Science

I offer my take at the bottom of this Bloomberg column, but here are some reasons for the ones I reject:

To approach such an investigation, you might ask how much you believe improbable testimonies from witnesses who give every indication of being normal people. If you find sane witnesses persuasive, you might think there is some chance of UFO accounts being true (perhaps with a conspiracy-based coverup). There have been a variety of sober accounts of UFO visitations, most notably the story of Betty and Barney Hill.

Unfortunately for this nomination, psychological research on self-deception and the literature on the unreliability of witness testimony suggest that our minds can talk us into believing all sorts of things happened that actually didn’t. So witnesses don’t sway me much. I notice also that UFO claims have plummeted since the advent of mobile phones with cameras (“Oh, did you get a photo of them?”). And so I must look elsewhere for the most plausible conspiracy theory. The Bigfoot and Yeti tales take a tumble for similar reasons, and I don’t think anyone actually saw Elvis or Jim Morrison walking around in the 1990s.

Another way to search for true conspiracies is to scour history for deathbed confessions. Did any Cuban or Soviet agents, shortly before dying, blurt out that they knew the true story of President John Kennedy’s assassination? As far as I know, these admissions are hard to come by. That’s another reason for not believing in most conspiracy theories.

There is much more at the link., including on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the Trilateral Commission, not to mention sports betting.

1. He is more likely right than wrong on the major points of optimism and progress and science.

2. The book is very clearly written, and it would do most of the world good to read it.

3. Contrary to Pinker, inframarginally I see the Enlightenment as a strong complement to Christianity/faith, even though the two at the margin often will clash.  The same is true for nationalism.

4. The Counterenlightenment, as Pinker calls it, is intellectually much stronger than he gives it credit for.  It’s time for yet another reread of Gulliver’s Travels.

5. I am uncomfortable with statements such as “Intellectuals hate progress.”  That sentence opens chapter four.  I know that he explains and qualifies it, but it is not how I like to organize concepts.

6. It is not a good book for understanding the Enlightenment.

7. Overall my main difference with Pinker might be this: I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing his schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system.  That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable.  It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear.  In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.

The book’s subtitle is The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  And here is my earlier discussion with Pinker, video, podcast, and transcript.

That is a new paper by Gjisbert Stoet and David C. Geary, here is the abstract, noting that the last sentence is perhaps the most important:

The underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a continual concern for social scientists and policymakers. Using an international database on adolescent achievement in science, mathematics, and reading (N = 472,242), we showed that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled. Paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality. The gap between boys’ science achievement and girls’ reading achievement relative to their mean academic performance was near universal. These sex differences in academic strengths and attitudes toward science correlated with the STEM graduation gap. A mediation analysis suggested that life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects.

So what is the implied prediction for our future?

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Imagine giving all professional economists (and other academics) an essay test.  Determine their area of expertise, and then ask them to write a twenty-page essay on one of the most basic questions in that field.  So it might be “Why did China do so well?”  Or “what are the determinants of economic growth?”  Or “What causes business cycles?”

Some would be more specific, such as “What makes nominal prices sticky?”, or “Why are the special features of platform competition important?”  How about “How can we encourage hospitals to compete more effectively?”

They can use some numbers, but mostly they should write out the best answers they can.

Then grade the exams.

At which universities would professors do the best?  In which fields would the researchers do the best, recognizing that some face more difficult problems than do others?  In which countries?

How much should our profession be focused on being able to write good answers to such questions?

I am indebted to Chris Blattman and Arnold Kling for useful exchanges related to this topic.

That query was messaged to me, so I thought I would pass it along to all of you for your non-mood-affiliated feedback.  I thank you all in advance.  Do note this is for a person of very high IQ and objectivity.

Title length

by on February 6, 2018 at 12:32 pm in Data Source, Economics, Education, Science | Permalink

Abstract

We document strong and robust negative correlations between the length of the title of an economics article and different measures of scientific quality. Analyzing all articles published between 1970 and 2011 and referenced in EconLit, we find that articles with shorter titles tend to be published in better journals, to be more cited and to be more innovative. These correlations hold controlling for unobserved time-invariant and observed time-varying characteristics of teams of authors.

That is by Yann Bramoullé and Lorenzo Ductor at JEBO, via Michelle Dawson.

Here is the audio and transcript, Charles was in superb form.  We talked about air pollution (carbon and otherwise), environmental pessimism, whether millions will ever starve and are there ultimate limits to growth, how the Spaniards took over the Aztecs, where is the best food in Mexico, whether hunter-gatherer society is overrated, Jackie Chan, topsoil, Emily Dickinson, James C. Scott, the most underrated trip in the Americas, Zardoz, and much much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: But if you had to pick a leading candidate to be the fixed factor, I’m not saying you have to endorse it, but what’s the most likely fixed factor if there is one?

MANN: Well, water is certainly a big candidate. There just really isn’t that much fresh water.

COWEN: But we can price it more, and since we have growing wealth — global economy grows at 4 percent a year — we can subsidize those who need subsidies…

MANN: You’re right. But water’s obviously one of them. But hovering over it is these questions about whether these natural cycles . . . is kind of a fundamental question about life itself. Is an ecosystem an actual system with an integrity of its own, with rules of its own that you violate at your peril? Which is the fundamental premise of the environmental movement. Or is an ecosystem more like an apartment building in which it is just a bunch of people who happen to live in the same space and share a few common necessities?

I don’t think ecology really has settled on this. There’s a guy in Florida, Dan Simberloff, who is a wonderful ecologist who has kind of made a career out of destroying all these models, these elegant models, one after another. So that’s the fundamental guess.

If it turns out that it’s just a collection of factors that we can shift around, that nature’s purely instrumental and we can do with it what we want, then we have a lot more breathing room. If it turns out that there really are these overarching cycles, which seems to be the intuition of the ecologists who study this, then we have less room than we think.

And:

COWEN:  Jared Diamond.

MANN: I think an interesting guy who really should learn more about social sciences.

COWEN: Economics in particular.

MANN: Yes.

COWEN: Theory of common property resources.

MANN: Yeah.

And finally:

MANN: …What I think is the underrated factor is that Cortez was much less a military genius than he was a political genius. He was quite a remarkable politician, really deft. And what he did is . . . The Aztecs were an empire, the Triple Alliance, and they were not nice people. They were rough customers. And there was a lot of people whom they had subjugated, and people whom they were warring on who really detested them. And Cortez was able to knit them together into an enormous army, lead that army in there, have all these people do all that, and then hijack the result. This is an act of political genius worthy of Napoleon.

Self-recommending, and I am delighted to again express my enthusiasm for Charles’s new The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  Here is Bill Easterly’s enthusiastic WSJ review of the book.

Soon I will be having a conversation with Robin Hanson — the Robin Hanson.  What should I ask him?  The jumping-off point will be his new book with Kevin Simler, but of course we won’t stop there.

Housing Hypergamy

by on January 23, 2018 at 12:11 pm in Economics, Science | Permalink

NYTimes: Thanks to the now-abandoned one-child policy, China has more young men than young women, setting off a male-led surge to buy homes to make themselves more appealing husbands. Shang-Jin Wei, a Columbia University business professor, found that rising real estate price increases in 35 big cities were strongly correlated with lopsided gender ratios.

CNN tells us that “When it comes to dating, homeownership can be the ultimate aphrodisiac,” so the effect may not be confined to China.

*Off the Charts*

by on January 21, 2018 at 12:24 am in Books, Education, Science, The Arts | Permalink

As I’ve already mentioned, the author is Ann Hulbert and the subtitle is The Hidden Lives and Lessons of America’s Child Prodigies.  This is an excellent book, and so far I am overwhelmed by the high quality and quantity of books coming out this January (in comparison to last year’s near drought).  You don”t have to care about prodigies per se, I would recommend this to anyone in Silicon Valley or finance who thinks about how to find and recruit talent, or anyone interested in the history of art, science, or technology.

I had not known that musician Henry Cowell was the protege of Thorstein Vebeln’s ex-wife, Ellen Veblen.  Here is just one bit about Henry:

He was in his element. As Clarissa noted, Henry was highly receptive without being unduly impressionable. “Always he has worked mostly alone,” she observed, “browsing for information, when he felt in need of it, whenever a door opened.”

As a child, he quickly outgrew his town’s public library, and was suspected of skimming the books he claimed to have read.  He could give a clear and detailed summary of each.  He was born in rural Menlo Park, formal schooling never really worked for him, and Irish music remained a touchstone of his composing, albeit supplemented with tone clusters, extreme dissonance, and a variety of rhythmic innovations.  To many people at the time, his music sounded like noise.

Here is a short YouTube clip of Cowell playing the piano.

It’s not a “this puts all the pieces together for you book,” but still I am finding it engrossing.  I take the overall message to be a) mentorship is very important for prodigies, and b) most mentors have no idea what they are doing.

Dolphin Capital Theory

by on January 10, 2018 at 7:27 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

The Guardian…Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on.

…Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

The dolphins are not only gaming the system they are saving and using a capital structure to increase total output.

The more we learn, the smaller appears the gap between humans and other animals. Over twenty years ago, I read When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. I was convinced. But at that time it was a controversial book. Today, with thousands of youtube videos of animals clearly having fun or exhibiting other emotions, it seems obvious.

Animal consciousness is still controversial but the gap between other minds and other non-human minds appears to me to be very small. If I can believe in the first, I can easily believe in the second. As the Cambridge Declaration put it:

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Here in the land of technology leadership and free-market enterprise, American regulation has more than doubled the cost of solar.

The regulation comes in three un-American guises: permitting, code and tariffs — and together they are killing the U.S. residential market. Modernizing these regulations, primarily at the local and state level, is the greatest opportunity for U.S. solar policy in 2018.

To highlight the opportunity, let’s look at Australia, where nearly 2 million solar systems have been successfully and safely installed.

As of early December, installed costs in the main Australian markets were at $1.34 per watt, compared to $3.25 per watt in the U.S. What does that difference stem from?

In Australia, there is no permitting process. You simply lodge your request for interconnection online and go install it. The figure below highlights the relative mass of valueless work required to satisfy current city-level bureaucracy in the U.S., which adds between two and six months to delivery time and 47 cents per watt of cost directly to the installed system. That’s more than the cost of the panels themselves!

…the U.S. National Electrical Code dictates a best practice that more than doubles the installation time relative to Australia, and adds incremental hardware expense — together adding 49 cents per watt to the cost of solar. There is no discernable difference in the quality and safety of solar installations overseas relative to the U.S.

…There are no tariffs on imported hardware in Australia because it’s obvious to all that the jobs in solar are in sales and installation, not in manufacturing. That’s another 21 cents per watt in the Australians’ pocket — and a thousand dollars back into the economy per system sold.

And because solar is so much cheaper, as well as faster and easier to buy, it’s also much cheaper, faster and easier to sell. Acquisition costs in Australia average $400 per installed customer, compared to $2,500 in the U.S.

At lower cost and without the two- to six-month wait time and all of the permitting complexity, cancellation rates are minimal, compared to an average of about 30 percent for reputable U.S. companies. How many other electronics purchases do you know of that take up to half a year to be installed? That’s another 42 cents per watt of lower solar costs.

From Andrew Birch, there is much more at the link, read it and weep.  Via Felix Yates.

For Georgescu-Roegen, the ultimate fixed factor is the laws of physics, due to entropy.  Economic systems cannot receive an ongoing influx of both energy and matter indefinitely, and so eventually they reach limits to growth.  At that margin substitutability breaks down and catastrophe ensues.  To check this outcome, we must find a way to live with slower rates of economic growth, and eventually a zero or negative rate of economic growth.  For him this is as much a criticism of Marxism as of capitalism, and he wrote about making do with agrarianism.  Consistent with this view, his consumer theory portrayed wants as hierarchical rather than smoothly substitutable.  He would have liked this Alex post on not all gdp being created equal.

For Henry George, the ultimate fixed factor is land, due to the nature of space.  There is always enough energy, due to Julian Simon-like arguments that allow capital and ingenuity to be substituted for all other fixed resources, except for  land.  Economic systems cannot create or activate more land indefinitely, and thus the marginal benefits of growth are captured mostly by landowners, to the detriment of social welfare.  At this final margin substitutability breaks down and widespread poverty ensues.  To check this outcome, the returns to land must be redistributed to the rest of society, ideally through a single tax.  Unlike many environmentalists, he wasn’t worried about soil erosion because land is land.

For 19th century colonial theorist Edward Gibbon Wakefield, human beings and the positive externalities from human contact are the ultimate scarcity.  If you let people settle the countryside, you will have an underpopulated republic of deplorables — there is no substitute for city life!  So the price of external farm land has to be kept high, so that settlers cluster in the city and as wage laborers contribute to ongoing innovation, urbanity, and economic growth.  Wakefield worked in New Zealand — did they listen?  If Wakefield were around today, maybe he would want to cut off broadband to large swathes of the Midwest and Appalachia.  Justly or not, he cited rural French Canadians as an example of what he was worried about, whereas Georgescu-Roegen might have appreciated their agrarianism.

For Robert Solow, ultimate fixed factors do not come into play and substitutability reigns at all relevant margins.  If some resources become scarce, just substitute in more capital.  Growth continues forever, though it can be accelerated by investing more in the ultimate growth driver, namely new ideas.  Georgescu-Roegen argued that Solow did not incorporate the idea of entropy or insights from science.

Is it proper that Solow’s model should have so dominated in the economics profession?

You cannot understand or evaluate environmentalism without revisiting these debates.  One reason many environmental critiques do not seem so strong is that they are trying to measure costs in a Solow-like framework, when in fact the underlying model might involve core non-substitutabilities, a’la the other thinkers.  Unless you stress how not all gdp is created equal, the costs of bad environmental outcomes won’t show up as very high, not relative to total wealth.  It will appear as if you always can substitute away from bearing those costs full on, even though perhaps you cannot.

My own view is that the ultimate scarcity in today’s system comes from what the political economy of our societies and polities can bear, but that must await another day.

I added the question mark, the subtitle of that article is: “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”  It is by Scott O. Lilienfeld, et.al.  Here is one excerpt:

(11) Gold standard. In the domains of psychological and psychiatric assessment, there are precious few, if any, genuine “gold standards.” Essentially all measures, even those with high levels of validity for their intended purposes, are necessarily fallible indicators of their respective constructs (). As a consequence, the widespread practice referring to even well-validated measures of personality or psychopathology, such as ) Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, as “gold standards” for their respective constructs () is misleading (see ). If authors intend to refer to measures as “extensively validated,” they should simply do so.

(14) Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc.) on X. “Influence” and cognate terms, such as effect, are inherently causal in nature. Hence, they should be used extremely judiciously in reference to individual differences, such as personality traits (e.g., extraversion), or group differences (e.g., gender), which cannot be experimentally manipulated. This is not to say that individual or group differences cannot exert a causal influence on behavior (), only that research designs that examine these differences are virtually always (with the rare exception of “experiments of nature,” in which individual differences are altered by unusual events) correlation or quasi-experimental. Hence, researchers should be explicit that when using such phrases as “the influence of gender,” they are almost always proposing a hypothesis from the data, not drawing a logically justified conclusion from them. This inferential limitation notwithstanding, the phrase “the influence of gender” alone appears in over 45,000 manuscripts in the Google Scholar database (e.g., ).

It is difficult to use words properly, they don’t even want me to say “operational definition” again!

For the pointer I thank Denis Grosz.

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.