The obvious equilibrium is that more researchers can download papers from the internet, and thus we expect more papers to be read by a greater number of people.  If lay people enter the calculus, this is almost certainly true.  But what about researchers?  I am not convinced that more reading (of each paper) goes on, or that it should go on.

Most people, including researchers, cannot easily figure out if the main result of a research paper is correct.  That is true all the more as time passes, because the mistakes become less and less transparent.  But they can figure out who can figure out if the paper is right, and sample that opinion.  The internet aids this process greatly.  For instance, it is easier for me to find out what Bob Hall (one of the great paper analysts/commentators of all time) thought of a macro paper, if only by using email.  If I can find out whether or not the paper is true, often I don’t have to read that paper, though I may go through some parts of it.  The internet also gives me access to better summaries of the paper, if only in parts of other papers.

In this sense, researchers may rely on a fairly thin substructure of evaluation, though one of increasing accuracy.  As science progresses, perhaps scientists do/should spend more time honing their research specializations, and less time reading papers they are not expert evaluators for.  They do/should spend more time reading the papers where they are the expert evaluators, but that may mean reading fewer papers overall.

Viewed as a productivity problem, perhaps your read is competing against “further spread of the read and evaluation from the best expert” and is losing.  Efficient criticism is also sometimes winner take all.

I am indebted to Patrick Collison for a conversation on this topic, though of course he is not liable for any of this.  Neither he nor I have read a paper on such matters, however.  Thank goodness.

Neglected big problems

by on February 6, 2017 at 1:01 am in History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Relearn Every Generation – We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes, or that millions or billions of others are currently learning in parallel with us. There seem huge potential gains from finding better ways to learn from our ancestors and colleagues.

Changing World – Early in life we read the world around us and choose life plans and paths matched to that world. During our life the world around us changes, and we make some adaptations to that, but they seem insufficient. For example, we often seek to achieve in ways that were awarded with high status when we were young, to find that our achievements are much less valued by the new world.

Poor Matching – We match people as friends, lovers, spouses, and workers. Our distant ancestors only had a few available options for matches, and we inherited many intuitive mechanisms appropriate for that situation. But we now have a vast world with far more matches possible, and it seems like we don’t use that larger scope very well. We still rely heavily on inherited informal mechanisms. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

Varied Commitment – We must each choose how much to commit to our careers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods, brands, etc. We do commit somewhat, but we also switch on occasion. But it isn’t remotely clear that we do this well. We must each match our commitment to the commitment choices of folks around us, and we often lack ways to commit to avoid temptations.

That is from Robin Hanson.

On February 27, I’ll be having a Conversation with Tyler with Malcolm Gladwell.  (Sorry the event is already sold out!  In due time I’ll get you information on the live stream.)  What should I ask him?

I thank you in advance for your intelligent and scintillating suggestions.

Up from Central Square towards Harvard Square is a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue that is mixed residential and commercial, with metered parking. A few weeks ago I needed to stop at the UPS store there and ship a heavy package. There were no free parking spots so I soon found myself cruising up and down along about a 100 meter stretch, waiting for one to open up. The thought occurred to me that if I had had a level 4 or 5 self driving car I could have left it to do that circling, while I dropped into the store.

Such is the root of anti-social behavior.

And more:

(1) People will jump out of their car at a Starbucks to run in and pick up their order knowingly leaving it not in a legal parking spot, perhaps blocking others, but knowing that it will take care of getting out of the way if some other car needs to move or get by. That will be fine in the case there is no such need, but in the case of need it will slow everything down just a little. And perhaps the owner will be able to set the tolerance on how uncomfortable things have to get before the car moves. Expect to see lots of annoyed people. And before long grocery store parking lots, especially in a storm, will just be a sea of cars improperly parked waiting for their owners.

(2) This is one for the two (autonomous) car family. Suppose someone is going to an event in the evening and there is not much parking nearby. And suppose autonomous cars are now always prowling neighborhoods waiting for their owners to summon them, so it takes a while for any particular car to get through the traffic to the pick up location. Then the two car family may resort to a new trick so that they don’t have to wait quite so long as others for their cars to get to the front door pick up at the conclusion of the big social event. They send one of their cars earlier in the day to find the closest parking spot that it can, and it settles in for a long wait. They use their second car to drop them at the event and send it home immediately. When the event is over their first autonomous car is right there waiting for them–the cost to the commons was a parking spot occupied all day by one of their cars.

In sum:

They are seeing the technical possibilities and not seeing the resistance that will come with autonomous agents invading human spaces, be they too rude or overly polite.

That is by Rodney Brooks, the piece has other points of interest, via Tim Harford.

How to prepare for CRISPR

by on January 30, 2017 at 1:07 am in Law, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is an MR reader request, namely:

One issue that it appears we’ll discuss more in the future is genetic experimentation – the sort heralded by CRISPR. How do you suggest we prepare for this technology? What should be reading? Discussing?

Read my book The Age of the Infovore, to better understand the importance of human diversity, and also ponder my earlier post on whether genetic engineering will lead to excess human conformity.  Then investigate what kinds of sperm and eggs are most popular and thus most expensive on the current market; that’s tall, smart people who look a bit like the parents.  That might give us an idea of what kind of genetic engineering people are trying to accomplish.  Then watch or rewatch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  If you still have spare time, dip into the New Testament again.

Then read about extensive Chinese efforts in this area.  Consider also how slow advances have been in genomics, and how difficult manipulability will be for most issues.  Then study Moore’s Law and Big Data.  Then read about how unlikely regulation will be able to stop advances in this area (the biggest intellectual gap in this set of instructions).  Then read or reread Aldous Huxley and any Greek tragedy centering around the idea of hubris.

Mix together, stir, shake, and sit down and cry.

I very much enjoyed this book.  Think of it as a substance-rich, original on every page exploration of how the space program interacted with the environmental movement, and also with the peace and “Whole Earth” movements of the 1960s.  Most of all it is a social history of technology.  If I heard only that description I might think this is a mood-affiliated load of recycled crud, but in fact it is the best non-research-related book I’ve read in the last month.  Here is one excerpt:

“There is the problem of designing and fitting a spacesuit to accommodate their particular biological needs and functions,” explained one NASA official during the fall of 1960.  The Apollo spacesuit, added another spokesperson more than a decade later, “would be damaging to the soft structures of the feminine body.”  There was also the issue of bodily waste.  By the mid-1960s the space agency had already spent millions of dollars developing a urinary collection device that slid over each crewman’s penis, but the female anatomy, NASA administrators claimed, presented additional engineering difficulties in the weightlessness of space.  “There was no way to manage women’s waste,” argued NASA’s Director of Life Sciences, David Winter. “If you can’t handle a basic physiological need like that, you can’t go anywhere.”  The national media became obsessed with this particular issue, publicizing NASA administrators’ concerns to the broader American public.

Recommended, pre-order it here.

What accounts for misery?

by on January 27, 2017 at 2:20 am in Data Source, Medicine, Science | Permalink

Sarah Flèche and Richard Layard have a new paper on this topic, and they suggest a focus on mental illness:

Studies of deprivation usually ignore mental illness. This paper uses household panel data from the USA, Australia, Britain and Germany to broaden the analysis. We ask first how many of those in the lowest levels of life-satisfaction suffer from unemployment, poverty, physical ill health, and mental illness. The largest proportion suffers from mental illness. Multiple regression shows that mental illness is not highly correlated with poverty or unemployment, and that it contributes more to explaining the presence of misery than is explained by either poverty or unemployment. This holds both with and without fixed effects.

I don’t like the term “mental illness,” yet at the same time I reject the Szaszian rejection of the concept.  I would say that mental processes can deviate from procedural rationality in especially disadvantageous (and sometimes systematic) ways, and that this is something above and beyond merely having “different preferences.”

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Mark is the most brilliant food mind I have met, here is the opening summary:

Mark Miller is often called the founder of modern southwestern cuisine, but his unique anthropological approach to food has led him to explore cuisines in over 100 countries around the world. He joins Tyler for a conversation on all that he’s learned along the way, including his pick for the most underrated chili pepper, palate coaching, the best food cities in Asia, Mexico, and Europe, the problems with sous-vide, why the Michelin guide is overrated, mezcal versus tequila, the decline of food brands, how to do fast food well, and why the next hipster food trend should be about corn.

Here is the text, audio, and video.  Mark is a blizzard of information density, and I don’t know anyone else who has his experience with the food world, most of all with Asia, Mexico, and the American Southwest.  (You may recall he was an interlocutor in my dialogue with Fuchsia Dunlop, and so we recorded this session with Mark afterwards.)

I thought the highlight was Mark’s six-minute riff on tasting chiles, it really shows Mark in his glory — this is one of those cases where I definitely recommend the video over the text:

Elsewhere in the conversation, see why he picks Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok as the three best world cities for food tours.  And:

COWEN: You don’t need brands, right?

MILLER: You don’t need brands anymore. The consumer used to have brands as guide and trust. Today there are other ways of developing that. We’re in consumer level 3. Consumers are defining brands, and how brands get used. I think that the idea of brand is probably — you’re an economist — dated. [laughs]

There is this:

MILLER: You go to a bus station in Monterrey: you can see a hundred of the best tacos in the world.

The questioner was Megan McArdle.  I enjoyed the entire exchange immensely, and hope you do too.

The tweet subtitle they gave my latest Bloomberg column:

Reading articles from other perspectives isn’t enough.  Try writing one.

My final tag line:

We all need to worry about our own growing grumpiness.

I loved Jason Barr’s Building the Skyline a history of New York from the point of view of the economics of skyscrapers. Where else will you learn so much of interest about elevators?

Elevators create a particular problem. On one hand, adding more floors to the building will produce more space from which the developer can collect more money. But at some point, a new shaft and set of elevators need to be added to handle the additional traffic. This then eats into the rentable space….Do the additional floors on top generate enough rents to cover the loss of new space from the elevators?

…skyscrapers must devote about 30% of the total space to elevators, including their shafts, hallways and machine rooms.

And then you have to get the people where they want to go quickly:

The new One World Trade Center will have the fastest cars in the Western Hemisphere, operating at a top speed of 2,000 feet a minute, though a relative snail compared with the Burj Khalifa, which delivers its tenants to any of its 164 floors at a rate of 3,543 feet per minute.

…Maximum [elevator] speed has increased at an average annual rate of 1.7% since 1913.

Barr loves skyscrapers and he writes about them beautifully. Building the skyline also has excellent photos and illustrations. It’s not for everyone but if the statistics, economics, and history of New York’s skyscrapers appeals, then this is the book to get.

Hat tip: Michael Hendrix.

From Garrett S. Christensen and Edward Miguel, from their survey of methodological problems in economic research:

Another potentially useful tool is post-publication peer review.  Formalizing post-publication peer review puts us in relatively uncharted waters.  Yet it is worth noting that all four of the AEA’s American Economic Journals allow for comments to appear on every article’s official webpage post-publication (anonymous comments are not allowed).  The feature does not appear to be widely used, but in one case…comments placed on the website have actually resulted in changes to the article between its initial online pre-publication and the final published version.

One of the biggest problems with “economics as a science” is that economists themselves cannot usually admit how irrelevant so much of the work — even the quality work — turns out to be.  I’m all for worrying about reproducibility, transparency, and the like, but sometimes I feel those micro-debates distract our attention from this bigger and broader problem and indeed help to obscure that problem.

Addendum: This website, JournalTalk, does the same thing.

*The Genome Factor*

by on January 18, 2017 at 12:41 pm in Books, Science | Permalink

The authors are Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, and the subtitle is What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals About Ourselves, Our History and the Future.

It appears quite serious, I look forward to reading it soon.

The editor of this truly excellent book is Timothy N. Ogden, the subtitle is Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics, and the contributors include Angus Deaton, Dean Karlan, Lant Pritchett, David McKenzie, Judy Gueron, Rachel Glennerster, Chris Blattman, and yours truly, with a focus on randomized control trials and other experiment-related methods.  Here is one bit from the interview with me:

I would say that just about every reputable RCT has shifted my priors.  Literally every one.  That’s what’s wonderful about them, but it’s also the trick.  You might ask, “why do they shift your priors?”  They shift your priors because on the questions that are chosen, and ones that ought to be chosen, theory doesn’t tell us so much.  “How good is microcredit?” or “What’s the elasticity of demand for mosquito nets?”  Because theory doesn’t tell you much about questions like that, of course an RCT should shift your priors.  But at the same time, because theory hasn’t told you much, you don’t know how generalizable the results of those studies are.  So each one should shift your priors, and that’s the great strength and weakness of the method.

Now, you asked if any of the results surprised me.  I think the same reasoning applies.  No, none of them have surprised me because I saw the main RCT topics to date as not resolvable by theory.  So they’ve altered my priors but in a sense that can’t shake you up that much.  If you offer a mother a bag of lentils to bring her child in to be vaccinated, how much will that help?  Turns out, at least in one part of India, that helps a lot.  I believe that result.  But 10 years ago did I really think that if you offered a mother in some parts of India a bag of lentils to induce them to bring in their kids to vaccination that it wouldn’t work so well?  Of course not.  So in that sense, I’m never really surprised.

And this:

One of my worries is RCTs that surprise some people.  Take the RAND study from the 1970s that healthcare doesn’t actually make people much healthier.  You replicate that, more or less, in the recent Oregon Medicaid study.  When you have something that surprises people, they often don’t want to listen to it.  So it gets dismissed.  It seems to me that’s quite wrong.  We ought to work much more carefully on the cases where RCTs are surprising many of us, but we don’t want to do that.  So we kind of go RCT-lite.  We’re willing to soak up whatever we learn about mothers and lentils and vaccinations, but when it comes to our core being under attack, we get defensive.

I very much recommend the book, which you can purchase here.  Interviews are so often so much better than just letting everyone be a blowhard, and Ogden did a great job.

Maybe not, possibly patents were more effective.  Here is some new research from B. Zorina Khan, entitled “Prestige and Profit: The Royal Society of Arts and Incentives for Innovation, 1750-1850”:

Debates have long centered around the relative merits of prizes and other incentives for technological innovation. Some economists have cited the experience of the prestigious Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which offered honorary and cash awards, as proof of the efficacy of innovation prizes. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. This study examines data on several thousand of these inducement prizes, matched with patent records and biographical information about the applicants. The empirical analysis shows that inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. Owing to such adverse selection, prizes were negatively related to subsequent areas of important technological discovery. The RSA ultimately became disillusioned with the prize system, which they recognized had done little to promote technological progress and industrialization. The Society acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system. The findings suggest some skepticism is warranted about claims regarding the role that elites and nonmarket-oriented institutions played in generating technological innovation and long-term economic development.

I consider the origins of modern science to be a still under-studied topic.

That is a request from Christina, a loyal MR reader.  It sounds like a huge question, and maybe it is, but my answer is pretty simple, which is not to say the problem is simple to solve.

Let’s say you are in Germany.  People engage in rule-following behavior, and they become quite emotionally stressed if you suggest you might break the rules in especially inappropriate ways.

Alternatively, in Naples there is more garbage in the streets, and flexibility and rigidity across a very different set of social variables.  I call that a difference in “culture,” and I am ready to accept culture as an ill-defined, question-begging term.

Now, how do differences of culture — however defined — interact with traditional economic mechanisms involving prices, incomes, and simple comparative statics?  Are those competing explanations, namely cultural vs. economic?  Ought they to dovetail nicely in some kind of broader explanation?  Or might the cultural factors in some manner be “reduced” to questions of more traditional economics?  Some combination of the above?  Something else altogether?  And, from among these and other options, what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem?

That to me is the most important unsolved problem in economics and indeed in social science more broadly.