Category: Science

Decentralized serological testing?

I would like to know more, but here is one new paper on the topic, by Lottie Brown,

Serological testing is emerging as a powerful tool to progress our understanding of COVID-19 exposure, transmission and immune response. Large-scale testing is limited by the need for in-person blood collection by staff trained in venepuncture. Capillary blood self-sampling and postage to laboratories for analysis could provide a reliable alternative. Two-hundred and nine matched venous and capillary blood samples were obtained from thirty nine participants and analysed using a COVID-19 IgG ELISA to detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Thirty seven out of thirty eight participants were able to self-collect an adequate sample of capillary blood (≥50 μl). Using plasma from venous blood collected in lithium heparin as the reference standard, matched capillary blood samples, collected in lithium heparin-treated tubes and on filter paper as dried blood spots, achieved a Cohen′s kappa coefficient of >0.88 (near-perfect agreement). Storage of capillary blood at room temperature for up to 7 days post sampling did not affect concordance. Our results indicate that capillary blood self-sampling is a reliable and feasible alternative to venepuncture for serological assessment in COVID-19.

Via Alan Goldhammer.

Where do economics journal editors live and work?

Over half the journals we consider have over two thirds of their editorial power located in the USA. A large majority of journals have a tiny editorial contribution from academics located outside of North America and Europe. Any one of the states of California, Massachusetts and Illinois has more power than the four continents of Asia, South America, Africa and Australasia combined.

That is from a new paper by Simon D. Angus, Kadir Atalay, Jonathan Newton, and David Ubilava.  Here is a useful visual showing the actual distribution.

What is new in behavioral genetics?

Here is an excellent conceptual survey article by K. Paige Harden, it goes well beyond the usual.  Hard to summarize, but here are two good bits:

An early study using a DNA-based method estimated the heritability of height to be∼80%,and it noted that this result was “consistent with results from independent twin and family studies but using an entirely separate source of information” (Visscher et al. 2006). However, although the results from DNA-based method of estimating heritability scale with the estimates from twin and family studies, the former are typically smaller (Young et al. 2019). This discrepancy between heritability as estimated from classical twin and family studies and heritability as accounted for by measured DNA was labeled the missing heritability problem (Manolio et al. 2009). Recent work has suggested that some of the missing heritability is actually “hiding” in rare variants that are not typically measured and in the heterogeneity of genetic effects across populations (Tropfet al. 2017, Wainschtein et al. 2019, Young 2019). Whether missing or hiding, the continued gap between DNA-based estimates of heritability and estimates from twin/family studies means that the latter might still be overestimating heritability due to faulty assumptions. But it is no longer reasonable, contra some predictions, to expect that advances in human genomics will reveal that the heritability of psychological phenotypes is entirely illusory.

And this one:

In contrast to what is seen for educational attainment, most studies find a minimal effect of shared environmental factors on cognitive abilities, particularly when measured in adulthood. It has been suggested,however,that this near-zero main effect of the family-level environment masks the heterogeneity of the effects of the shared environment across the SES spectrum.An early paper by Turkheimer et al. (2003) analyzed data from a sample of twins with an unusual overrepresentation of children in poverty and found substantial effects of the shared environment on cognitive ability at age 7. Subsequent research on the genotype×SES interaction effect yielded mixed results, with several studies finding null effects or even effects in the opposite direction. However, a meta-analysis of this literature (Tucker-Drob & Bates 2016) found evidence of a significant interaction effect (albeit with a smaller effect size than estimated by Turkheimer and colleagues, an example of the winner’s curse), particularly in the United States.

The importance of the shared environment for cognitive ability has also been demonstrated us-ing adoption studies. In particular, population-wide data from Sweden allowed researchers to estimate the impact of the family environment using a unique sample of male-male sibling pairs where one brother was adopted while the other brother was raised by his biological parents (Kendler et al.2015). The IQ score of the adopted brother was, on average,∼4 points higher, an increase that varied with the education level of the adopting parents.

Recommended, interesting throughout, and worth a reread as well.  I have forgotten who sent it to me, if indeed anyone did, but I thank you.

Kiwi start-up to the Venus rescue

On Monday, scientists announced the astonishing discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. This chemical could have been produced by a biological source, but scientists won’t know for sure without sending a spacecraft to the planet.

As luck would have it, Rocket Lab, the private small rocket company founded in New Zealand, has been working on such a mission. The company has developed a small satellite, called Photon, that it plans to launch on its own Electron rocket as soon as 2023.

“This mission is to go and see if we can find life,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive. “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine really adds strength to that possibility. So I think we need to go and have a look there.”

Rocket Lab has launched a dozen rockets to space, putting small satellites into orbit for private companies, NASA and the U.S. military. It also has a mission to the moon in the works with NASA, called CAPSTONE, scheduled to launch in early 2021.

…The company’s plan is to develop the mission in-house and mostly self-fund it, at a cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

Here is the full NYT story by Jonathan O’Callaghan, interesting throughout.

Green vs. green: whose side are you on?

An Australian mining firm wants to turn a Nevada valley into a quarry for lithium and boron – key elements for green technologies – but a rare plant may stand in its way. Researchers say that biodiversity and clean energy should not be in opposition.

The company, Ioneer, says the quarry in Rhyolite Ridge valley would be the first US quarry of its kind, able to supply lithium for 400,000 electric car batteries a year and boron to power wind turbines. But soil containing these elements is also the perfect environment for Tiehm’s buckwheat (Eriogonum tiehmii), a plant that looks like a pile of leaves. When it blooms, it could be the dandelion’s fuzzy cousin.

There are only about 40,000 specimens of the buckwheat, and its namesake, Arnold Tiehm at the University of Nevada, Reno, says its closest relative is more than 80 kilometres away.

Most of the buckwheat’s natural home lies in the area mapped to be dug up for the quarry. “That puts the buckwheat on a one-way path to extinction,” says Patrick Donnelly at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nevada. Ioneer will remove 65 per cent of the buckwheat’s population if the first planned quarry goes ahead, the company confirmed to New Scientist.

Although rare, the buckwheat isn’t yet considered endangered, but that may change. Following a petition by the CBD, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced in July that the plant is both valuable enough and under sufficient threat to warrant a year-long review to decide whether to list the plant under the US Endangered Species Act. The listing would spell the end for the quarry as currently planned.

Here is the full story, via Ilya Novak.

Which economic methods are in practice statistically more honest than others?

…our results suggest that the [instrumental variables] and, to a lesser extent, [difference-in-difference] research bodies have substantially more p-hacking and/or selective publication than those based on [randomized controlled trials] and [regression-discontinuity]… (p.3)


We find no evidence that: (1) Papers published in the ‘Top 5’ journals are different to others; (2) The journal ‘revise and resubmit’ process mitigates the problem; (3) Things are improving through time.

That is from this forthcoming AER paper by Brodeur, Cook, and Hayes.

In contrast, this blog post argues that:

I have proposed here that we should not infer that literatures with more bunching just past .05 are less trustworthy, and that visually striking comparisons of ‘expected’ and observed test results can be quite misleading due to incorrect assumptions about the expected line.

The authors respond here.  I do not yet have an opinion on this dispute, but everyone is talking about it right now, so I thought I would at least send along the basic documents to you all.

Declining Business Dynamism…The Role of the Burden of Knowledge

There is a new and important and I believe largely true paper from Thomas Astebro, Serguey Braguinsky, and Yuheng Ding:

We document that since 1997, the rate of startup formation has precipitously declined for firms operated by U.S. PhD recipients in science and engineering. These are supposedly the source of some of our best new technological and business opportunities. We link this to an increasing burden of knowledge by documenting a long-term earnings decline by founders, especially less experienced founders, greater work complexity in R&D, and more administrative work. The results suggest that established firms are better positioned to cope with the increasing burden of knowledge, in particular through the design of knowledge hierarchies, explaining why new firm entry has declined for high-tech, high-opportunity startups.

Here is the link.

Evidence from 27 Thousand Economics Journal Articles on Africa

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an increasing number of peer-reviewed journal articles on the 54 countries of Africa by both African and non-African economists. I document that the distribution of research across African countries is highly uneven: 45% of all economics journal articles and 65% of articles in the top five economics journals are about five countries accounting for just 16% of the continent’s population. I show that 91% of the variation in the number of articles across countries can be explained by a peacefulness index, the number of international tourist arrivals, having English as an official language, and population. The majority of research is context-specific, so the continued lack of research on many African countries means that the evidence base for local policy-makers is much smaller in these countries.

Here is the article by Obie Porteus, via David Evans.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

*Where is my flying car?: A memoir of future past*, by J. Storrs Hall

Who is this guy?  How come no one told me about this book until Adam Ozimek asked about it?

One of the main arguments of the book is that we could have had major technological advances in multiple areas if only we had put in another fifty years of hard work on them.  Flying cars could have been a thing some time ago!

The author estimates that if quality nanotechnology were up and running, it would take only about a week to rebuild the entire United States.  Just imagine how silly the current building permit system would seem then.

The anecdotes on the history of helicopters are interesting and obsessive in a good way.

One of the arguments is simply that we have not much succeeded in boosting our aggregate use of energy.  Hall also argues we do not face sufficient challenges, in part because nuclear deterrence has worked so well.

An editor would not approve of the organization and rambling structure of this book, including the lengthy digressions on technologies of the author’s choice and fascination.  It does not bother me.

Here is one short bit, not actually representative of the basic style, but I enjoyed it anyway:

If you are a technologist working on some new, clean, abundant form of energy, I wish you all the luck in the world.  But you must not labor under the illusion that should you succeed, your efforts will be justly rewarded by the gratitude of the people you have lifted from poverty and enabled to have a bright and growing future.  You will be attacked, your work will be lied about by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation.

But only if it works.

You can buy it here, Kindle only for $3.14, note it is a full-length book with all the proper trappings.  It’s one of the best and most interesting books on technology in some time, either ignore or enjoy the organizational infelicities, first published in 2018.

My dialogue with Freddie Sayers of Unherd, on herd immunity and related matters

It is about fifteen minutes, and also I give you all a separate clip of me praising the new Matt Yglesias book (which was alas cut from the main edit, note there is a lag before the short clip pops up) and discussing “family capacity libertarianism.”  Here is the main episode, with a few clips of text beneath the video itself:

Tyler Cowen on herd mentality and herd immunity

I was quite happy with how this interview turned out, and I feel a bit that I got to jab just about everybody, including the herd immunity theorists.

One of those boring yet fascinating innovation articles

Physicians who also have extensive training in scientific methods, often a Ph.D., are ideally suited to learn from the unusual clinical manifestations of Covid-19, such as strokes in young adults and autoimmune Kawasaki syndrome in children. Physician-scientists, however, are becoming extinct in the United States, comprising only about 1% of all physicians today, and with few young clinician researchers joining their ranks.

A solution to this crisis might be found in a quiet research program at the National Institutes of Health that flourished in the shadow of the Vietnam War. It may well have been the greatest medical research program in modern history. The two-year program, officially known as the NIH Associates Training Program, was started in 1953 as a way to bring newly minted physicians to the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., so they could do research for two to three years under the guidance of senior NIH investigators…

Nine physicians who trained at the NIH during this period went on to win Nobel Prizes. From the class of 1968 alone, Robert Lefkowitz discovered a family of cellular receptors that one-third of all approved drugs target; Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein discovered a cholesterol receptor that led to the development of cholesterol-lowering statin medications; and Harold Varmus discovered some of the fundamental mechanisms of cancer.

Here is the full StatNews article by Haider J. Warraich.

Show your work, people — advice on vaccines and approval timing

Every day I read maybe twenty or more tweets decrying Trump’s acceleration of the FDA vaccine approval process.  And yet I do not see a single blog post with back of the envelope calculations.  This is such an important decision, and it deserves better, just as we analyze the Fed’s monetary policy decisions in great detail.  On those points, here is my latest Bloomberg column, excerpt:

One of your weaker arguments is that Trump’s push is disturbing because it is making the FDA “too political.” First, American responses to crises, such as Sept. 11 or the Great Recession, have always been political. Second, and more to the point, there is a strong case that the FDA should take politics into account more, not less.

The FDA has been too risk-averse in the very recent past, for instance in its reluctance to approve additional Covid-19 testing. Economists have generally concluded that the FDA is too risk-averse in the long term as well, considering all relevant trade-offs. What kind of fix might there be for those problems, if not a “political” one? Of course the initial risk-aversion was itself the result of a political calculation, namely the desire to avoid blame from the public and from Congress…

The American people will not buy the claim that the current [pre-Trump] FDA is above politics. Nor should they.


As a public-health expert, you are also missing the broader context behind the current vaccine debate. In the early months of the pandemic, as late as April, it was common to hear that there might not be a vaccine for at least four years, and many were not sure if it would be possible at all. It is now likely (though not certain) that there will be a pretty good vaccine within a year.

That is a wonderful development, and it speaks well of your intelligence and hard work. Still, given that recent history, is it crazy for the American people to wonder if the process could be accelerated further? After all, the Chinese have a vaccine right now (albeit probably an inferior one), and they have been known to complete complicated infrastructure projects with a speed not previously thought possible.


It’s not just about wanting to speed things up. One might argue that, due to the unprecedentedly high number of vaccines currently under consideration, the optimal threshold should be higher, not lower, for fear that the world will be left with a suboptimal choice.


Too often I have seen one of you cite a single factor on one side of the approval equation, then invoke your authority or some previously existing institutional standard to suggest that this factor is decisive. In a Trumpian world, where credentials and authority no longer settle a debate — on public health or other matters — this kind of argument is not sufficient.

My plea is that such arguments and others be accompanied by concrete numbers, if only rough back-of-the-envelope estimates, and that all of the factors be considered together. Those numbers should incorporate the human, economic and public-health costs of allowing the current situation to continue for months. The result could be a useful public debate about the optimal speed of vaccine approval.

Yes, blah blah blah.  But — public health experts — show your work.

Further results on the return to talk therapy

Here was my original post, here is an email response from a specialist in the area, channeled by a reader:

The issue is really, really complicated. I have a lot of data on it because I spent time with Mark Goldenson, interviewing a lot of folks segmented by those who chose to seek mental health assistance from a clinician, those who stayed with that treatment versus those who turned away relatively early, and those who experienced severe mental health conditions that make them think that they should have seen a therapist, but ultimately chose not to, for reasons other than economic ones.

And we also talked to clinicians on the other side of that equation.

So between that and knowing the literature reasonably well, I have a lot of perspective on this.

The first thing is that talk therapy is in general not effective for most people. And I know the paper under examination showed that it’s more effective than antidepressants, but in general, most people do not generally stick with talk therapy. They get a benefit at a reasonably low rate for a reasonably short period of time…

Moreover, there’s some pretty strong evidence that talk therapy or at least CBT is becoming less effective over time – the effect sizes in studies & meta-analyses are going down. And there could be reasons for that that aren’t an indictment of the therapeutic model.

So for example, the modern world could just be becoming more stressful and the therapy is less equipped for it… It could be that as the treatment becomes more popular, rather than the more advanced or cutting-edge therapists using it, it’s used by an increasingly broad set of therapists that include low-skilled or ineffective ones.

So there are a lot of reasons that may not have to do with the merits of CBT as an approach, but the data are reasonably convincing on that front.

I think a lot of people are making a reasonably rational choice that, especially if they’re not going to stick with it for a long period of time, even starting therapy is a low-value proposition.

George Ainslie (the psychologist) has this kind of notion of playing a prisoner’s dilemma with your [future] self… let’s just say I want to start an exercise habit… there are a lot of parallels with exercise and talk therapy.

If I knew for a fact that I was going to stop doing it after one month, it actually doesn’t make sense to start at all. Right, because the benefits of accrued will pretty rapidly deteriorate and it’ll be as if I never did it…

People are not just considering, “Should I try talk therapy?”, they’re considering, “Will I do this for a sufficiently long period of time, or especially can I afford it for a long period of time, to where I will get and maintain the benefits from doing it?”

And many people do in fact have misinformation about how quickly they can experience certain types of benefits, and how much work is involved – it’s clear that there’s a lot of work involved, and many people don’t want to do that work.

From an operant conditioning standpoint, the experience of a therapy session is frankly more punishing than it is rewarding (for many people, a lot of the time). Like any negative stimulus, they’re going to engage in behaviors that cause that stimulus to be experienced at a lower rate.

Sometimes the benefits don’t accrue during the session, they accrue afterwards. It takes a lot of work to experience them and [can] involve emotional trauma to even retrieve them.

It’s not consistent with people’s ROI calculation, or what they would like to see in their ROI calculation. Again, it’s really similar to physical exercise – we know physical exercise works. It works better than antidepressants. It accrues all the benefits that this paper Cowen cited discovered in terms of energy and mood and earnings and so on and so forth.

But people still don’t engage in exercise, and in fact I think the rate of physical activity is actually on the decline, in the industrialized world at least.So, it’s more complex than “Does the behavior accrue benefits if you do it consistently?” It’s also not entirely about access because many forms of physical activity are free, and as the paper examines the seeking of talk therapy is not super sensitive to [price].

So it goes beyond the mere cost of the service, although the cost of the services is definitely prohibitive for a large cross-section of people.

How does ketamine or any other substance relate to this?

I think it relates very favorably in that people may actually have the opposite misconception around psychedelic-assisted therapy. They might view regular talk therapy as something where they’re going to have to do this tedious hour a week for months before they get any benefits or they solve any problems in their lives.

[With ketamine] they probably think that they’re going to do one ketamine session, and all of their issues are going to be solved right their PTSD is cured and they no longer experience any symptoms of anxiety, depression, etc… It’s probably a little bit overhyped in the minds of people who have only casually exposed themselves – they’re seeing an article in The New Yorker, or they’re seeing it on a blog, or someone goes on a podcast and talks about an experience. They’re not looking at it with the measured view of someone from the Johns Hopkins team or whatever. So I think that it does work in your favor….

People may overestimate the level of benefit they’re likely to achieve and it seems like the medicine is doing the work, rather than them. Even though I know that that isn’t really the case….

By the way, fun stuff from that research sprint we did with Goldenson  – the average person in our cohort (who did ultimately get therapy), put it off for over two years.

It was a pretty wide range – some people sought help after, perhaps, six weeks I think was the shortest. Nobody has a bad day or think they’re experiencing depression or experiencing dysfunction in their work life or their romantic life or whatever it is and goes straight to a therapist…

They also tend to do a fair bit of research – they research different therapeutic methods and kind of choose one that fits their personality or their values, almost more so than efficacy.

And most of the people who ended up with a stable relationship with a provider trial between two and five different folks.

Those words are from Chris York, via MR reader Milan Griffes.