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Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Last week we saw yet another major reversal of opinion by experts. For years we have all been lectured severely on the need to finish every single course of prescription drugs.

But the latest wisdom is that this is not necessary.

The announcement that petrol and diesel cars will be banned by 2040 only serves to remind the millions of diesel car owners that they were told only a few years ago that diesel was a Good Thing.

These stories have been very prominent in the media. But they are by no means isolated examples. Such reversals of opinion are all too common in the softer social and medical sciences. The “evidence base”, a phrase beloved of metropolitan liberal experts, is often built on sand.

This is neatly illustrated by psychology. Science is probably the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. At the end of 2015, a group of no fewer than 270 authors published a paper in it. They were all part of the teams which had published 100 scientific articles in top psychology journals.

In only 16 out of the 100 cases could the experimental results be replicated sufficiently closely to be confident that the original finding was valid.

The papers had been published in top psychology journals, and the original authors were involved in the replication experiment. So the replication rate should have been high.

Instead, it was so low that the lead author of the Science piece points out that they effectively knew nothing. The original finding could be correct, the different result in the attempted replication could be. Or neither of these could be true.

There is no suggestion at all that any sort of fraud or misrepresentation was involved when the original results were submitted for publication. But economic theory helps us understand how this absurd situation came about.

The great insight of economics is that people react to incentives.

Academics now face immense pressure to publish research papers. If they do not, they get more burdensome teaching loads, miss out on promotions, and might even get sacked. Their incentive is to publish.

Academic journals will only very rarely accept a paper which contains negative results. The whole culture is to find positive ones. So experiments will be re-designed, run with different samples, until that sought-after positive finding is obtained.

More and more academics are now desperate to publish more and more research papers. To meet this increase in demand, there has been a massive increase in the supply of journals willing to publish. Many of these are highly dubious, prepared to accept papers on payment of a fee by the authors.

For all except a small elite of individuals and institutions, academic life has become increasingly proletarianised. In the old Soviet Union, workers could get medals for exceeding the quota of, say, boot production. It did not matter if all the boots were left footed.

Many universities are now similar, with useless articles being churned out to meet the demands of bureaucrats. Time for a big purge, both of academics and their institutions.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd August 2017

Image: Sand Castle by Gregor is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Believe it or not, Britain is getting happier

Believe it or not, Britain is getting happier

The dominant economic narrative in the UK is a pretty gloomy one just now.

True, employment is at a record high. But, counter the whingers and whiners, zero hours contracts and low pay proliferate.

The political discourse is full of the struggles of the JAMs – the Just About Managing The public sector moans about its pay. During the election, Labour played ruthlessly on the fears and anxieties of the elderly about inheritance and the value of pensions.

All in all, the picture seems bleak. But a much more positive vision is given by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in its measure of well-being.

The Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme was established in November 2010 under David Cameron. It is not without its critics. But if we take it at face value, compared to a year ago the country is definitely happier.

As the ONS puts it: “the latest update provides a broadly positive picture of life in the UK, with the majority of indicators either improving or staying the same over the one year period”.

There seems to be a bit of a glitch. The ONS boasts of using no fewer than 43 separate indicators to measure well-being. But they go on to state, in the very same sentence, that of these 43 measures, “15 improved, 18 stayed the same and two deteriorated, compared with one year earlier”. Perhaps the relevant statistician here received his or her basic training at the Diane Abbott School of Arithmetic.

No matter, it could be that some of the series have simply not been updated at all. Certainly, many people might not be too concerned to learn that “on environmental sustainability, the proportion of waste from households that was recycled fell over a one-year period, while remaining unchanged over the three-year period”.

But compared to a year previously, on some key indicators, as a nation we were more satisfied with our jobs, felt our health was better, and enjoyed our leisure time more.

This does not fit readily with political discussion recently in the mainstream media.

One possible reason is that many of the ONS measures rely on conventional survey techniques. These can take some time to carry out. So the ONS only release new data every six months, and the latest one was in April. The indicators could just be out of date.

However, a very similar story is told by a real-time analysis of Twitter data, which I have been carrying out with my UCL colleague Rickard Nyman since June 2016 (admittedly just for the London area).

We use advanced machine learning algorithms which essentially measure the sentiment level of a tweet as a whole, rather than relying on the now obsolete approach of looking for specific positive and negative words.

Sentiment in London started to rise quite sharply last autumn, dipped down slightly in April and May, but is now back up again.

Many conventional economic statistics are not really designed for the modern economy. So, despite, all its faults, the ONS well-being measure may be a step in the right direction, and regardless of what the media tells you, Britain may indeed be getting happier.

As published in City AM Wednesday 19th July 2017

Image: Happiness by Geralt is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Diane Abbott is rubbish at maths – but not compared to the rest of the country

Diane Abbott is rubbish at maths – but not compared to the rest of the country

Diane Abbott’s car crash of an interview on LBC radio last week hit the headlines. Asked politely but firmly for the numbers and costings of Labour’s plans on the police, her answers varied wildly from sentence to sentence.

Of course, being charitable, it was always open to Labour’s shadow home secretary to spend a few minutes actually bothering to read her brief before going on the programme. But the whole of Labour’s leadership give the impression of finding numbers difficult.

They are by no means alone in their apparently low level grasp of even basic mathematics. At the end of last year, the OECD released the detailed results of its global Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests. Pisa assesses the extent to which 15 year olds have acquired the skills which are essential in modern societies.

Over half a million students from 72 countries took the tests. These are in reading, science and maths. Pisa does not just ascertain whether students can reproduce knowledge. It also examines how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and can apply that knowledge in unfamiliar settings.

The tests divide the results into six levels. At the top level, in the OECD’s words, students “are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning… they can apply this understanding to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations”. The UK comes out almost exactly in line with the OECD average in terms of high performers, with 10.6 per cent of students achieving levels five or six in maths, compared to the average of 10.8 per cent across the 72 countries as a whole.

In contrast, in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, more than 25 per cent of students had scores which put them in these top levels.

Perhaps even more worryingly, no less than 21.9 per cent of those taking the tests in the UK scored “below level two”, as the OECD tactfully puts it. In plain English, they were in level one, the bottom set.

In 2016 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) carried out a major study on literacy, numeracy and ICT skills just within England. Both its age groupings and its definitions of the ability levels differ somewhat from those of the Pisa report, but the results are the same. No less than 29 per cent of 16 to 18 year olds are at level one or below. Below level one, people are not able to understand price labels in shops.

But it gets even worse. People over 55 have better literacy and numeracy skills than those under 25. So what?, you might say, my everyday experience shows me this very clearly. But the JRF points out than in all other developed countries, the exact opposite is true. Only here are the young less well educated than the old.

This whole body of evidence is a devastating indictment of the educational establishment and the teachers’ unions who enthusiastically support the likes of Dianne Abbott. Time for a real shake up!

As published in City AM Wednesday 17th May 2017

Image: Diane Abbott, 2016 Labour Party Conference byRwendland is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Too many young people are wasting their time by doing worthless degrees

Too many young people are wasting their time by doing worthless degrees

It’s an exciting time of the year for many young people, with some setting off to university for the first time and others starting to polish their applications for next year.

Good news if you have been accepted to read economics at Cambridge, say, or business studies at Oxford. A survey by the Sunday Times shows that the average salary, just six months after graduating, is over £40,000. If instead you are off to Worcester to do drama and dance or Liverpool Hope for psychology, you can expect around £13,000, just under half the value of average earnings across the workforce as a whole.

Figures like these raise the question of whether it is worthwhile studying many of the courses which are on offer. It is a question which is increasingly pressing. Last year, a report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) claimed that no fewer than 58 per cent of the UK’s graduates are in non-graduate jobs compared to only 10 per cent in Germany. The growth in graduates is outstripping the growth in high skilled jobs across the EU, but especially in Britain.

Successive governments have made a fetish of higher education. The Conservatives elevated a whole raft of polytechnics to university status in 1992, followed by a second wave under New Labour in the 2000s. Tony Blair was insistent that his target be met of 50 per cent of each year group of young people going to university.

The mismatch between the supply of and demand for graduates is not something new. It was already well known when Blair invented his mantra of “education, education, education”. Peter Dolton and Anna Vignoles, both then at Newcastle University, published a famous paper 20 years ago on over-education in the graduate labour market. Scientists measure the value of an academic paper by the number of citations it receives from other scholars. On this criterion, this one is a star.

They looked at a very large sample of graduates and their conclusion was stark. “We find that 38 per cent of graduates were overeducated for their first job and, even six years later 30 per cent of the sample were overeducated.” So the current estimate of 58 per cent by the CIPD, 20 years later, startling though it may seem, may not be too far off the mark. To be fair, other studies do come up with lower numbers. But they all demonstrate the same point. Lots of graduates end up in jobs which do not require a degree.

This is bad news for economic theory, which predicts that even if over-education is observed, it will only be a temporary phenomenon. Companies are assumed to adapt their production techniques to fully utilise the increased supply of skills.

Is it bad news for the students? A quantitative degree from a good university still commands a huge premium in terms of lifetime earnings. But estimates of the average amount extra that a graduate will earn conceal massive differences in outcomes. Increasingly, studying weak courses at weak institutions is simply not worthwhile.

Paul Ormerod 

As published in CITY AM on Wednesday 29th September 2016

Image:Graduation by Amy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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The blob is wrong: competition and independence raise school standards

The blob is wrong: competition and independence raise school standards

The A-Level results released last week confirm the dominance of schools in London and the South East. Provisional league tables have only appeared so far for state schools, but these two regions have two-thirds of the top 100. South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, and Wales did not have a single school between them in the top 100.

State schools in London and the South have many of their potentially brightest pupils creamed off by high-powered public schools. Yet they consistently produce much better results than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

An article in the latest issue of the American Economic Association’s top Journal of Economic Perspectives sheds light on this persistent regional discrepancy in school performance. The paper, by Ludger Woessmann of Munich University, is an in-depth, meticulous statistical analysis of differences in the average achievement levels of school students in different countries across the world. There are of course formidable conceptual issues in comparing performances in, say, Ghana and Germany. But building on the pioneering work of the OECD and its Programme for International Student Assessment, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement has made great progress in dealing with them.

An advantage of using such a disparate data set is precisely that there are large variations in both inputs and outputs in different countries. This means that, somewhat paradoxically, provided that the right analytical framework is used, the variability makes it easier to identify exactly what factors are important in determining outcomes. Even within the developed world, substantial differences exist. So we can usefully learn some lessons for inside the UK from Woessmann’s work.

The analysis confirms that resource inputs such as expenditure per student or class size appear to have limited effects on student achievement. Spending more money in itself is a very inefficient way of improving outcomes. This has been clear in general across the public sector as a whole since Gordon Brown’s experiments with massive increases in public spending.

Interestingly, “competition from privately operated schools positively affects achievement levels”. This implies that the strength of state schools in the South is in part due to the fact that they have to compete to attract good pupils. It is no coincidence that there is a cluster of very good state schools in South Manchester/North Cheshire, because Manchester, unlike anywhere else in the North, has a number of excellent private schools.

Given current debates here about devolving power within the educational system, Woessmann reports that school autonomy has positive effects on performance.

Finally, the values and attitudes of teachers and management matter. King David, a state school in an insalubrious part of North Manchester, promotes “traditional Jewish values of respect, self-discipline and the pursuit of excellence”. It came forty-ninth in the national tables.

Michael Gove described the UK educational establishment as “the blob”. The opinions and values of the blob are contradicted almost in their entirety by the scientific evidence. Competition, both within and between schools, and autonomy are key determinants of success.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Tuesday 23rd August

Image: Sports Day by Alex Lecea licensed under CC BY 2.0

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A radical idea to revive the North

A radical idea to revive the North

The Head of OFSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned last week that secondary schools in Liverpool and Manchester were ‘going into reverse’. Too many pupils in Northern towns and cities are simply not prepared for the next phase of their education, training or employment. In Liverpool, for example, four out of every ten schools are judged to be either inadequate or, in the bureaucratic jargon, ‘requiring improvement’, which basically means they are just not delivering the goods. The proportion of children securing five good GCSEs has fallen in many areas of the North.

All this is in sharp contrast to the dramatic turn around which has taken place in recent years in the performance of schools in London, whose results, particularly amongst poorer pupils, are now amongst the best in the country At the other end of the ability spectrum, the North falls short. The area from Cheshire and South Yorkshire up to the Scottish border has nearly 30 per cent of the total population of England and Wales. But in terms of A-level results, only 12 schools from this area make it into the national top 100 of state schools – leaving aside the massive domination of London and the South East in terms of private sector exam results.

This gloomy picture does not bode well for the future economic prospects of the region. Increasingly, growth is being determined not by physical investment but by the more intangible, but nevertheless real, concept of the stock of productive knowledge of an area. Not everyone can be a biochemist or work at the frontiers of artificial intelligence. But the ability to innovate and adapt to changed circumstances is required at all levels.

A visionary and challenging solution to the economic problems of the North is put forward in the unlikely setting of the academic journal ‘Environmental Planning: Planning and Design’. The author, Mike Batty, is an extremely distinguished professor in University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. I work with Batty, so maybe this colours my view of his ideas. But despite many billions of pounds of public money having been spent in conventional ways in recent decades in trying to close the North-South divide, the situation has only got worse. A Liverpudlian himself, Batty is characteristically blunt about the prospects of new infrastructure projects making an impact: ‘None of this is going to work. If it does, it would have done so years ago’.

Instead, we need to break the vicious circle of cumulative causation, the forces which cause people from the North, especially the skilled and talented, to drift South. Not just in the UK, but across the West as a whole, many students in top universities stay on in the places where they studied. The dominance of the London-Cambridge-Oxford golden triangle needs to be challenged. Instead of spending on HS2, the monies should go to Northern universities to transform some of them into world class institutions. Mergers need to be forced through, and the poorly performing departments axed. It is a radical concept, but it might just work.

As Published in City AM on Wednesday 2nd March

Image: Angel of the North by Stuart Richards licensed under CC BY 2.0

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