osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Of Economics, Toilet Seats, and Humor

Got this link from Goldsquare.

It leads to an economic analysis of whether it is more efficient to leave the toilet seat up, toilet seat down, or follow the "selfish rule" of leaving the seat as is when you are done.

You can see Goldsquare's posting here:

As you can see, the folks who comment appear to have taken this rather seriously. One even questions whether his/her "taxpayer dollars" paid for this.

My read on the paper is somewhat different. It is a joke, and a damn good one. Anyone familiar with the "Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Institute," http://www.dhmo.org/, will recognize the style of humor. Apply a professional analysis that is completely accurate and totally inappropriate because of the subject matter. The extensive work on the "Boreal Masters" at the "Society for Creative Academia" (http://www.ece.uwaterloo.ca/~arnora/arnora/borealhome.htm) is another fine example.

Here, Professor Choi has provided a classic welfare maximizing analysis to "the toilet seat question," including an intro as to why such a trivial problem is worthy of study. Choi does good work. You can see his web page here: http://www.msu.edu/~choijay/ As you can see, the link to the "Up or Down" paper and the linked coverage make it clear that this is supposed to be a joke. You can see the National Post story here, http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/story.html?id=1a66e4db-8631-467e-af9f-635f6a445f96 ,which places this "debate" in context.

Unsurprisingly, this humor is lost on those who don't read these kind of papers regularly and are not up on the way econ analysis works.

But I also observed a second trend. Many people had criticisms of the analysis. Most of these criticisms were wrong because (a) the author had actually addressed them, but the person making the criticism was unaware of it (particularly where it was buried in the math); (b) the person commenting was generally unaware of the conventions of economics publications; or (c) the "flaw" was part of the joke.

Why do I go on about this at such length? For one thing, I feel the urge to defend a serious professional who has a sense of humor -- especially as a number of commenters felt compelled to accuse Dr. Choi of being short-sighted, piggish, or other less than complimentary things. I also think it is wise to remind folks to consider carefully whether you are going to criticize a work based on the abstract, especially if your eyes glazed over during the actual math.

But my big reason is as a little reminder that anyone -- no matter how wise, how learned, how sensible, and how experienced in the ways of the world -- can get taken in by a good joke when they are unfamiliar with the field or the conventions. When people at SF conventions sing "Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide," it's funny because we all know what we are really talking about is water. But there is a lamentable tendency to class those unfortunate few who have fallen for the joke and tried to take action about the "dangerous substance" as morons. It is also a running thread in "Help Desk Horror Stories," where new users make what are idiotic mistakes to anyone with cursory knowledge of computers because they try to apply "common sense" from other walks of life to computers.

These folks are no more necessarily morons than non-economists who can't recognize a joke economics paper are morons. We can all get suckered by our ignorance and our efforts to apply life lessons from one field to another. Every now and then, it makes sense to remember that.
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