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Reveal Thyself!
May 10, 2014 10:22 AM   Subscribe

In the WSJ today, the authors of Freakanomics have an essay reprinted from their new book, entitled "How to Trick the Guilty and Gullible into Revealing Themselves" which discusses several everyday applications of theory practices including the idea that medieval Trial By Ordeal actually worked (previously), why Nigerian scammers reveal they are from Nigeria, and the policy that Zappos came up with in which they offer a cash reward for new hires to quit working there, which other companies have now picked up as well.
posted by Potomac Avenue (59 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
sorry, *Game Theory Practices
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:23 AM on May 10


" As Bezos notes in his letter, “In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”"

Seriously made me laugh as he obviously doesn't apply the same standards to the warehouse staff who are walking 11 miles a day.
posted by marienbad at 10:36 AM on May 10 [12 favorites]


A lot of these supposed examples of spontaneous organization come across as mere just-so storytelling and post hoc rationalization -- superstitious faith and magical thinking, in other words.

Game theory is a real and legitimate field of inquiry, but when you're claiming that apocryphal stories about Solomon and popular superstition in the complete absence of anything like data or even first-hand, real accounts of outcomes, you are well outside the realm of legitimate study.
posted by kewb at 10:45 AM on May 10 [21 favorites]


The Pay to Quit idea is actually quite clever (for a large enough company, I don't know how well it would work for the smaller guys.) but I worked at one of the big cable companies for the better part of a decade, and as one of the supervisors who engaged in a lot of training, I called the place "The Grinder" because it would either sharpen you and make you excellent at what you did, or blunt you to the point of uselessness.

Every day, you could see the people who were thrilled to be there; who really enjoyed helping the customers and feeling good when they left that, in some small way, they made people's lives better that day.

Whereas others were clearly ghosting the job; just coming in, doing the bare minimum to not get fired, and hating every minute of it.

Something like the Pay to Quit would have been an excellent choice; a chunk of money to help hold someone over while they find a new job, and a clear statement to management as to whether or not they have a happy staff. (I can remember years where, had this been in place, they would have easily lost most of their staff from a single office.) and getting someone bitter and unpleasant about their work out of there so as not to poison the environment, because that shit spreads fast.

In an era where fuck-the-employee-as-hard-as-possible seems to be the name of the game, it's refreshing to see some different ideas enter the mix.
posted by quin at 10:46 AM on May 10 [16 favorites]


Mentally healthy. And he's not wrong.
posted by maryr at 10:46 AM on May 10


the warehouse staff who are walking 11 miles a day.

Yeah, but they've reached their Fitbit goal by lunchtime.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:51 AM on May 10 [10 favorites]


About the trial by ordeal bit: don't discount them as mere superstition. Sure, they resulted in some innocents being convicted and some criminals being acquitted.

So do modern jury trials.

The reason the Vatican ultimately banned them was not that it--or Europe as a whole--stopped believing in iudicium Dei. It's that the epistemic consensus that powered the procedures of the ordeals started to break down.

As the article points out, the clergy had been manipulating the ordeals for centuries, mostly not for corrupt reasons. But the fact that the ordeals were being manipulated finally became so obvious that the conceit of divine intervention became unsupportable.

But the move to juries was not an attempt to take God out of the picture. Rather, juries, witnesses, and parties were all required to swear oaths to tell the truth and uphold the law. And these oaths were the new mechanism for the operation of God's sovereignty, as everyone believed that breaking an oath put one's immortal soul in grave peril.

We don't believe that anymore, obviously. But we're no more satisfied with the justice of modern trials as late medievals were with ordeals. We just don't have any better ideas.
posted by valkyryn at 10:55 AM on May 10 [20 favorites]


The article about trial by ordeal is so mind-numbingly arbitrary in its assertions, so riddled with a constant and nearly unbroken line of wild assumptions, unjustified premises, ahistorical guesses or speculation presented disingenuously as fact, and shamelessly specious reasoning that it's painful to read. It's quite possible the most stupid thing I've read in a very, very long time, and I teach undergraduates.
posted by clockzero at 10:57 AM on May 10 [74 favorites]


Signalling theory suggests this book will be lazy, contrarian, smug-arsehole-fluffing bullshit.
posted by hawthorne at 10:57 AM on May 10 [28 favorites]


How about paying them a living wage and making sure their working conditions are humane? That might help Amazon employees to consider being the kind of sterling employee that Bozos (sic) is looking for.

It's getting really old watching jerks like Bozos (sic) and other bosses like him prance around with personnel ideas touted as "unique and innovative" when they are little more than a mirror into the galling hubris of their greedy hearts.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:04 AM on May 10 [5 favorites]


Tldr; get your publisher to provide the list of people who bought Freakonomics, The Tipping Point and any book by Thomas Friedman. Now you have a list of gullible, but often affluent people....
posted by humanfont at 11:04 AM on May 10 [37 favorites]


Wow. Another book full of self-fulfilling notions of bogus economic theory backed by the most specious cherry picked data.

I'm so looking forward to hearing douche bags use this one to excuse their shitty behaviour.
posted by clvrmnky at 11:07 AM on May 10 [7 favorites]


This is needlessly complex. Just pay me and I'll tell you who should be fired.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:19 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]


Zappos developed their hiring policy before Bezos bought them. That he wants to ride their tailcoats of positive press now that he owns them isn't a surprise, but it doesn't reflect poorly on zappos.

For all the guesses and assumptions about ordeals, the section about Nigerian scams is the best hypothesis I've heard so far for the contrast between their nakedness and their success.
posted by anonymisc at 11:30 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]


Oooh, a month's pay for free! That'll keep me in rent and food for two months, which means I'll only be homeless and hungry for four months before I find my next job. If less than 1 percent of people take a shitty deal, it's not an indicator that the remaining 99 percent love their jobs.
posted by Etrigan at 11:35 AM on May 10 [16 favorites]


Seriously made me laugh as he obviously doesn't apply the same standards to the warehouse staff who are walking 11 miles a day.

You ever read horror stories about working for Amazon corporate? It's not as physically abusive as Amazon warehouse staff, but basically it's a horrible pain to get hired by Amazon corporate, and then they basically work you to death over the course of 18-24 months, after which if you haven't been burned out badly enough to quit, you get slowly frozen out and eventually "let go". And this isn't one dude who can't hack it- it's the same story over and over and over again.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:37 AM on May 10 [13 favorites]


For the last 8 years, my plagiarism policy is that if you turn in a fake paper, I give you a fake grade. So you THINK you get--for example--a 92, but really you get two zeros in the grade-book, and may come to find out you have a low or failing final grade at the end of the semester.

Then, at the end of every semester, I mention that "some" (even if it's only one--I like him/her to have an imaginary hand to hold in his/her guilt) have plagiarized BUT that if they come forward and agree to rewrite the paper, I will replace their two zeros with one grade of 60 no questions asked. Usually my net catches way more people than I had caught. I don't know how ethical it is, but it sure seems effective.
posted by whatgorilla at 11:38 AM on May 10 [147 favorites]


Usually my net catches way more people than I had caught.

You probably have some false positives in that net - people like me who don't plagiarize, but are probably paranoid and decide to play it safe.

One of my college professors accused me of plagiarizing a diagram I drew because it was intuitive and in her opinion, there was no way I could have thought of that on my own (which was too bad because I thought very highly of her - she taught us important lessons about giving credit where credit was due, and she was a great Bio prof overall - but her plagiarism radar was set to 11) .

At the very least, I hope you provide clear definitions of what is defined as plagiarism and have documented evidence proving your suspicions. And give your students an opportunity to defend themselves
posted by bitteroldman at 12:34 PM on May 10 [13 favorites]


Here are some examples of what I allude to in my comment upthread:

Modern observers have roundly condemned ordeals for being cruel and arbitrary. (...) But a closer look suggests something very different: The ordeal system worked surprisingly well.

I realize that writers like this jackass tend to state their shocking conclusions! first and then present the case for them, but it doesn't always work. This is a great example of it not working. It comes across as so tendentiously contrarian that it's just tiresome.

It accurately determined who was guilty and who was innocent, sorting genuine criminals from those who had been wrongly accused.

This is two different claims, the first of which is patently false and the second of which compounds the error by extrapolating misleadingly from a false premise. Even if the first claim were true, being accurate is not the same as being reliable: any system of determining guilt, including a completely random one, would be accurate at least some of the time, in terms of choosing the guilty party. But it would be totally unreliable, which means it would be inherently unjust. A system of justice has to be both accurate and reliable in order to deserve that appellation.

Stranger still, the ordeal system suggests that pervasive superstition can be good for society.

Extraordinary claims, as they say, require extraordinary proof, and I'm not seeing even an attempt at that here.

How might these trials have worked, without divine intervention? The key insight is that ordeals weren’t just widely practiced. They were widely believed in.

Insight, unjustified assumption, it's all basically the same.

First, consider the reasoning of the defendants. Guilty believers expected God to reveal their guilt by harming them in the ordeal. They anticipated being boiled and convicted. Innocent believers, meanwhile, expected God to protect them in the ordeal. They anticipated escaping unscathed, and being exonerated...The only defendants who would have been willing to go through with the ordeal were therefore the innocent ones. Guilty defendants would have preferred to avoid the ordeal - by confessing their crimes, settling with their accusers, or fleeing the realm.

Being able to read the minds of people who have been dead for between 1000 and 700 years is such a remarkable gift that one wonders why this man is writing shitty, sophistic articles online instead of digging up buried treasure for a living.

The next thing to understand is that clerics administrated ordeals and adjudged their outcomes - and did so under elaborate sets of rules that gave them wide latitude to manipulate the process.

So, he's admitting that the results of these trials were basically decided by a cabal of interested parties who manipulated the outcomes. But such trials were also accurate, because, ipso facto, the only ones "willing" to go through with them were innocent!

This is exactly the sort of circular logic that is, despite the earlier empty apologetics, now widely understood to characterize the medieval approach to justice; and the author not only doesn't refute it, he actually claims that it can somehow produce outcomes with empirical validity. It's no different, in other words, than claiming that the police wouldn't have arrested someone if they weren't guilty, or that someone wouldn't act guilty if they were innocent, or another dozen spurious assumptions that lead directly to injustice and arbitrary outcomes.

valkyryn >

About the trial by ordeal bit: don't discount them as mere superstition. Sure, they resulted in some innocents being convicted and some criminals being acquitted.

So do modern jury trials.


First of all, the mere fact that the two systems have one superficial similarity -- that neither is perfect -- is not a substantial basis for implying that the similar outcomes are reflective of similarly valid processes. There are hundreds of ways to accomplish injustice, but some systems are better than others: more resiliently just, less prone to tendentious manipulation, more transparent, etc.

Surely the actual degree of false conviction and unjust acquittal is more important than the bare fact that both happen under any system? In fact, doesn't the former's importance and relevance dwarf that of the latter's under any circumstances?

The reason the Vatican ultimately banned them was not that it--or Europe as a whole--stopped believing in iudicium Dei. It's that the epistemic consensus that powered the procedures of the ordeals started to break down.

I trust you're right about the historical process, but iudicium Dei was both empirically false and a sham anyway. So to the extent that it was a theory of how justice should be understood to function, it doesn't matter why it was abandoned, right? It could have been replaced by something more or less reliable in determining matters of fact, but rejecting it for the wrong reason doesn't imply that it had any advantage over some other method of administering justice.

We don't believe that anymore, obviously. But we're no more satisfied with the justice of modern trials as late medievals were with ordeals. We just don't have any better ideas.

I think modern trials are a better idea because they're based on the idea that facts are knowable and relevant to determining guilt or innocence. That's one pretty big thing that trial by ordeal and the legal paradigm it's based on seems to exclude.
posted by clockzero at 12:36 PM on May 10 [34 favorites]


Yeah, the trial-by-ordeal piece just asserts that trial-by-ordeal worked, with no evidence whatsoever.

Plus, the supposed analysis of guilty vs innocent psychology doesn't even hold up. On their own logic, a guilty person should enthusiastically assent to the procedure— if you're willing to commit a crime, you should be willing to lie. And an innocent person could easily be completely terrified of being asked to hold a red-hot iron.

Sometimes irrational superstition is just irrational superstition. I wonder if the authors maintain that tests to determine witches were pretty accurate?
posted by zompist at 12:47 PM on May 10 [6 favorites]


If Pay to Quit sounds familiar, there’s a reason. The idea was invented several years ago at Zappos

In the old days, it was called "taking early retirement".

Of course, in the old days, companies paid pensions.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:51 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]


I think modern trials are a better idea because they're based on the idea that facts are knowable and relevant to determining guilt or innocence. That's one pretty big thing that trial by ordeal and the legal paradigm it's based on seems to exclude.

I think the comparison was more: in trial by ordeal, those administering the trial got to decide your guilt or innocence, and then act on that. In modern jury trials, the jury gets to decide your guilt or innocence, and then act on that. We'd like them to listen to facts, but they're certainly not required to.
posted by corb at 12:53 PM on May 10


I think the comparison was more: in trial by ordeal, those administering the trial got to decide your guilt or innocence, and then act on that. In modern jury trials, the jury gets to decide your guilt or innocence, and then act on that. We'd like them to listen to facts, but they're certainly not required to.

The actual differences between the two are not those differences, though, at least as I understand it. In modern jury trials, judges determine matters of law and pass the sentence, having at least some leeway in both; whereas the jury decides matters of fact including ultimate guilt or innocence, which is itself understood as a question of fact that is capable of being determined by people.

In the medieval context we're discussing, there wasn't even any analytic distinction between matters of fact and matters of law, and even if the distinction were reocognized, the same party determined both of those anyway and determined the sentence, apparently. So the claim I put in italics above is not accurate, as I understand it. This isn't to say that modern trials are perfect and that modern people are more honest or virtuous than people long dead, of course, but the institutions are nevertheless very different, and thus present different opportunities and constraints for manipulation and actions in bad faith.
posted by clockzero at 1:14 PM on May 10


Leeson (the ordeals piece) may or may not be a jackass, but you all should realize that that short Boston Globe piece is just a summarizing report of a much longer, more fully argued and referenced piece which is linked to in the "previously" thread. Here's a link to it (pdf). I'm not saying it's beyond reproach, but it's making a far more comprehensive argument than the one that you are all dismissing out of hand.
posted by yoink at 1:44 PM on May 10 [5 favorites]


That's half-true, yoink. It's certainly a longer argument in that pdf.

But it seems to suffer from all of the same fatal flaws, the two most question-begging of which are the assumptions that ordeals sorted people reliably into either rejecting or accepting the judgment of God in a way meaningfully better than random adjudications, and that people invariably behave like a certain kind of "rational" agent, the latter being an especially non-empirical assumption that nevertheless enjoys some currency in economics.

Leeson is describing one kind of extremely highly-qualified species of scenario where the ordeals process could result in a guilty person being declared guilty and an innocent person being declared innocent. But he doesn't really support, much less actually prove his premises, without which there is no argument. All the data he cites is from people who aren't making the actual choices he's ostensibly trying to understand. Granted, there may not be any accounts of ordeals from people who had to choose or not choose them, but if we don't have any evidence we should probably just not make arguments that we'd need evidence to make properly.

It's an interesting thought experiment, I guess, but it has very little to do with social reality or real human institutions. Like the vast majority of scholarship which entails rational choice theory.
posted by clockzero at 2:20 PM on May 10 [9 favorites]


Even in the longer paper, lines like this:
Because of the sorting effect of ordeals, priests who administer them learn of defendants’ guilt or innocence. Conditional on observing a defendant’s willingness to undergo an ordeal, the administering priest knows the defendant is innocent.
strike me as really questionable assumptions. First, they rely on ordeals having a strong sorting effect, but as the earlier part of the paper shows, the "sorting effect" relies entirely on the accused being genuinely faithful enough to fear the ordeal, yet insufficiently faithful to avoid committing the crime int he first place.

Second, and more, er, damningly, it relies on the assumptions that the priest can read the accused's reactions perfectly or almost perfectly. In effect, the priest decides guilt or innocence before performing the procedure and then rigs the test.

Ah, but here is the deeper issue: this presumes that the priest himself does not believe that the ordeal itself, carried out as normal, will manifest the will of God. And while the author considers the possibility of skeptical accused, he seems to overlook entirely the possibility of genuinely faithful priests.

Instead, we get a lot of statistical work based on questionable inferences followed by this rationale:
It is reasonable to think that medieval citizens would have often had a good idea about the frequency with which others in their communities who hazarded ordeals failed or succeeded. The fate of probands was not private, and medieval communities were usually small. Similarly, it is reasonable to think that medieval priests knew how probands decided when confronted with ordeals and knew those probands’ identities. Priests were the persons administering their ordeals.
Essentially, then, the author posits that within a culture dominated by irrational and superstitious beliefs, high-order rational decisionmaking and conventional equilibrium effects will nonetheless rationalize the outcomes as far as possible. But the assumptions about the actors involved color the author's interpretation of the data that he eventually presents. Having constructed a rational, modern process that would explain disparities in the results, the author quickly discounts any number of alternative hypotheses because of the a priori assumption of the inherent rationality of human beings. The hypothesis works mainly because the author assumes that the priestly class *and* the defendants are rational actors invested in metricated notions of what he terms "social productivity" despite their stated allegiance to a deeply irrational belief structure.

It's very smart work built on a very dubious premise; I suppose that shows that our society has its own superstitions.
posted by kewb at 2:20 PM on May 10 [16 favorites]


Second, and more, er, damningly, it relies on the assumptions that the priest can read the accused's reactions perfectly or almost perfectly. In effect, the priest decides guilt or innocence before performing the procedure and then rigs the test

That's not, in fact, the thesis, however. He's not saying that medieval priests were just brilliant judges of character and that their personal assumptions about guilt or innocence were accurate guarantees of the validity of the outcomes. He's saying that so long as priests could maintain a sufficiently wide belief in the validity of the trial, they could safely assume that most of the people who opted to undergo the trial were innocent--which accounts for the fact that the vast majority of people who chose to undergo the trials were in fact found to be innocent. And he then argues that that widespread belief could be maintained by a reasonably low rate of trial failures (i.e, people condemned by the ordeal)--and that even if the priests chose incorrectly--even randomly--which small percentage of people they condemned to undergo genuine trials (as opposed to rigged trials) that would still generate a system that, overall, produced mainly "correct" outcomes.

I can see a lot of ways to argue with the claims he's making, but so far in this thread the arguments levied against him aren't actually engaging with his argument.
posted by yoink at 2:33 PM on May 10


This is needlessly complex. Just pay me and I'll tell you who should be fired.

I have reconsidered my proposal after re-reading the article:

But the more valuable role of these offers may be their impact on the employees who choose to stay.

I will pay my company $500 if they will fire 5 specific people. My coworkers will be happier, and the company won't miss them since they don't do any work anyway.

I'll start with these guys:

1. Racist Sexist Conspiracy Nut. He claims Michelle Obama is a man because her index finger is longer than her ring finger. He claims Harry Reid is a secret Confederate and KKK member.

2. The Two Harpies. Two ladies who shriek at each other at the top of their lungs all day long. Please get a hearing test, speaking too loudly is often an advance sign of hearing loss. And ferchrissake I'm partly deaf and I can hear every word you say from across the warehouse, like 100 yards away.

3. Mr. Security Problem. Copies proprietary information out of our books into pads of post-it notes and takes it home. Reported, but InfoSec hasn't caught him yet.

4. Lay-Z-Boy. Processes less than one box of forms a day. I process 15 to 20 a day.

5. The Guy Who Never Bathes. I mean never. Ever. Several of my coworkers reported to me that they take showers after work and change their clothes to get his scent off. I told them, yeah, me too.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:52 PM on May 10 [6 favorites]


If you believe in the validity of the trial, why would you bother rigging it in the first place?

The hypothesis here only makes sense if a) priests know that the "hot" ordeal will harm innocent and guilty alike, while the "cold" ordeal will generally exonerate women; b) the priests have calculated that for a given assumed value of community faith, a sufficiently high number of people will opt in or opt out based on their actual guilt or innocence; and c) therefore priests rig most ordeals to produce verdicts of innocence, which happily tends to mirror the real distribution of guilt and innocence in most cases.

None of those assumptions suggest that priests themselves believe in the iudica Dei rationale. They may believe in the "validity" of the ordeal because they assume that most laypeople are faithful enough to choose or reject an ordeal based on their actual guilt or innocence, but they do not recognize the validity of the irrational belief in the stated mechanism of the ordeal itself: that God Himself, not a priest rigging things, will protect the innocent and harm the guilty. The paper repeatedly calls ordeals "a sham" that the priests know is a sham in its "skepticism" and "information leaks" arguments.

So in this version of medieval Europe, almost everyone is faithful except the priests, who maintain a noble lie in the name of social productivity? And yet, as the later parts of the paper argue, that the ultimate undoing of the process was a theological shift in the clergy?
posted by kewb at 3:09 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]


He's saying that so long as priests could maintain a sufficiently wide belief in the validity of the trial, they could safely assume that most of the people who opted to undergo the trial were innocent--which accounts for the fact that the vast majority of people who chose to undergo the trials were in fact found to be innocent.

This, to me, is the potential gem in the rough here. It's a great empirical question: why did the majority of people who chose ordeals end up being exonerated?

Unfortunately, the data he cites presents a far less clear pattern: for one data source, probands failed the ordeal almost 40% of the time, so there's no clear pattern to explain; for the other source, they failed ordeals about 11% of the time, but the sample is even smaller, reducing the likelihood, ceteris paribus, that it's representative. What's more, his two samples are from two totally different socio-geographic contexts, and he doesn't even address the confounding effect of the data's potential incommensurability, setting completely aside the similarly-unaddressed question of why we should think there's a real pattern here when the two sets he chose vary so dramatically.

By the standards of social science, which is what he's trying to do here whether he admits it or not, the data analysis is rather weak and arbitrary. He assumes that one sample is representative of all English legal outcomes, for instance. Leeson seems to lack perspective or knowledge about generalizability, rendering his analysis unwittingly idiographic, while he claims that nomothetic patterns are being uncovered. It's just bad interpretation of data on a very basic level.
posted by clockzero at 3:12 PM on May 10 [5 favorites]


And while we're at it, Leeson does indeed suggest briefly that priests are relying on other "tells" in deciding which ordeals to rig, in a footnote:
Before their ordeals, probands spent several days with the priests who officiated ordeals, partaking in Mass, prayer, and so on. This may have permitted priests to glean additional information about probands’ guilt or innocence (Pilarczyk 1996, p. 98; Henry 1789, p. 273). Such information supplemented that which priests received from observing defendants’ willingness to undergo ordeals, facilitating their ability to identify (and thus condemn) a guilty defendant who took his chances with the ordeal because g had been set too low, because he had figured out that ordeals were a sham, or because some other imperfection prevented flawless separation.
It's quite possible that the ordeals process tended to exonerate people, but I don't know that this paper does very well at backing up its vision of curiously rationalistic priestly intentionality.
posted by kewb at 3:17 PM on May 10


Charlie don't surf if one of you coworkers makes the same wage for 1/15th the work, then the problem is that you are working too hard. Why would you do all that extra work when you could be doing more interesting and entertaining things. The problem is that you've got some crazy sense of duty or obligation to your employer, even though it sounds like it isn't reciprocated. Quit being such a whining dog begging for scraps and so eager to please the master.
posted by humanfont at 3:27 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


yoink: the longer paper repeats the same basic logical errors from the newspaper. He's extrapolating a huge complex structure complete with a little math to give the illusion of rigor but still making the fundamental flaw of assuming that his theory is correct because it fits the outcomes. Any serious thought shows that this is completely confounded by the fact that not all priests had the same goals and the model of skepticism is incomplete. He cites the high pass rate as proof that priests intervened for the innocent while ignoring the more likely explanations of bribes and political pressure or that someone failing meant guilt rather than, say, being out of favor or failing to pay a bribe. All the numbers tell is is that the system was more survivable than it might seem – trying to claim that it produced just outcomes is simply fantasy.

It's mildly interesting as a game theory example but I'm surprised it made it through peer review.
posted by adamsc at 3:34 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]


Thank you for that pdf, yoink.

I couldn't understand why anybody would bother to make a bunch of apparently absurd claims about trial by ordeal, or how the Boston Globe could be induced to print them if someone did, but the pdf makes all clear: Leeson has no obvious professional interest, and obviously no real interest in trail by ordeal, he's merely using it to defend rational choice theory, which is a cornerstone of the view that markets need very little regulation because their efficiency is assured by rational choices on the part of consumers and other economic actors; a view which has come under sharp and justified attack lately because, quite frankly, it's patently clear that consumers and others are not remotely always rational, and often act against their own best interests.

By choosing an extreme example of a cultural institution which most people would agree is completely irrational-- trial by ordeal-- and arguing that it embodied a hidden rationality which by an amazing coincidence is strikingly similar to an invisible hand, he hopes to spike the guns of critics of the Free Market.

That larger project has no chance of succeeding, however, because it's simply a non-sequitur: no matter what went on with trial by ordeal, it has very little to do with rational choice theory and the free market beyond the fact that both are, on their face, ridiculous and have led to massive tragedies and dislocation on a grand scale in their respective societies.
posted by jamjam at 4:38 PM on May 10 [22 favorites]


Pay to Quit works partly because it catches a few flakes, but more because giving up the money is a commitment you're determined to not make a bad idea. It's basically the same principle at work in NPO salary levels.
posted by michaelh at 4:43 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]


The fact that the ridiculous Freakonomics was the last big economics best-seller just reminds me how lucky we are that Capital in the Twenty-first Century was written. This is a profession in need of a cold douche.
posted by moorooka at 6:22 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]


Hey, he might have something here. I know I'd pay Malcom Gladwell to shut the fuck up.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:23 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]


Well said, jamjam.
posted by clockzero at 6:30 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


bitteroldman: "At the very least, I hope you provide clear definitions of what is defined as plagiarism and have documented evidence proving your suspicions. And give your students an opportunity to defend themselves"

-- Yeah, definitely...there are false positives. I often have to explain that students didn't plagiarize when they worry they did. I do explain what mosaic/patchwork plagiarism is as well as the other stuff.
posted by whatgorilla at 7:17 PM on May 10


By the standards of social science, which is what he's trying to do here whether he admits it or not, the data analysis is rather weak and arbitrary

Now that is a fair criticism of the argument.
posted by yoink at 7:25 PM on May 10


"How to Trick the Guilty and Gullible into Revealing Themselves"

Does the gullibility test involve seeing whether people buy the book based on the article?
posted by uosuaq at 7:52 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


it's patently clear that consumers and others are not remotely always rational, and often act against their own best interests.

It's even worse than that - even to whatever extent everyone does act in their individual best interest, individually optimal decisions can have aggregate sub-optimal outcomes.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:08 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


Have none of you been on unemployment? You don't get it when you quit. I wonder how much Amazon pays into that system. Probably a fuckton.
posted by Brocktoon at 8:15 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]


My friend has been miserable at her job for a few years now (mostly because she'd rather be a stay at home mother, and is sad she is missing out on her daughter's early years, but also because the company isn't a great fit for her). She also is the sort who says what she thinks, so I gather her boss hears her whining about her job a fair bit.

Last week the company offered her an interesting deal: two more months of work at normal pay, but with free career counselling and $5000 to spend on extra training in a subject of her choice, with flexibility in her work hours so she can attend the training during the day, followed by her quitting with a payout equal to two more months of pay. If she chooses not to take this deal, she has to stop whining about her job, and has to fully recommit herself to it. (I suspect they might also look for ways to fire her if she doesn't.)

The sad thing is that she has been looking for another job for three years now, with no success, and the minute she doesn't have this income coming in, she will have to foreclose on her house. So by taking this deal (which she has), she is taking the gamble that she will find another job in the next four months, otherwise she's screwed.

Still, I was kind of impressed that the company offered this to her. It seemed sensible for them and also kind to her.
posted by lollusc at 8:50 PM on May 10 [5 favorites]


kewb: "Game theory is a real and legitimate field of inquiry, but when you're claiming that apocryphal stories about Solomon and popular superstition in the complete absence of anything like data or even first-hand, real accounts of outcomes, you are well outside the realm of legitimate study."

There's a pretty good chance that even if readers haven't heard of screening theory, they have heard of the Judgement of Solomon. So it makes a good introduction to the logic before discussing how other scientific fields have applied it. And I mean, the essay is an adaptation of a longer work. Perhaps there's more in the original.

clvrmnky: "Wow. Another book full of self-fulfilling notions of bogus economic theory backed by the most specious cherry picked data. I'm so looking forward to hearing douche bags use this one to excuse their shitty behavior."

As it happens, I have Cormac Herley in a Google Scholar alert, and when I saw the title "Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?" I was pretty sure it was a paper on screening. It's mostly a theoretical paper, which aims to provide a rigorous model, rather than hard data provided by many of his other papers. Unfortunate, but third-world scammers don't usually have the email retention policies that won us the Enron dataset, and you try getting 'we'd like to attempt defraud the elderly' past an IRB*

For evidenced based science, perhaps we can convince whatgorilla to start keeping better records, and publish their findings on how this approach compares with TurnItIn type services!

*Or your University Foundation, once they find out you're encroaching on their territory
posted by pwnguin at 10:22 PM on May 10 [5 favorites]


How about paying them a living wage and making sure their working conditions are humane? That might help Amazon employees to consider being the kind of sterling employee that Bozos (sic) is looking for.

Working at Amazon Is "a Soul-Crushing Experience"
posted by homunculus at 11:37 PM on May 10


Many years ago I worked for an organisation that needed to cut numbers and offered a payoff to anyone who would go; management were horrified to discover those who went were mostly the capable 'self-starters' they least wanted to lose. People who couldn't be bothered, people who knew they weren't very good and would have trouble in the job market, those all stayed.
posted by Segundus at 12:54 AM on May 11 [11 favorites]


I stayed, of course.
posted by Segundus at 12:55 AM on May 11 [7 favorites]


The first link took me to www. Amazon, I clicked the link again and went to the Wall Street Journal. Was this a computer hijacking ?
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:11 AM on May 11


HN, the first part of the blue text links to WSJ, the "book" bit to Amazon.
posted by effbot at 2:56 AM on May 11


why Nigerian scammers reveal they are from Nigeria...

I thought the Nigerian scam involves, at some point, transferring money to Nigeria.
So it's not like the fact that they're from Nigeria could be kept a secret, is it?
posted by sour cream at 3:09 AM on May 11


If the scam is big enough, routing money some other way is hardly a problem (middleman in European country with expat community, meeting at easy accessible airport hub like Schiphol or London, etc).

The interesting thing is why their location is among the first things they tell you; to quote the paper: "51% mention Nigeria as the source of funds, with a further 34% mentioning Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal or some other West African country /.../ It would seem odd that after lying about his gender, stolen millions, corrupt officials, wicked in-laws, near-death escapes and secret safety deposit boxes that it would fail to occur to the scammer to lie also about his location."
posted by effbot at 4:11 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


419 scammers make it obvious that they're scammers because if you're smart enough to recognize it as a scam, they don't want to waste time with you. Same reason spam emails are generally atrociously misspelled- if you're perspicacious enough to go "this looks horrible, it's obviously fake", you're probably also on top of things enough to not enter your credentials on a random Google docs site. They're literally filtering out people smart enough or savvy enough to be a waste of their time to try and scam.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:17 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


Ugh. I have a friend who just eats up the Freakinomics podcasts because of the way they "blow his mind" and find things you wouldn't expect." He's a nice and insightful guy in many respects but it makes me sad the way he buys their anecdata crap wholesale.

They do way better when they just tease out interesting patterns out of seldom-looked-at data, like the naming trends and gang operations in their first book. But then, the gang operations stuff was not even original work.
posted by dry white toast at 6:05 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]


None of those assumptions suggest that priests themselves believe in the iudica Dei rationale. They may believe in the "validity" of the ordeal because they assume that most laypeople are faithful enough to choose or reject an ordeal based on their actual guilt or innocence, but they do not recognize the validity of the irrational belief in the stated mechanism of the ordeal itself: that God Himself, not a priest rigging things, will protect the innocent and harm the guilty. The paper repeatedly calls ordeals "a sham" that the priests know is a sham in its "skepticism" and "information leaks" arguments.

That makes me think of an episode of the tv show M*A*S*H. After a series of petty thefts, Hawkeye announces he can solve the mystery. Later, he gathers everyone around and tells them that one of the stolen objects has been treated with a chemical that will turn their hands blue. Immediately, one of the people instinctively hides his hands behind his back, revealing himself to be the thief. Also, war is hell, etc.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:46 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]


Leeson's theory of trial by ordeal received a devastating takedown from the medieval historian Jonathan Jarrett, who pointed out that it rests on some fairly massive a priori assumptions:
Leeson's theory presupposes that elusive creature, the rational economic actor, but it also needs that actor to be very stupid, because as you can see it only works if the people taking the ordeal haven't worked out that the clerics could rig it [..] Also, you have to assume that those clerics themselves did not believe that God would speak in the process; this seems to be rooted in an idea I've met that the medieval clergy must all have been in on the Great Deception of Christianity.
In short, Leeson's theory rests on a Monty Python view of medieval history in which the clergy are all cynical unbelievers and everyone else is blindly superstitious.

Leeson also seems curiously ignorant of how the ordeal actually worked in practice. Peter Brown's seminal article, Society and the Supernatural: A Medieval Change, points out that the outcome of the ordeal was decided openly, before witnesses, on the basis of uncertain evidence:
The hand that has held the hot iron, the hand that has been plunged into boiling water are solemnly sealed and reopened again before witnesses three days later. [..] But, after three days, the normal healing of such a burn is still ambiguous. The phenomenon on which the group concentrated is, in fact, still as open-ended as a Rorschach test. Yet, paradoxically, it is around precisely this ambiguous experience that unanimity is crystallized.
Brown argues that this allowed the ordeal to serve as a test of community opinion; it was, he writes, a device for 'maximizing the consent of all interested parties' in a difficult or disputed case. This is, if you like, 'rational' in that it serves the purpose of social cohesion. But it is worlds away from the crude rationality of Leeson's theory in which the ordeal is merely a shell game controlled and manipulated by the clergy.
posted by verstegan at 3:51 PM on May 11 [6 favorites]


Stephen Dubner Reddit AMA. The AMA seems to be full of fans and free of critical inquiry.
posted by humanfont at 1:50 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Update: Leeson is also trying to publicly advance the contention that trial by combat was, like, actually pretty useful and worked well!
posted by clockzero at 5:57 PM on May 13


A 30min podcast on the three hardest words in the English language: "I Don't Know" (transcript), also pulled from the new book.

My favorite bit is 20m in, a story about measuring the impact of newspaper insert advertising:

LEVITT: I go to them and say ... give me about 40 of your newspaper markets, and I would randomly assign 20 of those to a control group where we wouldn’t do any newspaper inserts for about three months.

DUBNER: And what was their response?

LEVITT: They said, are you crazy? We can’t not advertise in 20 markets. We’ll all get fired. One of the other guys chimed in and said, yeah, we once had this summer intern, an MBA that we had hired, ... and the guy was so incompetent, he just forgot to order the newspaper inserts for a big chunk of Pittsburgh for the entire summer.

DUBNER: So…what did happen?

LEVITT: ... they called me with a spring of excitement in their voice and they said to me you are not going to believe what we found. We found no impact whatsoever ... And I said, wow, that’s amazing, alright, so when can we start the experiment... they said, are you crazy? We can’t not advertise in 20 markets, the CEO will kill us!

I've seen Google AdSense experts call this the HiPPO problem: the Highest Paid Person's Opinion might not always trump expertise or data, but it often can. And here we have a case where HiPPO trumps collecting data and risk losing sales. And I suppose it also makes an argument to be very careful in how you deploy new practices; once a practice becomes a sacred cow, it's not easily slaughtered.
posted by pwnguin at 12:14 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


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