Category: Science

Genetics of Psychic Ability

My jaw just about hit the floor when I read this paper.

It is commonly believed that psychic ability, like many mental and physical traits, runs in families. This suggests the presence of a genetic component. If such a component were found, it would constitute a biological marker of psychic ability and inform environmental or pharmacologic means of enhancing or suppressing this ability.

On the one hand, almost every human trait has some genetic component. On the other hand, shouldn’t you demonstrate that a trait exists before searching for its genetic correlates? The combination of science and nonsense in this paper–seemingly without irony–is disconcerting, like discovering that Newton spent a huge amount of his time trying to discern hidden codes in the Bible.

On finding psychics and matched case-controls, “individuals with indications of psychotic or delusional tendencies were excluded from further consideration.” Ok, then.

Oh, in case you are wondering:

…none of the protein-coding sequences (i.e., exons) showed any variation that discriminated between cases and controls. However, a difference was observed in the intron (i.e., non-protein-coding region) adjacent to an exon in the TNRC18 gene (Trinucleotide Repeat-Containing Gene 18 Protein) on chromosome 7. This variation, an alteration of GG to GA, was found in 7 of 9 controls and was absent from all psychic cases.

The most conservative interpretation of these results is that they result from random population sampling. However, when the results are considered in relation to other lines of evidence, the results are more provocative. Further research is justified to replicate and extend these findings.

Disappointing really.

Hat tip: Jonatan Pallesen.

How would actual alien spacecraft influence asset prices?

Primarily as an exercise, I thought about that question for a while, and here is part of my answer in a Bloomberg column:

If you know you are being watched, what exactly do you wish to buy more of? I would bet on defense stocks to rise, whether or not there is much we can do to defend ourselves against this alien presence.

Of course investors could not be sure that these alien drone probes will merely observe us forever. They might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But that kind of systematic risk is hard to insure against. After such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

My main prediction is that alien UFOs will be bullish for the dollar. The U.S. government seems most closely connected to the UFO phenomenon, for whatever reason. (Maybe its pilots fly more sallies and record better data?) In any case, if alien UFOs become more likely, an informational advantage would accrue to the federal government. And the dollar already has a tradition as a safe haven currency…

Most of us would get used to the idea of alien presence without quite believing in it. As The New Yorker makes clear, many Americans believed in alien-origin UFOs after World War II, as did many American policymakers. It might have spurred greater interest in the space program and science fiction, but it didn’t affect most aspects of American life, nor did it seem to drive markets.

Never underestimate the capacity of markets, like humans, to adapt. Just as many of the strangest parts of our lives can come to seem normal, so Wall Street can find a way to do business with just about anybody — aliens included.

I do full, literally mean everything stated in the column.  But the piece also has (at least) two esoteric meanings — can you guess what they are?

The rise of research teams in economics

Solo authorship represented 80 percent of economics papers in 1960 and 65 percent in 1990, but then solo-authorship fell out of the majority in 2005 and represents only 26 percent of economics papers today (as measured by the right-hand axis). To put it another way, in 1950, there were 1.2 authors per economics paper. Average team size reached 2.0 for the first time in 2010. By 2018, team size averaged 2.7 (as shown on the left-hand axis). The jump in average team size in economics papers over the last ten years is greater than the jump over the prior half-century.

Here is more from Benjamin F. Jones.  For higher impact papers, the trend is even more striking.

Facts about biomass

The carbonaceous winners are plants, which make up about 80 percent of all biomass on Earth. Bacteria comes in second at 13 percent and fungus is third at just 2 percent.

Of the 550 gigatons of biomass carbon on Earth, animals make up about 2 gigatons, with insects comprising half of that and fish taking up another 0.7 gigatons. Everything else, including mammals, birds, nematodes and mollusks are roughly 0.3 gigatons, with humans weighing in at 0.06 gigatons. The research appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The fact that the biomass of fungi exceeds that of all animals’ sort of puts us in our place,” Harvard evolutionary biologist James Hanken, who was not involved with the study, tells Borenstein.

Here is the full piece.  And from the cited research article:

…the biomass of domesticated poultry (≈0.005 Gt C, dominated by chickens) is about threefold higher than that of wild birds…

…the total plant biomass (and, by proxy, the total biomass on Earth) has declined approximately twofold relative to its value before the start of human civilization. The total biomass of crops cultivated by humans is estimated at ≈10 Gt C, which accounts for only ≈2% of the extant total plant biomass…

In terms of biomass, mollusks are a bigger deal than you might think.

The science rave culture that is British

Thousands of people at a mass nightclub rave in the U.K. this week will be a key test of whether live events halted during the pandemic can reopen at full capacity as planned from the end of June.

The two-day event in Liverpool, northwest England, is part of a national research program which so far appears to show people are happy to be tested for coronavirus to secure entry to large-scale events.

There are also no early signs that live events are spreading the disease, according to government scientist Paul Monks, and the program is expected to move to its second phase next month — with live events held at a “full range” of indoor and outdoor venues with “different scales” of capacity.

Here is the full story, via Vith E.

The new Biden health initiative

The Biden administration today began to flesh out a proposal for a new agency—modeled on the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—that would seek to speed the development of medical treatments by funding risky, innovative projects. The agency, dubbed ARPA-Health (ARPA-H), would be housed at the National Institutes of Health and have a 2022 budget of $6.5 billion, according to a White House spending request released today.

Few other details about ARPA-H have been released, except that it would initially focus on cancer and diseases “such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”

…Under the DARPA model, projects would not be vetted by peer reviewers, but instead, funding decisions would be made by program managers. And instead of multiyear grants, the agency would disburse awards as milestone-driven payments; program managers could also cancel projects that they decide aren’t panning out.

Here is the full story, via NQ.

What should I ask Richard Prum?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Richard O. Prum (born 1961) is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.

Prum describes himself as “an evolutionary ornithologist with broad interests in diverse topics,” including phylogeneticsbehaviorfeathersstructural colorationevolution and developmentsexual selection, and historical biogeography.

Prum holds that birds are the living descendants of theropod dinosaurs, a once disputed finding that is now almost universally accepted in the ornithological and evolutionary biology scientific communities.

Prum grew up in rural Vermont and took his bachelor’s degree at Harvard in 1983, and received his Ph.D. in 1989 from the University of Michigan. After gradually losing his hearing throughout the early 1990s due to illness, Prum moved from primarily doing field work to conducting research on plumage pigmentation, feather evolution, and Darwin‘s sexual selection theory. He released a book in 2017 on the role of beauty in natural selection: The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us.

So what should I ask him?

“RCTs for me but not for thee”?

Zeke Emanuel, a professor of healthcare management at the University of Pennsylvania and a former coronavirus adviser to US president Joe Biden, said: “I understand they wanted to be transparent, but did they really have to announce a complete pause? “My concern is this will unnecessarily undermine confidence in the vaccine, and possibly all [Covid-19] vaccines. Are people going to know the difference?”

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said: “The damage is done, this is going to be hard to resume. All [the CDC] can do is say how rare this is, show how safe and efficacious the J&J vaccine is. But this action is going to be hard to reverse.”

Here is the full FT piece.  Since lives are at stake, how about this for a proposal?  The FDA is allowed to suspend the use of any positive expected value vaccine only after running an RCT on their underlying theory of credibility and public risk communication in the relevant context.  (NB: asking about attitude change is not nearly good enough!)  And after they run the RCT, they have to wait three weeks to schedule the meeting on evaluating the data.  After all, that is how long it takes, right?

Estamos de acuerdo?

By the way, one reader wrote to me: “I submit to you that the credibility of the FDA on the relative safety of various vaccines may be a minor issue in the pool of issues that prevent the level of vaccinations we would like to see.”  Do we even know if that is true or false?

You may not agree with this, still it is a sign of how much progress green energy has made

Yes this is being asserted with a straight face and indeed it might be true!:

To reliably achieve deep decarbonization of the US power sector, a candidate policy must perform robustly across a range of possible future trajectories of demand, fossil fuel prices, and prices of new wind and solar capacity. Using a modified version of the NREL ReEDS model with scenarios that span different trajectories of demand, fuel prices, and technology costs, we find that some recently proposed policies can robustly achieve 80% decarbonization (relative to 2005 emissions) or more by 2035, but many do not. The two robustly successful policies are a tradeable performance standard (TPS) and a hybrid Clean Electricity Standard (CES) with a 100% clean target, partial crediting of gas generation, and a $40/mton CO2 alternative compliance payment (ACP) backstop. Both are nearly as cost effective as the emissions-equivalent efficient policy. A $40 carbon tax nearly achieves the robust 80% threshold and, in most scenarios, drives deep decarbonization. A 90% CES (without partial crediting) fails to achieve robust 2035 decarbonization because it need not drive coal out of the system. Simply extending renewable energy tax credits, which are set to expire, does not drive significant decarbonization in most scenarios, nor does relying on increased ambition in green-leaning states.

That is from a new NBER paper by James H. Stock and Daniel N. Stuart.  The big problem remains global, of course, not to mention the political economy of these reforms, which are unlikely to be popular even in the Democratic Party and also would face massive regulatory hurdles at federalistic levels.  Still, ten years ago I would not have expected to be at a point where such claims could be made by well-respected economists.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.


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.