Science

It used to be that airliners broke up in the sky because of small cracks in the window frames. So we fixed that. It used to be that aircraft crashed because of outward opening doors. So we fixed that. Aircraft used to fall out of the sky from urine corrosion, so we fixed that with encapsulated plastic lavatories. The list goes on and on. And we fixed them all.

So what are we left with?

Sadly, we all know the answer to that question.

…And so, with more rules we have solved most of the problems in the world. That just leaves the weird events left like disappearing 777’s, freak storms and ISIS. It used to be that even minor storms would be a problem but we have building codes now (rules). Free of rules, we’d probably have dealt with ISIS by now too.

Ultimately, this is why the world is getting weirder, and will continue to do so. Now with global media you get to hear about it all.

That is from a very interesting mini-essay by Steve Coast, hat tip goes to The Browser.

Derek Lowe on CRISPR, from the comments

by on March 26, 2015 at 12:21 pm in Science | Permalink

Derek writes:

As a scientist in the biopharma world, I can tell you this this does indeed seem very close to being done in humans, and that there is a very high (but still not perfect) chance of success. CRISPR/Cas9 is the real deal, and there are others competing for its spot as well (such as zinc-finger TALEN technology, whose discoverers have just called for a similar moratorium on human germ-line work). There’s no need to whisper about possible Nobel Prizes in this area – the only difficulty for the Nobel committees will be figuring out how to divide the credit and who exactly to recognize.

The first human applications would surely be the obvious single-mutation genetic diseases. In most cases, this would be done best as germ-line work, followed by in vitro fertilization. The children born after such a process would, of course, pass their altered/repaired DNA to their own offspring, and it’s this possibility that has people worried, in case we get it wrong, or in case we start messing around for more arguable traits. (Fixing these problems after you’ve become a fully sized human is harder, because you have to find a way to treat enough cells in the body to make a lasting difference).

Many of the possibilities that people are most worried about are harder to pin down, though. There’s no single gene for height, for example, or intelligence (or Alzheimer’s or diabetes, for that matter, to stick with the fixing-what’s-broken part of the landscape). Many of the really sticky issues are still a bit downstream, awaiting a better understanding of the human genome, but the big fundamental one is indeed here now: the first deliberate editing of the human genetic inheritance. Tyler’s absolutely right about that one – it could be done right now by anyone with the nerve to do it.

Here is Derek’s website.

You will find a Qanta primer here.  Here is an excerpt:

In the same month, separate teams of scientists at Harvard University and the Broad Institute reported similar success with the gene-editing tool. A scientific stampede commenced, and in just the past two years, researchers have performed hundreds of experiments on CRISPR. Their results hint that the technique may fundamentally change both medicine and agriculture.

Some scientists have repaired defective DNA in mice, for example, curing them of genetic disorders. Plant scientists have used CRISPR to edit genes in crops, raising hopes that they can engineer a better food supply. Some researchers are trying to rewrite the genomes of elephants, with the ultimate goal of re-creating a woolly mammoth. Writing last year in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, Motoko Araki and Tetsuya Ishii of Hokkaido University in Japan predicted that doctors will be able to use CRISPR to alter the genes of human embryos “in the immediate future.”

Thanks to the speed of CRISPR research, the accolades have come quickly. Last year MIT Technology Review called CRISPR “the biggest biotech discovery of the century.” The Breakthrough Prize is just one of several prominent awards Doudna has won in recent months for her work on CRISPR; National Public Radio recently reported whispers of a possible Nobel in her future.

Even the pharmaceutical industry, which is often slow to embrace new scientific advances, is rushing to get in on the act. New companies developing CRISPR-based medicine are opening their doors. In January, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis announced that it would be using Doudna’s CRISPR technology for its research into cancer treatments. It plans to edit the genes of immune cells so that they will attack tumors.

How immediately will this come for ordinary use?  Here is the big package of articles from Science.  The Chinese already have done it with monkeys.

Here are my earlier remarks on eugenics.  Here is a group of scientists calling for a moratorium on the technique, at least until rules can be established.  Here are further articles on CRISPR.  There are further comments here.

I believe the implications of all this — and its nearness to actual realization — have not yet hit either economics or the world of ideas more generally.  This is probably big, big news.

The NYTimes has an article on California’s extreme water drought with the usual apocalyptic imagery (see the video especially):

California is facing a punishing fourth year of drought. Temperatures in Southern California soared to record-high levels over the weekend, approaching 100 degrees in some places. Reservoirs are low. Landscapes are parched and blighted with fields of dead or dormant orange trees.

The apocalyptic scenario needs to be leavened with some basic facts.

California has plenty of water…just not enough to satisfy every possible use of water that people can imagine when the price is close to zero. As David Zetland points out in an excellent interview with Russ Roberts, people in San Diego county use around 150 gallons of water a day. Meanwhile in Sydney Australia, with a roughly comparable climate and standard of living, people use about half that amount. Trust me, no one in Sydney is going thirsty.

So how much are people in San Diego paying for their daily use of 150 gallons of water? About 78 cents. As Matt Kahn puts it:

Where in the Constitution does it say that the people of California have the right to pay .5 cents per gallon of water?

Water is such a small share of most people’s budgets that it could double in price and the effect on income would still be low. Moreover, we don’t even have to increase the price of water for residential or industrial uses. As The Economist points out:

Agriculture accounts for 80% of water consumption in California, for example, but only 2% of economic activity.

What that means is that if agriculture used 12.5% less water we could increase the amount available for every residential and industrial use by 50%–grow those lawns, fill those swimming pools, manufacture those chips!–and the cost would be minimal even if we simply shut down 12.5% of all farms.

Moreover, we don’t have to shut down that many farms, we just have to shut down the least valuable farms and use water more efficiently. If you think water is cheap for San Diego residents it’s much cheaper for Almond-Trees-and-Flood-Irrigationfarmers. Again from The Economist:

Farmers flood the land to grow rice, alfalfa and other thirsty crops….If water were priced properly, it is a safe bet that they would waste far less of it, and the effects of California’s drought—its worst in recorded history—would not be so severe.

Even today a lot of CA agriculture uses the least efficient flood irrigation system.

According to data from the state Department of Water Resources, 43 percent of California farmland in 2010 used some form of gravity irrigation, an imprecise method that uses relatively large amounts of fresh water and represents a big opportunity for water conservation.

The NYTimes article is worried about farm loss:

“I’m going to fallow two acres of my land immediately,” said Geoffrey C. Galloway, who has a citrus grove on his ranch near Porterville, in the Central Valley. “Depending on how the season goes, we may let another four go.”

…Last year, at least 400,000 acres went unplanted, and farmers reported losses of $2.2 billion, said Mr. Wenger, the head of the farm bureau, who owns a farm in Modesto. “This year we could see easily 50 percent more,” he said. “We are probably going to be looking at well over a million acres.”

California has approximately 25 million acres of farmland. And while our bodily fluids might be precious not every acre of farmland is. A few less acres of farmland producing low value crops in return for a lot more water is a very acceptable tradeoff.

Addendum: Low prices are not always wasteful. David Zetland’s short primer on water policy is available for free as pdf. Matt Kahn’s Fundamentals of Environmental and Urban Economics is on Amazon for Kindle for just $1. Both are very good.

Addendum 2: See also this later post, The Misallocation of Water.

Anthropologist Peter Frost and anthropologist and population geneticist Henry Harpending argue that killing murderers pacified the population eugenically.

At the beginning of [1500]… the English homicide rate was about 20 to 40 per year per 100,000 people. At the end [1750, AT], it was about 2 to 4 per 100,000, i.e., a 10-fold reduction (Eisner, 2001).

…Can this leftward shift be explained by the high execution rate between 1500 and 1750? During that period, 0.5 to 1% of all men were removed from each generation through court-ordered executions and a comparable proportion through extrajudicial executions, i.e., deaths of offenders at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial. The total execution rate was thus somewhere between 1 and 2%. These men were permanently removed from the population, as was the heritable component of their propensity for homicide. If we assume a standard normal distribution in the male population, the most violent 1 to 2% should form a right-hand “tail” that begins 2.33–2.05 SD to the right of the mean propensity for homicide. If we eliminate this right-hand tail and leave only the other 98-99% to survive and reproduce, we have a selection differential of 0.027 to 0.049 SD per generation.

…The reader can see that this selection differential, which we derived from the execution rate, is at most a little over half the selection differential of 0.08 SD per generation that we derived from the historical decline in the homicide rate.

Thus, the authors argue that it is possible that a substantial decline in criminality can be explained by the eugenics of execution. The authors, assume, however, that executed criminals have no offspring which is unlikely, especially if criminals have higher fertility rates.

Hat tip to PseudoErasmus on twitter.

Does using Facebook make you happier?

by on February 27, 2015 at 1:48 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

I’ve long suggested that those worried about inequality, envy, and relative deprivation should tax Facebook rather than the private fortune of Bill Gates.  Most envy is local, and connected to people you know and whose lives you are in touch with.  Along these lines, here is some recent research by Verduyn, et.al.:

Prior research indicates that Facebook usage predicts declines in subjective well-being over time. How does this come about? We examined this issue in 2 studies using experimental and field methods. In Study 1, cueing people in the laboratory to use Facebook passively (rather than actively) led to declines in affective well-being over time. Study 2 replicated these findings in the field using experience-sampling techniques. It also demonstrated how passive Facebook usage leads to declines in affective well-being: by increasing envy. Critically, the relationship between passive Facebook usage and changes in affective well-being remained significant when controlling for active Facebook use, non-Facebook online social network usage, and direct social interactions, highlighting the specificity of this result. These findings demonstrate that passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being.

The pointer is from Robin Hanson on Twitter.

Psychology journal bans significance testing

by on February 26, 2015 at 7:43 am in Science | Permalink

This is perhaps the first real crack in the wall for the almost-universal use of the null hypothesis significance testing procedure (NHSTP). The journal, Basic and Applied Social Psychology (BASP), has banned the use of NHSTP and related statistical procedures from their journal. They previously had stated that use of these statistical methods was no longer required but can be optional included. Now they have proceeded to a full ban.

The type of analysis being banned is often called a frequentist analysis, and we have been highly critical in the pages of SBM of overreliance on such methods. This is the iconic p-value where <0.05 is generally considered to be statistically significant.

There is more here, with further interesting points in the piece, via Mark Thorson.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel writes:

The big problem is profitability. Unlike drugs for cholesterol or high blood pressure, or insulin for diabetes, which are taken every day for life, antibiotics tend to be given for a short time, a week or at most a few months. So profits have to be made on brief usage. Furthermore, any new antibiotics that might be developed to fight these drug-resistant bacteria are likely to be used very sparingly under highly controlled circumstances, to slow the development of resistant bacteria and extend their usefulness. This also limits the amount that can be sold.

The self-assembling chair

by on February 23, 2015 at 11:55 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

There are few tasks more infuriating than assembling a piece of furniture. But a new project at MIT may eventually eliminate that pesky life chore entirely.

As Wired’s Liz Stinson reports, the loopy geniuses over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Self-Assembly Lab recently debuted a chair designed to put itself together, without the need for a single vaguely illustrated instruction manual.

There is also a good video at the link, courtesy of the excellent Samir Varma, a loyal MR reader.  I sometimes toy with the proposition that there is in fact nothing I can assemble, not even simple items.  My requested birthday gift this year was that Yana show me how to put together and operate that which I got for Christmas.

Algorithm Aversion

by on February 22, 2015 at 7:40 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

People don’t like deferring to what I earlier called an opaque intelligence. In a paper titled Algorithm Aversion the authors write:

Research shows that evidence-based algorithms more accurately predict the future than do human forecasters. Yet, when forecasters are deciding whether to use a human forecaster or a statistical algorithm, they often choose the human forecaster. This phenomenon, which we call algorithm aversion, is costly, and it is important to understand its causes. We show that people are especially averse to algorithmic forecasters after seeing them perform, even when they see them outperform a human forecaster. This is because people more quickly lose confidence in algorithmic than human forecasters after seeing them make the same mistake. In five studies, participants either saw an algorithm make forecasts, a human make forecasts, both, or neither. They then decided whether to tie their incentives to the future predictions of the algorithm or the human. Participants who saw the algorithm perform were less confident in it, and less likely to choose it over an inferior human forecaster. This was true even among those who saw the algorithm outperform the human.

People who defer to the algorithm will outperform those who don’t, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, will reason atrophy when we defer, just as our map-reading skills have atrophied with GPS? Or will more of our limited resource of reason come to be better allocated according to comparative advantage?

The Rise of Opaque Intelligence

by on February 20, 2015 at 7:31 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Many years ago I had a job picking up and delivering packages in Toronto. Once the boss told me to deliver package A then C then B when A and B were closer together and delivering ACB would lengthen the trip. I delivered ABC and when the boss found out he wasn’t happy because C needed their package a lot sooner than B and distance wasn’t the only variable to be optimized. I recall (probably inaccurately) the boss yelling:

Listen college boy, I’m not paying you to think. I’m paying you to do what I tell you to do.

It isn’t easy suppressing my judgment in favor of someone else’s judgment even if the other person has better judgment (ask my wife) but once it was explained to me I at least understood why my boss’s judgment made sense. More and more, however, we are being asked to suppress our judgment in favor of that of an artificial intelligence, a theme in Tyler’s Average is Over. As Tyler notes notes:

…there will be Luddites of a sort. “Here are all these new devices telling me what to do—but screw them; I’m a human being! I’m still going to buy bread every week and throw two-thirds of it out all the time.” It will be alienating in some ways. We won’t feel that comfortable with it. We’ll get a lot of better results, but it won’t feel like utopia.

I put this slightly differently, the problem isn’t artificial intelligence but opaque intelligence. Algorithms have now become so sophisticated that we human’s can’t really understand why they are telling us what they are telling us. The WSJ writes about driver’s using UPS’s super algorithm, Orion, to plan their delivery route:

Driver reaction to Orion is mixed. The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

One driver, who declined to speak for attribution, said he has been on Orion since mid-2014 and dislikes it, because it strikes him as illogical.

Human drivers think Orion is illogical because they can’t grok Orion’s super-logic. Perhaps any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.

Hat tip: Robin Hanson for discussion.

Oceanic average is over

by on February 20, 2015 at 1:41 am in History, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The animals in the ocean have been getting bigger, on average, since the Cambrian period – and not by chance.

That is the finding of a huge new survey of marine life past and present, published in the journal Science.

It describes a pattern of increasing body size that cannot be explained by random “drift”, but suggests bigger animals generally fare better at sea.

In the past 542 million years, the average size of a marine animal has gone up by a factor of 150.

It appears that the explosion of different life forms near the start of that time window eventually skewed decisively towards bulkier animals.

Today’s tiniest sea critter is less than 10 times smaller than its Cambrian counterpart, measured in terms of volume; both are minuscule crustaceans. But at the other end of the scale, the mighty blue whale is more than 100,000 times the size of the largest animal the Cambrian could offer: another crustacean with a clam-like, hinged shell.

There is more here, and here is Wikipedia on Cope’s Rule.  Here is one possible explanation.  Does the Rule apply to dinosaurs?  I wonder if the risk-adjusted returns to species size also are going up.

Here is a piece by Tomala, Jia, and Norton:

When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, compared with references to achievement (e.g., “this person has won an award for his work”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could win an award for his work”) appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions.

Here are some ungated copies.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis, who sent me the link in response to my earlier post on age discrimination.

That is the title of a short essay by Gary Davis, here is the essay in toto:

Teaching is commonly associated with instruction, yet in evolution, immunology, and neuroscience, instructional theories are largely defunct.

We propose a co-immunity theory of teaching, where attempts by a teacher to alter student neuronal structure to accommodate cultural ideas and practices is sort of a reverse to the function of the immune system, which exists to preserve the physical self, while teaching episodes are designed to alter the mental self.

This is a theory of teaching that is based on the inter-subjective relationship between teacher and learner. This theory posits that teaching does not, as is commonly assumed, take place via instruction from teacher to students, but rather through a process of selection in the learner’s brain, stimulated by materials and activities utilized by the teacher. In this theory, the mechanism that drives the selection process in learners’ brains is co-regulated emotional signaling between teacher and learner. From this perspective, the power of formative assessment is that it intrinsically carries with it emotional aspects for both learner and teacher, in that it provides a feedback relationship between them both, and so, according to the Greenspan & Shanker theory of cognitive symbolic development, promotes cognitive development.

That is from the Journal of Brief Ideas, a new and worthy web site, and for the pointer to the site I thank Michelle Dawson.

Here is a Valentine’s Day puzzle: there have been five husband and wives awarded Nobel Prizes. Name them.

I will give you one hint. Four of the couples won for joint work. Only one of the couples each won a Nobel and that couple included a Nobel prize winner in economics.