For Tufts and other schools in Massachusetts, today’s start of the academic year coincides with a primary election for state and federal offices. The campaigns have made some effort at persuasion but most focus is on mobilization:  recent elections have been decided mainly by turnout, by which people invest the time and effort needed to vote.  This morning I’ll walk to my polling place before going in to the office but most Americans don’t have that luxury. Differences in turnout arise precisely because people face very different barriers to voting, which itself is one of the most important questions in American politics.

Starting the school year with an election seems fitting.  I teach at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, where much of the agenda concerns what governments do.  And in education, like politics, enthusiasm matters. It takes effort to get involved — so thank you for showing up, at Tufts or other schools.  And if you’re lucky enough to have elections this academic year, thank you for voting.

 
Research in nutrition and the health sciences is often kept semi-secret until publication.  Why?  Does it matter?
     Scientists in many fields circulate their work in progress as widely as possible, hoping for feedback and citation even before submission to a journal.  Institutions run their own working paper series (like the Tufts economics department), individuals use their own websites (like my personal site), and many use general repositories (like arXiv and SSRN).  Acceptance at a top journal certifies the quality of the final version and facilitates dissemination, but draft work in the physical and social sciences is typically circulated as widely as possible before publication.
     In nutrition and health research, the default rule is secrecy.  Results are typically kept confidential until publication, even for work that will be eventually be published on an open-access basis.  Study designs for human subjects research is disclosed through registries like clinicaltrials.gov, and ongoing work may be described at conferences from which brief abstracts are published in outlets like the FASEB supplements, but detailed methods and results are not generally shared until publication day.
     The difference between fields is nicely illustrated by a twitter thread reproduced in this post, in which I experimented with sharing a photo album from an agricultural economics conference so as to see connections between different presentations.  That led to quick reply from a leading nutrition researcher, Purnima Menon, who noted that posting photos of slides could jeopardize publication in top health journals.
     A specific example of how nutrition research is kept hidden until publication comes from a recent conference that I organized at Tufts, called GlobalFood+.  This event was designed around 7-minute speed talks designed for sharing on the internet — but one of the best talks had to be kept off our website.
     Confidentiality of work in progress can be important to prevent theft of ideas, to ensure that scientists receive credit for what they do.  Limiting prior publication might also be important for subscription-based journals, to ensure that institutional libraries want that journal in their collection.  But neither rationale applies when working papers can be cited, and when publication fees are paid for open-access articles.
     In general, the primary reason to discourage prior sharing is to pursue media coverage.  Journal publishers make this clear, as in the statements against ‘pre-publicity’ at the top general outlets, Nature and Science.  Previous posting is especially discouraged in the top medical journals, as explained by JAMA and NEJM.  They encourage publication of teaser abstracts, like a movie trailer, but detailed results are subject to a media embargo until publication day.  Universities and research labs are keen to cooperate, in the hope that science journalists will treat the paper’s arrival as a newsworthy event.
     Embargoes may be needed in some case, but for most studies the scientific community is turning against pre-publication secrecy.  Treating publication as a news event is itself a problem, contributing to ‘study-a-day’ media coverage that exaggerates the importance of new studies relative to previous knowledge.  And limiting prior scrutiny to a handful of referees and editors raises the risk of error.  Policies favoring prior circulation of working papers were adopted long ago in PNAS, and have recently been adopted in the health sciences at BMJ and The Lancet.  In nutrition, the AJCN and Journal of Nutrition still put some limits on prior circulation, discouraging their use.
     Why would different kinds of journals have different policies?  One factor could be audience demand for different kinds of news.  Many people want to know about the latest findings in nutrition and medicine, so media outlets often assign reporters to meet that need.  Universities are happy to supply a curated flow of individual studies in the specific fields that reporters most want to write about, like dietary advice and lifestyle choices.  Managing the flow of news is also important for high-stakes pharmaceutical trials and other controversial studies.  But in many cases, secrecy before publication is sought mainly to protect the economic interests of the publisher.  With JAMA, NEJM and some others, subscriptions are still important so they must restrict prior publication to enforce a paywall.  And some journals like Science and Nature run scientific articles alongside weekly news about science, with significant revenue from ads for lab equipment and materials. These journals need publicity to attract traffic for their journal as a news source, to sell both subscriptions and advertising.
      Scientific work is changing fast and it’s hard to keep up.  For example, my previous foodecon post was about how to limit the plague of academic spam.  Much is being written about the business of scientific publication, including great nonprofit work by Scholarly Kitchen and the EmbargoWatch blog by Ivan Oransky (who also blogs at RetractionWatch), as well as superb reporting on academic life by insidehighered.com and chronicle.com.  Personally, I hope that the tradition of pre-publication secrecy is soon replaced by wider circulation of working papers, even in nutrition and the health sciences.  Sharing work in progress would raise overall quality, and help break reporters’ study-a-day habit and encourage them to cover the overall flow of knowledge.  Wouldn’t that be nice?
 

Academic spam is a real problem.  Every day I get many emails inviting me to fake conferences and pretend journals.  This junk mail is clever enough to pass through automated filters, and to fool just enough students and researchers into paying for their useless services — or tempt them into trying to fool employers with a puffed-up CV.

It takes time and attention to distinguish fake from real.  Much has been written about the problem.  The pioneer effort is Beall’s list, followed by other efforts to stop predatory journals and help people choose better outlets. The pay-to-publish and pay-to-attend industry even puts out their own guide to using their services, encouraging people to think and check before submitting.  Some academics are really into this, with fun blogs about flaky conferences and flaky journals, or this fancy Christmas joke.

This year I started building my own blocked senders list of sites that have sent me academic spam.  It’s pretty easy:  instead of deleting the junk, I add the sender to my blocked list.  This takes a couple more clicks, and I’ve ended up with a list that looks like this:

My list of about 400 senders now catches about two-thirds of the incoming spam, sending it directly to the junk folder.  The filtered ones are in bold, unread, in case you want to check what was blocked:

I did this partly for myself, but also to share the list online so others could import and add to it, here:  http://bit.ly/academicspammers.

With a little crowdsourcing, we could all enjoy a less spammy future.

 

This year’s class potluck was especially saboroso, with a delicious Sopa Paraguaya from Gabi Fretes — and a wild Puerto Rican Coquito from Nayla Bezares here being praised by judge Norbert Wilson:

Also meaningful, in a different way: Blackbird Donuts (thank you Alana Cliffer!).  More photos here.

As always, respect and thanks to our august jury of distinguished food economists, not just Norbert but also Sean Cash and Parke Wilde.  Time for an econo’food recipe book project, anyone?

 

It’s the first weekend of a new semester – time to take stock and set direction for the spring.  As Anne of Green Gables put it: ‘a new day, with no mistakes in it yet’.

With that… time for what might might be my first mistake:  an overly long blog post.  In the past I’ve used this site to post short roundups of great new stuff from the internet, with links to some of the best ideas that feel new to me for the start of each semester.  Topics have included filter bubbles, redefining sustainability, song lyrics, ethical economics, teaching economics, and data visualization.  My goal is share ways to avoid previous errors, so when I do make mistakes at least they’ll be new ones.

In 2017, the whiplash transition from Obama to Trump has shaken every aspect of American life, down to the root of rethinking how we talk about race, gender and other aspects of who we are.  That calls for many things, including perhaps the need to address those issues more directly in this kind of blog.  Taking on something so fundamental as social identity means my mistakes could be bigger and more consequential than usual, but I hope they are not quite the same old errors as in the past.

For NUTR 238, our focus is how economics can help improve the food system.  Economic analysis starts with individuals’ choices, and there is now a lot of economics about how we form and use various identities.  What sort of person do we want to become?  How do we categorize other people?  Identities like being a vegan or an environmentalist play huge roles in our food choices, and could even cause bias in nutrition research.

Many features of social identity are inherited, and change only gradually.  My own family name was changed completely by my great-grandfather on arrival in Boston.  My father’s parents changed it again, to sound even more English.  Identity evolves in part through choices like that – and yes, there are economics studies of this, both family names and first names.

Each of us has many interacting identities, of which some aspects are private and others can be used as a public signal.  Many signals involve things we say, including what we say about race and gender.  A meta demonstration of this is one of my favorite signs from the women’s march of January 2017: If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.  That sign says a lot, including:  I am a person who uses the word ‘intersectional.

By definition, the meaning of a social identity is what other people make of it – especially distant people, who don’t know the real you.  As the old joke has it, a loving parent might say their kid in a new uniform, “To me of course you’re a real captain, but… to a captain are you a captain”?  We can alter our own social identity through our names, our language and clothing – and we can also contribute to how others’ traits are interpreted, including immutable traits like skin color.

Regarding racial identity, as a white professor in a largely white school, my own change of perspective begins with Seeing White.  It’s a long-form podcast, 14 episodes each of which runs for 30-45 minutes.  New listeners might start with the last episode on transformation that includes a lot of solid economics.  Agriculture and nutrition are mentioned only in passing, but the question of food justice does appear; in that last episode Robin DiAngelo describes her own initial self-perception as “of course I’m not racist — I’m a vegetarian!” As an aside, this series with a nice personal connection to our field because the co-host’s mother is a prominent nutrition professor.

Regarding gender dynamics, my job is a lot easier.  The Friedman School’s student population is about 85% female, and the faculty about 65% female.  There are plenty of problems in the field of nutrition, but teaching at Friedman is an escape from so much more sexism in economics.  In NUTR 238 we already devote a lot of class time to gender as a topic, and on all topics I feature the work of many great female economists so students will know it’s not all men.  I also try to manage classroom dynamics in a way that will help students express their own point of view.  I rarely call on anyone until they raise their hand, to encourage self-motivation, and gender disparity in classroom participation runs so deep that by week 3 or 4 there’s inevitably a moment when raised hands are almost all male.  That’s what we call a teachable moment:  I can stop the class to ask why – and point out that everyone else needs to speak up for their own perspective to heard.

Most importantly for our work at the Friedman School, thinking about diversity and inclusion includes discovering the unintended consequences of our own identities within the food system.  The big change in the NUTR 238 curriculum for 2018 will be on that front.  I will try to do even more than in the past regarding racial, gender and other disparities in the food system, but what I’ll add for the first time is the possibility of unintended harms from identities over which we have more choice: for example, that ‘healthism’ might worsen weight discrimination, or how the food movement affects the urban-rural divide.

When talking about identity and its consequences, we’ll surely make mistakes – but if we learn from each other we can make some real progress.  On to a new semester!

 

A big part of economics is data analysis, which starts with data visualization:  “seeing like an economist” means looking for patterns across many observations, recognizing that the data we see result from peoples’ choices.  In class we practice this through weekly exercises and a course project that start with analytical diagrams (such as supply and demand curves) to show the logic by which we explain each observation, and then download data from authoritative sources to make our own charts and tables that summarize what’s been observed.

This blog post pulls together a few suggestions and links about data visualization for convenient reference.  The dataverse of available information is expanding rapidly, with increasingly sophisticated expectations about data visualization.  That complexity can be daunting, making it hard to get started. My vote for best quick advice about data is to keep it simple, as explained in great posts about how to clear off the table and remove to improve.  Those start with bad examples and show how to clean things up and avoid numbo-jumbo.

Successful data visualizations help you tell a story, by making comparisons that highlight both similarities and differences.  Charts and tables offer a kind of language designed to help us communicate clearly.  The grammar of this language is nicely explained here: http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWtablefigs.html.  Change over time is usually best shown with line graphs like Figure 1 of that page, while differences among categories is usually best shown with bar charts that are sorted by magnitude, and a cloud of individual observations is best shown by a scatter plot.  It’s useful and fun just to browse through the different charts presented here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery.aspx, and also click through https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/data-visualizations.  Other thoughtful guides to making scientific charts and tables include: http://guides.library.duke.edu/datavis/topten and https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/gsspolicy/effective-graphs-and-tables-in-official-statistics.

Your final reports and presentations weave together a sequence of charts and tables.  To keep things straight, all figures (whether an analytical diagram or a chart of data) should be numbered consecutively as Figure 1, 2, 3…, and all tables should be numbered separately as Table 1, 2, 3…  Each should have a clear title and note describing the nature and source of all data shown in the chart or table, so that a future reader could replicate or update your visualization in the future.  Different fields use different conventions about table or figure titles and footnotes, and have preferred visual styles for how things are presented.  In general, economics and other social sciences use brief titles above the chart and detailed notes below it, while many health science readers expect a single long figure caption that combines both kinds of information.  Examples from my own recent papers include one in health economics style (title and footnote), and one in health-science style (a long caption)

For oral presentation, your charts and tables should appear in ways that help you tell the story.  There are many good guides to using PowerPoint effectively, of which one of my favorites is from a prominent biologist named Susan McConnell: https://www.ibiology.org/professional-development/designing-effective-scientific-presentations.

And finally, if you’re interested in guides to writing in general, my favorite is Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style — especially for his brilliant description of how all communication requires effort to overcome the curse of knowledge, in part by chunking information into digestible units which you can then bundle up into increasingly powerful stories.  I look forward to seeing how you put your pieces together!

 

It’s a new school year, time to rethink what we teach!

America’s 2008 financial crisis and its consequences led to long, fierce debates over the past decade about what went wrong in the economy, and how what’s taught in economics classes should change.  Among professors, the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) plays a big role, and it’s flagship  Curriculum of Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) textbook has been getting a lot of attention this Fall.

Many ideas from INET and CORE are already woven into my teaching, based on their role in the scholarly literature.  For example, I have used the Piketty and Saez data on income distribution ever since they first appeared in journal articles, well before the financial crisis. But N238 differs in many ways from standard introductory economics classes.  We just had an email exchange among a few Friedman School faculty about this and I am keen to hear what others think it, so I’ll post a few some notes here in hopes of sparking conversation about what’s taught in this class.

First, the innovations brought by INET and CORE aim are about responding to the 2008 recession with more attention to contemporary macroeconomics, regarding a country’s income level (growth and fluctuations) and income distribution (production, employment).  In contrast, the focus of our syllabus is entirely on how economics matters for agriculture,  food systems and nutrition.  Within nutrition we focus mainly on dietary intake, with two whole weeks on details of consumer behavior that are almost entirely omitted from the CORE textbook.

Second, the definition of economics used by INET and CORE is that economists study income flows.  Hence the title of their book is “The Economy“.  In contrast, the title of our class and of the background textbook we use is “Economics“.  The difference is important because we define economics as a method, not a topic.  We use economics to study all aspects of agriculture, food and nutrition, including many aspects of individual behavior and social outcomes that do not involve money.  Economics is just one of many ways to study these things, which can also be analyzed from other perspectives such as anthropology, sociology, history, or epidemiology.  By the end of each semester in N238, students should have a pretty clear sense of the difference between “the economy” (meaning what’s measured as income) and other things that matter for nutrition and can be studied using economics such as gender bias in time use within households, or consumer response to coupons and vouchers, or the impacts of home gardens on diets.

Third, the target audience for INET and CORE is students who really want to study economics as such.  The CORE textbook is written in a rather dense, abstract way that does not aim to reach the casual reader.  My aim is to teach in way that doesn’t require a textbook at all.  Class slides use updated data, and students who want a text for alternative explanations of basic concepts are encouraged to buy an inexpensive older edition.  I also point students to the relevant Khan Academy videos.  That solves the textbook pricing problem, and allows us to focus throughout the class on customized material about agriculture, food & nutrition.

So… I am keen to hear from anyone interested in curricular issues.  Can you see ways to teach economics more effectively, in this or other classes?

 

If you took the NUTR 238 final exam last week, you’ll know that this year’s questions involved news clippings from the past month’s food policy news, about SNAP restrictions, trade policy, pesticides and monopolies.

Now that class is over, a great to new way to follow these and other stories is via the Tufts library’s new subscription to an daily newsletter from FERN called AgInsider. You can get the daily headlines via email by signing up at thefern.org (scroll down to see link),  and if you have a Tufts login you can see the articles here.

For Tufts affiliates, one useful trick is to have your browser redirect the newsletter links to that library subscription.  I use this one: http://einaregilsson.com/redirector, for which the configuration is:

https://thefern.org/ag_insider/*
https://thefern-org.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ag_insider/$1
https://thefern.org/ag_insider/xxx
               https://thefern-org.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ag_insider/xxx
Main window (address bar)

Among other newsletters my top choices are:  for US food news in general, the brilliant New Food Economy’s Weekly Dish; for US food policy news, Politico’s Morning Agriculture (subscription needed for Pro articles only) and Farm Policy News  (was subscription only, now free thanks to Univ. of Illinois); for global food issues, the Chicago Council’s weekly Food for Thought news brief.

And if you actually get away from the screen occasionally, I’ll toss in a plug for the podcast revolution:  I don’t have a favorite one on food policy – instead I occasionally listen to stuff about food culture, like Gastropod, Sporkful and the Eater Upsell, lots of academic wonkery with Tyler Cowan or LSE lectures, and find many great episodes about food policy issues on Planet Money.  Fiction is good too, with great scripted drama like Bronzeville and Homecoming, and yes, music:  my beloved Econotunes, and songs that play with food.

Happy summer!

Will

 

A friend who writes for the Financial Times newspaper just published a terrific essay on recent books about economics, and about the applicability of standard  methods like what we use in class to real-world choices and policymaking.  To read it you’ll need to make yourself an FT login at their website but it’s well worthwhile:

https://www.ft.com/content/331ff894-f876-11e6-bd4e-68d53499ed71

Our TA Rachel Gilbert also pointed out a great NPR story about a famous line of research in economics: “Does studying economics make you selfish?.  The answer is… maybe.   In my experience, the problem of selfish “economists” arises when people learn too little economics, rather than too much.  By stopping at the introductory stuff, people may never get to adult stage of what real-life economists actually do to improve social outcomes.

Before I came to Tufts, I taught for 18 years at Purdue.  When I left, the grad students asked me to a confessional “last lecture” in which I asked what an ethical economics of food would look like.  The full text in context is here:

http://freakonomics.com/2010/06/10/toward-an-ethical-economics-of-food-policy/

Of course the Friedman School context is very different from Purdue.  A first step towards translation would be to search and replace “agricultural economics” with “food economics” — and then find what else should be updated?

 

Our fifth annual class potluck this week was terrific.  We do love our food!

For this year, we were able to schedule the dinner immediately after introducing the idea of optimization in food choice.  The class had just completed a data-analysis exercise using the famous least cost diet problem, looking for combinations of foods that just meet daily nutrient needs at lowest total expense.

In NUTR 238 we do the diet problem by hand using spreadsheets, which reveals an amazing fact about food choice:   even well-trained nutritionists armed with all the latest data, when asked to solve this problem, consistently choose foods with much more protein and higher cost than humans’ daily requirements.   We cannot resist choosing dietary patterns that meet energy needs with expensive protein instead of fat or carbohydrates, and with too much of some nutrients and too little of others.  This demonstrates vividly how and why people don’t just count our way to nutrient adequacy.  To explain, predict and improve food choices, we need to understand nutrients and then think beyond them to other objectives and constraints.

Putting theory into practice, just for fun our Econ o’Food potluck this year involved prizes for best dishes that might help meet our nutrient needs in any of four different ways:

(1) Frugally, at lowest monetary cost;
(2) Conveniently, with least time needed to prepare and serve;
(3) Sustainably, with least harm to the environment;
(4) Meaningfully, with the most cultural significance for the community.

We had four expert judges:  Sean Cash, Anna McAlister, Parke Wilde and Norbert Wilson.

After much tasting and deep deliberation they decided which lucky students won their share of the world’s favorite treat.  The judges explained how everyone’s dishes succeeded at meeting their diverse goals with such panache that I’m not sure about who actually took home the chocolate… which, I suppose, is the point.   We’re just starting week 5 of the semester, and have so much more to discover!