Category: Science

Genes and health insurance coverage

We provide the first investigation into whether and how much genes explain having health insurance coverage or not and possible mechanisms for genetic variation. Using a twin-design that compares identical and non-identical twins from a national sample of US twins from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, we find that genetic effects explain over 40% of the variation in whether a person has any health coverage versus not, and nearly 50% of the variation in whether individuals younger than 65 have private coverage versus whether they have no coverage at all. Nearly one third of the genetic variation in being uninsured versus having private coverage is explained by employment industry, self-employment status, and income, and together with education, they explain over 40% of the genetic influence. Marital status, number of children, and available measures of health status, risk preferences, and prevention effort do not appear to be important channels for genetic effects. That genes have meaningful effects on the insurance status suggests an important source of heterogeneity in insurance take up.

That is from a paper by George L. Wehby and Dan Shane.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  We do need to know more, but one possibility is that the adverse selection model of health insurance is much overrated, and advantageous selection into health insurance is a live possibility.

Screening Human Embryos for Polygenic Traits Has Limited Utility

By Ehud Karavani,, possibly an important piece:

The increasing proportion of variance in human complex traits explained by polygenic scores, along with progress in preimplantation genetic diagnosis, suggests the possibility of screening embryos for traits such as height or cognitive ability. However, the expected outcomes of embryo screening are unclear, which undermines discussion of associated ethical concerns. Here, we use theory, simulations, and real data to evaluate the potential gain of embryo screening, defined as the difference in trait value between the top-scoring embryo and the average embryo. The gain increases very slowly with the number of embryos but more rapidly with the variance explained by the score. Given current technology, the average gain due to screening would be ≈2.5 cm for height and ≈2.5 IQ points for cognitive ability. These mean values are accompanied by wide prediction intervals, and indeed, in large nuclear families, the majority of children top-scoring for height are not the tallest.

Here is the link, and for the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

A journal editor speaks about referees (and authors)

What are the most common errors that reviewers make when reviewing health papers for you?

There are three errors that reviewers make. First, many junior reviewers write really long reviews to show that they were thorough. This doesn’t help—if the paper has 8 problems then the editor is often most interested in the top two.

Second, some reviewers can also have really high standards in a way that creates lots of Type II errors—never accepting a paper. At the Review of Economics and Statistics, we were writing to accept more papers, but reviewers made this hard by using an impossible standard for identification.

Finally, and this is rare, but a by-product of the “triple-aim” (described above): some reviewers write reports with innuendo and meanness—I never went back to them and still think very poorly of these individuals. To be mean, when protected by the veil of an anonymous review process, is a deep pathology.

My advice is: write short reviews—don’t over referee or rewrite the paper—you are the reviewer, not the author. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Kindness is not the same as low standards, but posing questions and raising challenges with curiosity and humility. Always remember that an editor is reading the review, sharing it with other editors, and one’s nastiness is noted and remembered especially when directed towards a new member of the profession.

That is from an interview with Amitabh Chandra of ReStat.

Eliminate Journal Formatting on First Submission!

Many years ago I was incredulous when my wife told me she had to format a paper to meet a journal’s guidelines before it was accepted! Who could favor such a dumb policy? In economics, the rule is you make your paper look good but you don’t have to fulfill all the journal’s guidelines until after the paper is accepted.

In The high resource impact of reformatting requirements for scientific papers Jian et al. calculate the cost of reformatting–it’s $1.1 billion dollars annually! True, the authors simply surveyed 203 authors for the time it took to reformat and then multiplied that by an hourly wage and then multiplied that by all article submissions so, at best, this is a back of the envelope calculation. What is beyond doubt, however, is that reformatting typically takes several tedious hours for a high-wage professional.

Our data show that nearly 91% of authors spend greater than four hours and 65% spend over eight hours on reformatting adjustments before publication…Among the time-consuming processes involved are adjusting manuscript structure (e.g. altering abstract formats), changing figure formats, and complying with word counts that vary significantly depending on the journal. Beyond revising the manuscript itself, authors often have to adjust to specific journal and publisher online requirements (such as re-inputting data for all authors’ email, office addresses, and disclosures). Most authors reported spending “a great deal” of time on this reformatting task. Reformatting for these types of requirements reportedly caused three month or more delay in the publication of nearly one fifth of articles and one to three month delays for over a third of articles.

And for what? Most papers will be rejected so the reformatting serves no purpose.

What frustrates me about this inanity is that, as far as I can tell, almost no one benefits! We simple seem stuck in an inefficient equilibrium. What hope is there to deregulate zoning or pass a carbon tax–where benefits exceed costs but you can understand why the process is difficult because some people gain from the inefficiency–when we can’t even fix wasteful journal formatting policy? Can Elsevier or other publishing heavyweight not unilaterally move us to the Pareto frontier! Pick up those $1.1 billion bills! Come on humanity, just do it!

Addendum: Economics is good on the reformatting score but n.b. “A prior survey-based research study on biomedical journal publications times noted a median time of first submission to acceptance of five months but this seemingly included all delays in the publication process (including review time and changes to improving scientific content).” Five months would be unheard of speed in economics where you are lucky if you get referee comments in five months!

Progress Studies tranche of Emergent Ventures

Due to a special grant, there has been a devoted tranche of Emergent Ventures to individuals, typically scholars and public intellectuals, studying the nature and causes of progress.

Here are the winners of those awards so far:

Pseudoerasmus, for general excellence and his on-line writings on progress and development. He has donated the funds to the Economic History Society.

Alice Evans, Professor, King’s College London, for her work on social change and despondency traps, and podcasting, and general excellence.

Jason Crawford, to boost his writings and career as public intellectual on topics of progress and the benefits of economic growth and industrialism.  Here is his blog The Roots of Progress.

Tanner Greer, to help him move from Taiwan to Virginia/GMU, and to write a book on the last twenty years of U.S. history and its significance.  Here is Tanner on Twitter.

Adam Green, budding public intellectual, to study the pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos.

Ville Vesterinen, Finland, to produce podcasts and YouTube videos on the nature of progress and economic growth.

Leopold Aschenbrenner, 17 year old economics prodigy, to spend the next summer in the Bay Area and for general career development.  Here is his paper on existential risk.

Byrne Hobart, to write a book on technological progress with Tobias Huber.

Saloni Dattani and ,Sam Bowman, to set up a website on progress and progress studies, possibly a progress-related podcast.

Here is further information on the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures.

I’ll be announcing more winners soon, from the regular rather than the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures (both remain open).

Can an Artificial Intelligence Write A Good Blog Post?

A blog post by an artificial intelligence that has just been taught to write about an artificial intelligence is still far from being a good blog post by any human being.

There are many reasons why a blog post by an artificial intelligence is unlikely to be a good blog post by any human being.

First, the post is still a huge piece of written material, so it will be a big task for the AI to read it all. This is similar to reading a huge, long book, which is a huge task for you as an author.

Second, it is likely that the AI will use its knowledge about writing to create a very bad, misleading, or otherwise nonsensical blog post. In this case, the AI will be writing a blog post about its own stupidity.

Third, even if the blog post is not written by a computer but rather by a human author, the human author will not understand it and will not be able to correct it. This is because the blog post will include very basic, incorrect, or outdated knowledge about writing,

Academic vita fraud?

recent study of 180 academic curricula vitae found that 56 percent that claimed to have at least one publication contained at least one unverifiable or inaccurate publication, and it suggests that CV falsification could be much more common than scholars committed to professional integrity might hope. The study is small — the 56 percent reflects only 79 CVs, of 141 that claimed to have at least one publication. The researchers behind the study make no presumption as to whether the errors were intentional.

Here is further information from Megan Zahneis.

My education podcast with Can Olcer

#7 Tyler Cowen (GMU) on less homework, Swiss science culture, and low university completion rates

In this episode with Tyler Cowen we talk about a broad range of topics. For example, why it’s important that students have less homework, the Swiss science culture, and the low university completion rates.

Here is the link, here is Can on Twitter.  Can currently runs Kosmos School, a K-12 science school realized through Virtual Reality.

Hypersonic is not always as fast as you think

Moreover, hypersonic gliders are actually at a speed disadvantage compared with ballistic missiles of the same range. Ballistic missiles are also boosted to high speed by large rockets, before arcing through the vacuum of space. A glider, by contrast, spends most of its trajectory in the atmosphere, using aerodynamic lift to extend its range. The increased range comes at the cost of faster deceleration caused by atmospheric friction. One implication of this reduced speed is that hypersonic gliders may be more vulnerable to interception by U.S. “point” missile defenses (especially after such defenses have been optimized for that purpose). Like cornerbacks in football, point missile defenses are intended to protect small but important areas — such as U.S. military bases in the western Pacific.

Here is the full piece by James Acton.

The ocean of Encedalus, moon of Saturn

Last year, some of the same research team reported finding complex organic macromolecules within the water vapor that were likely floating on the surface of Enceladus’ ocean. This year, they followed up with a more sophisticated analysis of what sorts of molecules were dissolved into the ocean water. The compounds found within Enceladus’ water vapor plumes, which are responsible for most of the content of Saturn’s E ring, are believed to be present in the liquid subsurface ocean that exists underneath the south pole rather than being the result of contamination as the water escapes from its subsurface prison. That’s significant because many of the nitrogen and oxygen-based compounds the researchers detected are also essential to amino acids here on Earth…

“If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth,” said Nozair Khawaja, who led the research team of the Free University of Berlin. “We don’t yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle.” Khawaja’s findings were published Oct. 2 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Here is further information.

The generator mafia in Lebanon

…blackouts are costing the Lebanese economy about $3.9 billion per year, or roughly 8.2 percent of the country’s GDP.

I asked why the Lebanese government can’t put the private generators out of business.  He replied that EdL [the state-owned electricity company] is losing some $1.3 billion per year, while the private generators are taking in as much as $2 billion per annum.  “It’s a huge business,” he said, “and it’s very dangerous to interfere with this business.”

…Nakhle, an official in the Energy Ministry, was admitting that the generator mafia bribes Lebanese politicians to make sure that EdL stays weak and blackouts persist…

Maya Ammar, a model and architect in Beirut…told me, “The one reason is in Lebanon that we do not have electricity is corruption, plain and simple.”…The electric grid, she continued, is “a microcosmic example of how this country runs.”

That is from the forthcoming and excellent book by Robert Bryce, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.

How to reform the economics Ph.D

This has been bothering me, so I’m putting it out there – The shift to 6 yrs for an Econ PhD is a TERRIBLE trend for female PhD students – & also some men, obviously – but especially for women. This issue warrants much more attention.

So says the wise Melissa S. Kearney.

Along those lines, I have a modest proposal.  Eliminate the economics Ph.D, period.  Offer everyone three years of graduate economics education, and no more (with a clock reset allowed for pregnancy).  Did Smith, Keynes, or Hayek have an economics Ph.D?  This way, no one will assume you know what you are talking about, and the underlying message is that economics learning is lifelong.

After the three years is up, you would be free to look for a job, or alternatively you might find someone to support you to do additional research, such as in the newly structured “post doc without the doc.”  The researchers who absolutely need additional training would try to glom on to a lab or major grant, but six years would not be the default.

Of course, in that setting, schools could take chances on more students, and more students could take a chance on trying economics as a profession.  Furthermore, for most of the most accomplished students, it is already clear they deserve a top job by the time their third year rolls around, usually well before then.  Women would hit their tenure clocks much earlier, also, easing childbearing constraints.  A dissertation truly would become just a job market paper, which has already been the trend for a long time.  Why obsess over the non-convexity of “finishing”?  Finish everyone, and throw them into the maws of some mix of AI and human evaluators sooner rather than later.

Over time, I would expect that more people would take the first-year sequence in their senior year of undergraduate study, and more first-year jobs would have zero or very low teaching loads.  All to the better.

And if you’re mainly going to teach Principles at a state university, three years of graduate study really is enough.  You’ll learn more your first year teaching anyway.

Which other fields might benefit from such a reform?

People, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

*Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime*

That is the new, interesting, and engaging book by Sean Carroll.  Some of it is exposition, the rest argues for a version of Many Worlds Theory, but with a finite number of universes.  Here is one excerpt:

String theory, loop quantum gravity, and other ideas share a common pattern: they start with a set of classical variables, then quantize.  From the perspective we’ve been following in this book, that’s a little backward.  Nature is quantum from the start, described by a wave function evolving according to an appropriate version of the Schroedinger equation.  Things like “space” and “fields” and “particles” are useful ways of talking about that wave function in a appropriate classical limit.  We don’t want to start with space and fields and quantize them; we want to extract them from an intrinsically quantum wave function.

I very much liked the discussion on pp.300-301 on how a finite number of quantum degrees of freedom implies a finite-dimensional Hilbert space for the system as a whole, that in turn constraining the number of worlds in an Everett-like model.  If only I understood it properly…

You can buy the book here.

Career advice in climate change

From a loyal MR reader:

Advice question for you and MR readers, riffing on one of your Conversations themes, if you would indulge me.

What advice would you give to someone wishing to build a career in climate change mitigation as a non-scientist? 

Two advice scenarios: 1) the person is 16; 2) the person is mid-career. Assume no constraints with respect to skill development or self-directed study. That is, what should these people teach themselves? To whom should they reach out to for mentorship?

Your suggestions?

Free Will and the Brain

Tyler and I have been arguing about free will for decades. One of the strongest arguments against free-will is an empirical argument due to physiologist Benjamin Libet. Libet famously found that the brain seems to signal a decision to act before the conscious mind makes an intention to act. Brain scans can see a finger tap coming 500 ms before the tap but the conscious decision seems to be made nly 150 ms before the tap. Libet’s results, however, are now being reinterpreted:

The Atlantic: To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

…In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.

In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

The Atlantic piece with more background is here. A scientific piece summarizing some of the new experiments is here. Of course, the philosophical puzzles remain. Tyler and I will continue to argue.