Category: Science

Testing and the NFL

NYTimes: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health announced a new initiative on Wednesday to help determine whether frequent, widespread use of rapid coronavirus tests slows the spread of the virus.

The program will make rapid at-home antigen tests freely available to every resident of two communities, Pitt County, N.C., and Hamilton County, Tenn., enough for a total of 160,000 people to test themselves for the coronavirus three times a week for a month.

“This effort is precisely what I and others have been calling for nearly a year — widespread, accessible rapid tests to help curb transmission,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University who has been a vocal proponent of rapid, at-home testing programs.

I guess this is good news it just feels like something that in a different time line, happened long ago. Here is Derek Thompson in an excellent piece making exactly that point:

Imagine a parallel universe where Americans were tested massively, constantly, without care for cost, while those who tested negative continued more or less about their daily life.

In fact, that parallel universe exists. It’s the National Football League.

..After an October outbreak, the NFL moved to daily testing of all its players and instituted new restrictions on player behavior and stricter rules on ventilation and social distancing. The league also used electronic tracking bracelets to trace close contacts of people who tested positive. Throughout the season, the NFL spent about $100 million on more than 900,000 tests performed on more than 11,000 players and staff members. In January, the CDC published an analysis of the league that concluded, “Daily testing allowed early, albeit not immediate, identification of infection,” enabling the league to play the game safely.

You could write off the NFL’s season as the idiosyncratic achievement of a greedy sport with nearly unlimited resources. But I can think of another self-interested institution with nearly unlimited resources: It’s the government of a country with a $20 trillion economy and full control over its own currency. Unlike the NFL, though, the U.S. never made mass testing its institutional priority.

“The NFL was almost like a Korea within the United States,” Alex Tabarrok told me. “And it’s not just the NFL. Many universities have done a fabulous job, like Cornell. They have followed the Korea example, which is repeated testing of students combined with quick isolation in campus dorms. Mass testing is a policy that works in practice, and it works in theory. It’s crazy to me that we didn’t try it.” Tabarrok said we can’t be sure that a Korean or NFL-style approach to national testing would have guaranteed Korean or NFL-style outcomes. After all, that would have meant averting about 500,000 deaths. Rather, he said, comprehensive early testing was our best shot at reducing deaths and getting back to normal faster.

$1000 submission fee to the AER?

I saw that circulating as an April Fool’s joke, but is it such a crazy idea?  Here would be a few effects:

1. Submissions would decline, thus liberating some time for editors and referees.  This is valuable in its own right, and furthermore remaining decisions might be made with greater care.  And presumably the remaining submissions would be those with a higher chance of acceptance.

2. To some extent departments would pick up the submission fee.  This would favor researchers in wealthier departments, though whether this is good or bad I am not sure.  And even the most flush departments would find this pretty steep and I don’t think would offer carte blanche reimbursement.

3. It would favor senior and wealthier colleagues over junior colleagues.  That sounds bad to most people, but is it?  Favoring the wealthier senior colleagues might help limit the arms race for “here is my 90-page paper that has performed every possible cross-check of the results.”  It also might lower the return to technique, as younger researchers tend to be more up on the latest math but they are also less broad and by definition less experienced.

4. Graduate students in particular would be less likely to submit, especially from lower-tier departments.  It would be harder for job candidates from the non-top schools to prove themselves by publishing in the AER.

5. Papers would be “shopped around” more to seminars before being submitted.

6. Papers would become longer, which is probably a bad thing.

7. It might select for overconfident economists from wealthier families.

8. The AER would no longer “get all the best papers,” at least as such things are perceived.  That could very well be good!  Why should one journal have such a lock?

Would the AEA take in more revenue with this plan?

What else? What is in fact the optimal submission fee for a journal where publications can be worth tens of thousands of dollars (or sometimes much more) there?  Why should the authors/submitters be charged so little?

Further estimates on the cost of climate change and global warming

Sea level rise will cause spatial shifts in economic activity over the next 200 years. Using a spatially disaggregated, dynamic model of the world economy, this paper estimates the consequences of probabilistic projections of local sea level changes. Under an intermediate scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, permanent flooding is projected to reduce global real GDP by 0.19 percent in present value terms. By the year 2200, a projected 1.46 percent of the population will be displaced. Losses in coastal localities are much larger. When ignoring the dynamic response of investment and migration, the loss in real GDP in 2200 increases from 0.11 percent to 4.5 percent.

That newly published paper is from Klaus Desmet, Robert E. Kopp, Scott A. Kulp, Dávid Krisztián Nagy, Michael Oppenheimer, Esteban Rossi-Hansberg and Benjamin H. Strauss in American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics.  Am I wrong to feel a little…underwhelmed by those estimates?  Here is an earlier recent paper on other cost estimates.

If UFOs are alien beings, are they just doing mood affiliation in visiting us?

Robin Hanson has a long and very interesting blog post on that question.  The point is not to argue that the UFOS are alien beings of some kind, but rather if they were which kinds of theories might help us understand them? Here is just part of Robin’s much longer take:

If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. So as such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens…

Stylized fact #2: Aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.

Indirection –  We can think of a number of plausible motives for rare limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.

In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And there’s the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. Third, independent alien origins could be a rare valuable datapoint about far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer.

My best bet is this.  The vehicles would be “unmanned” drone probes, if only because the stresses of long trips through space would keep the actual alien beings close to home.  So the relevant social science question is what kind of highly generalized software instructions you would give such drones.  “Seek out major power sources, including nuclear, and seek out rapid flying objects, and then send information back home” would be one such set of instructions roughly compatible with the stylized facts on the ground (or in the air).  Of course the information sent back to alien worlds will not be arriving for a very, very long time, so long that the concrete motives of the aliens may not be the major consideration.  Collecting the information about other planets across some very long time frame might simply seem worthwhile, relative to the cheap cost of the drone probes.  It reminds me a bit of that “put the DNA of all the species on the moon” project we have started, or those seed banks up in the Arctic.  Why exactly did we do it?  Why not I say!?  And yet most humans do not even know those projects are going on.

A further generalized software instruction would be “if approached or confronted, run away fast.”  Indeed that is what those flying vehicles seem to do.

The drone probes do not destroy us, because of Star Trek-like reasons: highly destructive species already have blown themselves up, leaving the relatively peaceful ones to send drones around.  The drones probably are everywhere, in the galactic sense that is.  Yet given the constraints imposed by the speed of light, it is difficult to do much with them that is very useful to the decision-makers that send (sent?) them out.  So the relevant theory is one of how advanced civilizations allocate their surplus when there is a lot of discretion and not much in the way of within-lifetime costs and benefits to determine a very particular set of plans and goals.  Not even for the grandkids.

In this hypothesis, of course, you have to be short immortality.  And short usable wormholes.

By the way, don’t those photos of the drone probes make them look a bit like cheap crap?  No tail fins, no “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” music signature, no 3-D holograms, just a superfast vehicle.  Like something a second-rate alien non-profit picked up at the local Walmart and sent off into space en masse with solar-powered self-replication.  Which is consistent with the view of them being a discretionary resource allocation stemming from projects with fairly fuzzy goals.

A problematic question for any theory is whether competing drone navies have come to visit us, and if so are they fighting over the spoils?  Colluding?  Hiding from each other?  Or what?  If aliens are afoot, why should it be only one group of them?  That would seem strange, as in most things there are multitudes, at least speaking in Bayesian terms.  Aren’t there at least both Klingon probes and Romulan probes, maybe Federation probes too.

Robin’s hypothesis, that they are elatively local panspermiacs, who feel some stake in us, appeals to me.  Bayesian logic suggests in any case that the chance of us having resulted from panspermia is pretty high; there are lots of baby civilizations for each parent, so why deny you are probably a baby?

Perhaps our visitors are exercising some “mood affiliation” in wishing to visit and record us!  They could be the parents, or perhaps another baby civilization.

Of course since the photos are of such poor quality, and since there is no corroborating evidence of any kind, these UFO sightings probably are not of alien creations, so all of this is pure fantasy anyway.

The influence of hidden researcher decisions in applied microeconomics

Another one from the Department of Uh-Oh:

Researchers make hundreds of decisions about data collection, preparation, and analysis in their research. We use a many‐analysts approach to measure the extent and impact of these decisions. Two published causal empirical results are replicated by seven replicators each. We find large differences in data preparation and analysis decisions, many of which would not likely be reported in a publication. No two replicators reported the same sample size. Statistical significance varied across replications, and for one of the studies the effect’s sign varied as well. The standard deviation of estimates across replications was 3–4 times the mean reported standard error.

Here is the paper by numerous authors, via Scott Cunningham.

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

Socioeconomic roots of academic faculty

Using a survey of 7218 professors in PhD-granting departments in the United States across eight disciplines in STEM, social sciences, and the humanities, we find that the estimated median childhood household income among faculty is 23.7% higher than the general public, and faculty are 25 times more likely to have a parent with a PhD. Moreover, the proportion of faculty with PhD parents nearly doubles at more prestigious universities and is stable across the past 50 years.

Here is the full paper, via all over Twitter.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

On the GDP-Temperature relationship and its relevance for climate damages

I have worried about related issues for some while, and now that someone has done the hard work I find the results disturbing and possibly significant:

Econometric models of temperature impacts on GDP are increasingly used to inform global warming damage assessments. But theory does not prescribe estimable forms of this relationship. By estimating 800 plausible specifications of the temperature-GDP relationship, we demonstrate that a wide variety of models are statistically indistinguishable in their out-of-sample performance, including models that exclude any temperature effect. This full set of models, however, implies a wide range of climate change impacts by 2100, yielding considerable model uncertainty. The uncertainty is greatest for models that specify effects of temperature on GDP growth that accumulate over time; the 95% confidence interval that accounts for both sampling and model uncertainty across the best-performing models ranges from 84% GDP losses to 359% gains. Models of GDP levels effects yield a much narrower distribution of GDP impacts centered around 1–3% losses, consistent with damage functions of major integrated assessment models. Further, models that incorporate lagged temperature effects are indicative of impacts on GDP levels rather than GDP growth. We identify statistically significant marginal effects of temperature on poor country GDP and agricultural production, but not rich country GDP, non-agricultural production, or GDP growth.

That is from Richard G Newell, Brian C. Prest, and Steven E. Sexton.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Pandemic sentences to ponder

Of course, there are national health systems in Canada, Mexico, England, and France, among many others, and the uniformity of failure across this heterodox group suggests that structure may have made less of a difference than culture.

“One of the common features is that we are a medical-centric group of countries,” says Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist who has spent the pandemic advocating for mass rollout of rapid testing on the pregnancy-kit model — only to meet resistance at every turn by those who insisted on a higher, clinical standard for tests. “We have an enormous focus on medicine and individual biology and individual health. We have very little focus as a group of nations on prioritizing the public good. We just don’t. It’s almost taboo — I mean, it is taboo. We have physicians running the show — that’s a consistent thing, medical doctors across the western European countries, driving the decision-making.” The result, he says, has been short-sighted calculations that prioritize absolute knowledge about everything before advising or designing policy about anything.

…in East Asia, countries didn’t wait for the WHO’s guidance to change on aerosols or asymptomatic transmission before masking up, social-distancing, and quarantining. “They acted fast. They acted decisively,” says Mina. “They made early moves. They didn’t sit and ponder: ‘What should we do? Do we have all of the data before we make a single decision?’ And I think that is a common theme that we’ve seen across all the Western countries—a reluctance to even admit that it was a big problem and then to really act without all of the information available. To this day, people are still not acting.” Instead, he says, “decision-makers have been paralyzed. They would rather just not act and let the pandemic move forward than act aggressively, but potentially be wrong.”

This, he says, reflects a culture of medicine in which the case of the individual patient is paramount.

Here is more from David Wallace-Wells, interesting throughout and with a cameo from yours truly.

When do liquidity premia exceed carrying costs?

A “lunar ark” hidden inside the moon’s lava tubes could preserve the sperm, eggs and seeds of millions of Earth’s species, a group of scientists has proposed.

The ark, or gene bank, would be safely hidden in these hollowed-out tunnels and caves sculpted by lava more than 3 billion years ago and would be powered by solar panels above. It would hold the cryogenically preserved genetic material of all 6.7 million known species of plants, animals and fungi on Earth, which would require at least 250 rocket launches to transport to the moon, according to the researchers.

Here is the full story.  Here is further discussion.

Ordinary air pollution is still an underrated problem

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

More than 10 million people die each year from air pollution, according to a new study — far more than the estimated 2.6 million people who have died from Covid-19 since it was detected more than a year ago. And while Covid is headline news, ordinary air pollution remains a side issue for policy wonks and technocrats.

[To be clear, I am not seeking to minimize Covid as a major issue.]  And:

Why aren’t these deaths a bigger issue in U.S. political and policy discourse? One reason may be that 62% of those deaths are in China and India. The number of premature deaths due to particulate matter in North America was 483,000, just slightly lower than the number of measured deaths from Covid to date. An estimated 876 of those deaths were of children under the age of 4.

Another reason for the weak political salience of the issue may be its invisibility. Air pollution causes many deaths. But it is rare to see or read about a person dying directly from air pollution. Lung cancer and cardiac disease are frequently cited as causes of death, even though they may stem from air pollution.

Another problem is that the question of how to better fight air pollution does not fit neatly into current ideological battles. You might think Democrats would emphasize this issue, but much of the economic burden of tougher action would fall on the Northeast, a largely Democratic-leaning area.

And exactly how many people die each year from global warming?  Why not have a greater focus on ordinary air pollution?