How Political Are Judges?

Cass Sunstein, writing on Bloomberg View, reviews the research on judicial voting patterns to determine whether judges are really as "political" as people seem to think.  The good news: federal judges aren't nearly as bad as politicians.  "Judges are far from mere politicians; we don’t see anything like the kind of polarization found in Congress," writes Sunstein. "At the same time, judicial predispositions matter, and they help explain why judges are divided on some of the great issues of the day."  

The research also indicates that even judges are subject to a phenomenon called "group polarization."  "[J]udicial voting becomes a lot more ideological when judges sit on panels with two others appointed by presidents of the same political party," Sunstein explains. "For example, Republican appointees side with plaintiffs complaining of disability discrimination about 29 percent of the time -- but that number drops to 17 percent when they are sitting with two fellow Republican appointees."

As for the Supreme Court, Sunstein highlights research from a new book on the political leanings of Supreme Court justices since 1937:

Strikingly, they find that of the six most conservative justices in their entire sample, no fewer than three are currently on the court (Clarence ThomasAntonin Scalia and Samuel Alito). A fourth makes the top 10 (John Roberts). By contrast, none of the current justices ranks among the most liberal six, and only one makes the liberal top 10 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Does Math Make Research "Better"?

Yes -- if you don't know much math, that is. A new study finds that even academic scholars perceived research to be of higher quality if there's some math involved -- even if the math makes no sense. The experiment threw an irrelevant mathematical equation into research paper abstracts, and asked scholars of different fields to evaluate the quality of the research:

Mathematics is a fundamental tool of research. Although potentially applicable in every discipline, the amount of training in mathematics that students typically receive varies greatly between different disciplines. In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject).

FREAK-est Links

1. Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy on the failed war on drugs.

2. Selling beer at college football games worked out pretty well for the University of Minnesota this season: $907,000 in alcohol sales and fewer incidents.

3. The Economist's 2012 in charts.

4. Hedging hackers: firms create fake data to defend against data thieves.

FREAK-Shot: Christmas Ornament Edition

Reader Tim Kelly sends in photo from a store in Lombard, Illinois:

As Tim writes:

I spotted an interesting sign while out Christmas shopping the other day.  The sign stated the company's "breakage policy," where any broken item must be bought, but that the store will only charge half price on the broken item.  The sign continued offered to repair the broken item, free of charge (I confirmed the free repairs from the shop owner, as it is not explicitly stated in the sign).

The sign was located on a mall kiosk selling Christmas ornaments.  I imagine breakage is a big issue for such a shop, as their product is relatively fragile and are highly enticing to bored kids stuck Christmas shopping with their parents.

My initial instinct upon seeing the sign was that this policy seemed to be inviting people to game the system.

Why "Peak Farmland" Is Good News

First there was "peak oil"; now there's "peak farmland." But it's not what you think. Reuters reports that a group of scientists from the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University just released a report detailing their findings:

The amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide is at a peak and an area more than twice the size of France can return to nature by 2060 due to rising yields and slower population growth, a group of experts said on Monday.

The report, conflicting with U.N. studies that say more cropland will be needed in coming decades to avert hunger and price spikes as the world population rises beyond 7 billion, said humanity had reached what it called "Peak Farmland."

"Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers," says Jesse Ausubel, the study's lead author.

(HT: Free Exchange)

A Solid Fiscal-Cliff Plan

As Republicans and Democrats continue to bicker about spending and taxes, the Onion has stepped in with an excellent plan for averting a fiscal crisis:

STEP ONE: Eliminate school breakfast and lunch programs, Medicaid, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, Medicare, PBS, New Mexico, elk, the Coast Guard, and all dams.

And, our favorite, Step Three:

STEP THREE: Eliminate federal prison system by converting U.S. territory of Guam into an unsupervised penal colony known as “The Gauntlet.”

FREAK-est Links

1. The hyperlink as a microtransaction of trust.

2. Money-back guarantees in the NBA: The Phoenix Suns to give money back if fans don't have fun. (HT: V. Brenner.)

3. Fifty Shades of Grey gives all Random House employees $5,000 bonuses.

4. An interview with George Mitchell, the man who innovated fracking.

5. Felix Salmon explains the fiscal cliff with Legos and toys.

Don't Walk and Text

Our motto has always been “friends don't let friends walk drunk.” We might have to add texting to that list. A new paper from BMJ Group shows that walking and texting is really not a good idea. The study looked at more than 1,000 pedestrians in Seattle, and found texting to be a particularly troublesome distraction:

Texters took almost two seconds (18%) longer to cross the average junction of three to four lanes than those who weren’t texting at the time.

And they were also almost four times more likely to ignore lights, to cross at the middle of the junction, or fail to look both ways before stepping off the curb. 

In a country where more than 4,000 pedestrians are killed each year in traffic accidents, it seems sensible to do what we can to decrease our chances. The authors write:

Individuals may feel they have "safer use" than others, view commuting as "down time," or have compulsive behaviors around mobile-device use. ... Ultimately a shift in normative attitudes about pedestrian behavior, similar to efforts around drunk-driving, will be important to limit the … risk of mobile-device use.

Do Politicians Respond to Emails?

Writing at the Monkey Cage, political scientist Cristian Vaccari describes his research about how  political candidates, who often rely heavily on email lists, actually respond to emails:

As part of a broader study of the online presence of parties, party leaders, and Presidential candidates in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S., I tested whether and how rapidly their staffs responded to two types of emails (sent from separate fictitious accounts in the official language of each country): one asking for their positions on taxes (a cross-cutting issue that should not strongly differentiate between different types of parties), the other pledging to be willing to volunteer for them and asking for directions on how to do so. Emails were sent in the two weeks prior to national elections between 2007 and 2010 to a total of 142 parties and candidates. The results speak volumes to the lack of responsiveness among political actors: excluding automated responses, only one in five emails received a reply within one business day.

Americans Inconsistent on Financial Risk

A new paper in the American Economic Review (abstract; PDF), summarized here, finds that Americans aren't very consistent when thinking about financial risk. Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Iuliana Pascu, and Mark R. Cullen, analyzing how people choose health insurance and 401(k) plans, found that "at most 30 percent of us make consistent decisions about financial risk across a variety of areas."  Their data set includes 13,000 Alcoa employees:

Because employees were making decisions in both the health-care and retirement domains, the researchers had the opportunity to see how the same individuals handled different types of choices. Or, as Finkelstein puts it, the economists could ask: “Does someone who’s willing to pay extra money to get comprehensive health insurance, who doesn’t seem willing to bear much financial exposure in a medical domain, also tend to be the one who, relative to their peers, invests more of their 401(k) in [safer] bonds rather than stocks?”