank God we went into lockdown, that homicidal maniac found the doors locked and just gave up!"

Kids are much safer in school than any other place, despite the high-profile, tragic, terrible incidents that happen somewhere in the world once or twice a year. Kids in US schools are much safer overall than they have ever been.

And it's not because we're locking down our schools; adults in the US are much safer from violence than they've ever been.

I also remember learning to sing about how we're supposed to be living in "the land of the free, and the home of the brave." Locking our kids in their classrooms because we're so afraid of strangers in our schools is teaching them exactly the opposite.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

OPEB funding

OPEB is bureaucrat-ese for "Other Post-Employment Benefits."

We'll be hearing about it more and more in Amherst Town Meeting, because "we" (past Town Meetings / Select Boards) have promised more than 90 million dollars in benefits that "we" didn't put aside money to pay.

Oops. That is more than the Town's total yearly budget.

Promised-to-pay benefits are a huge problem at the local, state, national, and international level. I don't know enough about politics to figure out what is likely to happen, and I suspect we'll see different towns/states/countries try different things-- some will bend or break their past promises, some will plug the hole by taking wealth from people they think can afford it (or who aren't politically powerful enough to complain much), and maybe some will figure out a way to grow their way out of the problem (millions of young immigrant workers paying taxes could push the problem another 40 years into the future).

What should Amherst do?

It is awfully tempting to do nothing. After all, every city and town in Massachusetts is facing a similar problem. It seems very likely that, at some point, either the State or Federal government will step in and fund some sort of bailout, wiping away Town debts by some combination of "breaking promises" and "redirecting wealth." They'll use lots of nicer sounding words, of course; it won't be a local/state government bailout, it will be "Medicare for All" or "Universal Health Security Accounts" or something.

If the Town of Amherst is responsible and tries to pay off those promises itself (which we've started doing, in a very small-so-far way) then we might just end up benefiting less from that future bailout.

Maybe the most responsible thing to do is to be irresponsible.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

High Symbolism, Low Substance debate

Arnold Kling concisely expresses something I've been thinking about a lot lately:
The minimum wage issue is high on symbolism and low on substance.
It feels to me like 98% of the political debate I see is over issues that, in the grand scheme of things, don't really matter.

There are issues that people really, truly, care deeply about. That they get emotional about. That they organize around and march on Washington and make demands.

Abortion. Minimum Wage. Legalizing Marijuana. Children Being Abducted By Strangers. Student loans. Global warming. Peak Oil. Gay marriage. Israel. The Terrorist Threat.

All high symbolism, low substance.

Or, to put it another way: 100% solve any of those issues (in whatever direction your political leanings say they should be solved) and I think the world would look pretty much like it does now.  Slightly better, but not a lot better.

Immigration. Disease. Empowering Individuals / Disempowering Despots. Better Governance ("It's The System, Stupid"). Tolerance.

High substance, often low symbolism. I wish we spent more time talking about things that, if fixed, would make the world much better.