Bryan Caplan  

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Message to Michael: There's No... The "cost" of sloppy thinking...
During the last five years, I put many of my concerns on hold so I could finish The Case Against Education.  Now that the project is wrapping up, I'm doubling back.  Many of the tasks are non-academic, like refinishing my childhood furniture.  But I also have a list of topics I want - nay, need - to learn more about.  For starters, I'm looking for high-quality systematic evidence-based work on the following:

1. The science of health - including but not limited to the net health effects of alcohol, antihistamines, sunscreen, and indoor air pollution, and the best ways of preventing diabetes and Lyme disease.

2. The science of diet.  What does the best evidence say about healthy diet?  To what extent are the effects simply mediated through obesity, versus other channels?

3. The science of sleep.  I've always been a bad sleeper: trouble falling asleep when I was young, trouble waking up too early in recent years.  Can science help me?

4. Personal finance.  Is there anything I should know beyond, "Invest in internationally diversified low-cost index funds," "Max out pretax and Roth options," and "Save for college using 529 plans"?

5. College admission for home-schoolers.  I'm not worried about home-schooling my kids through middle school.  But I'm concerned that colleges will penalize them if they don't attend a traditional high school.  How serious are these penalties, and what if anything can I do to defuse them?

Know something excellent I should read?  Know something well-regarded that's greatly overrated?  Please share in the comments.
 



COMMENTS (44 to date)
RPLong writes:

Regarding health, sleep, and diet, you can track a lot of your own metrics with the help of a fitness tracker. As a type 1 diabetic, I find the information I can consolidate using a fitness tracker and a few good fitness apps indispensable to my health management. And the technology just keeps getting better and better. So, definitely read up on the literature, but remember that every human body is a little different, and there's no better way to know what works for you than to start collecting your own data.

For health and diet, I think Dr. Bernstein was ahead of his time. A lot of info is on his website, http://www.diabetes-book.com/ , but the short story is management of glycemic load to regulate blood sugar. His recommendations fall under the "low carb" umbrella, but his take is a lot more rigorous and data-driven than the typical Pleistocene diet thing.

Regarding alcohol, this blog post is almost ten years old, but thought-provoking, scientific, and contains thorough corroborating citations.

I'm looking forward to reading additional comments.

Alejandro Salazar writes:

Maybe you should get in touch with James Altucher. That guy is into that kind of stuff too. It would be great having you in his podcast. He is against college education by the way, so he says he will not send his kids to college.

Samuel T. Dangremond writes:

4 - the ESA is superior to the 539 for education savings, especially if you anticipate paying to send your kids to e.g. a private high school (ESAs can pay for any education, 529s *only* college). Income limitations can easily be circumvented by having grandparents make the contribution into the ESA.

Lewis writes:

I recently started taking ZMA a couple night a week for sleep. It sounds like a real drug, but it's just zinc magnesium and b6 in a pill that's been trademarked as an acronym. Anyway, people say that it increases your REM. I don't know about that, but it does make me feel refreshed and sleep throughout the night. They don't sell it in every store though. I got mine on Amazon.

flame writes:

RE: diet

I have a friend who was influenced by Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat

Jeff writes:

#4: I graduated from business school almost ten years ago, now, so maybe things have changed, but my finance professors said what you just said but with the addition of "once you build up a diversified portfolio, then you can think about weighting certain sectors or industries via specialty mutual funds or (indexed!) ETF's."

Also, I think if you're over a certain income threshold and have a rather hefty chunk of change to invest, ETN's can help you minimize the taxes on those investments by converting dividends and interest on bonds from ordinary income to capital gains. Caveat emptor on that last part, though, because I read that a few years ago and never looked into it further.

Avery H writes:

Not sure if you had given it a look, but David Skarbek's "The Social Order of the Underworld" is a great book on the economics of prison gangs. It's has an extremely interesting analysis of the positive outcomes of prison gangs in reducing violence direct towards guards and other prisoners.

As for health- you should check out Carl Hart's book "High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society". It takes a nice skeptical look at the health risks of drug use, which is also what his research and op-eds focus on.

João Eira writes:

Brian, you should check out http://examine.com/ for evidence-based recommendations, mostly on the supplement side of things, but they have articles on nutrition, sleep, and things like that.

Matthew Baker writes:

5 - I was homeschooled all the way through high school, and the penalties to your % chance of being accepted to a high-tier school appears large. Among the homeschool communities I knew and hung around, no one had ever been accepted to UVA or William and Mary (including me), despite the fact that a lot of them were very smart, had great SATs, and went on to be more successful than the average William and Mary grad. This penalty was advised to me by several people who tutored homeschoolers, and the size of the penalty is considered common knowledge. Part of that penalty is that there may be fewer opportunities for high school homeschoolers in leadership, sports, honor societies, AP classes, and other factors that weigh into a college admission board's decision. Here's a few things my family tries to diffuse the costs:
1) train in AP class material and take the exams at a local public school, or take dual-enrollment courses at a local community college. That's outside verification of the good grades your sons will get from your homeschooling work.
2) Find a homeschool honor society, debate class, leadership opportunity, sports club, etc. It's mostly signaling of course but shows the initiative that may be easier to signal in public schools.
3) Get a professionally made transcript, if possible. My transcript was very detailed, looked professional, had course descriptions for every class I took, details about the curriculum, the breakdown of how grades were scored, and a GPA scale and calculation. Anything to prevent it from seeming arbitrary.

These are the top 3 for me. There are probably others, especially around letters of recommendation, but the people I know hit those top 3 as much as possible.
As well, note that the homeschooling penalties are positively relative to the selectiveness of the school. A low-level school, your chances may go from 99 to 98%, but a high-level school, your odds may go from 50% to 10% or something like that. Therefore it depends on how much you value school selectiveness. Hope this helps.

daniel frank writes:

I highly recommend you read the Brothers Ashkenazi by IJ Singer. Aside from being an enthralling page turner, it offers a great look into Jewish history, European history, the development and rise of Communism, and capitalism/industrialization.

I read a lot of books, and it is by far (seriously, by 1000 miles) the best book I have ever read.

Joshua Woods writes:

The best writer on the topic of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption is Chris Snowdon, who works for the UK based Institute of Economic Affairs. Here's a blog post with links to some meta studies which show that the benefits remain even when the effect of now teetotal former heavy drinkers (the sick quitter theory) has been explicitly tackled.

http://velvetgloveironfist.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/dont-worry-drinking-is-still-good-for.html?m=1

Jared writes:

High schools are starting to let students take more and more classes online these days. If you don't want your kid to go to public school full time, you might be able to let them only go part time.

Ben Kennedy writes:

For diet, read Stephan Gueynet at http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com. More than anyone else, he recognizes the brain's role in mediating body fatness, as opposed to the popular approach of just finding the right magical combination macronutrients. It's really obvious when you think about it, our brains mediate our energy requirements and the outside world to motivating eating behavior, so of course that should be the first thing we pay attention to. He takes an ancestral health approach - our primitive brains are designed for a relatively simply food environment, and in a modern-day advanced capitalist society it is pretty easy for the wheels to come off, hence obesity is a major problem in society. It is a much more compelling explanation than "Demon Sugar"

A Country Farmer writes:

2. Corny name, but great science: The Perfect Health Diet (PHD) by Drs. Jaminet

Vito writes:

Sharon Moalem's 'Survival of the Sickest' - great book about the genetic causes of various diseases and their environmental triggers if you are genetically predisposed. Chapter 11 is almost entirely about diabetes.
and
Peter Lynch's 'One Up on Wall Street' (easy)
or
Ben Graham's 'The Intelligent Investor' (hard)
Two great books about finance and investing beyond just index funds (which are admittedly the best choice for someone who doesn't want to get involved in all the due diligence of stock picking - since index funds generally outperform 80% of all mutual funds out there)

Evin Rohrbaugh writes:

Not reading, but this video goes into the science behind high fat diets and what our bodies really need for nutrition:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qn5zdWucv6I

and this shorter one explains the truth behind counting calories:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahq9gSfDJFc

Both are very contrary to mainstream dietary advice.

Tom Crispin writes:

Our daughter home-schooled (unschooled, actually, per John Holt) through her GED.

Then two years at community college getting the distribution courses and then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. No muss, no fuss, less B.S. and much cheaper, too.

No need to even take the SAT. The transcript from the community college was all that was needed for UT.

She subsequently obtained a Master's degree but has decided not to pursue a doctorate.

honeyoak writes:

For the personal finance literature, there is a lot of solid & convincing work on integrating Human Capital (e.g. education), Liability Management (e.g. mortgage, credit card debt) with personal finance (e.g. asset management). For example, a musician should hold liquid, low risk assets and avoid education due to the positive convexity of his earnings profile while a tenured professor should hold high risk & liquid assets such as housing and a side business. Too many people take a "bucketing" approach to finance and do not think about spillovers across domains. For example, the costs to maternity leave are primarily in lost future wage growth rather than the immediate loss of income.

Ron writes:

Health and Diet

Paleo Solution

The Paleo Diet

The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles

Argues that modern diseases (diabetes, MS, Crohns, IBS) are an expression of metabolic disorders that are driven by inflammatory foods - grains, dairy, and legumes. The author is currently performing clinical trials.

David Condon writes:

I've found Aaron Carroll to be the best source out there for dieting advice. Most importantly he doesn't have a pet theory he's trying to get everybody to follow. He just simply says: here's the highest quality study I could find on this question or I couldn't find any high quality studies on this question but it might be this.

My own view is decrease sugar, starch, and alcohol, and maximize protein and fiber. Eat lots of vegetables and fruit because they're high in nutrients, but a calorie is a calorie, so practice portion control. Being active throughout the day is even better for weight loss than dieting, so avoid sitting down. Carb cycling probably works.

There's also an old post on the lesswrong forums called optimal exercise that does a good job describing some studies on fitness.

Mark S writes:

Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis
http://www.sg.unimaas.nl/_OLD/oudelezingen/dddsd.pdf

Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/magazine/16epidemiology-t.html?_r=0

Roger McKinney writes:

On diet and health I highly recommend Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, by neurologist David Perlmutter. It's crammed tight with research.

On personal finance, timing the stock market is the most important thing. I recommend The Dao of Capital: Austrian Investing in a Distorted World by hedgfund master Mark Spitznagel, which I have reviewed on my blog, ABCT Investing.

Rif A Saurous writes:

Diet: +1 to Paul Jaminet's "Perfect Health Diet" and anything by Stephan Guyenet.

Fitness: I think the evidence strongly supports the notion that moderate amounts of intense heavy weightlifting combined with lots of light activity [think long walks outside] provides enormous health benefits. For distilled advice I love http://www.rdlfitness.com/best-exercise-tips/ [and the whole rdlfitness.com], although he doesn't reference original literature.

JK Brown writes:

For a quick overview that may lead you to more ideas on sleep, check out the USCG's info on Crew Endurance Management (CEM). The program covers a lot of the variables that impact getting proper rest in the shipboard environment. From there, you could pursue the guiding research in specific areas.

Hana writes:

#1 Exercise and Diet for diabetes. In areas with ticks wear covering clothing and use insecticides on the clothes.
#2 Michael Savage wrote a number of good books, not including politics. Look for Michael Weiner on a number of dietary books.
#3 Avoid caffeine after noon. Exercise in the mid afternoon. Taking an antihistamine when you go to bed may actually make you sleep through the night. Ask a doctor.
#5 Create a plan before your kids are in high school. Most of these items might be signaling, but do them anyway. Plan for the kids to volunteer on meaningful projects. Prepare in depth for all standardized testing. Go through multiple pre-tests. Get a good summer internship. Find a company (hopefully focused on the child's interests) that sponsors high school interns. It's a great experience. Get a part time/summer job. In this era in America, the number of kids that go to college and have never worked, and have no understanding of work, is astounding.

Hana writes:

#5 Add on. Achieving Eagle Scout, or similar ranking in other organizations, is a great way to exhibit character and dedication. It certainly will not hurt.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Scientific method does not work well with diet.
For scientific method requires controlled experiments and empirical falsification and for obvious reasons, experiments with dietary manipulations are difficult to perform.

One may require years of controlled diet before effects are observable. It is easy to see how many confounding factors can crop up in an years-long experiment involving living and breathing humans.

Santiago writes:

Bryan,

Re. Health, have you seen Michael Pollans new documentary "cooked" based on his book by the same name. Lots of it is informative, entertaining, but lots is also economically suspicious. Might be an interesting angle to look at or frame health nutrition and economics. Hope this helps.

Noah Carl writes:

On healthy foods/diets:

http://posnetres.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/is-there-such-thing-as-unhealthy-food.html

James writes:

Re: Finance,

Indexes are the best portolio for the "representative agent" but they are not the best portfolio for each person because each person's human capital is correlated to different stocks in different ways.

Take look at the paper "New Facts in Finance" by Cochrane. The short version is that there are some risk premia that are positive because they are correlated to the value of human capital. For workers who are at risk to be layed off in a recession, small cap stocks and low p/e stocks are less attractive because these stocks will be trading a low prices at the time when they are out of work. This is one the reasons some people cite to explain why there is a premum for holding these types of stocks rather than the market. For workers who have long term job security it makes sense to invest extra in small stocks and cheap stocks.

Telnar writes:

On the personal finance front, knowing your goals can make a big difference in your strategy.

A good starting point would be to project when you and your wife plan to retire and how much an inflation indexed joint and survivor annuity which covers your planned spending would cost at that age. Whether or not you intend to actually buy the annuity, that price gives you an approximate baseline for how much you need to save by retirement.

If you are in position to hit that target easily, then you might want to look for strategies which reduce your sensitivity to changes in interest rates and stock market valuations between now and retirement with the goal of reducing your expected surplus wealth at death in order to increase your odds of having the money you plan to spend through more conservative investments. There is a lot you can do here, but the details depend on factors like whether you want to annuitize in retirement.

If you are not on track to hit that target at current interest rates if stocks return, say, 5% real (which might be optimistic at current valuations) then you'll need to look at which of the parameters you used to calculate the baseline are changeable. Are you ok with retiring later? Saving more in your working years? Spending less in retirement? Taking more risk on your investments (if your portfolio is currently bond heavy)? By projecting your glide path now, you might be able to make less painful adjustments than would be required later.

One free source of advice is Bogleheads.org which has a DC chapter which meets every other month to discuss personal finance at a fairly high level.

Sebastian Franck writes:

By far the best entry point into the science of health is https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/ - do check it out, Bryan.

Wouter Stekelenburg writes:

Richard Wiseman is a professor of psychology who writes evidence based self help books like the following one about sleep:

https://nightschoolbook.wordpress.com/

If it doesn't solve your sleeping problems, then it is still an interesting introduction into the science of sleep.

Minderbinder writes:

"The Big Fat Surprise" by Nina Teicholz is a good survey of how the history of nutritional science evolved and how the low-fat diet craze came to prominence in the academic community and publicly. Very readable and lots of politics in it.

Art De Vany's blog is great for paleo stuff (http://www.artdevanyonline.com/) with scientific discussions and without the marketing fluff. He was an economist too.

"The Promise of Sleep" is a good introduction to sleep science by one of the big researchers in the field. Yes, you can sleep better. This book led me to get diagnosed with severe sleep apnea.

Also see the late Seth Roberts' blog for unorthodox ways of sleeping better.

Brad writes:

I would not call it exactly rigorous science, but on health/diet I think the book and website Blue Zones is worth a look. https://www.bluezones.com/. They look at a handful of communites on several continents that have unusual life expectancy and try to find common themes.

Steve Brecher writes:

Heh... You might as well ask what's the best religion, genre of music, or model of car as ask what's the best evidence-based healthful diet.

In this young century Paleo and low-carb are making the most money for their author-proponents. The basic idea is quite appealing and I, too, was a convert for a while.

Just about all who have anything to say agree that refined carbs are bad and fruits and vegetables are good.

My view is based on a reviewing a lot of research a few years ago after a multiple coronary artery bypass operation had been strongly recommended to me. I declined that in favor of a whole-food plant-based diet, and now am not only symptom-free but in the best cardiovascular condition, w/r high-exertion endurance, of my entire adult life. (I also lost 10 lb. but I wasn't previously fat.) In macronutrient/calorie-source terms, that would be very high unrefined carbohydrates (incl. lots of fiber) and very low fat.

As implied by Bedarz Iliaci above, randomized controlled trials are not very useful for prescribing healthful diet. While epidemiological evidence is often -- and sometimes correctly -- poo-poohed with "correlation is not causation", observing what large populations of trim, healthy, long-lived people eat can be instructive.

Take dietary advice only from doctors who look fit and healthy to you. (I am not a doctor.)

Kenny writes:

@honeyoak – Any examples from the personal finance literature about how to go about "integrating Human Capital (e.g. education), Liability Management (e.g. mortgage, credit card debt) with personal finance (e.g. asset management)."? Or any examples that might be more accessible than journal articles?

Brian – I think companies like Betterment and Wealthfront are an interesting update to the idea of index funds. [Of course index funds are probably very similar in their implementation but the UX of the new sites, and the additional services they offer, are a valuable novelty IMO.]

Phil writes:

@honeyoak do you have a reference for that type of analysis? That sounds interesting

---------

For college, I would check out http://www.amazon.com/What-Colleges-Dont-Other-Parents/dp/0452288541/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1460599294&sr=8-1-fkmr2&keywords=The+secrets+highschools+won%27t+tell+you+about

It might not be groundbreaking analysis, but it's a nice reference about what sort of extracurricular accomplishments transcend transcripts, broken down by what fields you're in

Floccina writes:

On Personal finance.

Low volatility seems to outperform. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2537050

People are willing to pay for a chance to beat the market by a large margin enough so that low volatility investing will generally outperform.

Craig Brown writes:

@phil
@kenny
@honeyoak

On integrating human capital see:
"Are You a Stock or a Bond" - Moshe Milevsky

Taking this idea to its logical, but extreme conclusion:
"Lifecycle Investing" - Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff

A more reasonable and balanced approach:
"The Ages of the Investor" - William Bernstein

On liability management (broadly considered):
"Risk Less and Prosper" - Zvi Bodie

Asset-Liability Matching Applied to Pensions:
"https://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/review/2006/07/01/on-asset-liability-matching-and-federal-deposit-and-pension-insurance/"

Keith K. writes:

With respect to disease and aging, the most useful predictor seems to actually be strength and muscle size.

http://www.cbass.com/BendingTheAgingCurve.htm

What most people do not know is that muscle seems to act much like an endocrine organ. Exercising it not only makes it stronger, but makes all the various biochemical processes that it is involved in run much more efficiently. The end result is not only an increase in strength and an increase overall organ and body function as well.

Looking at that literature (and the newer stuff with respect to myokines) would be productive if you are looking at the health area.

As for an evidence base:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAU_sqHGiYw

and

http://baye.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/ebrtr-Fisher.pdf

https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineJUNE2012_Steele.pdf

David writes:

Regarding health and diet, it is important to realize that you are an individual case, for whom general rules may not apply or even be harmful.

You might check out the research done by a team at Technion, which showed that different individuals had dramatically different responses to the same foods.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26590418

If you consider that science has historically considered the general case and disregarded N=1, this study is literally (literally!) radical in its implications.

Colombo writes:

Take some melatonin and you'll sleep like the little angel you are not.

How much? I would recommend starting with five or six miligrams. Just plain melatonin. If that doesn't knock you out, then your brain must be much more exceptional than everyone reckoned.

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