Fri Apr 29 14:59:58 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Yes, the American Economy Is in a Funk -- But Not for the Reasons You Think

    Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics Podcast

    As sexy as the digital revolution may be, it can't compare to the Second Industrial Revolution (electricity! the gas engine! antibiotics!), which created the biggest standard-of-living boost in U.S. history. The only problem, argues the economist Robert Gordon, is that the Second Industrial Revolution was a one-time event. So what happens next?
    Robert Gordon is an economist at Northwestern University and the author of a book called The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Think about that title for a moment. The rise -- and fall -- of American growth. So Gordon's view may be as dark as all those presidential candidates' views. But while politicians generally look for easy villains -- immigrants or China or Wall Street -- Gordon takes a less, shall we say, hysterical view of things. It is a view based on how innovation and inventions affect the economy, especially the inventions of the past few decades.

    GORDON: The Second Industrial Revolution included electricity, the internal combustion engine, chemicals, plastics, running water, the conquest of infectious diseases, the conquest of infant mortality, the development of processed food, the fact that women no longer had to make their clothes at home, but could buy them either in department stores or mail-order catalogs. So all of those things, every dimension of human life, was affected by the Second Industrial Revolution, with the inventions mainly taking place between 1870 and the early 1900s, and having their big impact on such economic measures as productivity during the middle part of the 20th century, especially from 1920 to 1970.

    GORDON: The Third Industrial Revolution started off around 1960, with the first mainframe computer. And went further into the mini computer, the personal computer in 1980, and then followed by the marriage of communications with computers that we call the Internet, or the dot-com revolution that happened in the late 1990s. So all of these changes radically changed our ability to process information. Along the way we had a similar revolution in entertainment. So the Third Industrial Revolution includes entertainment, information through the computers, and communication as we moved from landline phones to what we can call dumb mobile phones in the 1990s, then into smart mobile phones in the last 10 to 15 years. Now, there's nothing wrong with the Third Industrial Revolution. Each of those fields was dramatically and completely changed, particularly the information processing by the computer and the invention of such things as e-commerce and search engines and email and web browsing. But those inventions, as monumental as they were, were taking place just in a narrow slice of human life in terms of the economy.

  • The paradox of the climate change consensus

    Judith Curry

    There is genuine scientific consensus on the following points:
    • global temperatures have increased overall since 1880
    • humans are contributing to a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    • CO2 emits and absorbs infrared radiation
    For the most consequential issues, there remains considerable debate:
    • whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes
    • how much the planet will warm in the 21st century
    • whether warming is 'dangerous'
    • whether radically reducing CO2 emissions will improve the climate and human well being

    Leveraged by the consensus on the three points above that are not disputed, the climate 'consensus' is being sold as applying to all of the above, even the issues for which there remains considerable debate.

  • CO2 Fertilization Greening The Earth

    "We were able to tie the greening largely to the fertilizing effect of rising atmospheric CO2 concentration by tasking several computer models to mimic plant growth observed in the satellite data," says co-author Prof. Ranga Myneni of the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, USA.

    The beneficial aspect of CO2 fertilization in promoting plant growth has been used by contrarians ...
    "The fallacy of the contrarian argument is two-fold. First, the many negative aspects of climate change, namely global warming, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and sea ice, more severe tropical storms, etc. are not acknowledged. Second, studies have shown that plants acclimatize, or adjust, to rising CO2 concentration and the fertilization effect diminishes over time,"

  • The myth of Big Pharma vaccine profits -- updated

    I previously blogged about this several months ago on October 30, 2015.

    An interesting point:

    Outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics would soon occur within the first 1-2 years after we end vaccination. Based on information developed by the CDC and others, the total worldwide economic burden if we suddenly ended vaccines would exceed US$50 billion (and this ignores flu pandemics that might suddenly ravish the pediatric population).

    If we stick with the estimate that about 40% of the cost of hospitalizations will fall to Big Pharma, then they would make about $20 billion a year, worldwide, from not vaccinating. But remember, most vaccines are given, at most, 2-3 times, so, long-term, the revenues derived from vaccines is rather flat, unless new diseases are prevented. But, the revenues from the diseases themselves repeat every single year, and possibly multiple times per child.

    And most of the products used to treat these diseases don't require the research and capital investment that vaccines require. In other words, the income derived from vaccine preventable diseases would be more profitable than vaccines.

  • All Prior Art

    Algorithmically generated prior art

    All Prior Art is a project attempting to algorithmically create and publicly publish all possible new prior art, thereby making the published concepts not patent-able. The concept is to democratize ideas, provide an impetus for change in the patent system, and to preempt patent trolls. The system works by pulling text from the entire database of US issued and published (un-approved) patents and creating prior art from the patent language. While most inventions generated will be nonsensical, the cost to computationally create and publish millions of ideas is nearly zero -- which allows for a higher probability of possible valid prior art.

    A sister website All The Claims is attempting the same thing, but with the use of claims and a more verbose alternative.

    Article about it in New Scientist: Computer generates all possible ideas to beat patent trolls

  • 2016: the year the podcast came of age

    The Economist

    Podcasts, series of digital audio files that users can download or stream from MP3 players and computers, were first created in 2001. This was also the year that Apple launched the iPod, the device from which podcasting takes its name. Although it is now, in tech terms, a doughty 15 years old, it has developed only fitfully.
    They are also becoming more popular with advertisers. Podcasts are largely listened to by commuters in cars-a captive audience, and a demographic advertisers are keen to reach. To add to the attraction, the hosts of many podcasts read out the advertising copy themselves, making ads less obtrusive and more persuasive than those on many traditional stations that are more clearly delineated by distinct voices and jingles.

  • A Question of Privilege

    Marti Leimbach

    Nonetheless, this whole notion of "privilege" vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

  • The Case Against Low-fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever

    Together, the body of data is beginning to reveal both that full-fat dairy has a place in a healthy diet, and also how focusing on one nutrient in the diet may backfire. When dietary guidelines began urging people to lower the amount of fat they ate, the idea was to reduce the amount of cholesterol and unhealthy fats in the body. But by focusing just on cutting out fat, experts didn't count on the fact that people would compensate for the missing fat and start loading up on carbohydrates, which the body converts into sugar-and then body fat.

  • [...] is a toy

    As many have recognized, when inventions and innovations first appear they are often (always) labeled as "toys" or "incapable" of doing "real work" or providing "real entertainment". Of course, many new inventions don't work out the way inventors had hoped, though quite frequently it is just a matter of timing and the coming together of a variety of circumstances. It can be said that being labeled a toy is necessary, but not sufficient, to become the next big thing.

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Fri Apr 15 00:00:00 EDT 2016

Psychology Study Replicability

I blogged about the original research report, First results from psychology's largest reproducibility test in Problems with Science May 2015. Here are some rebuttal links and a rebuttal to the rebuttal. It seems the issue of reproducibility is still unsettled.

  • Who Says Most Psychology Studies Can't Be Replicated?

    Pacific Standard magazine, Mar 3, 2016.

    A high-profile paper left that impression last year. Now, Harvard University researchers are offering a detailed rebuttal.
    A group of researchers led by prominent Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert has published a detailed rebuttal of the 2015 paper. It points to three statistical errors that, in their analysis, led the original authors to an unwarranted conclusion.

    In their rebuttal to the rebuttal, Nosek and his colleagues agree that "both methodological differences between original and replication studies and statistical power affect reproducibility," but add that the Gilbert team's "very optimistic assessment is based on statistical misconceptions and selective interpretation of correlational data."
    "More generally," Nosek and his colleagues add, "there is no such thing as exact replication." As they see it, their paper "provides initial, not definitive, evidence--just like the original studies it replicated."

  • Psychologists Call Out the Study That Called Out the Field of Psychology

    Slate blog, Mar 3 2016.

    Yeah, I know, 39 percent sounds really low--but it's about what social scientists should expect, given the fact that errors could occur either in the original studies or the replicas, says King.
    Some of the methods used for the reproduced studies were utterly confounding--for instance, OSC researchers tried to reproduce an American study that dealt with Stanford University students' attitudes toward affirmative action policies by using Dutch students at the University of Amsterdam. Others simply didn't use enough subjects to be reliable.

  • Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science

    The original article in Science from Open Science Collaboration.

    Reproducibility is a defining feature of science, but the extent to which it characterizes current research is unknown. We conducted replications of 100 experimental and correlational studies published in three psychology journals using high-powered designs and original materials when available. Replication effects were half the magnitude of original effects, representing a substantial decline. Ninety-seven percent of original studies had statistically significant results. Thirty-six percent of replications had statistically significant results; 47% of original effect sizes were in the 95% confidence interval of the replication effect size; 39% of effects were subjectively rated to have replicated the original result; and if no bias in original results is assumed, combining original and replication results left 68% with statistically significant effects. Correlational tests suggest that replication success was better predicted by the strength of original evidence than by characteristics of the original and replication teams.

  • Comment on "Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science"

    The original rebuttal in Science.

    A paper from the Open Science Collaboration ( Research Articles, 28 August 2015, aac4716) attempting to replicate 100 published studies suggests that the reproducibility of psychological science is surprisingly low. We show that this article contains three statistical errors and provides no support for such a conclusion. Indeed, the data are consistent with the opposite conclusion, namely, that the reproducibility of psychological science is quite high.

  • Response to Comment on "Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science"

    The rebuttal to the rebuttal in Science.

    Gilbert et al. conclude that evidence from the Open Science Collaboration's Reproducibility Project: Psychology indicates high reproducibility, given the study methodology. Their very optimistic assessment is limited by statistical misconceptions and by causal inferences from selectively interpreted, correlational data. Using the Reproducibility Project: Psychology data, both optimistic and pessimistic conclusions about reproducibility are possible, and neither are yet warranted.

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Thu Mar 31 23:36:11 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Facebook AI Director Yann LeCun on His Quest to Unleash Deep Learning and Make Machines Smarter

    The Inevitable Singularity Questions

    Spectrum: You've already expressed your disagreement with many of the ideas associated with the Singularity movement. I’m interested in your thoughts about its sociology. How do you account for its popularity in Silicon Valley?

    LeCun: It's difficult to say. I'm kind of puzzled by that phenomenon. As Neil Gershenfeld has noted, the first part of a sigmoid looks a lot like an exponential. It's another way of saying that what currently looks like exponential progress is very likely to hit some limit--physical, economical, societal--then go through an inflection point, and then saturate. I'm an optimist, but I'm also a realist.

    There are people that you'd expect to hype the Singularity, like Ray Kurzweil. He's a futurist. He likes to have this positivist view of the future. He sells a lot of books this way. But he has not contributed anything to the science of AI, as far as I can tell. He's sold products based on technology, some of which were somewhat innovative, but nothing conceptually new. And certainly he has never written papers that taught the world anything on how to make progress in AI.

  • Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

    Robert H. Frank

    Frank describes how, in a world increasingly dominated by winner-take-all markets, chance opportunities and trivial initial advantages often translate into much larger ones--and enormous income differences--over time; how false beliefs about luck persist, despite compelling evidence against them; and how myths about personal success and luck shape individual and political choices in harmful ways.

  • Why smart people are better off with fewer friends

    First, they find that people who live in more densely populated areas tend to report less satisfaction with their life overall. "The higher the population density of the immediate environment, the less happy" the survey respondents said they were. Second, they find that the more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness.

    But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed.

    "The effect of population density on life satisfaction was therefore more than twice as large for low-IQ individuals than for high-IQ individuals," they found. And "more intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently."
    I posed this question to Carol Graham, a Brookings Institution researcher who studies the economics of happiness. "The findings in here suggest (and it is no surprise) that those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it ... are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective," she said.

  • What actual 'caveman' DNA says about the Paleo movement

    But even as the "caveman" diet rose to become the most Googled diet in 2013 and 2014, evolutionary biologists, with much less advertisement, were using advanced DNA techniques, sometimes on ancient bones, to suggest that the original Paleo premise may be off the mark: In fact, it seems, we have evolved.

    Over the last year alone, prominent scientific journals have published evidence of genetic shifts in humans over the last 10,000 years -- apparently in response humankind's transition to agriculture.
    "There's evidence that there's been a lot more selection and genetic change in the last five to 10,000 years than previously thought," he said. "This is a challenge to the Paleo diet claims -- including mine and Boyd Eaton's over the years."

  • Vitamin D: To Screen or Not to Screen?

    It's hard to avoid the hype and just examine the actual scientific evidence without any bias. The United States Preventive Services Task Force has tried to do just that. It recently evaluated screening for vitamin D deficiency and concluded that the current evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against screening. Predictably, their announcement has already led to misunderstandings and protests.

  • Waste in Cancer Drugs Costs $3 Billion a Year, a Study Says

    The federal Medicare program and private health insurers waste nearly $3 billion every year buying cancer medicines that are thrown out because many drug makers distribute the drugs only in vials that hold too much for most patients, a group of cancer researchers has found.

    The expensive drugs are usually injected by nurses working in doctors' offices and hospitals who carefully measure the amount needed for a particular patient and then, because of safety concerns, discard the rest.

  • Vaccines Are Profitable, So What?

    But then a couple things happened to turn the vaccine market around in recent years. Global demand, particularly in developing countries, shot up. Since 2000, the Gavi Alliance has provided vaccination for 500 million children in poor countries, preventing an estimated 7 million deaths. GlaxoSmithKline reported that 80 percent of the vaccine doses they manufactured in 2013 went to developing countries.
    So while the vaccine industry is likely more profitable now than in the 1970s or 1980s, this is the result of global market forces, not a reason to skip a child's vaccinations: Pharmaceutical companies need incentives to keep producing vaccines, because regardless of profits the economic and social benefits of vaccination are huge--in lives and the billions of dollars saved. A study released last year estimated that fully immunizing babies resulted in $10 saved for every dollar spent, about $69 billion total. "Vaccines are one of the most cost-effective interventions we have," says Halsey.

  • There's a big problem with Bernie Sanders's free college plan

    Sanders's own summary of his College for All Act makes it pretty clear that the act would not, in practice, eliminate college tuition. What it would do instead is offer federal matching funds on a 2-to-1 basis to states that want to increase higher education spending in order to eliminate tuition
    On most issues -- including both extension of insurance coverage and funding of public higher education -- the proximate barrier to more progressive policy is in the statehouse or the House of Representatives, not the White House.

  • We've been measuring inequality wrong

    First, spending inequality -- what we should really care about -- is far smaller than wealth inequality. This is true no matter the age cohort you consider.

    To be clear, spending power remains extremely unequal.
    The facts revealed in our study should change views. Inequality, properly measured, is extremely high, but is far lower than generally believed. The reason is that our fiscal system, properly measured, is highly progressive. And, via our high marginal taxes, we are providing significant incentives to Americans to work less and earn less than they might otherwise.

    Finally, traditional static measures of inequality, fiscal progressivity and work disincentives that a) focus on immediate incomes and net taxes rather than lifetime spending and lifetime net taxes and b) lump the old together with the young create highly distorted pictures of all three issues.

  • Why do we work so hard?

    Our jobs have become prisons from which we don't want to escape

    When John Maynard Keynes mused in 1930 that, a century hence, society might be so rich that the hours worked by each person could be cut to ten or 15 a week, he was not hallucinating, just extrapolating. The working week was shrinking fast. Average hours worked dropped from 60 at the turn of the century to 40 by the 1950s.

    The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not.
    There are downsides to this life. It does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill; or to develop hobbies, side-interests or the pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals -- or anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success. But the inadmissible truth is that the eclipsing of life's other complications is part of the reward.

    It is a cognitive and emotional relief to immerse oneself in something all-consuming while other difficulties float by. The complexities of intellectual puzzles are nothing to those of emotional ones. Work is a wonderful refuge.

  • The Obama Doctrine

    Superb Jeffrey Goldberg long interview of Barack Obama in which he talks through his hardest decisions about America's role in the world.

    IMO, too bad he wasn't able to do what he thought was right until he no longer had to worry about running for office.

  • Science guy vs. philosophy: Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?

    Olivia Goldhill

    And Nye--arguably America's favorite "edutainer"--is not the only popular scientist saying "meh" to the entire centuries-old discipline. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has claimed philosophy is not "a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world"; while theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking declared that "philosophy is dead."

    It's shocking that such brilliant scientists could be quite so ignorant, but unfortunately their views on philosophy are not uncommon.

    The author attacks Bill Nye and other prominent scientists for being ignorant about philosophy. But none of the scientists claim otherwise. Their point is that scientists do not need to know anything about philosophy to do good science.

  • Conditions for life may hinge on how fast the universe is expanding

    "In dense environments, you have many explosions, and you're too close to them," says cosmologist and theoretical physicist Raul Jimenez of the University of Barcelona in Spain and an author on the new study. "It's best to be in the outskirts, or in regions that have not been highly populated by small galaxies--and that's exactly where the Milky Way is."

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Thu Mar 17 19:51:15 EDT 2016

The Primaries

Thoughts about the primary elections.

  • Trumpism: "It's the Culture, Stupid"

    Scott Winship in the National Review

    I believe that Trumpism is being driven primarily by cultural anxiety -- by dissatisfaction with cultural change and perceived cultural decline. "Make America Great Again" is clearly about fear of national decline, but it is not primarily about economic decline. Trumps complaint is that "we never win anymore," not a narrow protest that other nations are taking away our jobs or that wages are stagnant. It taps into fears that something has gone wrong -- with our economy but also with our position on the international stage, with our values, with our families, and with the maintenance of law and order.

    Further, it could not be more obvious that Trump voters are mostly indifferent to policy. Trump's appeal is in his brash confidence, his celebrity, and his refusal to bow to the political correctness that is newly ascendant.

  • Neurologist explains why it's hard to look at Ted Cruz's creepy 'unsettling' face

    I have rarely, if ever, seen a conventional smile from Senator Cruz. In a natural smile the corners of the mouth go up; these muscles we can control voluntarily as well. But muscles circling the eyes are involuntary only; they make the eyes narrow, forming crow's feet at the outside corners," he continued. "No matter the emotional coloring of Senator Cruz's outward rhetoric, his mouth typically tightens into the same straight line. If it deviates from this, the corners of his mouth bend down, not upwards.

  • Inside the Republican Party's Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump

    Nice summary of how the Republican Party has tried and failed to stop Donald Trump.

    Should Mr. Trump clinch the presidential nomination, it would represent a rout of historic proportions for the institutional Republican Party, and could set off an internal rift unseen in either party for a half-century, since white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party EN Masse during the civil rights movement.

  • The Trump Master Persuader Index and Reading List

    Scott Adams (Dilbert author) posts on understanding Trump's rise (starting 8/13/2015)

  • Why Bernie Sanders's campaign makes me worry about how he'll manage the White House

    Ezra Klein

    Sanders's "promises runs against our party's best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic," wrote four Democratic ex-chairs of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers. "These are numbers we would describe as deep voodoo if they came from a tax-cutting Republican," agreed Paul Krugman.

    Amidst this onslaught, Steve Randy Waldman has penned what is, I think, the best defense of Sanders. He admits that the campaign's policy proposals are sketchy and the economic projections it's circulating are fantastical. But he argues that none of that really matters.

    The president's "role is to define priorities that must later be translated into well-crafted policy details," he says. "In a democratic polity, wonks are the help."

    My worry about Sanders, watching him in this campaign, is that he isn't very interested in learning the weak points in his ideas, that he hasn't surrounded himself with people who police the limits between what they wish were true and what the best evidence says is true, that he doesn't seek out counterarguments to his instincts, that he's attracted to strategies that align with his hopes for American politics rather than what we know about American politics. And these tendencies, if they persist, can turn good values into bad policies and an inspiring candidate into a bad president.

  • Economic Populism at the Primaries

    Trump and Sanders are popular not just because they're expressing people's anger but because they offer timely critiques of American capitalism.
    Trump has called for abolishing the carried-interest tax loophole for hedge-fund and private-equity managers. He's vowed to protect Social Security. He's called for restrictions on highly skilled immigrants. Most important, he's rejected free-trade ideology, suggesting that the U.S. may need to slap tariffs on Chinese goods to protect American jobs. These views put Trump at odds not only with the leadership of the Republican Party but also with the main thrust of economic thinking since the nineteen-eighties, which has been to embrace globalization.

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Thu Feb 25 16:57:18 EST 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Scientists have discovered how to 'delete' unwanted memories

    A new documentary from PBS reveals how cutting edge science enables us to 'edit' memories - and create new ones from scratch

    Watch the Program at

    Memory is the glue that binds our mental lives. Without it, we'd be prisoners of the present, unable to use the lessons of the past to change our future. From our first kiss to where we put our keys, memory represents who we are and how we learn and navigate the world. But how does it work? Neuroscientists using cutting-edge techniques are exploring the precise molecular mechanisms of memory. By studying a range of individuals ranging--from an 11-year-old whiz-kid who remembers every detail of his life to a woman who had memories implanted--scientists have uncovered a provocative idea. For much of human history, memory has been seen as a tape recorder that faithfully registers information and replays intact. But now, researchers are discovering that memory is far more malleable, always being written and rewritten, not just by us but by others. We are discovering the precise mechanisms that can explain and even control our memories. The question is--are we ready?

  • Keeping mentally active doesn't stave off Alzheimer's disease -- only its symptoms

    Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have found that while keeping active can protect against the symptoms of Alzheimer's, it doesn't stave off the underlying disease itself. Their new study, which was published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurologists, finds that even when symptoms are not apparent, the biological markers of Alzheimer's seem to march forward despite intellectual enrichment.

  • Risk of dementia is declining, but scientists don't know why

    Dementia is on the decline, with the risk of developing it dropping 20 percent per decade since the late 1970s, according to a striking new study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    The aging of the baby boomers means that dementia cases will surge to an all-time high -- the sheer number of older people who are living longer means that even a drop in the incidence of the disease won't solve that problem, which will exact a huge health and financial toll. But despite the popular perception that getting old invariably means people go gray and begin to lose their memory, the new data strongly suggest that, over the past few decades, the risk of developing dementia has receded for people with at least a high school education, raising hope that it may be possible to prevent one of the scariest risks of aging.

  • Maternal Obesity and Diabetes Can Both QUADRUPLE Odds of Infant Autism

    When considered alongside women of a healthy weight and with no history of diabetes, the risk of having an autistic child was found to spike up to 400%,in those with a combination of the two conditions.
    When looking at independently, diabetes or obesity during pregnancy were both found to double the likelihood of the respective mother delivering an autistic child.

  • Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place

    Still, the model is based on what we currently understand about the universe, and if there’s one thing we have figured out so far, it’s that we still don’t know very much. The model creates exoplanets based only on the ones we have discovered, which is an extremely small sample size that probably doesn’t provide a representative cross-section of all of the planets in existence.

  • Meet the Robin Hood of Science

    The tale of how one researcher has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world.

    On September 5th, 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to nearly every scientific paper ever published immediately to anyone who wants it.

  • Accepting Pain Over Comfort: Resistance to the Use of Anesthesia in the Mid-19th Century.

    News of the successful use of ether anesthesia on October 16, 1846, spread rapidly through the world. Considered one of the greatest medical discoveries, this triumph over man's cardinal symptom, the symptom most likely to persuade patients to seek medical attention, was praised by physicians and patients alike. Incredibly, this option was not accepted by all, and opposition to the use of anesthesia persisted among some sections of society decades after its introduction.
    Although it appears inconceivable that such a major medical advance would face opposition, a historical examination reveals several logical grounds for the initial societal and medical skepticism.

  • What Breaking Up the Banks Wouldn't Fix

    The banks are too big to fail. They're also too broken to perform their basic job well.

    But it wouldn't address the other major ongoing failure of our financial system, namely that banks are taking on too much risk, and in the process endangering the entire economy and necessitating occasional bailouts. When the economy gets into trouble those 10 smaller Citibanks will probably all get into trouble exactly at the same time, requiring 10 smaller bailouts, or one large bailout of the "markets."

    It's crucial to remember in all of this that banks are not just victims of economic downturns--they also cause them with their reckless behavior. To stop that government needs to address their compensation structure, not just their size. Bankers today have little financial interest in their banks' health, which leads them to irresponsible behavior.

  • Don't Break Up the Banks. They're Not Our Real Problem.

    Now that we have a new bank regulatory regime that seems to be working, we should not complicate it with breakup proposals whose ultimate implications are unclear at best. But it is absolutely crucial that the new regulations not be rolled back. The Federal Reserve should continue its annual stress tests of the large banks. Calls for restricting the power of the consumer protection board should be rejected outright.

    The central economic problem of our time is income inequality, especially the lack of personal income growth for most Americans, which was one of the underlying causes of the financial crisis. In lieu of rising incomes, credit was allowed to be democratized. Living standards were maintained only because increased credit supplemented deteriorating incomes. That helps explain, post-crisis, why United States growth is slow: Without easy credit, consumers cannot increase spending, because their incomes have fallen since 2007.

    If we want a stronger economy, improving the distribution and growth of personal income should be our focus. Breaking up the big banks will not help, and might even hurt.

  • What do economists think about buying vs renting a house?

    Housing is overrated as a financial investment. First, it's not good to have a significant share of your wealth locked into a single asset. Diversification is better and it's easier to diversify with stocks. Second, unless you are renting the basement, houses don't pay dividends. Stocks do. You can hope that your house will accumulate in value but don't count on it. Indeed, you should expect that as an investment your house will appreciate less than does the stock market. You didn't expect to get a great investment and a place to live in the meantime did you? TANSTAAFL.

  • Fear of Vengeful Gods Helped Societies Expand

    Belief in an all-seeing punitive god motivates people to be more charitable towards strangers outside their own family and community, particularly to those of similar beliefs, researchers have found.

    In an accompanying commentary, Dominic D P Johnson from the University of Oxford pointed out the study did not explore whether the influence of an all-seeing powerful punisher on fairness would extend to individuals from different or no religious persuasion.

    However, he said, the results offered "the most explicit evidence yet that belief in supernatural punishment has been instrumental in boosting cooperation in human societies."

  • Bulletproof Stockings, World's First All-Female Hasidic Rock Band

    The only difference between this Chasidic girl band and their secular counterparts is that their audience is female — at least that’s the official consensus. That’s not to say that all the women are Jewish.

    As Hasidic women, the band’s musicians cannot play for men because of the modesty prohibition of kol isha, which dictates that a Jewish man should not hear a woman sing if she is not related to him.

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Thu Feb 11 13:49:49 EST 2016

Economic Matters

Some web links related to economics and economists.

  • Why Do Americans Work So Much?

    The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn't exactly how things have played out.

    According to Friedman, "Between 1947 and 1973 the average hourly wage for nonsupervisory workers in private industries other than agriculture (restated in 2013 dollars) nearly doubled, from $12.27 to $21.23--an average growth rate of 2.1 percent per annum. But by 2013 the average hourly wage was only $20.13--a 5 percent fall from the 1973 level." For most people, then, the magic of increasing productivity stopped working around 1973, and they had to keep working just as much in order to maintain their standard of living.
    This explanation leaves an important question: If the very rich--the workers who have reaped above-average gains from the increased productivity since Keynes's time--can afford to work less, why don't they? I asked Friedman about this and he theorized that for many top earners, work is a labor of love. They are doing work they care about and are interested in, and doing more of it isn't such a burden--it may even be a pleasure. They derive meaning from their jobs, and it is an important part of how they think of themselves. And, of course, they are compensated for it at a level that makes it worth their while.

  • What's Wrong with Inequality?

    The Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS)

    Wealth inequalities too frequently result from injustice. And they too frequently lead to more injustice. That's because they allow those with wealth to influence the political process. Strategies all the way from lobbying to outright bribery enable the wealthy to safeguard existing privileges and to obtain even more special favors from politicians. As long as such favors are available, inequality will be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating.

    The real problem of inequality isn't the existence of numerical differences in wealth or gains and losses in the sizes of the pieces of a supposedly fixed pie. In the real world, the problems that rightly make ordinary people -- including both Occupy protesters and Tea Partiers -- angry are rooted in theft, privilege, and political cronyism.

  • Ideological divisions in economics undermine its value to the public

    Yet whereas their peers in the natural sciences can edit genes and spot new planets, economists cannot reliably predict, let alone prevent, recessions or other economic events. Indeed, some claim that economics is based not so much on empirical observation and rational analysis as on ideology.

  • Why Can't Economists Be Trusted? Ask an Economist

    Victoria Bateman

    So here is my own five-point plan for how we economists can bring about a revitalized, more relevant, profession.

    1. Get interdisciplinary

      Economics has cut itself off through the imperialist tendency to see itself as the king of social sciences.

    2. Look beyond the West

      In the 1980s, 36 percent of global GDP and 43 percent of global GDP growth was accounted for by emerging and developing economies. In the last five years, these numbers have increased to 56 percent and 79 percent respectively.

    3. Promote a sexual revolution

      It is only by incorporating gender that economists can reach a fuller understanding of the causes of poverty, slow growth and inequality.

    4. Focus on data

      it would also be helpful if students were properly introduced to the wealth of data available these days, and to the basics of both how to "clean it up" and how to think about causality in the context of real world scenarios.

    5. Get in touch with our human side

      Whilst some economists see the departures from the rational behavior assumed by their models as nothing more than trifling, others of us believe that it is only by accepting that humans are human that we can explain the real fundamentals of economics: the causes of boom and bust, the drivers of entrepreneurship and growth, and how people can become locked into poverty.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Fri Jan 29 15:09:51 EST 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Google AI algorithm masters ancient game of Go

    Deep-learning software defeats human professional for the first time.

    To interpret Go boards and to learn the best possible moves, the AlphaGo program applied deep learning in neural networks -- brain-inspired programs in which connections between layers of simulated neurons are strengthened through examples and experience. It first studied 30 million positions from expert games, gleaning abstract information on the state of play from board data, much as other programmes categorize images from pixels. Then it played against itself across 50 computers, improving with each iteration, a technique known as reinforcement learning.

    But also see Go, Marvin Minsky, and the Chasm that AI Hasn't Yet Crossed.

  • Italian papers on genetically modified crops under investigation

    Work that describes harm from crops was cited in Italian Senate hearing.

    Papers that describe harmful effects to animals fed genetically modified (GM) crops are under scrutiny for alleged data manipulation. The leaked findings of an ongoing investigation at the University of Naples in Italy suggest that images in the papers may have been intentionally altered. The leader of the lab that carried out the work there says that there is no substance to this claim.

    The papers' findings run counter to those of numerous safety tests carried out by food and drug agencies around the world, which indicate that there are no dangers associated with eating GM food. But the work has been widely cited on anti-GM websites -- and results of the experiments that the papers describe were referenced in an Italian Senate hearing last July on whether the country should allow cultivation of safety-approved GM crops.

  • Trump Supporters Appear To Be Misinformed, Not Uninformed


    Political science research has shown that the behavior of misinformed citizens is different from those who are uninformed, and this difference may explain Trump's unusual staying power.
    Uninformed citizens don't have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion. As Kuklinski and his colleagues established, in the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans.

  • The Republican myth of Ronald Reagan and the Iran hostages, debunked

    The problem with this story: Iran released the embassy hostages because of Carter's negotiations, not in spite of them

    The boring and emotionally unsatisfying truth is that the Carter administration secured the Americans' release through protracted negotiations -- and by releasing millions of dollars to the Iranian government.

  • Opinion: Squirrels are bigger threat than hackers to US power grid

    While fresh reports of digital assaults on critical infrastructure facilities have stirred the cyberwar saber rattlers, it's worth remembering that squirrels cause far more destruction to the grid than rogue nation hackers.

    Yes, squirrels and other animals cause hundreds of power outages every year and yet the only confirmed infrastructure cyberattack that has resulted in physical damage that is publicly known is Stuxnet.

  • Too good to be true: when overwhelming evidence fails to convince

    Imagine that as a court case drags on, witness after witness is called. Let us suppose thirteen witnesses have testified to having seen the defendant commit the crime. Witnesses may be notoriously unreliable, but the sheer magnitude of the testimony is apparently overwhelming. Anyone can make a misidentification but intuition tells us that, with each additional witness in agreement, the chance of them all being incorrect will approach zero. Thus one might naively believe that the weight of as many as thirteen unanimous confirmations leaves us beyond reasonable doubt.

    However, this is not necessarily the case and more confirmations can surprisingly disimprove our confidence that the defendant has been correctly identified as the perpetrator. This type of possibility was recognised intuitively in ancient times. Under ancient Jewish law, one could not be unanimously convicted of a capital crime -- it was held that the absence of even one dissenting opinion among the judges indicated that there must remain some form of undiscovered exculpatory evidence.
    We have analysed the behaviour of systems that are subject to systematic failure, and demonstrated that with relatively low failure rates, large sample sizes are not required in order that unanimous results start to become indicative of systematic failure. We have investigated the effect of this phenomenon upon identity parades, and shown that even with only a 1% rate of failure, confidence begins to decrease after only three unanimous identifications failing to reach even 95%.

  • Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate

    Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. My senior thesis in college ended up replicating a bunch of existing ideas instead of introducing new ones. When you procrastinate, you're more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people had a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. When we finish a project, we file it away. But when it's in limbo, it stays active in our minds.

  • The Math Gender Gap: The Role of Culture

    This paper explores the role of cultural attitudes towards women in determining math educational gender gaps using the epidemiological approach.
    The transmission of culture is higher among those in schools with a higher proportion of immigrants or in co-educational schools. Our results suggest that policies aimed at changing beliefs can prove effective in reducing the gender gap in mathematics.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Jan 21 13:38:39 EST 2016

Edge Question 2016

Every year invites top thinkers of the world to answer a question. For 2016 it is What Do You Consider The Most Interesting Recent [Scientific] News? What Makes It ImportanT? Below are what most interests me from the 197 responses. Although this is long, it is only a small part of the original and I suggest reading it all.

  • Steven Pinker: Human Progress Quantified

    Fortunately, as the bugs in human cognition have become common knowledge, the workaround--objective data--has become more prevalent, and in many spheres of life, observers are replacing gut feelings with quantitative analysis. Sports have been revolutionized by Moneyball, policy by Nudge, punditry by, forecasting by tournaments and prediction markets, philanthropy by effective altruism, the healing arts by evidence-based medicine.
    Among the other upward swoops are these. People are living longer and healthier lives, not just in the developed world but globally. A dozen infectious and parasitic diseases are extinct or moribund. Vastly more children are going to school and learning to read. Extreme poverty has fallen worldwide from 85 to 10 percent. Despite local setbacks, the world is more democratic than ever. Women are better educated, marrying later, earning more, and in more positions of power and influence. Racial prejudice and hate crimes have decreased since data were first recorded. The world is even getting smarter: In every country, IQ has been increasing by three points a decade.

  • Matt Ridley: The Epidemic Of Absence

    In this respect, the new news from recent science that most intrigues me is that we may have a way to explain why certain diseases are getting worse as we get richer. We are defeating infectious diseases, slowing or managing many diseases of ageing like heart disease and cancer, but we are faced with a growing epidemic of allergy, auto-immunity, and things like autism. Some of it is due to more diagnosis, some of it is no doubt hypochondria, but there does seem to be a real increase in these kinds of problems.
    This makes perfect sense. In the arms race with parasites, immune systems evolved to "expect" to be down-regulated by parasites, so they over-react in their absence. A good balance is reached when parasites try down-regulating the immune system, but it turns rogue when there are no parasites.

  • Noga Arikha: Neuro-news

    "In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. The discovery could have profound implications for diseases from autism to Alzheimer's to multiple sclerosis."

  • Nina Jablonski: Bugs R Us

    Since 2008, when the Human Microbiome Project officially started, hundreds of collaborating scientists have started to bring to light the nature and effects of the billions of bacteria that are part of our normal healthy bodies. There isn't one human microbiome, there are many: There is a microbiome in our hair, one up our nostrils, another in our vaginas, several lavishly differentiated on the vast real estate of our skin, and a veritable treasure trove in our gut, thanks to diligent subcontractors in the esophagus, stomach, and colon.

    This great menagerie undergoes changes as we age, so that some of the bacteria that were common and apparently harmless when we were young start to bother us when we're old, and vice versa. The taxonomic diversity and census of our resident bacteria are more than just subjects of scientific curiosity; they matter greatly to our health. The normal bacteria on our skin, for instance, are essential to maintaining the integrity of the skin's barrier functions. Many diseases, from psoriasis to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, some cancers, and even cardiovascular disease, are associated with shifts in our microbiota.

  • Judith Rich Harris: The Truthiness Of Scientific Research

    I think there are two reasons for the decline of truth and the rise of truthiness in scientific research. First, research is no longer something people do for fun, because they're curious. It has become something that people are required to do, if they want a career in the academic world. Whether they enjoy it or not, whether they are good at it or not, they've got to turn out papers every few months or their career is down the tubes. The rewards for publishing have become too great, relative to the rewards for doing other things, such as teaching. People are doing research for the wrong reasons: not to satisfy their curiosity but to satisfy their ambitions.
    The second thing that has gone awry is the vetting of research papers. Most journals send out submitted manuscripts for review. The reviewers are unpaid experts in the same field, who are expected to read the manuscript carefully, make judgments about the importance of the results and the validity of the procedures, and put aside any thoughts of how the publication of this paper might affect their own prospects. It's a hard job that has gotten harder over the years, as research has become more specialized and data analysis more complex. I propose that this job should be performed by paid experts--accredited specialists in the analysis of research. Perhaps this could provide an alternative path into academia for people who don't particularly enjoy the nitty-gritty of doing research but who love ferreting out the flaws and virtues in the research of others.

  • S. Abbas Raza: r > g: Increasing Inequality Of Wealth And Income Is A Runaway Process

    The only solution to this growing problem, it seems, is the redistribution of the wealth concentrating within a tiny elite using instruments such as aggressive progressive taxation (such as exists in some European countries which show a much better distribution of wealth), but the difficulty in that is the obvious one that political policy-making is itself greatly affected by the level of inequality. This creates a vicious positive feedback loop which is making things even worse. It is clearly the case now in the United States that the rich are not only able to hugely influence government policy directly, but that elite forces are able to shape public opinion and affect election outcomes through large-scale propaganda efforts through media they own or can control. This double-edged sword is being used effectively to attack and shred democracy itself.

  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The En-Gendering Of Genius

    The hypothesis that Leslie and Cimpian tested is one I've rarely seen put on the table and surely not in a testable form. They call it the FAB hypothesis--for field-specific ability beliefs. It focuses on the belief as to whether success in a particular field requires pure innate brilliance, the kind of raw intellectual power that can't be taught and for which no amount of conscientious hard work is a substitute.
    And here's the second surprise: the strength of the FABs in a particular field predicts the percentage of women in that field more accurately than other leading hypotheses, including field-specific variation in work-life balance and reliance on skills for systematizing vs. empathizing. In other words, what Cimpian and Leslie found is that the more that success within a field was seen as a function of sheer intellectual firepower, with words such as "gifted" and "genius" not uncommon, the fewer the women. The FAB hypothesis cut cleanly across the STEM/non-STEM divide.

  • Philip Tetlock: The Epistemic Trainwreck Of Soft-Side Psychology

    In our rushed quest to establish our scientific capacity to surprise smart outsiders plus help those who had long gotten the short end of the status stick, soft-siders had forgotten the normative formula that Robert Merton formulated in 1942 for successful social science, the CUDOS norms for protecting us from absurdities like Stalinist genetics and Aryan physics. The road to scientific hell is paved with political intentions, sometimes maniacally evil ones and sometimes profoundly well intentioned ones. If you value science as a purely epistemic game, the effects are equally corrosive. When you replace the pursuit of truth with the protection of dogma, you get politically-religiously tainted knowledge. Mertonian science imposes monastic discipline: it bars even flirting with ideologues.

  • Aubrey de Grey: Antibiotics Are Dead; Long Live Antibiotics!

    1. Antibiotics are generally synthesised in nature by bacteria (or other microbes) as defences against each other.
    2. We have identified antibiotics in the lab, and thus necessarily only those made by bacterial species that we can grow in the lab.
    3. Almost all bacterial species cannot be grown in the lab using practical methods.
    4. That hasn't changed for decades.
    5. But those bacteria grow fine in the environment, typically the soil.
    6. So... can we isolate antibiotics from the soil?

  • Paul Bloom: Science Itself

    The most exciting recent scientific news is about science itself: how it is funded, how scientists communicate with another, how findings get distributed to the public--and how it can go wrong. My own field of psychology has been Patient Zero here, with well-publicized cases of fraud, failures to replicate important studies, and a host of concerns, some of them well-founded, about how we do our experiments and analyze our results.

  • David G. Myers: We Fear the Wrong Things

    Underlying our exaggerated fears is the "availability heuristic": We fear what's readily available in memory. Vivid, cognitively available images--a horrific air crash, a mass slaughter--distort our judgments of risk. Thus, we remember--and fear--disasters (tornadoes, air crashes, attacks) that kill people dramatically, in bunches, while fearing too little the threats that claim lives one by one. We hardly notice the half-million children quietly dying each year from rotavirus, Bill Gates once observed--the equivalent of four 747s full of children every day. And we discount the future (and its future weapon of mass destruction, climate change).

  • Peter Turchin: Fatty Foods Are Good For Your Health

    In fact, there has never been any scientific evidence that cutting down total fat consumption has any positive effect on health; specifically, reduced risks of heart disease and diabetes. For years those who pointed this out were marginalized, but recently evidence debunking the supposed benefits of low-fat diets has reached a critical mass, so that a mainstream magazine such as Time could write in 2014: "Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong." And now the official Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee admits that much.

  • N.J. Enfield: Pointing Is A Prerequisite For Language

    Comparative psychology finds that pointing (in its full-blown form) is unique to our species. Few non-human species appear to be able to comprehend pointing (notably, domestic dogs can follow pointing while our closest relatives among the great apes cannot), and there is little evidence of pointing occuring spontaneously between members of any species other than our own. It appears that only humans have the social-cognitive infrastructure needed to support the kind of cooperative and prosocial motivations that pointing gestures presuppose.

  • Ellen Winner: Psychology's Crisis

    The field of psychology is experiencing a crisis. Our studies do not replicate. When Science published the results of attempts to replicate 100 studies, results were not confidence-inspiring, to say the least. The average effect sizes declined substantially, and while 97% of the original papers reported significant p values, only 36% of the replications did.

  • Gary Klein: Blinded By Data

    The concept of a critical period for developing vision was based on studies that David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel performed on cats and monkeys. The results showed that without visual signals during a critical period of development, vision is impaired for life. For humans, this critical window closes tight by the time a child is eight years old. (For ethical reasons, no comparable studies were run on humans.) Hubel and Wiesel won a Nobel Prize for their work. And physicians around the world stopped performing cataract surgery on children older than 8 years. The data were clear. But they were wrong. The results of the cataract surgeries on Indian teenagers disprove the critical period data.
    Other fields have run into the same problem. A few years ago the journal Nature reported a finding that the majority of cancer studies selected for review could not be replicated. In October 2015, Nature devoted a special issue to exploring various ideas for reducing the number of non-reproducible findings. Many others have taken up the issue of how to reduce the chances of unreliable data.
    The bedrock bias encourages us to make extreme efforts to eliminate false positives, but that approach would slow progress. A better perspective is to give up the quest for certainty and accept the possibility that any datum may be wrong. After all, skepticism is a mainstay of the scientific enterprise.

  • Bruce Hood: Biological Models of Mental Illness Reflect Essentialist Biases

    Ever since Emil Kraepelin at the end of the 19th century advocated that mental illnesses could be categorized into distinct disorders with specific biological causes, research and treatment has focused efforts on building classification systems of symptoms as a way of mapping the terrain for discovering the root biological problem and corresponding course of action. This medical model approach led to development of clinical nosology and the accompanying diagnostic manuals such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM)--the most recent fifth version published in 2013. However, that very same year, the National Institute of Mental Health announced that it would no longer be funding research projects that relied solely on the DSM criteria. This is because the medical model lacks validity.
    Approaches to mental illness are changing. It is not clear what will happen to the DSM as there are vested financial interests in maintaining the medical model, but in Europe there is a notable shift towards symptom-based approaches of treatment. It is also not in our nature to consider the complexity of humans other than with essentialist biases. We do this for race, age, gender, political persuasion, intelligence, humor and just about every dimension we use to describe someone--as if these attributes are at the core of who they are.

  • Rodney A. Brooks: Artificial Intelligence

    My own opinions on these topics are counter to the popular narrative, and mostly I think everyone is getting way ahead of himself or herself. Arthur C. Clarke's third law was that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. All of these news stories, and the experts who are driving them, seem to me to be jumping so far ahead of the state of the art in Artificial Intelligence, that they talk about a magic future variety of it, and as soon as magic is involved any consequence one desires, or fears, can easily be derived.

  • Steven R. Quartz: The State Of The World Isn't Nearly As Bad As You Think

    In reality, extreme poverty has nearly halved in the last twenty years-about a billion people have escaped it. Material wellbeing-income, declines in infant mortality, increases in life expectancy, educational access (particularly for females)-has increased at its greatest pace during the last few decades. The number of democracies in developing nations has tripled since the 1980s, while the number of people killed in armed conflicts has decreased by 75%. This isn't the place to delve into the details of how large-scale statistical datasets, and ones increasingly representative of the world's population, provide a more accurate, though deeply counter-intuitive, assessment of the state of the world.

  • Douglas Rushkoff: The Rejection of Science Itself

    I'm most interested by the news that an increasing number of people are rejecting science, altogether. With 31% of Americans believing that human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning, and only 35% percent agreeing that evolution happened through natural processes, it's no wonder that parents reject immunization for their children and voters support candidates who value fervor over fact.

  • Ara Norenzayan: Theodiversity

    One might think that religious denominations that have adapted to secular modernity the best are the ones that are thriving the most. But the evidence gleaned from the Pew report and other studies points in the exactly opposing direction. Moderate denominations are falling behind in the cultural marketplace. They are the losers caught between secular modernity and the fundamentalist strains of all major world religions, which are gaining steam as a result of conversion, higher fertility rates, or both.

    There are different types, shades, and intensities of disbelief. That's why the non-religious are another big ingredient of the world's astonishing and dynamically changing theodiversity. Combined, they would be the fourth largest "world religion." There are the atheists, but many nonbelievers instead are apatheists, who are indifferent towards but not opposed to religions. And there is the rising demographic tide of people who see themselves as "spiritual but not religious." This do-it-yourself, custom-made spirituality is filling the void that the retreat of organized religion is leaving behind in the secularizing countries. You can find it in yoga studios, meditation centers, the holistic health movement, and eco-spirituality.

  • Nicholas Humphrey: Sub-Prime Science

    The reality is that science itself has always been affected by "this human interest stuff." Personal vendettas, political and religious biases, stubborn adherence to pet ideas have in the past led even some of the greatest scientists to massage experimental data and skew theoretical interpretations. Happily, the body of scientific knowledge has continued to live and grow despite such human aberrations. In general scientists continue to play by the rules.

  • Gerd Gigerenzer: Fear Of Dread Risks

    Terrorism has indeed caused a huge death toll in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Nigeria. But in Europe or North America a terrorist attack is not what will likely kill you. In a typical year, more Americans die from lightning than terrorism. A great many more die from second-hand smoke and "regular" gun violence. Even more likely, Americans can expect to lose their lives from preventable medical errors in hospitals, even in the best of them. The estimated number of unnecessary deaths has soared from up to 98,000 in 1999 to 440,000 annually, according to a recent study in the Journal of Patient Safety.
    Why are we scared of what most likely will not kill us? Psychology provides us with an answer. It is called fear of dread risks. This fear is elicited by a situation in which many people die within a short time. Note that the fear is not about dying, but about suddenly dying together with many others at one point of time. When as many--or more--people die distributed over the year, whether from gun violence, motorcycle accidents, or in hospital beds, it is hard to conjure up anxiety.

  • Gregory Paul: Modernity Is Winning

    But the even more important news that hardly any know is that modernity is winning as theism retracts in the face of the prosperity made possible by modern science and technology.

  • Joel Gold: The Thin Line Between Mental Illness And Mental Health

    There is clear evidence that large numbers of people who have no psychiatric diagnosis and are not in need of psychiatric treatment experience symptoms of psychosis, notably hallucinations and delusions.
    Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)--one of the most practiced forms of therapy--while commonly applied to mood, anxiety, and a host of other psychiatric disorders, also works with psychosis. This might seem to be inherently contradictory. By definition, a delusion is held tenaciously, despite evidence to the contrary. You aren't supposed to be able to talk someone out of a delusion. If you could, it wouldn't be a delusion, right? Surprisingly, this is not the case.

  • Pamela Rosenkranz: Microbial Attractions

    Sterility is not considered healthy anymore. Medicine is shifting from an antibiotic towards a probiotic approach and the idea of hygiene is becoming an organization of contamination rather, as opposed to disinfection.
    Current research points to how certain bacterial cultures cause anxiety, depression, and even Alzheimers, while others might be able to help alleviate these ailments.

  • Kate Jeffery: Memory Is a Labile Fabrication

    Very recently, it has been shown that memories aren't just fragile when they have been re-activated, they can actually be altered. Using some of the amazing new molecular genetic techniques that have been developed in the past three decades, it has become possible to identify which subset of neurons participated in the encoding of an event, and later experimentally re-activate only these specific neurons, so that the animal is forced (we believe) to recall the event. During this re-activation, scientists have been able to tinker with these memories so that they are different from the original ones.

  • Eric R. Weinstein: Anthropic Capitalism And The New Gimmick Economy

    We have strong growth without wage increases. Using Orwellian terms like "Quantitative Easing" or "Troubled Asset Relief", central banks print money and transfer wealth to avoid the market's verdict. Advertising and privacy transfer (rather than user fees) have become the business model of last resort for the Internet corporate giants. Highly trained doctors squeezed between expert systems and no-frills providers are moving from secure professionals towards service sector-workers.

  • Jonathan Schooler: The Infancy Of Meta-Science

    Meta-science, the science of science, attempts to use quantifiable scientific methodologies to elucidate how current scientific practices influence the veracity of scientific conclusions. This nascent endeavor is joining the agendas of a variety of fields including medicine, biology, and psychology--each seeking to understand why some initial findings fail to fully replicate.
    More generally, as we adopt a more meta-scientific perspective, researchers will hopefully increasingly appreciate that just as a single study cannot irrefutably demonstrate the existence of a phenomenon, neither can a single failure to replicate disprove it. Over time, scientists will likely become increasingly comfortable with meticulously documenting and (ideally) pre-registering all aspects of their research. They will see the replication of their work not as a threat to their integrity but rather as testament to their work's importance. They will recognize that replicating other findings is an important component of their scientific responsibilities. They will refine replication procedures to not only discern the robustness of findings, but to understand their boundary conditions, and the reasons why they sometimes (often?) decline in magnitude.

  • Joichi Ito: Fecal Microbiota Transplantation

    Fecal Microbiota Transplantation, or FMTs, have been shown to cure Clostridium difficile infections in 90 percent of cases, a condition notoriously difficult to treat any other way. We don't know exactly how FMTs work, other than that the introduction of microbiota (poop) from a healthy individual somehow causes the gut of an afflicted patient to regain its microbial diversity and rein in the rampant Clostridium difficile.
    As we understand more and more about the genome, the epigenome, the brain, and the variety of complex systems that make us what we are, and the more I learn about the microbiome, the more it feels like maybe modern medicine is like the proverbial aliens trying to understand human motivation by only looking at the cars on the freeway through a telescope and that we have a long way to go before we will really understand what's going on.

  • Hazel Rose Markus: The Platinum Rule: Dense, Heavy, But Worth It

    The variously attributed Platinum Rule holds that we should do unto others as they would have us do unto them.
    The challenge of holding to the Platinum Rule begins with the realization that it is not the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    Yet built into the very foundation of the Golden Rule is that the assumption that what is good, desirable, just, respectful, and helpful for ME will also be good, desirable, just, respectful and helpful for YOU (or should be, and even it isn't right now, trust me, it will be eventually).

  • Ed Regis: The Healthy Diet U-Turn

    To me, the most interesting bit of news in the last couple of years was the sea-change in attitude among nutritional scientists from an anti-fat, pro-carbohydrate set of dietary recommendations to the promotion of a lower-carbohydrate, selectively pro-fat dietary regime.
    A corollary of this about-face in dietary wisdom was the realization that much of so-called nutritional "science" was actually bad science to begin with. Many of the canonical studies of diet and nutrition were flawed by selective use of evidence, unrepresentative sampling, absence of adequate controls, and shifting clinical trial populations. Furthermore, some of the principal investigators were prone to selection bias, and were loath to confront their preconceived viewpoints with contrary evidence.

  • Leo M. Chalupa: A Compelling Explanation For Science Misconduct

    The first of these is the apparent increase in the reported incidence of research findings that cannot be replicated. The causes for this are myriad. In some cases, this is simply because some vital piece of information, required to repeat a given experiment, has been inadvertently (or at times intentionally) omitted. More often, it is the result of sloppy work, such as poor experimental design, inappropriate statistical analysis, or lack of appropriate controls. But there is also evidence that scientific fraud is on the increase.
    A more compelling explanation is the fiercely competitive nature of science that has accelerated tremendously in recent years. Grants are much harder to get funded, so that even applications ranked by peer review as "very good" are no longer above the pay line.

  • Stuart Firestein: Fundamentally Newsworthy

    All this attention on the possible uses and misuses of CRISPR/Cas9 has obscured the real news--which is, in a way, old news. CRISPR/Cas9 is the fruit of years of fundamental research conducted by a few dedicated researchers who were interested in the arcane field of bacterial immunity. Not immunity to bacteria as you might at first think, but how bacteria protect themselves against attack by viruses.

  • Christian Keysers: Optogenetics

    Optogenetics is a surprising new field of biotechnology that gives us the means to transform brain activity into light and light into brain activity. It allows us to introduce fluorescent proteins into brain cells to make cells glow when they are active--thereby transforming neural activity into light. It also allows us to introduce photosensitive ion channels into neurons, so that shining light on the cells triggers activity or silences neurons at will--thereby transforming light into neural activity.

  • Alexander Wissner-Gross: Datasets Over Algorithms

    A review of the timing of the most publicized AI advances over the past thirty years suggests a provocative explanation: perhaps many major AI breakthroughs have actually been constrained by the availability of high-quality training datasets, and not by algorithmic advances.
    Examining these advances collectively, the average elapsed time between key algorithm proposals and corresponding advances was about eighteen years, whereas the average elapsed time between key dataset availabilities and corresponding advances was less than three years, or about six times faster, suggesting that datasets might have been limiting factors in the advances.

  • Steve Fuller: A Robust Challenge To The Value Of A University Education

    Just in time for the start of the 2015-16 academic year, the UK branch of one of the world's leading accounting firms, Ernst & Young, announced that it would no longer require a university degree as a condition of employment. Instead it would administer its own tests to prospective junior employees. In the future, this event will be seen as the tipping point towards the end of the university as an all-purpose credentials mill that feeds the "knowledge-based" economy.
    When one considers the massive public and, increasingly, private resources dedicated to funding universities, and the fact that both teaching and research at advanced levels can be--and have been--done more efficiently outside of universities, the social function of universities can no longer be taken for granted.

  • Richard Nisbett: The Disillusionment Hypothesis And The Decline and Disaffection For Poor White Americans

    Over the past 15 years or so, the mortality rate for poorly educated middle-aged whites living in the South and West in the U.S. increased significantly. Mortality did not increase for middle-aged blacks, Hispanics or any other ethnic group, nor for whites in other regions of the country, nor for poorly educated whites in other rich countries. The death rates that are most elevated are those for suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, heroin overdose and other causes suggesting self-destructive behavior.
    The disillusionment hypothesis has the virtue of explaining why it is that the support for Donald Trump is greatest today among ill-educated whites in the poorer, less cosmopolitan regions of the country.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Dec 31 14:32:48 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • One man's health food is another man's junk food

    When you eat, you're also supplying the bacterial community in your colon, comprised of 100 trillion cells. The right food can help this micrbiome.

    An Israeli study, published last month in the medical journal "Cell," concludes that even after eating identical meals, the way those meals are then metabolized differs -- sometimes dramatically -- from one person to another.

    And in 'Healthy' foods differ by individual:

    An Israeli study tracking the blood sugar levels of 800 people over a week suggests that even if we all ate the same meal, how it's metabolized would differ from one person to another.
    To understand why such vast differences exist between people, the researchers conducted microbiome analyses on stool samples collected from each study participant. Growing evidence suggests gut bacteria are linked to obesity, glucose intolerance, and diabetes, and the study demonstrates that specific microbes indeed correlate with how much blood sugar rises post-meal. By conducting personalized dietary interventions among 26 additional study participants, the researchers were able to reduce post-meal blood sugar levels and alter gut microbiota. Interestingly, although the diets were personalized and thus greatly different across participants, several of the gut microbiota alterations were consistent across participants.

  • Health Care's Price Conundrum

    Atul Gawande

    The costs of care for the privately insured vary from town to town just as crazily as they do for the publicly insured. But the patterns are strikingly different. The most expensive places for Medicare are not the most expensive places for private insurers. In fact, there was essentially zero correlation between where a city ranks in Medicare spending and where it ranks in private-insurance spending--even when you only consider people undergoing the exact same procedure.
    When your grocery store is the only one in town, it can jack up prices without losing customers. The same goes for hospitals. The study found that hospital prices in monopoly markets are fifteen per cent higher than in those with four or more hospitals.

  • Aspirin targets key protein in neurodegenerative diseases

    A new study finds that a component of aspirin binds to an enzyme called GAPDH, which is believed to play a major role in neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.

  • Sad news: Scientists say happiness won't extend your life after all

    But a new paper published in the medical journal Lancet comes to the sad conclusion that happiness isn't responsible for this observed longevity. Instead, the things that make people happy, particularly their good health, are the same things that shield them from premature death.

  • The Birth And Death Of Privacy:

    3,000 Years of History Told Through 46 Images

    • Privacy, as we understand it, is only about 150 years old.
    • Humans do have an instinctual desire for privacy. However, for 3,000 years, cultures have nearly always prioritized convenience and wealth over privacy.
    • Section II will show how cutting edge health technology will force people to choose between an early, costly death and a world without any semblance of privacy. Given historical trends, the most likely outcome is that we will forgo privacy and return to our traditional, transparent existence.

  • Capitalists should listen to Bernie Sanders

    For example: Globalization has "elevated the living standards of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide" but also "has helped suppress the incomes of low-skilled middle-class workers in rich countries." Where do our loyalties lie? How do we balance obligations to our fellow citizens in the communities and countries in which we live against the interests of those far away? And how do the vast disparities of wealth that the system creates constrain the very process of democratic deliberation over what to do about it?
    You don't need to be a democratic socialist to believe this. On the contrary, the survival of democratic capitalism depends upon facing the difficulties the system is having in delivering on the promises it was once able to keep.

  • What Hillary Clinton Gets (and Bernie Sanders Doesn't) About Wall Street

    If you agree with Democrats that Wall Street should be reformed, Hillary Clinton's more comprehensive solution better grasps the world of finance today.

    Clinton's beyond-the-banks rhetoric, in the op-ed and in the debate itself, is meant to position her as tougher on the finance industry than Sanders, a move that is hard for her to make convincingly--one has the sense that Sanders would strip every last cufflink off every investment banker, if he could. If you agree with the Democrats that Wall Street should be reformed, though, Clinton's more comprehensive solution better grasps the world of finance today. Not only are Sanders's bogeybanks just one part of Wall Street but they are getting less powerful and less problematic by the year. "It ain't complicated," Sanders said during the debate. But Clinton is right: it is.

  • Cronyism Causes the Worst Kind of Inequality

    When a country succumbs to cronyism, friends of the rulers are able to appropriate large amounts of wealth for themselves -- for example, by being awarded government-protected monopolies over certain markets, as in Russia after the fall of communism. That will obviously lead to inequality of income and wealth. It will also make the economy inefficient, since money is flowing to unproductive cronies. Cronyism may also reduce growth by allowing the wealthy to exert greater influence on political policy, creating inefficient subsidies for themselves and unfair penalties for their rivals.
    The relationship between wealth inequality and growth was negative, as the IMF and others had found for income inequality. But only one kind of inequality was associated with low growth -- the kind that came from cronyism.

  • Why "Economic Inequality" Is a Bogus Issue

    It's true that wages have been stagnant for much of the middle class over the last few years. Yet our purchasing power is still expanding.

    For example, economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry note that spending by households on most of modern life's "basics" -- food, clothing, housing, household furnishings and utilities -- fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

    ... It's true that the richest have gotten richer faster than the rest of us. But the tide is rising for us all.

    ... Even our poor are rich by historical standards. Most Americans living under the poverty line today live in larger accommodations than the average European.

    If the previous link about cronyism isn't enough to cause you to think this guy is wrong, be sure to read the comments to his article,

  • Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?

    Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

  • Annuity Wars Highlight Rift Between Factions

    Are annuities just a trap set for uninformed investors or valuable retirement tool? It depends on who you ask: Ken Fisher or Moshe Milevsky

  • The Return of Werner Erhard, Father of Self-Help

    But it was the Church of Scientology that actually drove him out of the country. According to Mr. Erhard, the "60 Minutes" allegations were the culmination of a smear campaign organized by Scientology officials to get back at him for poaching clients and ideas."
    He also did some consulting work for Landmark, the Forum's successor, run by his brother Harry Rosenberg.

  • Are Successful CEOs Just Lucky?

    A series of recent papers help answer that question, by quantifying the roles of luck, ability, and experience in CEOs' success. Together they suggest two conclusions: first, no single trait or skill seems to explain CEO performance; and second, luck plays a very large role.

  • Do all living organisms on Earth share one ultimate common ancestor?

    Or did life begin more than once in separate places?

    The current view is that all life on Earth evolved from one common ancestral population, instead of evolving multiple times (which, by the way, is a perfectly valid hypothesis).
    The model predicts that descent from a universal common ancestor is at least 10^2,860 times more probable than the closest competing hypothesis!

  • Climate models and precautionary measures

    One can sidestep the "skepticism" of those who question existing climate-models, by framing risk in the most straight-forward possible terms, at the global scale. That is, we should ask "what would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?"
    The popular belief that uncertainty undermines the case for taking seriously the 'climate crisis' that scientists tell us we face is the opposite of the truth. Properly understood, as driving the case for precaution, uncertainty radically underscores that case, and may even constitute it.

  • The French Gender-Bender Coming for American Pop

    French pop star Christine and the Queens

    My favorite music act of the moment. I like how she sounds and how she moves.

  • Dan Sperber on The Argumentative Theory of Reason

    Interview by Julia Galef on the Rationally Speaking Podcast.

    The traditional story about reason is that it evolved to help humans see the world more clearly and (thereby) make better decisions. But on that view, some mysteries remain: why is the human brain so biased? Why are we so much better at defending our pre-existing views than at evaluating new ideas objectively?
    In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia talks with guest Dan Sperber, professor of cognitive and social sciences, who is famous for advancing an alternate view of reason: that it evolved to help us argue with our fellow humans and convince them that we're right.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Dec 23 13:49:00 EST 2015

The Long Peace?

Attacks on Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and his rebuttal.

  • The "Long Peace" is a Statistical Illusions

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Author of Antifragile, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.

    This includes 3 articles, the first a nontechnical discussion of the book by science writer S. Pinker, the second a technical discussion of the flaw in Pinker's book published in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Applications, the third a technical discussion of what I call the Pinker Problem, a corruption of the law of large numbers.

  • Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb's "The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion"

    Pinker's rebuttal to Taleb. It begins:

    I was surprised to learn that Nassim Taleb had a problem with my book The Better Angels of Our Nature, because its analysis of war and terrorism harmonizes with Taleb's signature themes. The chapter on major war begins with 21 pages on historians' overinterpretation of temporal trends in war and could have been called "Fooled by Randomness." It was followed dozen pages on the thick-tailed distribution of the magnitudes of wars which could have been subtitled "The Black Swan." Yet rather than acknowledging our similar mindsets, Taleb has come out swinging, pummeling away at what he thinks is the message of the book, accompanied by a stream of trash-talk about my statistical competence.

    Taleb shows no signs of having read 'Better Angels' with the slightest attention to its content. Instead he has merged it in his mind with claims by various fools and knaves whom he believes he has bettered in the past. The confusion begins with his remarkable claim that the thesis in 'Better Angels' is "identical" to Ben Bernanke's theory of a moderation in the stock market. Identical! This alone should warn readers that for all of Taleb's prescience about the financial crisis, accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people's ideas are not his strong suits.

  • On the statistical properties and tail risk of violent conflicts

    Long mathematical paper by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, et al. claiming to disprove Pinker.

    We examine statistical pictures of violent conflicts over the last 2000 years, finding techniques for dealing with incompleteness and unreliability of historical data.
    All the statistical pictures obtained are at variance with the prevailing claims about "long peace", namely that violence has been declining over time.

  • Violent warfare is on the wane, right?

    Mark Buchanan: Physicist and author, former editor with Nature and New Scientist.

    Many optimists think so. But a close look at the statistics suggests that the idea just doesn't add up.

  • John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war

    A new orthodoxy, led by Pinker, holds that war and violence in the developed world are declining. The stats are misleading, argues Gray -- and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and plain wrong.

I find it interesting how vociferous people are on both sides of what is essentially a science and math argument. It seems to me good evidence for (something I've blogged about before) The Argumentative Theory.

"Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.

I wonder if how one interprets the numbers for violence depends on whether they lean more to optimism or pessimism?

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