Category: Science

Greenhouse effect skeptics

Here is an entire web site devoted to skepticism about the greenhouse effect, and whether the burning of fossil fuels is at fault. It offers the latest scientific research on the skeptical side, excellent visuals, and regular updates. I am an agnostic on this issue, and underinformed most of all, but I do feel that this alternative point of view deserves a better hearing.

The future of energy

…the power generation capacity found under the hoods of cars in Germany or America is ten times that of all of the nuclear, coal, and gas power plants combined in those countries.

A compelling and clever fact. The author, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, argues that our energy future is one of decentralization, relative plenty, and lower levels of pollution. His new book is titled Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet.

We are told that the future will bring hydrogen fuel cells, micropower in lieu of a centralized power grid, and paeans to the visionary genius of Amory Lovins. I am all ready to sign up, except the evidence is missing, at least within the book. The author offers a compelling picture, and it may well be true. But if he is right, why isn’t the price of oil falling over the last few years? Will fuel cells really limit pollution, once we take into account the energy needed to construct the cells? What unknown contingencies could stop his predictions from coming true?

I recommend this book for its enthusiasm and sweeping vision. I also very much liked his treatment of the California power crisis, which is more sophisticated than Paul Krugman’s, among other interesting bits. But I am not yet ready to go short on the shares of either the power companies or the price of oil.

Can more rain make the road safer?

Here’s the scoop:

In an analysis of more than 1 million fatal crashes in 48 states, Daniel Eisenberg, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, was surprised to find that the more it rained or snowed in a month, the fewer deadly traffic accidents there were. Specifically, in any given month, an additional 10 centimeters of rain is linked with a 3.7 percent decrease in the fatal crash rate.

“I had expected to see a positive relationship between the amount of precipitation and the rate of fatal traffic accidents, but my analysis revealed a more complex connection between the two,” said Eisenberg.

He also discovered that the risk of an accident on a rainy day increases with the length of the dry spell preceding it. If there has been rain or snow day after day, the danger due to wet conditions falls.

In other words, if you are used to dangerous roads in recent times, you will drive more carefully. But we are weak, feeble creatures who forget about past dangers all too quickly. Click here for the full story.

The researcher suggests an additional explanation for the phenomenon:

“Oil and debris accumulate on the road when it hasn’t rained for a while, making the roads slicker when it first starts to rain,”

Eisenberg finds another interesting result:

…overall, precipitation had a larger impact on nonfatal traffic accidents.

“For any given day in the state, on average, each centimeter of precipitation increases the risk of fatal crashes by about 1 percent, but for nonfatal crashes, the increased risk is 11 percent,” said Eisenberg.

So, on any given day, rain or snow will lead to increases in nonfatal injury crashes and fender benders much more so than to increases in accidents that involve death.

“People who slow down when the weather is bad may not slow down enough to avoid all crashes, but, on average, they at least reduce the severity of the collision,” said Eisenberg.

In other words, to kill yourself being drunk, very stupid, very unlucky, or a very bad driver are the critical ingredients, not the rain.

The origins of human freedom

I had lunch today with Paul Rubin, a very smart law and economics scholar who also likes chicken tacos. Paul has just published a book on the Darwinian origins of politics and human freedom.

Here is a very brief summary from Randall Parker at Futurepundit:

Rubin sees both the impulse for support of the welfare state and the opposition to high taxes and the resentment toward freeloaders as all consequences of Pleistocene adaptations. Helping others in tough times might lead to their helping you out at a later point. At the same time. food was too scarce to tolerate freeloading. Rubin also argues that libertarianism is contrary to human nature and that humans want to meddle in each others’ lives. Read the whole review. Very interesting.

He is referring to Denis Dutton’s recent review of the book on, worth reading as well. It also summarizes the book nicely and in much more detail.

Here is Parker’s provocative conclusion:

My guess is that the distribution of alleles for the desire to be altrustic or to enforce rules or to force people not to be freeloaders will be found to be different in different parts of the political spectrum. A lot of political divisions will turn out to be, at least in part, due to average differences in personality characteristics that have their origins in the Pleistocene era. my bet is that once people start genetically tinkering with their offspring purer forms of socialists, libertarians, social conservatives, and other political types will be born and the political divisions within some societies and between societies will become greater as a result.

On this point, I do suspect that much of our political orientation springs from our basic inborn temperament. Shouldn’t this make us more skeptical of any particular views we happen to hold? It may feel right to have those views, but hey, that would be a genetic accident, and not a reflection of which policies are actually good for us.

Radar improves the quality of wine

Yup, that”s right. And yes, new ideas do come first to California, at least in this case.

Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley are using ground penetrating radar (GPR), a tool better known for its military uses, to help winemakers create tastier, more uniform wines.

“GPR is an electromagnetic signal that travels in the ground. What we do is try to understand how fast that signal travels and that tells us a lot about the moisture content of the soil,” said Susan Hubbard, a hydrogeophysicist at University of California, Berkeley, and staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Understanding soil moisture is a critical part of the art and science of winemaking. Cabernet Sauvignon and other red wine grapes prefer drier soil. Chardonnay and other white wine grapes do better in moist soil. But growers say the timing, and the amount of water given to the vines can make the difference between an average and an outstanding crop.

Read here for the full story.

Let’s not forget, the initial French advantage in winemaking was based on technology, albeit of a more informal sort. If the French don’t keep on innovating, they will be left behind.

Athletes will be the first

Athletes will be the first to be genetically engineered. Suspicions have already been raised about the 14 and 15 year old record-breaking track stars from China. He-Man mice have been created in the lab. All this makes me blase about drug doping and the recent banning by the FDA of a previously difficult to detect steroid. Indeed, I look forward to seeing the new superathletes in action. Imagine the possibilities in all fields of human endeavour. The new concertos written for 12 fingered pianists will be glorious.

Technology and the environment

How many persistent toxins, such as PCBs, would be in the environment a century hence if Bush were president vs. Gore? He didn’t like my answer–that on that question, the election results made no difference. The time scales are off. Technological innovation, not environmental regulation, will determine the state of the earth in 100 years.

This is Virginia Postrel, here is her complete blog post. And I couldn’t agree more.

Does Motherhood Change the Brain?

This knack for calmly sailing through the rigors of parenting is no accident, however. Mothers have cooler heads and better coping skills than nonmothers.
It’s all part of the “maternal brain,” according to Craig Kinsley, a psychologist with the University of Richmond. He has presented his findings in the journal Physiology and Behavior this month.
“Reproduction shapes and alters a female’s brain in significant ways,” he said yesterday.
Essentially, the motherly mind does not tend to dwell on fear or confusion in the face of adversity or challenge.

The experiment was done with rats:

He based the conclusions on four years of research with female rats who had, well, their little paws full. Mr. Kinsley and his research team found that veteran mother rats were less stressed by a series of lab challenges than females who had never faced a litter of needy babies.
The rats were placed in an open space as well as inside clear plastic tubing in bright light – hair-raising environments for a rat, according to Mr. Kinsley. The researchers found that the momma rats methodically and fearlessly explored the unknown territories, looking for a way out.
The nonmothers froze up or moved with great caution.
In the aftermath, the mother rat’s brains showed less activation of the amydaglia, an area that regulates fear.
“Pregnancy and offspring create a more adaptive brain, one that’s generally less susceptible to fear and stress,” Mr. Kinsley said.

Nor does the effect seem to vanish:

“But what’s most intriguing is that this seems to be a long-lasting effect which persists throughout life,” he added. “It is not temporary.”

Here is Kinsley’s home page. Here is his claim that pregnancy makes women smarter, in addition to calmer.

My take: I can cite one data point, my mother, in favor of the hypothesis.

Why wait?

Tired of sitting at endless red lights? Frustrated by lights that turn from green to red too quickly, trapping you in traffic?

Now anyone can breeze through congested intersections just like the police, thanks to a $300 dashboard device that changes traffic lights from red to green, making nasty commutes a thing of the past and leaving other drivers open-mouthed at your ability to manipulate traffic.

But what if everyone had one?

Fire engines, of course, have been using these devices for some time now, but they appear to be spreading more generally. Here is the full story, courtesy of

The bottom line: “The potential for chaos is enormous,” Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel said.

Dealers have promised to sell only to police and the proper authorities, but there appear to be no laws against the devices.

The cruelest month…

The most dangerous month for accidents is August, which is twenty percent riskier than the average month, presumably because people spend more time outdoors then and more time vacationing. You are most likely to drown in July, most likely to be shot in November, and most likely to fall to your death in December. Could that latter figure be driven by Christmas-time depressives committing suicide?

From The World’s Most Dangerous Places.

Why do women like cads?

“About 60 percent of the women said they would prefer to have sex with a cad when considering a brief affair,” said Daniel Kruger, a social psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization.

…the findings imply that the dad versus cad distinction is intuitive to women and remains a key element of contemporary mating strategies. Women’s preference for cads for short-term relationships supports what evolutionary psychologists call the “sexy son hypothesis,” Kruger said. Even though cads aren’t good bets to stick around and help raise children, the genes that make men successful cads will be passed along to their sons, who will increase their mothers’ eventual reproductive success by providing numerous grandchildren.

That being said, few women want their daughter to marry a cad:

…the distinction between dads and cads is intuitive enough that women showed a strong preference for dads [the contrasting male category, defined as caring, nurturing types] as potential sons-in-law. Only 13 percent of the women said they would prefer to see an imagined 25-year-old daughter engaged to a cad. “A cad would be less likely to provide paternal support for offspring,” Kruger said, “which means that a daughter might turn to the maternal family for help. That could adversely impact the grandmother’s overall reproductive success.”

Here is Kruger’s home page. Here is a link to the journal Human Nature, which lists the article as forthcoming. Here is the home page of co-author Maryanne Fisher.

My take: I can’t get my hands on the original paper. But the explanation, as offered, leaves a gap. It shows that a “cads equilibrium” is stable, once in place. But why are the sons of cads, themselves cads presumably, seen as sexy? One woman may want a cad, if she knows that other women will (later) want her son. But where does the female preference for cads, viewed more generally, come from?


…if a panhandler asks for 17 cents or 37 cents, will he collect more donations than if he asks for 25 cents? Answer: He will receive about 60 percent more.

Here is another study…Students, acting as fundraisers, went door-to-door asking for donations. At half the houses they added one sentence to their spiel: “Even a penny would help.” Did this have any effect? Answer: It nearly doubled donations.

…Is it better to a) lecture students that they should be neat and tidy, or b) compliment them for being neat and tidy. Answer: In this study, the lecture method was useless, while method “b” led to a three-fold increase in the collection of litter.”

From a forthcoming review by J. Scott Armstrong, here is the whole review, it covers a book The Age of Propaganda, by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson.

Here is another bit on persuasion, from Nalebuff and Ayres:

In 1990, H. Wesley Perkins, a professor at Hobart and William Smith College, discovered that most students think that they drink less than the average – and thus increase their consumption to be more like others. When the true drinking data is publicized, and students discover that few of their peers have more than five drinks at a party, peer pressure to binge is greatly reduced. The results were so successful in reducing heavy drinking that this approach has been employed throughout the California state university system and beyond. Rather than telling students to “Just say no,” it is more effective to say, “Just be like most everybody else.”

McCloskey and Klamer tell us that “One Quarter of GDP is Persuasion.”

Drinking errors

Both teenagers and adults misjudge how much they pour into glasses. They will pour more into short wide glasses than into tall slender glasses, but perceive the opposite to be true. The delusion of shape even influences experienced bartenders, though to a lesser degree, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found.

Click here for the full story.

Genetic insurance

I agree with Alex (see immediately below) that adverse selection need not undo genetic insurance of some kind.

He doesn’t mention abortion, but I view genetic insurance as a possible substitute for abortion. Say you are a young Catholic couple, and you know that you would not abort a Down’s child, even if you detected the abnormality before birth. You also would know that caring for such a child would involve a greater than average financial burden. Might you not buy insurance against this contingency? (Of course many couples simply abort.) Furthermore, couples might buy the insurance when they marry, or at least before they conceive, it would not be hard to make “not being pregnant” as a prerequisite for buying the insurance, if secret genetic tests on the embryo were a huge problem.

The Downs example raises the question of why such insurance does not exist today. More generally, Robert Shiller raises the question of why we do not have more insurance markets than we observe. I don’t think there is a single correct answer. Sometimes I think people simply do not want to face the possibility of encountering certain kinds of difficult events, and buying insurance, in their eyes, admits that possibility into their lives. This obstacle, to me, appears contingent rather than necessary, so I can imagine greater scope for insurance markets in the future. Many financial markets are in any case of recent origin, so why should the growth of markets stop at our current selection?

Disagreement With Alex Over A Market in Bad Gene Insurance

The Human Genome Project and its offspring, testing for genetic anomalies, have the prospect in the short-term at least of reducing human welfare. Alex is right that we are largely behind a veil of ignorance with respect to our genetic predispositions to diseases that have not yet presented themselves. Genetic testing removes that veil. No insurance market against genetic disease could survive the asymmetry of information between the insured and the insurer. I have written about this in The Human Genome Project and the Economics of Insurance: How Increased Knowledge May Decrease Human Welfare, and What Not To Do About It, 7 Annual Review of Law and Ethics 219 (1999).