The Conservatives and climate change

Simon Wren-Lewis, in his mainly macro blog, points out that there is a big disconnect between Conservative party words and action on climate change. Their words are vaguely green, and imply that they take climate change seriously. Their actions are not in the slightest bit green.

In an earlier article, George Monbiot noted a part of the innocently titled ‘Infrastructure Bill’ currently going through parliament. Section (36, p39) is headed ‘Maximising economic recovery of UK petroleum’. Its principle objective is to do just that. Now it does not take a climate scientist to realise that trying to restrict our use of fossil fuels to avoid climate change requires leaving quite a lot of them in the ground. So this bill suggests that whatever the UK government says about climate change, the UK contribution in terms of limiting extraction of oil will be exactly zero.

On the whole, most people in the UK are not climate change deniers, so the Conservative party probably isn’t going to come out openly on that side of the debate.  But that won’t mean that they won’t behave like climate change deniers.


Energy and economics

A somewhat frequent criticism of common economic theories and frameworks is that they are isolated from real world concerns such as energy and resource constraints: that the concept of limited resources, and ideas like the second law of thermodynamics, simply don’t seem to affect the economics at all. You come across this criticism primarily at what might be called the greener fringe, which means that it is rather poo-poohed by some.

Economic theory is, of course, just a model of the real world. It’s bound to simplify and abstract some aspects, and concentrate on others. And many economists don’t consider resource and environment issues to be of primary concern. But what might economics look like if it did take energy (and other resources) as fundamental to the model, rather than as extras which it would be nice to take into account? Gail Tverberg has an interesting piece in which she explains how she sees energy use as a primary driver of economic growth. It’s a good read, and makes a lot of sense. I’m looking forward to her follow-up piece which she says will talk about debt fits into the picture.


Is it harder than physics?

Which is harder to understand, physics or earth system science?  Which is more important to get right? Which do film-makers try hardest to get right? Oliver Morton, on his Heliophage blog, says

a lot of people, both film makers and film discussers, think getting physics right, or at least seeming to or trying to, is in some way more important than getting the science of the earthsystem right. This shows, to my mind, strange priorities. The carbon cycle is a lot more easy to understand than general relativity…

He comes to this conclusion in the light of a number of films he’s seen this year. I’m not really a movie person, so don’t know if his impression is representative. But I get uncomfortable whenever I see gross misrepresentations of science, or stuff that’s just plain wrong. And, anyway, the carbon cycle, water cycle and all the other earth system stuff is mainly just physics and chemistry (with a small amount of biology thrown in).

Society Women


It’s a commonplace that high-achieving women often suffer from the imposter syndrome — a belief that they do not deserve the success they have achieved. Athene Donald has some interesting posts about it in the context of academia.

It’s also commonly observed that women tend towards self-deprecation. Sometimes it’s in jest, but not always. Lucy Kellaway wrote about the tendency the other week (may be gated for you).

This is meant to be one of the ways women sabotage themselves. We talk ourselves down and by doing so, we hold ourselves down. Even women who have managed to rise go on harming themselves by incontinently banging on about how hopeless they are.

She goes on to point out that actually it’s a rather effective tactic, as long it’s completely clear that you are not remotely useless in the context being discussed. Tony Blair and Boris Johnson are past masters of the technique.

Self-deprecation is only dangerous if there is any chance at all that the person you are talking to might agree with it. … Only when it is clear to everyone that a woman’s skill is beyond doubt will it be time for her to start telling everyone that she is useless.

So, taking successful men as our model doesn’t always work. Patterns that work for them may not work for us. If people are predisposed to think that we aren’t completely on top of what we are doing, admitting any possibility of failure will be taken at face value. It’s only if people are completely confident that we are doing a good job that any hint of self deprecation won’t be pounced on.

Actuarial Environment

Modelling isn’t just about money

Last autumn I was at an actuarial event, listening to a presentation on the risks involved in a major civil engineering project and how to price possible insurance covers. It must have been a GI (general insurance), event, obviously. That’s exactly the sort of thing GI actuaries do.

The next presentation discussed how to model how much buffer is needed to to bring the probability of going into deficit at any point in a set period below a specified limit. It sounded exactly like modelling capital requirements for an insurer.

But then the third presentation was on how to model the funding requirements for an entity independent of its sponsor, funded over forty to sixty years, paying out over the following twenty to thirty, with huge uncertainty about exactly when the payments will occur and how much they will actually be. It must be pensions, surely! A slightly odd actuarial event, to combine pensions and GI…

The final presentation made it seem even odder, if not positively unconventional: the role of sociology, ecology and systems thinking in modelling is not a mainstream actuarial topic by any means.

And it wasn’t a mainstream actuarial event. It had been put on by the professions Resource and Environment member interest group, and the topics of the presentations were actually carbon capture, modelling electricity supply and demand, funding the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, and insights from the Enterprise Risk Management member interest group’s work – all fascinating examples of how actuarial insight is being applied in new areas. And to me, fascinating examples of how the essence of modelling doesn’t depend nearly as much as you might think on what is actually being modelled.


Implicit bias

There have been a number of blog posts in the last week or so about a study that looked at implicit (rather than explicit) discrimination in hiring practices. Both Jenny Rohm and Athene Donald have had interesting things to say.

The abstract says

Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has
yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.

This is scary stuff. The researchers explicitly make the point that they don’t think it’s due to explicit bias:

… we are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science. Past studies indicate that people’s behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended biases, stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent but simultaneously emphasize their warmth and likeability compared with men.

So even though I have no explicit bias against women, it’s highly likely that I have an implicit bias. As I said, scary.

What can we do about this? There are some fairly obvious things, but I simply don’t know whether they are enough.

First, be aware of the possibility of bias, and look out for it. Following a link trail from Athene Donald’s blog led me to a really useful definition of discrimination used by Shara Yurkiewicz:

A preference is discrimination when:

1) decisions such as those about hiring people and setting their pay rate are based on generalizations about the demographic groups to which individuals belong

2) individuals have no control over the group to which they belong – and it is apparent from their appearance.

3) it is nearly impossible to predict how an individual will do the job based on the group to which he or she belongs.

In fact I had an argument along these lines with the speaker at a dinner I went to last night. He used the old joke about men’s and women’s thought processes being completely different. I found the joke marginally offensive, and told him so afterwards. He claimed that it was based on facts — men, on the whole, are more analytic, less touchy feely, and so on. I said on average, maybe, but what we have is two overlapping distributions. He agreed, but the root of the problem is that we disagree over the extent of the overlap. I am firmly of the opinion that the distributions are both pretty wide, with a large overlap, which according to the definition above puts us firmly in discrimination territory.



Are we nearly there yet?

The title of this blog is a shameless crib from a recent blog of Athene Donald’s, in which she discusses the Equality Challenge Unit‘s annual survey of statistical information about staff and students in UK universities.

[…] overall 76% of professors are white and male. Such a lack of diversity cannot be healthy. The numbers of BME (black and minority ethnic) staff across the board, male or female, is truly dismal. A mere 5.3% of academic staff are non-white UK nationals and there are a further 6.6% of non-UK BME staff members.

More girls than boys go to university, although this gap is slowly decreasing (from 14.6 to 13.2% over the period from 2003/4). In some subjects the disparity is huge:  80.6% are girls in subjects allied to medicine, 76.6% in veterinary sciences, and even in biological sciences the percentage is 62.9%.

She concludes with the interesting question:

So, we should be asking ourselves, not only ‘are we nearly there?’, but where is the ‘there’ we are trying to reach. Is the ideal a 50:50 split between the genders at all levels and for all subjects, or do we believe that this is a) impossible or b) undesirable – or even c) irrelevant as a metric.

Meanwhile, it’s fairly obvious from other sources that we’re not nearly there, for any reasonable definition of “there”, even leaving aside the obvious matters of the gender pay gap and the dearth of women in top jobs.

Personally, I’m not a huge sports fan. Well, not really a sports fan at all, to be honest. I do participate at grass roots level (let’s hear it for parkrun), but I don’t really follow or even watch sport. But I’d like to be able to not watch women’s sport on an equal footing to men’s. From Zoe Williams:

A young female rower told me two years ago that the big scandal of the way women were treated in UK sport was best illustrated by netball: it was never covered by the media, even though we were among the best in the world.

As host nations of the Olympics, we could have nominated it as one of our four new events. Instead, we chose women’s boxing: no spectator base, no foothold in schools, no realistic chance of it catching on, but you wanted equality, ladies? Here, take a punch in the face.

There are huge numbers of sports fans, but they don’t see many women. But then, people listening to the Today Show don’t hear many women, those watching Question Time don’t see many, and people reading newspapers don’t read women’s words, according to recent research. Women are seriously under-represented in the media.

And it gets worse. As I wrote last month, there’s a lot of misogyny around, and a number of women wrote about what they encountered. A week or so ago, Nick Cohen wrote a piece on the subject, and as described by Ellie Mae O’Hagan

Almost as soon as the piece was published, “Nick Cohen” started trending on Twitter. Clicking on the topic revealed scores of men and women sharing and praising his article; congratulating him for “nailing” the subject.

Why, she asks, did Nick Cohen trend on Twitter?

After all, it didn’t trend on Twitter when women pointed it out; and if I remember rightly, a great deal of respondents told us to stop being so weak. […] How strange, then, that Cohen’s piece should be the subject of such adulation. How unfathomable it is that his opinion should be lauded more than those for whom misogyny is a lived experience. It seems, as one Twitter user put it to me, that when “feminist women call sexism they are portrayed as killjoys; when feminist men do it, they are portrayed as white knights riding to the aid of defenceless women.”

There’s some progress, though. Well, maybe. Hamley’s has stopped colour coding its floors pink and blue for girls and boys. That’s bound to make a difference. Isn’t it?


Data Society

Where the money is

I love the Guardian’s datablog. It consistently presents large quantities of data in interesting interactive ways. Yesterday it took data from the annual survey of hours and earnings, and presented it in three different ways:

  • Choose a salary, and see how earnings for different jobs compare
  • Choose a job, and see what the earnings are
  • Choose a job group

To my mind, one of the most interesting aspects, and one which the presentation highlights, is the gender gap and how it varies between jobs. It seems to be greatest for the highest paid jobs, on the whole.

Actuaries are lumped in with management consultants, economists and statisticians, not necessarily a totally homogeneous grouping, and have a gender difference of 18%. The difference for corporate managers and senior officials is 39%.

Today, it’s got a geographic analysis based on the same data. Guess what? London and the south east come out top.

One of the best things about the datablog is that, as well as coming up with good ways of presenting the data, it also provides access to the raw data so you can do your own thing, or check that the conclusions are in fact warranted. Great stuff.


The real cost of keeping warm

If we are to deal with climate change, the price of carbon-intensive energy is going to have to rise, says Tim Harford.

It makes sense. We have to reduce our energy use, and pricing is a good mechanism to help that along. Along the same lines, fuel duty is a Good Thing.

Society Women

Not there yet

Possibly my attention has been primed by Ada Lovelace Day, and another recent event, but I’ve been noticing a lot in the press recently about misogynism and other forms of discrimination. The impression I get is that the mainstream is becoming increasingly laddish, or failing to become less so.

Women are speaking up about death threats and other abuse they are subjected to when they express opinions online. Men simply aren’t subjected to personal and sexual abuse in the same way. Such abuse just isn’t acceptable, whoever it’s directed at.

It’s not just when we express our opinions, either. Discrimination in the workplace is still rife, on both gender and ethnic grounds. And a report published today shows that female customers suffer discrimination, too. Noreena Hertz writes in the FT that:

Male entrepreneurs in Europe are 5 per cent more likely to successfully get a loan for their business from banks than women. A 2009 study of 14,108 firms across 34 countries, showed that those women that do gain access to loans are often subjected to higher interest rates – an average 0.5 per cent more on a business loan than men – or must accept more burdensome guarantees and collateral requirements.

This is not just a case of the market cleverly weeding out the good from the bad. Women are not given worse terms because their businesses are more risky, smaller or in less attractive industries than men. The many studies I looked at explicitly compared like for like. It is not that women are worse at business than men and so present worse credit risks – the average venture-backed technology company run by a woman is started with a third less capital yet has annual revenues that are 12 per cent higher than those run by men.

This is not good. It’s an inefficient way of doing business, besides being unfair and unjust.

There’s more subtle discrimination, too. Women are definitely treated as “other”, in my experience: hypothetical CEOs are nearly always called Jim or Fred, never Sue or Mary. What’s wrong with Chris or Pat, and simply not being specific about what sex they are? And why does the Actuarial Profession continue to use “the actuary… he” in its documents? Saying that “he” refers to women as well as men doesn’t change the effect it has on people. Personally, when I read or hear the word “he” I don’t immediately feel that it applies to me.

We’re by no means there yet.