Category: Science

*The Case for Space*

The author is Robert Zubrin and the subtitle is How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.  I found this book fun, ambitious, and informative, even if I was not entirely convinced.  Zubrin thinks big and bold in an exciting way, here is one bit:

Exploring Mars requires no miraculous new technologies, no orbiting spaceports, and no gigantic interplanetary space cruisers.  We can establish our first small outpost on Mars within a decade.

There is not much talk of the stress space (or for that matter life on Mars) might place on the human body.  Zubrin talks of Mars tours of four or six years or more.

Yet my biggest difference with Zubrin is this: I think of space and planetary exploration as presenting many surprising and difficult problems, ones which cannot be foreseen and fixed in advance by stocking a spacecraft with “just the right materials.”  There are many sentences like this:

Mobile microwave units will be used to extract water from Mars’s abundant permafrost, supporting such agriculture and making possible the manufacture of large amounts of brick and concrete…

But when the problem of missing parts arises, or perhaps missing links between systems, you can’t run to the local hardware store.  Try this one too:

Extracting the He3 from the atmospheres of the giant planets will be difficult, but not impossible.  What is required is a winged transatmospheric vehicle that can use a planet’s atmosphere for propellant, heating it in a nuclear reactor to produce thrust.

My other worry is that if we do not find it profitable to inhabit rural Nevada, Mars might stay empty as well.  Zubrin does make a detailed economic case for the value of space, though to my eye much of it falls on satellites.  Asteroids have valuable minerals, such as uranium, and that might spur mining operations, powered by nuclear fusion.  But is that really the cheapest way to get more uranium, in any case I suspect its price and value would fall rapidly with quantity.

Zubrin puts forward the interesting hypothesis that life in space will encourage a great deal of political freedom:

Historically, the easiest people for a tyrant to oppress are nominally self-sufficient rural peasants, because none of them are individually essential…In a space colony, nearly everyone will be individually essential, and therefore powerful, and all will be capable of being dangerous to those in authority.

Hard to verify, but worth a ponder.

Under another scenario, arks full of large, smart salamanders, genetically programmed to build incubators by instinct, will settle the galaxy at “a speed exceeding 20 percent the speed of light.”

There are many interesting ancillary points, such as using the length of the growing season to estimate global warming, or how pp.284-285 offer an ambitious take on the spin-off benefits from the space program so far, or pp.294-295 on exactly why taking out an asteroid with bombs is so hard.

With plenty of caveats of course, but recommended, the author of this one is never coasting.

Do DNA databases deter crime and limit recidivism?

Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø tell us yes:

This paper studies the effects of adding criminal offenders to a DNA database. Using a large expansion of Denmark’s DNA database, we find that DNA registration reduces recidivism within the following year by as much as 43% and it also increases the probability that offenders are identified. We thereby estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability to be -2.7, implying that a 1% higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2%. We also find that DNA registration makes offenders more likely to find employment, enroll in education, and live in a more stable family environment.

Via Ilya Novak (and others).

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?

COWEN: Yes.

ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

The JPE is going monthly in 2020

Here is the announcement.  Presumably they wish to claw back some of the quantity going to the ever-multiplying number of AEA journals and to thus avoid being an afterthought.  Will the average quality of JPE article decline?  I suppose by one definition it has to, but in such a rapidly specializing discipline, who will notice?  Is it really so clear which pieces come close but don’t quite deserve to belong in the JPE?  I for one could not pass this “blind taste test” in my role as a JPE reader, and I have been following the rag for decades.

As a polar experiment, what if they put out an issue every day, and in essence the top journals took all the published pieces?  Then the notion of having a “top three” hit (or whatever) would dwindle and people actually would have to judge the work.  A modest move in that direction should be just fine, said the daily blogger.

In the meantime, the leading lights of the profession — most of all in the earlier parts of their careers — should be prepared for that much more refereeing.  Ay!

*Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World*

That is the new book by David Epstein, the author of the excellent The Sports Gene.  I sometimes say that generalists are the most specialized people of them all, so specialized they can’t in fact do anything.  Except make observations of that nature.  Excerpt:

In an impressively insightful image, Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes.  Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.

I am not sure Epstein figures out what a generalist really is (and how does a generalist differ from a polymath, by the way?), but this book is the best place to start for thinking about the relevant issues.

My Conversation with Ezekiel Emanuel

Very much a fun one, here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the opening summary:

Do we overrate the importance of doctors? What’s the importance of IQ versus EQ in the practice of medicine? What are the prospect for venture capital in biotech? How should medical training be changed? Why does he think the conventional wisdom about a problem tends to be wrong? Would immortality be boring? What would happen if we let parents genetically engineer their kids?

Tyler questions Emanuel on these topics and more, including the smartest thing his parents did while raising him, whether we have right to medical self-defense, healthcare in low- versus high-trust institutions, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How can we improve medical education?

EMANUEL: Cut it down. Make it shorter.

COWEN: Cut it down? Why does that make it better? Or does it just make it cheaper?

EMANUEL: No, I think it will make it better. So, we have a lot of memorization, a lot of . . . So, let’s go back to the start. The four years of medical school: two years of preclinical in the classroom learning about biochemistry, genetics, anatomy, microbiology; and the two years of clinical time in the hospital, on the wards.

That dates from 1910. We haven’t really updated it much, except in this one way: we’ve cut down the preclinical time because — less of it — and it changes so fast, by the time you learn it in medical school, get out as a doctor, it’s out of date, A; and B, it’s more or less irrelevant to managing most patients…

And then, by the way, in med school, spending your time in a hospital is not the future. The future of American medicine is out of the hospital. So we need more rotations, more experiences for students out of the hospital.

No med school has made that big shift, and those are the shifts that are going to have to happen over the next 15 or so years.

And:

COWEN: Is there a right to medical self-defense that should override FDA bans on drugs and medical devices? I want to try something that’s not approved —

EMANUEL: No. I don’t like that.

COWEN: I’m saying it’s my body. But why don’t you like it?

EMANUEL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Tyler.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, you’ve written a much-misunderstood article about how hard you would try yourself to live past the age of 75. Would not the suspense of world and national history always keep you wanting a bit more extra time?

So, say I’m 75. I’ve decided I agree with you, but the NBA Finals aren’t over yet. I want to see game seven. I want the Mueller report to come out. Isn’t there always something?

And then, it’s kind of intransitivity of indifference. Every day there’s something, and you just keep on hanging on, even if one accepts your arguments in the abstract. Can you talk me out of that?

EMANUEL: No, no, Tyler, I think you’re exactly right. That’s why people do hang on. It’s because . . . you know, so I talked to my father, who — he says, “Zeke, you’re absolutely right. I’ve become slower, physically slower, mentally slower. My life” . . . what ends up happening is your life cones down, and you begin to overvalue certain small things. Like the NBA Finals. Like what’s in the Mueller report.

We all know, from any cosmic standpoint — even not a cosmic standpoint, just a 2,000-foot standpoint — most of those things are not irrelevant. It’s really cool to know.

You often ask — and this happens to me all the time. I teach undergraduates. Pretty smart undergraduates. Very smart undergraduates. MBA students, nurses, doctors, right? They have no understanding of history. So, whoever finishes in the NBA Finals, in five years, people have forgotten.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Excess seniority as one problem with American science

The current grant opportunities for starting a new independent research career in academia have not only become increasingly unavailable to young scientists and engineers, but are also disastrously risk-averse. At the NIH, the proportion of all grant funds awarded to scientists under the age of 36 fell from 5.6% in 1980 to 1.5% in 2017. One might ask the rhetorical question: How successful would Silicon Valley be if nearly 99% of all investments were awarded to scientists and engineers age 36 years or older, along with a strong bias toward funding only safe, nonrisky projects? Similarly, at the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Laboratories, high-risk, high-reward research and development has been severely limited by extreme volatility in research funding and by very limited discretionary funding at the laboratory level.

That is by Bruce Alberts and Ventakesh Narayanamurti, via Larry Summers.

What is the chance we are being visited by space aliens?

That is the driving question behind my latest Bloomberg column, perhaps some of you can be talked up to one in a thousand.  Here is the opening bit:

For the last several years, the U.S. military has observed an increase in what it calls “unexplained aerial phenomena.” The rest of us may know them by their more common name — unidentified flying objects — and we should all strive, as the Navy is doing, to take these reports more seriously.

Sometimes, according to the Washington Post, well-trained military pilots “claimed to observe small spherical objects flying in formation. Others say they’ve seen white, Tic Tac-shaped vehicles. Aside from drones, all engines rely on burning fuel to generate power, but these vehicles all had no air intake, no wind and no exhaust.” They also appear to exceed all known aircraft in speed and have been described by a former deputy assistant secretary of defense as embodying a “truly radical technology.”

Meanwhile, Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department, recently suggested that a passing object in space, named Oumuamua, might be a lightsail from an advanced alien civilization, as evidenced by its apparently strange movements.

And this:

Also keep in mind the history of the New World before the European arrival and conquest. There were legends of fair-skinned visitors from abroad, perhaps stemming from the Vikings and their explorations, but one day this “alien contact” turned out to be very real indeed — through Columbus, Cortés and others. To be oblivious of another civilization for a long time, and then suddenly encounter it, is a common theme in human history. Perhaps this has not happened for the last time.

There is much more at the link.

Emergent Ventures, fourth cohort of award recipients

Kadeem and Savannah Noray, graduate students at Harvard, economics and HKS, general support and also to study how to identify undervalued, high potential K-12 students.

José Luis Ricón, for blogging and to develop further platforms for information dissemination. 

Arun Johnson, high school student in the Bay Area, to advance his work in physics, chemistry, nuclear fusion, and for general career development.

Thomas McCarthy, undergraduate at Dublin, Trinity College, travel grant to the Bay Area, and for his work on nuclear fusion and running start-up programs to cultivate young Irish entrepreneurs.

Natalya Naumenko, economist, incoming faculty at George Mason University, to study the long-term impact of nuclear explosions on health, and also more broadly to study the history of health in the Soviet Union and afterwards.  

Paul Novosad, with Sam Asher, assistant professor at Dartmouth, to enable the construction of a scalable platform for the integration and dissemination of socioeconomic data in India, ideally to cover every town and village, toward the end of informing actionable improvements.

Alexey Guzey, travel grant to the Bay Area, for blogging and internet writing, plus for working on systems for improving scientific patronage.

Dylan DelliSanti, to teach an economics class to prisoners, and also to explore how that activity might be done on a larger scale.

Neil Deshmukh, high school student in Pennsylvania, for general career support and also his work with apps to help Indian farmers identify crop disease and to help the blind interpret images.

Here is my previous post on the third cohort of winners, with links to the first and second cohorts.  Here is my post on the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  You can apply here.

Do Experts Listen to Other Experts?

Not so much:

Organizations in science and elsewhere often rely on committees of experts to make important decisions, such as evaluating early-stage projects and ideas. However, very little is known about how experts influence each others’ opinions, and how that influence affects final evaluations. Here, we use a field experiment in scientific peer review to examine experts’ susceptibility to the opinions of others. We recruited 277 faculty members at seven US medical schools to evaluate 47 early stage research proposals in biomedicine. In our experiment, evaluators: (1) completed independent reviews of research ideas, (2) received (artificial) scores attributed to anonymous “other reviewers” from the same or a different discipline, and (3) decided whether to update their initial scores. Evaluators did not meet in person and were not otherwise aware of each other. We find that, even in a completely anonymous setting and controlling for a range of career factors, women updated their scores 13% more often than men, while very highly cited “superstar” reviewers updated 24% less often than others. Women in male-dominated subfields were particularly likely to update, updating 8% more for every 10% decrease in subfield representation. Very low scores were particularly “sticky” and seldom updated upward, suggesting a possible source of conservatism in evaluation. These systematic differences in how world-class experts respond to external opinions can lead to substantial gender and status disparities in whose opinion ultimately matters in collective expert judgment.

That is from a new working paper by Misha Teplitskiy, Hardeep Ranu, Gary Gray, Michael Menietti, Eva Guinan and Karim R. Lakhani.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*The AI Does Not Hate You*

That is the new book by Tom Chivers, and the subtitle is Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World.  Here is one excerpt:

Overall, they have sparked a remarkable change.  They’ve made the idea of AI as an existential risk mainstream; sensible, grown-up people are talking about it, not just fringe nerds on an email list.  From my point of view, that’s a good thing.  I don’t think AI is definitely going to destroy humanity.  But nor do I think that it’s so unlikely we can ignore it.  There is a small but non-negligible probability that, when we look back on this era in the future, we’ll think that Eliezer Yudkowsky and Nick Bostrom  — and the SL4 email list, and LessWrong.com — have saved the world.  If Paul Crowley is right and my children don’t die of old age, but in a good way — if they and humanity reach the stars, with the help of a friendly superintelligence — that might, just plausibly, be because of the Rationalists.

There is also material covering Scott Alexander and Robin Hanson, among others.  Due out in the UK in June.

Gender and the confidence gap

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The first new study focuses on performance in high school, and the startling result is this: Girls with more exposure to high-achieving boys (as proxied by parental education) have a smaller chance of receiving a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, they do worse in math and science, are less likely to join the labor force, and more likely to have more children, which in turn may limit their later career prospects.

Those are disturbing results.  Exposure to high-achieving peers is normally expected to be a plus, not a minus. It is what parents are trying to do when they place their children into better schools, or when school systems work hard to attract better students.

And:

A second new study finds that even blind review does not avoid gender bias in the processing of grant proposal applications, drawn from data from the Gates Foundation. It turns out that women and men have different communications styles, with the women more likely to use narrow words, and the men more likely to use broader ones. And reviewers, it turns out, favor broad words, which are more commonly associated with more sweeping claims, and disfavor the use of too many narrow words.

The net result is that “even in an anonymous review process, there is a robust negative relationship between female applicants and the scores assigned by reviewers.” This discrepancy persists even after controlling for subject matter and other variables. Notably, however, it disappears when controlling for different rhetorical styles.

These two studies probably are connected to each other. While the two sets of researchers do not address each other’s claims, it is not a huge leap to think of broader, more sweeping language as reflecting a kind of confidence, whether merited or not. Narrow words, on the other hand, may reflect a lower level of confidence or a greater sense of rhetorical modesty. Not only might lower confidence hurt many women in life, but a greater unwillingness to signal confidence — regardless of whether it’s genuine — might hurt them too.

There is much more at the link, recommended.