Readings: Dr. Google, Columbo, cheating, and distracted shareholders


  • One would think that when doctors create a plan to deal with a known patient risk, said patients would be less likely to find themselves in an emergency room. Well, hold that thought. In an interesting new study on “backfire effects” in medicine, researchers found that it actually led to a small but significant increase in hospitalizations, as doctors respond to increased risk awareness by putting more patients in hospitals, with commensurate increases in risk. As ever, Illich was right about medical iatrogenesis.
  • Despite no evidence with respect to efficacy, interest in stem cell injections for osteoarthritis is exploding, as shown by Google Trends data. We ignore Dr Google at our peril when we think about health risk, effectiveness, and costs.


  • Accounting is mostly excellent at showing you what sorts of indefensible financial things you can do and still defend it as proper accounting.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hollywood is very good at this game, as shown most recently in the entertaining tussle between  Columbo’s creators and Universal.  After deducting myriad expenses with flimsy connections, at best, to the popular show starring Peter Falk, they claimed for decades that Columbo was unprofitable, and the creators weren’t owed profit-sharing.

  • I’ve long been puzzled by the inherent conflict between social and for-profit ventures, and so it’s fun to see an explanation. It turns out that social entrepreneurs adoption of a “fantasmatic form appears to temporarily neutralize tensions and anxieties while preserving attachments to pro-social ideals”. In short, they are telling themselves stories to make themselves feel better.
  • When large investors aren’t paying attention and companies want to goose earnings, said companies race straight to cutting R&D costs, especially if their CEO isn’t very good. It suggests that a quick way of detecting companies playing accounting games might be track R&D changes.


The HIgher Education Scandal Thing

  • The college bribe scandal is turning into a lovely example of motivated reasoning, the idea that people mostly project their emotional biases when making an argument. Academics see it as a loophole in college admissions, college counselors say it isn’t the sort of thing they would do, social engineers see it as failed social engineering, and still others see it as proof that college is so easy that people don’t mind paying up in anticipate of being shuttled through. About the only thing people can agree on is that they are shocked how much they aren’t shocked by the entire affair.