Articles to 2017-10-12

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First the link to this week’s complete list as HTML and as PDF.


Against my better judgement I posted last week’s list having only perused Boxell et al.’s abstract and before critically reading their content. The headline had pandered to my preconceptions, but in fact that study turns out to be absolutely, completely, and totally useless.

What they should have done is clear: find and compare two groups that are as similar as possible in every way except social media use. Instead they chose groups that could not be more different by every conceivable measure. Yes, it is true that 75-year-olds use social media less than 25-year-olds do, but is that the main variable driving their differences in political outlook?

Granted, the authors do not just compare simple snapshots of their four chosen age groups but follow their respective trajectories through time. This yields yet another confounder. From youngest to oldest their groups comprise 20, 15, 10 and probably less than ten years of age. So over the twenty years they’re looking at, a few of the youngest cohort may have stayed the same while the older groups get an ever increasing rate of turnover and, not surprisingly, rate of change in political views.

Does that tell us anything at all about the influence or not of social media on political polarisation? Certainly not, and a study of this design is fundamentally unable to do so, whichever way you try to tweak the unsuitable numbers. Should an editor or reviewer have recognized as glaring a deficiency as that? You tell me.


It is at the very least a plausible hypothesis that children’s outlook in life is formed by the adult role models they grow up with and that humans are social learners through imitation and emulation. Leonard et al. also make a very convincing case, that infants’ interaction with a new toy in an artificial laboratory setting is influenced by what they have observed a strange adult doing minutes before. What is very far from obvious and what they do not spend a single sentence in making a case for, is how the one is supposed to be connected to the other.

Can you really make a lasting impression about the value of perseverance and hard work on a one-year-old in just five minutes? Would it not be far more plausible that what the children really picked up was, that gadgets and toys in this funny laboratory tend to be dodgy and not to work reliably, needing several attempts to do so?


Grekyan comes as a bit of a surprise to me and my idiosyncratic interests. The 7th century BC, described here as the time of a climatic downturn, was by all accounts a very good time for the Judean state between the Assyrian takeover of the north and the Babylonian conquest. Judea seems to have been a wealthy exporter of wine and olive oil tightly linked to the Assyrian exchange system. Were the Judean hills a climatic anomaly or was something else going on?

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