26 Jan 2010

What Is This Harvard Student Smoking?

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Mark Weber passes this NYT story along, explaining that Hayek is spinning in his grave. At first I didn’t see what a story about Mexican drug cartels had to do with Hayek, but then it hit me:

It may seem strange to examine this shadowy world with equations. But mathematics is transforming the social sciences. In the same way that physicists can predict the movement of atoms in space, we can use mathematics to model how individuals and groups will make decisions and interact in a society.

It used to be that social scientists relied on intuition to understand social problems. But human intuition can go wrong. It is difficult to keep track of every factor in the interaction of millions of human beings. Human logic can be deceived by personal points of view, and, as psychological research has shown, humans see false patterns even when randomness is the norm. Mathematics is cold-headed; it cannot go wrong.

So here I am, waiting at the border, on a mission to understand, with my equations, who is at risk of becoming a drug trafficker, how labor incentives affect crime rates and violence, why kidnapping and extortion and homicide have spiked in recent years.

But wait, it gets better, such that I looked back at the top to make sure this was a real article:

In this violent world, with the man in the blue Chevy whispering at me behind the window, math is my shield. Speaking up about drugs is in these parts a dangerous game. But not if you speak in the language of sigma and conditional expectations. Math protects me from the immediacy of the violence, and it protects me from them.

I don’t know what to say. Math has protected this writer from my wit.

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