Monthly Archives: September 2014

Status quo bias and the Scottish ballot

Scottish Ballot

Above is a photo of the ballot for Scottish independence.

The ballot wording seems incredibly straightforward (which is the point of this short Slate article). However, way it is worded might be biasing the vote towards independence.

People seem to have a large number of biases and heuristics they use when making decisions.  One of these is called the “status-quo bias.”  Samuelson and Zeckhouser, in their seminal work,  demonstrated this bias by asking people to make decisions in hypothetical scenarios. In some treatments, one of the options was said to be the status quo and in other treatments none of the options were. Here is an example from the questionnaire in the appendix to the paper linked above:


Individuals given the first scenario are more likely to choose A than individuals given the second scenario. This demonstrates a bias because individuals are choosing between the same four choices, but in the second option the only difference is that individuals are already at College A. (It could be argued that the decision-makers are taking moving cost into account in their decision, but the status quo bias has been demonstrated in many scenarios where this type of cost is not a factor.)

The status quo bias is pretty robust – it has been demonstrated in questionnaires, field experiments and observational data. A famous example is the observation that countries where organ donation in the default option on the donation form have drastically higher organ donor rates than countries where not being an organ donor is the default. This holds even for cases where the same country changes from an opt-out to an opt-in form.

Taking the status-quo bias in mind, suppose that the Scottish ballot were worded:

“Should Scotland become an independent country?”

This slight change in wording would, I predict, highlight the status quo and result in a somewhat lower vote for independence. (Granted, this is a pretty safe prediction to make since no one can test it.) But would this difference be enough to sway the election?  I hear it will be pretty close…














al-Baghdadi is almost certainly descended from Muhammad

al Baghdadi source

 When news sites discuss the attempt by the leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, to form a new caliphate, they often mention his claim to be a “direct descendant of Muhammad.” This claim is often met with skepticism because, as  this article in the New Republic puts it:

...because no one knows much about Baghdadi - certainly not enough to trace his lineage back 1,400 years to a preliterate society a thousand miles away - it’s hard (and in the Islamic State, probably fatal) to suggest he’s lying.

I am not at all skeptical of al-Baghdadi’s claim.  In fact, if Muhammad has any surviving descendants, I would be extremely surprised if al-Baghdadi were not one of them. I would also be extremely surprised if I were not one of them. I would also bet a great deal, dear reader, that you are also a descendant of Muhammad, especially if you are of Eurasian decent.

These counter-intuitive notions follow from the findings of coalescent theory.  The logic is fairly simple, as we look backwards on our family tree the number of our ancestors grows exponentially.  We have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, etc.  The thing about exponentials is that the increase, well, exponentially. Exponentials are relentless in their increasing. Also, as you look backwards in time, there are fewer people so number of people who could be your ancestor decreases exponentially. Eventually, you reach a time where not only are you are descended from every person who has an ancestor today, but a time where everyone alive today shares the same set of ancestors.1

A 2002 Atlantic article by Steve Olson describes work by Joe Chang who found that this point for all Europeans was only around 1400 (Muhammad died much earlier in 632).2 This analysis has been backed-up by a more recent genetic analysis as described by Carl Zimmer.

Chang’s paper assumed random mating, so there may be concern about isolated groups. A more recent paper looked at a model that assumed pretty conservative migration rates between areas of the world (they actually did two models – one simple and once complex and had similar answers). Both models support the notion that Muhammad is the ancestor of most humans alive today.

The paper uses the example of Tasmania, which was geographically isolated from Australia for thousands of years before European colonization in the 19th century.  Although Tasmania was reproductively isolated well before the birth of Muhammad, there is no one alive today of pure Tasmanian descent. So if Muhammad has any descendants, it is extremely likely that all of today’s Tasmanians are all descendants of Muhammad.

In summary, if being a descendant of Muhammad is a requirement for being Caliph, it is either a very low bar or a very high bar. Either Muhammad has no descendants and, therefore, no one can be Caliph.  Or almost all seven billion of us are Muhammad’s decedent and the requirement is trivial. In any case, the press should not treat al-Baghdadi’s claims with skepticism, but indifference.

1- I should probably point out that these are “genealogical ancestors,” the ancestors that you would find on your family tree. You would have many fewer “genetic ancestors,” that is individuals who you share genes with through descent. Because you have a finite amount of genetic material and it is transmitted in discrete chunks, not all of your genealogical ancestors have contributed to your genome.

2 – This also explains one of the major scientific problems with the plot of the da Vinci Code.