Science

As Alex and I were writing our Journal of Economic Perspectives piece on the economics activities of the National Science Foundation, I found it striking how little serious discussion there has been of the topic.  You’ll find only a few scant references in the paper, and some of those are quite old now.  This is part of a more general reluctance of economists to use economic tools to understand themselves.

I worry about the discourse-chilling effects of having government fund social science in this way, just as I worry about the implicit censorship effects on those who might seek to someday chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

On the NSF, let me be clear.  I had a long meeting with some of the decision-makers at the economics division, and I found them to be extremely helpful and open and fair.  I have little doubt that if I, now on record as somewhat of a critic of current procedures, submitted a grant request, it would be evaluated with full objectivity.

The problem is, the rest of the world doesn’t know that.

Addendum: You will note this section of the paper:

Another public good the NSF might fund is simply a study of which of its previous expenditures on economics have had the greatest marginal value-added. Based on conversations with NSF staff in economics, we are not able to identify such a study. One proposal would be to fund such a study and then follow many or all of its recommendations; after all, the NSF presumably believes it is capable of generating useful research results with practical implications.

Here John Cochrane comments on our paper.  If you are wondering, this was my favorite part of the paper:

A related question is to consider the elasticity of supply for quality economic research, with respect to wages or payment. Over the last few decades, many in the economics profession have concluded that tax cuts for high earners, at current tax rates, have relatively small effects on labor supply; for example, that argument is often cited as one reason why the Bush tax cuts passed into law in 2001 yielded disappointing economic results. Yet when it comes to NSF grants, there is often the implicit presumption that the elasticity of supply for economic research with respect to additional government grants is relatively large. We are agnostic on the elasticity question, but without understanding this issue, it is difficult to evaluate NSF bang for the buck, and thus economists should not be so confident about the efficacy of this funding.

File under: “Elasticity Optimism for Me, but not for Thee.”

I have been pushing this line for a while, now I am pleased to see coverage from The New York Times:

Industry leaders point to a number of areas where China jumped first. Before the online dating app Tinder, people in China used an app called Momo to flirt with nearby singles. Before the Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos discussed using drones to deliver products, Chinese media reported that a local delivery company, S.F. Express, was experimenting with the idea. WeChat offered speedier in-app news articles long before Facebook, developed a walkie-talkie function before WhatsApp, and made major use of QR codes well before Snapchat.

Before Venmo became the app for millennials to transfer money in the United States, both young and old in China were investing, reimbursing each other, paying bills,and buying products from stores with smartphone-based digital wallets.

The Paul Mozur article is interesting throughout.

Here is a new and intriguing paper by Leong, et.al.:

In urban ecosystems, socioeconomics contribute to patterns of biodiversity. The ‘luxury effect’, in which wealthier neighbourhoods are more biologically diverse, has been observed for plants, birds, bats and lizards. Here, we used data from a survey of indoor arthropod diversity (defined throughout as family-level richness) from 50 urban houses and found that house size, surrounding vegetation, as well as mean neighbourhood income best predict the number of kinds of arthropods found indoors. Our finding, that homes in wealthier neighbourhoods host higher indoor arthropod diversity (consisting of primarily non-pest species), shows that the luxury effect can extend to the indoor environment. The effect of mean neighbourhood income on indoor arthropod diversity was particularly strong for individual houses that lacked high surrounding vegetation ground cover, suggesting that neighbourhood dynamics can compensate for local choices of homeowners. Our work suggests that the management of neighbourhoods and cities can have effects on biodiversity that can extend from trees and birds all the way to the arthropod life in bedrooms and basements.

Didn’t Paul Romer say this once?  Here is a Guardian summary of one point:

The researchers said the work overturns the “general perception” that homes in poorer neighbourhoods host more indoor arthropods.

For the pointers I thank Niroscience and Michelle Dawson.

Delphi Automotive Plc, the vehicle-electronics supplier that last year conducted the first coast-to-coast U.S. demonstration of a self-driving car, will begin testing autonomous autos in Singapore this year that may lead to robot taxis by the end of the decade.

The test will involve six autonomous autos, starting with the modified Audi Q5 the supplier used last year to travel from San Francisco to New York in self-driving mode. In Singapore, the cars initially will follow three predetermined routes and by 2019 will range freely based on customer requests, without a driver or a human minder, according to Glen DeVos, a Delphi senior vice president.

“We actually will have point-to-point automated mobility on demand with no driver in the car,” he said at a briefing with reporters at Delphi’s Troy, Michigan, operations base. “It’s one of the first, if not the very first, pilot programs where we’ll demonstrate mobility-on-demand systems.”

Here is more from Keith Naughton.

A key problem with solar energy is intermittency: solar generators produce only when the sun is shining, adding to social costs and requiring electricity system operators to reoptimize key decisions. We develop a method to quantify the economic value of large-scale renewable energy. We estimate the model for southeastern Arizona. Not accounting for offset carbon dioxide, we find social costs of $138.40 per megawatt hour for 20 percent solar generation, of which unforecastable intermittency accounts for $6.10 and intermittency overall for $46.00. With solar installation costs of $1.52 per watt and carbon dioxide social costs of $39.00 per ton, 20 percent solar would be welfare neutral.

20 percent solar for Arizona as the social welfare break-even point does not strike me as especially impressive, but of course the infrastructure integration technologies may yet advance.  In gross terms, intermittency costs exceed carbon costs.  Note also that forecastable intermittency accounts for most of the costs, and so with perfect storage solar would be a much more efficient technology.

Here are ungated versions of the paper.

Chinese scientists are on the verge of being first in the world to inject people with cells modified using the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technique.

A team led by Lu You, an oncologist at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu, plans to start testing such cells in people with lung cancer next month. The clinical trial received ethical approval from the hospital’s review board on 6 July.

…The Chinese trial will enroll patients who have metastatic non-small cell lung cancer and for whom chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other treatments have failed. “Treatment options are very limited,” says Lu. “This technique is of great promise in bringing benefits to patients, especially the cancer patients whom we treat every day.”

On this one, they’re ahead of us.  There is much more information at the link, including a discussion of where the U.S. is at and also the FDA.

This is remarkable:

Now scientists have determined that humans and their honeyguides [a kind of bird] communicate with each other through an extraordinary exchange of sounds and gestures, which are used only for honey hunting and serve to convey enthusiasm, trustworthiness and a commitment to the dangerous business of separating bees from their hives.

The findings cast fresh light on one of only a few known examples of cooperation between humans and free-living wild animals, a partnership that may well predate the love affair between people and their domesticated dogs by hundreds of thousands of years.

Claire N. Spottiswoode, a behavioral ecologist at Cambridge University, and her colleagues reported in the journal Science that honeyguides advertise their scout readiness to the Yao people of northern Mozambique by flying up close while emitting a loud chattering cry.

For their part, the Yao seek to recruit and retain honeyguides with a distinctive vocalization, a firmly trilled “brrr” followed by a grunted “hmm.” In a series of careful experiments, the researchers then showed that honeyguides take the meaning of the familiar ahoy seriously.

…Researchers have identified a couple of other examples of human-wild animal cooperation: fishermen in Brazil who work with bottlenose dolphins to maximize the number of mullets swept into nets or snatched up by dolphin mouths, and orcas that helped whalers finish off harpooned baleen giants by pulling down the cables and drowning the whales, all for the reward from the humans of a massive whale tongue.

But for the clarity of reciprocity, nothing can match the relationship between honeyguide and honey hunter. “Honeyguides provide the information and get the wax,” Dr. Spottiswoode said. “Humans provide the skills and get the honey.”

Here is the full NYT story.

Is education overrated?  Or did the real industrial revolution not come until the latter part of the nineteenth century?  Or maybe a bit of both?  Here is new research by B. Zorina Khan (pdf):

Endogenous growth models raise fundamental questions about the nature of human creativity, and the sorts of resources, skills, and knowledge inputs that shift the frontier of technology and production possibilities. Many argue that the nature of early British industrialization supports the thesis that economic advances depend on specialized scientific training, the acquisition of costly human capital, and the role of elites. This paper examines the contributions of different types of knowledge to British industrialization, by assessing the backgrounds, education and inventive activity of the major contributors to technological advances in Britain during the crucial period between 1750 and 1930. The results indicate that scientists, engineers or technicians were not well-represented among the British great inventors, and their contributions remained unspecialized until very late in the nineteenth century. For developing countries today, the implications are that costly investments in specialized human capital resources might be less important than incentives for creativity, flexibility, and the ability to make incremental adjustments that can transform existing technologies into inventions that are appropriate for prevailing domestic conditions.

For the pointer I thank David Levey.

A central Pennsylvania man is accused of spraying fluid used to embalm a human brain on marijuana that he then smoked.

State police in Carlisle on Thursday charged Joshua Lee Long, 26, with abuse of a corpse and conspiracy.

WGAL-TV says court records indicate Long’s aunt discovered the brain in a department store bag while cleaning out a trailer.

…Court records indicate a coroner concluded the brain was real and that Long supposedly named it Freddy. According to the arrest affidavit, the coroners who examined the brain believe it is “most likely” a stolen medical specimen.

Here is more, via Tim B.

Remember the paper that said “conservatives” were on average more likely to exhibit “psychoticism,” but then it turned out there was a statistical mistake and this should have been attributed to “liberals,” at least within the confines of the paper’s model?  How did it all happen, and why did it take so long to correct?  Jesse Singal has the scoop, here is one excerpt:

Hatemi is convinced that Ludeke is out to get him. In our phone conversation, he repeatedly impressed on me just how minor the error is, how few times the papers in question had been cited, and how much of an overreaction it was for anyone to care all that much. “This error is freaking tangential and minor and there’s nothing novel in the error, whether [the sign on the correlation] was plus or minus,” he told me. “There’s no story. And I wish there was — if there’s any story, it’s, Should people be allowed to honestly correct their errors, or should you lampoon them and badmouth them for everything they didn’t do because they had a real error they admit to?”

Yes it’s that kind of story.  There is much more at the link, including tales of academics acting “like dicks.”  Here is the conclusion of the piece:

…the social-science landscape isn’t yet as embracing as it could be — and should be — of the replicators, challengers, and other would-be nudges like Ludeke who tend to make science better and more rigorous, who make it harder for people to coast by on big names and sloppy research.

For the pointer I thank Daniel Klein.

From Sunita Sah (NYT):

Disclosure can also cause perverse effects even when biases are unavoidable. For example, surgeons are more likely to recommend surgery than non-surgeons. Radiation-oncologists recommend radiation more than other physicians. This is known as specialty bias. Perhaps in an attempt to be transparent, some doctors spontaneously disclose their specialty bias. That is, surgeons may inform their patients that as surgeons, they are biased toward recommending surgery.

My latest research, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that patients with localized prostate cancer (a condition that has multiple effective treatment options) who heard their surgeon disclose his or her specialty bias were nearly three times more likely to have surgery than those patients who did not hear their surgeon reveal such a bias. Rather than discounting the surgeon’s recommendation, patients reported increased trust in physicians who disclosed their specialty bias.

Remarkably, I found that surgeons who disclosed their bias also behaved differently. They were more biased, not less. These surgeons gave stronger recommendations to have surgery, perhaps in an attempt to overcome any potential discounting they feared their patient would make on the recommendation as a result of the disclosure.

Surgeons also gave stronger recommendations to have surgery if they discussed the opportunity for the patient to meet with a radiation oncologist. This aligns with my previous research from randomized experiments, which showed that primary advisers gave more biased advice and felt it was more ethical to do so when they knew that their advisee might seek a second opinion.

The piece is…self-recommending!

That is in the FT, gated most likely, do subscribe!  In any case, here was to me the most interesting bit:

He [Tetlock] is trying to replace the public debates he describes as “Krugman-Ferguson pie fights” — a reference to the clashes over austerity between the economist and Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman and the economic historian, Niall Ferguson — with adversarial collaboration. “You give each side the opportunity to pose, say, 10 questions it thinks are probative and resolvable, and that it thinks it has a comparative advantage in answering” and then have the two sides give testable answers . . . Here is a very clear psychological prediction: people will come out of that tournament more open-minded than they otherwise would have been. You can take that one to the bank.”

More importantly, Tetlock ordered “…an apple fizz cocktail to go with haddock with a sauce of butter and musses.”

Here was the best single sentence from Tetlock, itself worth the price of an FT subscription:

“There is a price to be paid for feeling good about your beliefs.”

Robert Armstrong did an excellent job with the interview and piece.

“These are black boxes,” said Dr. Steven Joffe, a pediatric oncologist and bioethicist of the University of Pennsylvania, who serves on the FDA’s Pediatric Ethics Committee. “IRBs as a rule are incredibly difficult to study. Their processes are opaque, they don’t publicize what they do. There is no public record of their decision or deliberations, they don’t, as a rule, invite scrutiny or allow themselves to be observed. They ought to be accountable for the work they do.”

That is part of a longer and very interesting article on whether IRBs should be for-profit, or if we even at this point have a choice:

“This shift to commercial IRBs is, in effect, over,” said Caplan, who heads the division of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. “It’s automatic and it’s not going back.”

Institutional review boards — which review all research that involves human participants — have undergone a quiet revolution in recent years, with many drug companies strongly encouraging researchers to use commercial boards, considered by many more efficient than their nonprofit counterparts.

Commercial IRBs now oversee an estimated 70 percent of US clinical trials for drugs and medical devices. The industry has also consolidated, with larger IRBs buying smaller ones, and even private equity firms coming along and buying the companies. Arsenal Capital Partners, for example, now owns WIRB-Copernicus Group.

But even if the tide has already turned, the debate over commercial review boards — and whether they can serve as human subject safety nets, responsible for protecting the hundreds of thousands of people who enroll in clinical trials each year — continues to swirl.

I am not well-informed in this area, but if you refer back to the first paragraph, perhaps nobody is.  That’s worrying.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Very few people imagined that self-driving cars would advance so quickly or be deployed so rapidly. As a result, robot cars are largely unregulated. There is no government testing regime or pre-certification for robot cars, for example. Indeed, most states don’t even require a human driver because no one imagined that there was an alternative. Many people, however, are beginning to question laissez-faire in light of the first fatality involving a partially-autonomous car that occurred in May and became public last week. That would be a mistake. The normal system of laissez-faire is working well for robot cars.

Laissez-faire for new technologies is the norm. In the automotive world, for example, new technologies have been deployed on cars for over a hundred years without pre-certification including seatbelts, air bags, crumple zones, abs braking systems, adaptive cruise control and lane departure and collision warning systems. Some of these technologies are now regulated but regulation came after these technologies were developed and became common. Airbags began to be deployed in the 1970s, for example when they were not as safe as they are today but airbags improved over time and by the 1990s were fairly common. It was only in 1998, long after they were an option and the design had stabilized, that the Federal government required airbags in all new cars.

Lane departure and collision warning systems, among other technologies, remain largely unregulated by the Federal government today. All technologies, however, are regulated by the ordinary rules of tort (part of the laissez-faire system). The tort system is imperfect but it works tolerably well especially when it focuses on contract and disclosure. Market regulation also occurs through the insurance companies. Will insurance companies given a discount for self-driving cars? Will they charge more? Forbid the use of self-driving cars? Let the system evolve an answer.

Had burdensome regulations been imposed on airbags in the 1970s the technology would have been delayed and the net result could well have been more injury and death. We have ignored important tradeoffs in drug regulation to our detriment. Let’s avoid these errors in the regulation of other technologies.

The fatality in May was a tragedy but so were the approximately 35,000 other traffic fatalities that occurred last year without a robot at the wheel. At present, these technologies appear to be increasing safety but even more importantly what I have called the glide path of the technology looks very good. Investment is flowing into this field and we don’t want to forestall improvements by raising costs now or imposing technological “fixes” which could well be obsolete in a few years.

Laissez-faire is working well for robot cars. Let’s avoid over-regulation today so that in a dozen years we can argue about whether all cars should be required to be robot cars.

Optical Illusion of the Year

by on July 3, 2016 at 4:55 pm in Games, Science | Permalink