September 26, 2006

Conceptual tools

Mark Kleiman offers a "list of concepts journalism students should be exposed to:"

- Institutional culture
- Regression toward the mean
- Moral hazard
- Expected value (of an uncertain outcome)
- Present value (of a stream of gains and losses over - time)
- Statistical control
- Correlation v. causation
- Benefit-cost analysis and willingness-to-pay
- Cost-effectiveness
- Separation of powers
- Mill's "harm principle" [more of a moral assertion than a conceptual tool, however]
- Rent-seeking
- Opportunity cost
- Cognitive dissonance
- Milgram experiment

Off the top of my head, I'd add:

- Occam's Razor
- Law of supply and demand
- Ceteris paribus -- all else being equal
- Selection (e.g., natural selection, kin selection, a self-selected sample, etc.)
- Importance of who your relatives are
- Nature vs. Nurture
- Nepotism vs. neposchism
- Relative vs. absolute
- Direction vs. magnitude

The confusion over the direction vs. magnitude comes up all the time these days in the comparisons of Iran in 2006 to Nazi Germany in 1938. See, Nazi Germany didn't like America and Iran doesn't like America, so, since the direction of their dislike (against us) is the same, the threat they pose must be the same. Right?

Okay, but magnitude counts as well, or as Greg Cochran writes in the upcoming American Conservative issue: Size Matters.

Most pundits think about public policy issues the same way I think about singing on key. If I succeed in getting the direction of the change from one note to another right, if I remember that in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the pitch of my voice is supposed to go up, not down, between "Some-" and "where," well, hey, I'm doing pretty doggone good. Only fancy pro musician nerds like Randy the judge on "American Idol" care about the magnitude of how much I'm supposed to go up between "Some-" and "where." Do you think Paula Abdul cares? Even when she sobers up?

What other handy conceptual tools would you recommend?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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