Science

Paul Krugman blogged on that, with initial impetus from Noah Smith.  Here is Noah:

If you and your buddies have a political argument, a vast literature can help you defend your argument even if it’s filled with vague theory, sloppy bad empirics, arguments from authority, and other crap. If someone smart comes along and tries to tell you you’re wrong about something, just demand huffily that she go read the vast literature before she presumes to get involved in the debate. Chances are she’ll just quit the argument and go home, unwilling to pay the effort cost of wading through dozens of crappy papers. And if she persists in the argument without reading the vast literature, you can just denounce her as uninformed and willfully ignorant. Even if she does decide to pay the cost and read the crappy vast literature, you have extra time to make your arguments while she’s so occupied. And you can also bog her down in arguments over the minute details of this or that crappy paper while you continue to advance your overall thesis to the masses.

…My solution to this problem is what I call the Two Paper Rule. If you want me to read the vast literature, cite me two papers that are exemplars and paragons of that literature. Foundational papers, key recent innovations – whatever you like (but no review papers or summaries). Just two. I will read them.

If these two papers are full of mistakes and bad reasoning, I will feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because if that’s the best you can do, I’ve seen enough.

Those are both interesting posts, but my perspective is different, probably more as a matter of temperament than thinking they are objectively wrong.  Here are a few comments:

1. The best two papers on ethics are not very convincing.  Nonetheless people who have worked their way through a good amount of that literature are much better at ethical reasoning than those who have not.

2. The best two papers on global warming are not very convincing.  What is convincing is how many different perspectives and how many different branches of science point toward broadly similar conclusions.  In fact the aggregate effect here is quite overwhelming (don’t debate gw in the comments, not today; I’ll delete).  It is a question of many moats, not all of them being entirely muddy.

3. I see the Smith-Krugman standard as fairly economistic, and fairly MIT-late 20th century at that.  It is one vision of what a good literature looks like, and a fairly narrow one.  It will elevate simple answers in status, whether or not that is deserved.  It discriminates against dialogic knowledge, book-based knowledge, historical knowledge, and knowledge when the answers and methods are not very exact.  There is the risk of ending up too certain about one’s knowledge.

That all said, I do understand that specialized top researchers, including Nobel Laureates, often may do better holding relatively narrow methodological visions.  Look at all the Nobel Prizes that have been awarded to Chicago.  It might be entirely correct to insist that Becker’s treatise on the family pay more attention to anthropology, but that doesn’t mean he should have followed that advicee.

4. The standard seems to discourage reading, and I would not want to teach it to my students.  I teach something more like “always read more, unless you are writing or doing relevant quantitative work.  And one reason you write is to improve the quality of your reading.  Read more and write more, all the time.”  I still think that is better advice for most (not all) people.

5. Isn’t there a lot to be said for deferring to the opinions of those who have read through the “muddy moat”?  By no means are they all partisans, and the non-partisan ones care most of all about the truth.  After all, they did all that reading!  Defer, rather than trust so much in your ability to pick you the right two papers, or have someone pick them out for you.  I have a much more positive view of survey articles than does Noah, while understanding they do often leave you fairly agnostic on major issues.

6. If the truth of the matter is in fact muddy, you may need to dip into the muddy moat to learn that.

7. The difference between total value and marginal value may be relevant.  You might conclude a field literature has low total value, but the marginal value of learning more about that area still could be quite high.  That is in part because muddy fields and results don’t spread so readily, and so dipping into the muck can yield some revelations.  That is another reason why I would not offer the “two paper standard” as practical advice.

8. If anything, I would put the reading pressure on the other side, namely more rather than less.  Rather than encouraging readers to dismiss or downgrade fields, I would urge them to consult different disciplines altogether, including political science, sociology, and anthropology, others too.  This is much easier to do if you take a more positive attitude toward survey articles.

9. This is quite a subjective impression, but I worry that the dogmatic will use the two paper standard to dismiss or downgrade particular lines of investigation.

10. I don’t know if Noah and Paul were referring to my colleague Garett Jones, who frequently tweets “…if only there were a vast empirical literature” when he sees claims that he regards as empirically false.  Now, I am not the Garett Jones oracle, but I always took his use of the word “vast” to be slightly sarcastic.  Usually these are cases where even a fairly cursory knowledge of the literature in question would indicate something is wrong with the claim at hand.  In my view, Garett is not demanding “vastness” of effort, rather he is criticizing those who don’t grasp what the effort space looks like in the first place.

That title made me think of the woodchuck…anyway, here is the abstract:

Fact-checking has gained prominence as a reformist movement to revitalize truth-seeking ideals in journalism. While fact-checkers are often assumed to code facts accurately, no studies have formally assessed fact-checkers’ performance. I evaluate the performance of two major online fact-checkers, Politfact at Tampa Bay Times and Fact Checker at Washington Post, comparing their interrater reliability using a method that is regularly utilized across the social sciences. I show that fact-checkers rarely fact-check the same statement, and when they do, there is little agreement in their ratings. Approximately, 1 in 10 statements is fact-checked by both fact-checking outlets, and among claims that both outlets check, their factual ratings have a Cohen’s κ of 0.52, an agreement rate much lower than what is acceptable for social scientific coding. The results suggest that difficulties in fact-checking elites’ statements may limit the ability of journalistic fact-checking to hold politicians accountable.

That paper (pdf) is by Chloe Lim, political science at Stanford.  For the pointer I thank Andrew Hall, some interesting political science papers on his home page.  Here is his very interesting book manuscript on how the devaluing of political offices drives polarization, worthy of a top publisher…

Robert Sapolsky’s *Behave*

by on May 11, 2017 at 8:48 am in Books, Science | Permalink

The subtitle is The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.  Sapolsky is tenured in biology and neuroscience at Stanford, and winner of a MacArthur genius grant.  This book is a very impressive compendium of what we know about the social sciences, as might be rooted in behavioral biology and related fields.  The topics include violence, altruism, cooperation, gene-environment interactions, and many more topics along the usual lines.  It’s not a “here is my big idea” book, but rather “here is how we think about social phenomena.”  In the conclusion, Sapolsky writes: “If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would be “It’s complicated.”  Nothing seems to cause anything, instead everything just modulates everything else.”  Those are two very good sentences.

This is likely to be one of this year’s major social science books, and many of you should buy it, but it’s flaw is that there’s no particular claim you are forced to come to terms with.

That is a splendid 1996 book on mathematics and mathematical researchers, by Gian-Carlo Rota.  I found philosophical, mathematical, and also managerial insights on most of the pages.  It is playful and yet earnestly serious at the same time.  Here is one bit:

He [Alonzo Church] looked like a cross between a panda and a large owl.  He spoke in complete paragraphs which seemed to have been read out of a book, evenly and slowly enunciated, as by a talking machine.  When interrupted, he would pause for an uncomfortably long period to recover the thread of the argument.  He never made casual remarks: they did not belong in the baggage of formal logic.  For example, he would not say “It is raining.”  Such a statement, taken in isolation, makes no sense.  (Whatever it is actually raining or not does not matter; what matters is consistence.)  He would say instead: “I must postpone my departure for Nassau Street, inasmuch as it is raining, an act which I can verify by looking out the window.”

It is full of the sociology of everyday life, in mathematical communities that is, for instance:

How do mathematicians get to know each other?  Professional psychologists do not seem to have studied this question; I will try out an amateur theory.  When two mathematicians meet and feel out each other’s knowledge of mathematics, what they are really doing is finding out what each other’s bottom line is.  It might be interesting to give a precise definition of a bottom line; in the absence of a definition, we will give some typical examples.

…I will shamelessly tell you what my bottom line is.  It is placing balls into boxes, or as Florence Nightingale David put it with exquisite tact in her book Combinatorial Chance, it is the theory of distribution and occupancy.

The author fears the influence of philosophy on mathematics, which led to this paragraph:

Philosophical arguments are emotion-laden to a greater degree than mathematical arguments and written in a style more reminiscent of a shameful admission than of a dispassionate description.  Behind every question of philosophy there lurks a gnarl of unacknowledged emotional cravings which act as a powerful motivation for conclusions in which reason plays at best a supporting role.  To bring such hidden emotional cravings out into the open, as philosophers have felt it their duty to do, is to ask for trouble.  Philosophical disclosures are frequently met with the anger that we reserve for the betrayal of our family secrets.

Definitely recommended, the book also has some of the best and most concrete discussions of Husserl’s philosophy I have seen, along with a meta-account of such, and also there is a discussion of the exoteric and esoteric readings of cosmology and black holes and indeed mathematics too.  Here is further information on Gian-Carlo Rota the author.

For the pointer to the book I thank Patrick Collison.

A number of people have climbed onto Twitter and outlined (correctly) how increased uncertainty about the impact of climate change increases the value of doing something about it.  There is downside risk, and of course we wish to buy insurance against that in the form of a more active climate change policy.  Still, that is not looking deeply enough.  I see some of the relevant uncertainties as embodied in the following scenario, which is more about policy means than climate change science:

Following a Trump debacle, finally the Democrats win all branches of government and pass a climate change bill.  There is a carbon tax, and further anti-coal measures, but it isn’t enough to shift energy regimes in a transformational sense (besides, truly transformational technologies require luck and “the right time” far more than price incentives).  Instead the United States becomes more like Western Europe, with higher levels of conservation but no ground-breaking new energy source.  Solar goes up by ten percentage points, and wind by two or three, given NIMBY opposition.  Fracking becomes more efficient yet, which nudges fossil fuels back a bit onto center stage.  Nuclear is closed down altogether, and hydroelectric also goes in reverse or stagnates.  China is as China does, and they slowly move away from their installed coal base, in the meantime taking steps to control their particulate matter but not so much their carbon, copying America in this regard.  India starts a shift from coal to natural gas but still has rising carbon emissions.  Africa and Vietnam exceed growth expectations, with a lot of solar power to be sure, but not enough to counteract their growing industrialization.  The carbon tax causes a mild recession in America, and environmentalism becomes less popular.  The global boost in temperature continues, unchecked.  The people who die each year from regular air pollution — six to seven million at last count — diminish in number with economic growth, but we react largely with indifference to that problem, because it doesn’t fit into domestic political struggles very neatly.

Now, to me something like that is the single most likely scenario, albeit with a lot of uncertainty.  I am still happy to try remedial policy measures, and to try them now, if only out of non-complacency or perhaps just desperation.  But come on, let’s be honest.  If all you are doing is trying to combat uncertainty about the science, you are unwilling to look the actual problem square in the eye, just like the climate deniers, the very people you so much decry.

That is a new project by Jonathan Haidt and the Heterodox Academy, here is a partial summary:

Heterodox Academy announces a simpler, easier, and cheaper alternative: The Viewpoint Diversity Experience. It is a resource created by the members of Heterodox Academy that takes students on a six-step journey, at the end of which they will be better able to live alongside—and learn from—fellow students who do not share their politics.

It’s a very flexible resource that can be completed by individuals before they arrive on campus, presented in an orientation-week workshop, or expanded into a full semester course that students can take during their first year. (It could also be helpful in high schools, companies, religious congregations, and any other organizations that are experiencing sharp political divisions and conflicts.)

…The site is still under development: we welcome feedback and criticism. We particularly seek out professors, high school teachers, and diversity trainers who will partner with us to develop detailed teaching plans and activities. We will have a larger public launch of the project in August, complete with assessment materials that will allow you to measure whether the curriculum actually increased political knowledge and cross-partisan understanding.

Do click on the site itself for a fuller explanation, and please help out if you can.

I few of you asked me about the Bret Stephens column.  I would have preferred something more specific and detailed on climate change uncertainty, but my main reaction was encapsulated by Chris Blattman on Twitter:

Bad sign for science if my impulsive thought is “so glad I don’t work in this area”

And yes, I blame both sides for that.

A related question is: how good is the social science in this area?  I would say “not so great.”  Try looking for good public choice treatments of how climate intentions end up translated into climate policy.  That is a remarkably important question, and yet it is understood poorly.

Or “how many of the people who make proclamations in this area have a decent understanding of Chinese energy and climate policy?”, and the answer is hardly any, even though that may be the most important topic in the area.  And I ask that question not only of the casual tweeters but also of the academics who work on climate change.  Follow Christopher Balding if you don’t believe me, and by the way praise to the highly rated but still underrated Matt Kahn.

In other words, yes we should do something but still yap less, study more.

How about Ross Douthat on Marine Le Pen?

The way I see it, the case for Le Pen is simply that it might force the (supposed) outsiders to “own” the euro and European Union, and that might be better for liberalism in the long run than having a France limp along under the probably not so popular Macron.  In my view, Le Pen has neither the means nor the inclination to actually pull France out of the EU or eurozone, and the whole thing has been a campaign stunt.  Of course I find it hard to estimate the probabilities here, and personally I reserve my political “rooting” for my classical liberal mood affiliations and also the Washington Wizards; I won’t support a candidate for reasons of n-dimensional chess, given that I am never the decisive voice.  So I’m not rooting for Le Pen, but if someone holds that “strategic” point of view I do think it is defensible, though I hope they are holding it with plenty of humility on the epistemic side.

I thought Ross’s column had the desired and necessary caveats, and furthermore he did not tell people to vote for her or root for her.  Rather than try to smear his piece with Nazi associations and the like, it is better to focus on why so many political parties in the West are falling apart.  And as for the unsavory associations, keep in mind that oft-praised American presidents have owned slaves, exterminated native Americans, turned back ships of Holocaust victims, and napalmed Vietnam.  That doesn’t provide an excuse for bad current behavior, but it does provide some context for the “how could you possibly…?” tendencies we all have.

I would not myself have written either column, but overall I say kudos to The New York Times.  It’s their readers I worry about.

Recall the development of the Polaris nuclear-missile system in the late 1950s. The whole package—a nuclear submarine, a solid-fuel missile, an underwater launch system, a nuclear warhead and a guidance system—went from the drawing board to deployment in four years (and using slide rules).

Today, according to the Defense Business Board, the average development timeline for much less complex weapons is 22.5 years. A case in point is the Ford-class aircraft carrier. The program is two years delayed and $2.4 billion over budget.

That is from John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan.

Lim had told me that Singapore holds a strategic sand reserve, for emergencies.  It lies somewhere near the area called Bedok, I said.  I spotted it one day as I rode past in a taxi.  The site was strewn with No Trespassing signs, installed by the Housing and Development Board, a government agency.  Fenced off from the public, the giant trapezoidal dunes shone bone-white in the sun and caramel in the shade, as the sand waited to be summoned.

That is from an excellent piece by Samanth Subramanian (NYT), about Singapore, land, and preparing for climate change.  The Singaporean constitution also devotes several pages to outlining how the government will manage its investments.

Here is a query from a loyal MR reader:

If you had net assets in the six figures, and were very concerned about global warming (some combination of wanting a good life for your children, and believing human civilization is valuable over a time horizon longer than your lifetime), how would you invest those assets?

Some thoughts I’ve had:

Invest in renewable energy companies: Extremely hard industry to figure out where your money would have most value added. Not easy to invest in Tesla.

Invest in water utilities: a lot of the problems with water are regulatory rather than investment.

Buy a house in an urban center: NIMBYism means that this likely just crowds out someone else, with unclear impact on carbon reduction

Housing ETF: Might have more political impact than personal purchase but difficult industry to figure out.

Give money to politicians: Does money actually impact political results?

Buy a house with access to water and a lot of guns: Not an ideal solution

Quit your job and become an activist: seems to have been moderately effective in recent years.

What non-complacent answers am I missing? How would your answer change if someone had 5 figure assets? 7 figures? 8 figures?

My answer is pretty simple: invest in fighting indoor air pollution in developing nations.  (Here are further research sources.)  The burning of wood indoors, for instance, leads to pretty significant carbon emissions, as does the burning of charcoal, dung, and plant residue.  These burnings are also harmful to human health, accounting for perhaps as many as four million (!) deaths last year, maybe more.  Some of the problem is inadequate ventilation, but also safer and cleaner gas stoves, among other technologies, represent a better and environmentally friendlier option for many of these households.  Pilot projects in India, Kenya, and China have shown positive results.

The nice thing about this target is that you can save lives even if global warming can’t really be stopped.  And rather than (implicitly or explicitly) taxing poor people in poor countries, you are helping them out.  The broad steps one wishes to take are consistent with these locales become wealthier rather than poorer regions.  Here is a paper on indoor air pollution and carbon emissions in Nigeria.

That said, I do not know which are the best non-profits or commercial projects in these areas — could any of you help out in the comments?

Another option would be to continue to apply pressure to Indonesia to limit the burning of their forests: “Indonesia’s carbon emissions from the 2015 forest fires were bigger than the daily emissions rate of the whole European Union, a study reveals.”  This would involve working through international organizations and perhaps NGOs in Indonesia itself, again your suggestions are welcome.

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no public event, podcast only.  Today by the way is his birthday, so send along some good questions as a birthday present to him, and a non-birthday present to me!

Garry’s forthcoming book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins is just superb, and the podcast will be released around the time of book publication in early May.

Here is one bit, from the rapid fire back-and-forth:

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

There is much more at the link, entertaining throughout, with links to the full podcast as well.

The study, by David Blau and Bruce Weinberg, both professors of economics at Ohio State University, found that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45 in 1993 to nearly 49 in 2010. Scientists aged faster than the U.S. work force in general, and across fields — even newer ones, such as computer and information science. The study includes those natural and social science, health and engineering degrees.

The trend will only continue, with the average scientist’s age increasing by an additional 2.3 years within the near future, without intervention, according to a model included in the study.

I found this sentence illuminating:

Still, McDowell said he wouldn’t want to bring back mandatory retirement for professors.

Here is the study, here is the story, with some useful visuals as well.  As the article notes, even if older scientists are still productive, this can skew or limit the incentives for younger scientists and limit their creativity.

Their conclusion was that there are 25m tonnes of spiders around the world and that, collectively, these arachnids consume between 400m and 800m tonnes of animal prey every year. This puts spiders in the same predatory league as humans as a species, and whales as a group. Each of these consumes, on an annual basis, in the region of 400m tonnes of other animals.

Somewhere between 400m and 500m tonnes is also the total mass of human beings now alive on Earth.

Here is the Economist article.