Category: Science

Paul Romer’s advice for the World Bank

First, outsource the bank’s research upon which it depends for identifying problems and proposing solutions. Diplomacy and science cannot both thrive under the same roof. One consequence of the bank’s commitment to diplomacy is its necessary embrace of the helpful ambiguity that makes it possible for multilateral institutions to allow “Chinese Taipei” compete in the Olympic Games without “Taiwan, China” having a seat in the UN. Dispassionate examination makes clear that what the bank does to maintain conformity on the diplomatic front is not compatible with scientific research.

All that matter in science are the facts. When complex political sensitivities are allowed to influence research by stifling open disagreement, it ceases to be scientific. For good reasons, the bank’s shareholders have chosen to protect its diplomatic function, at the expense of its research.

Outsourcing research would be a better, more efficient way for the bank to establish the facts needed to do its job. This would also be an investment in the universities that make the discoveries that drive human progress.

Here is the full piece.  What do you all think?

Poor Sleep Makes People Poor: The Costs of India Standard Time

After Independence, India adopted a single time zone for the entire country. India spans as much 1,822 miles in the East-West direction or 29 degrees longitude. If India followed the convention of a new time zone every 15 degrees it would have at least two time zones. With just one zone the sun can rise two hours earlier in the East than in the far West.

In an original and surprising paper, Maulik Jagnani, argues that India’s single time zone reduces the quality of sleep, especially of poor children and this reduces the quality of their education. Why does a nominal change impact real variables? The school day starts at more or less the same clock-hour everywhere in India but children go to bed later in places where the sun sets later. Thus, children in the west get less sleep than children in the east and this shows up in their education levels and later even in their wages!

I find that later sunset causes school-age children to begin sleep later, but does not affect wake-up times. An hour (approximately two standard deviation) delay in sunset time reduces children’s sleep by 30 minutes. I also show that later sunset reduces students’ time spent on homework or studying, and time spent on formal and informal work by child laborers,while increasing time spent on indoor leisure for all children. This result is consistent with a model where sleep is productivity-enhancing and increases the marginal returns of study effort for students and work effort for child laborers.

The second part of the paper examines the consequent lifetime impacts of later sunset on stock indicators of children’s academic outcomes. I use nationally-representative data from the 2015 India Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) to estimate how children’s education outcomes co-vary with annual average sunset time across eastern and western locations within a district. I find that an hour (approximately two standard deviation)delay in annual average sunset time reduces years of education by 0.8 years, and children in geographic locations with later sunset are less likely to complete primary and middle school.

Addendum: The importance of sleep and coordination of sleep with circadian rhythms is also illustrated by the phenomena of teenagers who get more sleep and do better in school when school opening is better timed with adolescent sleep patterns. As a result, we are seeing a movement to push school opening times later for teenagers. Perhaps India will adopt a second time zone.

Columbus Lowered World Temperature

European germs killed 90% of the population of the Americas in the century after 1492 causing millions of hectacres of farm land to revert to forest which increased the uptake of carbon and reduced the planetary temperature. That is the upshot of a new paper that joins together previous estimates of population decline, farm land and carbon sequestration to push the onset of the Anthropocene to before the industrial revolution.

Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492.

Abstract: Human impacts prior to the Industrial Revolution are not well constrained. We investigate whether the decline in global atmospheric CO2 concentration by 7–10 ppm in the late 1500s and early 1600s which globally lowered surface air temperatures by 0.15C, were generated by natural forcing or were a result of the large-scale depopulation of the Americas after European arrival, subsequent land use change and secondary succession. We quantitatively review the evidence for (i) the pre-Columbian population size, (ii) their per capita land use, (iii) the post-1492 population loss, (iv) the resulting carbon uptake of the abandoned anthropogenic landscapes, and then compare these to potential natural drivers of global carbon declines of 7–10 ppm. From 119 published regional population estimates we calculate a pre-1492 CE population of 60.5 million (interquartile range, IQR 44.8–78.2 million), utilizing 1.04 ha land per capita (IQR 0.98–1.11). European epidemics removed 90% (IQR 87–92%) of the indigenous population over the next century. This resulted in secondary succession of 55.8 Mha (IQR 39.0–78.4 Mha) of abandoned land, sequestering 7.4 Pg C (IQR 4.9–10.8 Pg C), equivalent to a decline in atmospheric CO2 of 3.5 ppm (IQR 2.3–5.1 ppm CO2). Accounting for carbon cycle feedbacks plus LUC outside the Americas gives a total 5 ppm CO2 additional uptake into the land surface in the 1500s compared to the 1400s, 47–67% of the atmospheric CO2 decline. Furthermore, we show that the global carbon budget of the 1500s cannot be balanced until large-scale vegetation regeneration in the Americas is included. The Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth System in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution.

*Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologer Can Save the World*

Still more incredible is the fact that one person almost single-handedly created the first maps of two-thirds of the planet yet is unknown to the average citizen of Earth (while Amerigo Vespucci, whose cartographic credentials are suspect, has two continents named for him).  The unsung mapmaker Marie Tharp, who earned a master’s degree in geology from the University of Michigan, worked briefly for an oil company, and then in 1948 became a drafter for a new oceanographic project led by Maurice Ewing at Columbia University.  For years, Ewing’s all-male team of graduate students collected sonar soundings of the ocean floor while Tharp laboriously transformed the linear strings of depth readings into three-dimensional topography.

Here is the Wikipedia page for Marie Tharp.  Here is a biography of Marie Tharp, which I just ordered.  Timefulness is by Marcia Bjornerud and you can order it here.

What should I ask Ed Boyden?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no associated public event.  Here is his MIT bio:

Ed Boyden is Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology at MIT, associate professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT’s Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and was recently selected to be an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2018). He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and repairing complex biological systems such as the brain, and applies them systematically to reveal ground truth principles of biological function as well as to repair these systems. These technologies include expansion microscopy, which enables complex biological systems to be imaged with nanoscale precision; optogenetic tools, which enable the activation and silencing of neural activity with light; robotic methods for directed evolution that are yielding new synthetic biology reagents for dynamic imaging of physiological signals; novel methods of noninvasive focal brain stimulation; and new methods of nanofabrication using shrinking of patterned materials to create nanostructures with ordinary lab equipment. He co-directs the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, which aims to develop new tools to accelerate neuroscience progress.

Here are other Ed Boyden links.  So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.


COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

Ratio of <= 40 to >= 50 scientists funded by the NIH

The dotted line at the top is the Jones-implied ratio of productivity of <= 40 year olds to >= 50 year-olds, as drawn from Figure 1 in this source.

For the construction of this data source I am indebted to PseudoMontaigne.  Does it not imply that NIH funding is vastly over-allocated according to the criterion of seniority?  Or might this be the rise of the lab system, where the older people are the PIs, and they in turn dole this money out to younger researchers?  More middlemen, so to speak.  Opinions?

The culture that is (some of) Indian science

The organisers of a major Indian science conference distanced themselves Sunday from speakers who used the prestigious event to dismiss Einstein’s discoveries and claim ancient Hindus invented stem cell research.

The Indian Scientific Congress Association expressed “serious concern” as the unorthodox remarks aired by prominent academics at its annual conference attracted condemnation and ridicule.

The distinguished gathering of Indian researchers and scientists hosts Nobel laureates, but in recent years has seen Hindu mythology and faith-based theories edging onto the agenda.

At this year’s congress, the head of a southern Indian university cited an ancient Hindu text as proof that was discovered on the subcontinent thousands of years ago.

“We had 100 Kauravas from one mother because of stem cell and test tube technology,” said G. Nageshwar Rao, Vice Chancellor at Andhra University, referring to a story from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

Rao, who was addressing school children and scientists at the event, also said a demon king from another centuries-old Hindu epic had two dozen aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern-day Sri Lanka.

“Hindu Lord Vishnu used guided missiles known as ‘Vishnu Chakra’ and chased moving targets,” added the professor of inorganic chemistry.

Event organisers tried to hose down the remarks, saying it was “unfortunate” the prestigious event had been derailed by controversy.

Here is the full account, via Anecdotal.  My point here is not to make fun of India, which I am a big admirer of.  Rather, successful science requires many, many cultural dimensions, not just a few, and those dimensions must be applied consistently.  India has an active and mostly successful space program, is a world leader in cheap and effective heart surgery, and in general the country is teeming with innovation, including in the culinary realm I might add.

So many of you take the cultural prerequisites of science for granted, and yes Max Weber still is underrated.

How to reform scientific grants?

Using the economic theory of contests, Gross and Bergstrom modeled a controversial alternative: awarding grants instead by partial lottery. Under a partial lottery system, funds are awarded by random draw among a pool of high-ranking grants — the top 40 percent, for example. Since applicants would be aiming to clear a lower bar for a smaller prize — a shot at the lottery instead of a guaranteed payout for winning proposals — the contest theory model predicts that applicants would spend less time trying to perfect their applications, Bergstrom said.

Here is more from James Urton, and more here, via Charles Klingman and also Michelle Dawson.

Hacking Photosynthesis

The vast majority of life on Earth depends, either directly or indirectly, on photosynthesis for its energy. And photosynthesis depends on an enzyme called RuBisCO, which uses carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to build sugars. So, by extension, RuBisCO may be the most important catalyst on the planet.

Unfortunately, RuBisCO is, well, terrible at its job. It might not be obvious based on the plant growth around us, but the enzyme is not especially efficient at catalyzing the carbon dioxide reaction. And, worse still, it often uses oxygen instead. This produces a useless byproduct that, if allowed to build up, will eventually shut down photosynthesis entirely. It’s estimated that crops such as wheat and rice lose anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of their growth potential due to this byproduct.

While plants have evolved ways of dealing with this byproduct, they’re not especially efficient. So a group of researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana decided to step in and engineer a better way. The result? In field tests, the engineered plants grew up to 40 percent more mass than ones that relied on the normal pathways.

That’s John Timmer at Ars Technica summarizing a paper by South et al. in Science. The experiment was done in tobacco plants but the same pathways are used in the C3 group of plants including rice, wheat, barley, soybean, cotton and sugar beets so the applications are large.

Me on elitism in economics

He [Cowen] said that he agreed with the idea that influence of economics comes from a relatively small number of institutions, and he thinks the number is shrinking. “What used to be something like a ‘top six’ has over time become the ‘top two,’ namely Harvard and MIT.”

Cowen said that he doesn’t “find that entirely ideal, by any means.” But he also said that those departments deserve praise for their work. “Harvard and MIT are in fact remarkably good at finding, evaluating and attracting top talent. It is stunning how good they are at this, and we should not begrudge them that,” he said. (Cowen is an example, having earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. His undergraduate alma mater is George Mason, where he teaches.)

The centralization of top departments, he said, worries him less than do “pressures for conformity.”

Cowen added that he is sympathetic to Vigdor’s criticism, but that the centralization may be “an opportunity” for departments outside the elites to shine. “The centralized centers of influence are going to miss important ideas in their early stages,” Cowen said. “Both public choice and experimental economics came out of non-top schools,” including to some extent George Mason, he said. “So did blogging. If something is unfair, well, in part that is your big chance.”

That is from Scott Jaschik at Inside HigherEd, mostly about Jacob Vigdor and his critique of the economics profession.

52 things learned by Kent Hendricks

Here are a few:

Contrary to the beliefs of roughly 33% of Americans, Kansas is not the flattest state. In fact, it’s the 9th flattest state, and it’s one of only two Great Plains states to make the top ten (the other is North Dakota). The flattest state is actually Florida, the second flattest state is Illinois, and the least flattest is West Virginia. (Disruptive Geo)

…The average high school GPA of a representative sample of 700 millionaires in the United States is 2.9. (Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong)

…Dinosaurs roamed the earth for a long time. Tyrannosaurus Rex is closer in time to humans than to Stegosaurus. (Peter Brannen, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions)

…Pepperoni pizza is subject to more government regulation than plain cheese pizza. That’s because cheese pizzas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while pepperoni pizzas—which have meat—are regulated by the Department of Agriculture. (Baruch Fischhoff and John Kadvany, Risk: A Very Short Introduction)

Here is the full list, interesting throughout.

My Conversation with Daniel Kahneman

Here is the transcript and audio, a rollicking time was had by all.  We covered what you would expect us to have covered.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: And that people want to maximize their overall sense of how their life has gone — do you think that is ultimately Darwinian roots? Why is that the equilibrium? Happiness feels good, right?

KAHNEMAN: Yeah, happiness feels good in the moment. But it’s in the moment. What you’re left with are your memories. And that’s a very striking thing — that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it’s with us. It stays with us. It’s the only thing we get to keep.

COWEN: If you think of your own life, have you maximized happiness or the overall sense of how your life has gone?

KAHNEMAN: Neither.


COWEN: Neither. Citations?


And on his new project:

KAHNEMAN: I’ll tell you where the experiment from which my current fascination with noise arose. I was working with an insurance company, and we did a very standard experiment. They constructed cases, very routine, standard cases. Expensive cases — we’re not talking of insuring cars. We’re talking of insuring financial firms for risk of fraud.

So you have people who are specialists in this. This is what they do. Cases were constructed completely realistically, the kind of thing that people encounter every day. You have 50 people reading a case and putting a dollar value on it.

I could ask you, and I asked the executives in the firm, and it’s a number that just about everybody agrees. Suppose you take two people at random, two underwriters at random. You average the premium they set, you take the difference between them, and you divide the difference by the average.

By what percentage do people differ? Well, would you expect people to differ? And there is a common answer that you find, when I just talk to people and ask them, or the executives had the same answer. It’s somewhere around 10 percent. That’s what people expect to see in a well-run firm.

Now, what we found was 50 percent, 5–0, which, by the way, means that those underwriters were absolutely wasting their time, in the sense of assessing risk. So that’s noise, and you find variability across individuals, which is not supposed to exist.

I enjoyed this particular exchange:

COWEN: Do you think of low intelligence as yet a third independent source of error? Or is that somehow subsumed in bias and noise?

KAHNEMAN: You mean plain stupidity?


COWEN: In some cases.

And this:

COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?

KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.


COWEN: I can’t imagine why. That’s my bias.

KAHNEMAN: It’s like thinking of sex all the time. I really don’t think of bias that much.


COWEN: Some questions about psychologists outside of what you’ve worked on, but maybe related — Freud. What do you think of Freud’s body of work? And has it influenced you at all?

Definitely recommended, and you will find cameo appearances by Michael Nielsen and Daniel Gross.

*The Economist* picks eight young top economists

They are:

Ms Dell and her Harvard colleagues Isaiah Andrews, Nathaniel Hendren and Stefanie Stantcheva; Parag Pathak and Heidi Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…Emi Nakamura of the University of California, Berkeley and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business…

Mr Pathak and his co-authors have compared pupils who only just made it into elite public schools with others who only just missed out, rather as Ms Dell compared villages on either side of the Pentagon’s bombing thresholds. The study showed that the top schools achieve top-tier results by the simple contrivance of admitting the best students, not necessarily by providing the best education. Ms Dell and her co-author showed that bombing stiffened villages’ resistance rather than breaking their resolve.

Ms Williams has exploited a number of institutional kinks in the American patent system to study medical innovation. Some patent examiners, for example, are known to be harder to impress than others. That allowed her to compare genes that were patented by lenient examiners with largely similar genes denied patents by their stricter colleagues. She and her co-author found that patents did not, as some claimed, inhibit follow-on research by other firms. This suggested that patent-holders were happy to let others use their intellectual property (for a fee).

Here is the article, it is an interesting piece.

Stunning Figures on Energy Efficiency

Over the past 60 years, the energy efficiency of ever-less expensive logic engines has improved by over one billion fold. No other machine of any kind has come remotely close to matching that throughout history.

Consider the implications even from 1980, the Apple II era. A single iPhone at 1980 energy-efficiency would require as much power as a Manhattan office building. Similarly, a single data center at circa 1980 efficiency would require as much power as the entire U.S. grid. But because of efficiency gains, the world today has billions of smartphones and thousands of datacenters.

From Mark Mills at Real Clear Energy.