Fri Aug 12 12:23:56 EDT 2016

Problems with Science

More on a topic I've blogged about before here and before that here.

  • The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists

    1. Academia has a huge money problem
    2. Too many studies are poorly designed
    3. Replicating results is crucial -- and rare
    4. Peer review is broken
    5. Too much science is locked behind paywalls
    6. Science is poorly communicated
    7. Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful
    Conclusion: Science is not doomed

    "I think the one thing that would have the biggest impact is removing publication bias: judging papers by the quality of questions, quality of method, and soundness of analyses, but not on the results themselves," writes Michael Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychology and neuroscience professor.

    Some journals are already embracing this sort of research. PLOS One, for example, makes a point of accepting negative studies (in which a scientist conducts a careful experiment and finds nothing) for publication, as does the aptly named Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine.

  • A Rant on Peer Review

    George J. Borjas

    I have a few pet peeves. One of them is how "peer review" is perceived by far too many people as the gold standard certification of scientific authority. Any academic who's been through the peer review process many times (as I have) knows that the process is full of potholes and is sometimes subverted by unethical behavior on the part of editors and reviewers.
    The point is that many human emotions, including nepotism, professional jealousies, methodological disagreements, and ideological biases go into the peer review process. It would be refreshing if we interpreted the "peer-reviewed" sign of approval as the flawed signal that it is, particularly in areas where there seems to be a larger narrative that must be served. The peer-review process may well be the worst way of advancing scientific knowledge--except for all the others.

  • Why Most Clinical Research Is Not Useful

    John P. A. Ioannidis

    • Blue-sky research cannot be easily judged on the basis of practical impact, but clinical research is different and should be useful. It should make a difference for health and disease outcomes or should be undertaken with that as a realistic prospect.
    • Many of the features that make clinical research useful can be identified, including those relating to problem base, context placement, information gain, pragmatism, patient centeredness, value for money, feasibility, and transparency.
    • Many studies, even in the major general medical journals, do not satisfy these features, and very few studies satisfy most or all of them. Most clinical research therefore fails to be useful not because of its findings but because of its design.
    • The forces driving the production and dissemination of nonuseful clinical research are largely identifiable and modifiable.
    • Reform is needed. Altering our approach could easily produce more clinical research that is useful, at the same or even at a massively reduced cost.

  • A Crisis at the Edge of Physics

    DO physicists need empirical evidence to confirm their theories?

    A few months ago in the journal Nature, two leading researchers, George Ellis and Joseph Silk, published a controversial piece called "Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics." They criticized a newfound willingness among some scientists to explicitly set aside the need for experimental confirmation of today's most ambitious cosmic theories -- so long as those theories are "sufficiently elegant and explanatory." Despite working at the cutting edge of knowledge, such scientists are, for Professors Ellis and Silk, "breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical."

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Fri Jul 29 12:16:26 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • fMRI bugs could upend years of research

    This is what your brain looks like on bad data.

    The problem is simple: to get from a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain to a scientific conclusion, the brain is divided into tiny "voxels". Software, rather than humans, then scans the voxels looking for clusters.

    When you see a claim that "scientists know when you're about to move an arm: these images prove it", they're interpreting what they're told by the statistical software.

    Now, boffins from Sweden and the UK have cast doubt on the quality of the science, because of problems with the statistical software: it produces way too many false positives.

    In this paper at PNAS, they write: "the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of some 40,000 fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of neuroimaging results."

  • One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana

    They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law. The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.
    The tanking numbers for painkiller prescriptions in medical marijuana states are likely to cause some concern among pharmaceutical companies. These companies have long been at the forefront of opposition to marijuana reform, funding research by anti-pot academics and funneling dollars to groups, such as the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, that oppose marijuana legalization.

  • In clinical trials, for-profit review boards are taking over for hospitals. Should they?

    Institutional review boards -- which review all research that involves human participants -- have undergone a quiet revolution in recent years, with many drug companies strongly encouraging researchers to use commercial boards, considered by many more efficient than their nonprofit counterparts.
    "IRBs are hired by the sponsor," Schreiner said. "They are paid by them. And so if they turn down the study, then I think they're unlikely to get repeat business."

  • Highest-paid CEOs run worst-performing companies, research finds

    Research firm finds businesses led by lower-paid CEOs earn greater shareholder return.

    In fact, even after adjusting for company size and sector, companies with lower total summary CEO pay levels more consistently displayed higher long-term investment returns.

  • Why the D.N.C. E-Mails Aren’t Scandalous

    Do these e-mails strike anyone as appalling and outrageous? Not me. They strike me as . . . e-mails. The idea that people might speak casually or caustically via e-mail has been portrayed as a shocking breach of civilized discourse. Imagine! People bullshitting on e-mail!

    Here are the latest, most damaging things in the DNC’s leaked emails.

  • Donald Trump"s Ghostwriter Tells All

    "The Art of the Deal" made America see Trump as a charmer with an unfailing knack for business. Tony Schwartz helped create that myth--and regrets it.

    People are dispensable and disposable in Trump's world." If Trump is elected President, he warned, "the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows--that he couldn't care less about them."

  • Transgender people: 10 common myths

    1. Myth #1: Transgender people are confused or tricking others
    2. Myth #2: Sexual orientation is linked to gender identity
    3. Myth #3: Letting trans people use the bathroom or locker room matching their gender identity is dangerous
    4. Myth #4: Transitioning is as simple as one surgery
    5. Myth #5: All trans people medically transition
    6. Myth #6: Transgender-inclusive health care is expensive
    7. Myth #7: Children aren't old enough to know their gender identity
    8. Myth #8: Transgender people are mentally ill
    9. Myth #9: Transgender people make up a third gender
    10. Myth #10: Drag queens and kings are transgender

  • 'Healing' detected in Antarctic ozone hole

    Researchers say they have found the first clear evidence that the thinning in the ozone layer above Antarctica is starting to heal.

    The gains have been credited to the long term phasing out of ozone-destroying chemicals.

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Tue Jul 19 00:00:00 EDT 2016

Problems with Science

More on a topic I've blogged about before, Problems with Science.

  • John Oliver mocks misleading scientific studies with fake Ted Talks

    His solution? 'Todd Talks'

    The reason for all the confusing findings? According to Oliver, "Scientists are under constant pressure to publish, with tenure and funding on the line. And to get published, it helps to have results that seem new and striking. Scientists know nobody is publishing a study that says, 'Nothing Up With Acai Berries.' And to get those results, there are all sorts of ways that -- consciously or not -- you can tweak your study."
    Per usual, Oliver has an amusing solution to the problem: Scientists' sourcing and methodology should be explained when their results are shared everywhere from viral stories to news segments. "I know what you're thinking: `Hold on, if that happens, where where am I going to get all my interesting bulls-- from?" says Oliver. "Don't worry -- we have you covered.'"


  • Physicists Must Accept That Some Things Are Unknowable

    The next logical question about our origins, of course, then becomes that of where did inflation come from? Was it a state that was eternal to the past, meaning that it had no origin and always existed, right up until the moment it ended and created the Big Bang? Was it a state that had a beginning, where it emerged from a non-inflationary state in spacetime some finite time in the past? Or was it a cyclical state, where time looped back on itself from some far future state?

    The difficult thing here is that there's nothing we can observe, in our Universe, that allows us to tell these three possibilities apart. In all but the most contrived models of inflation (and some of those we can rule out), it's only the last 10^(-33) seconds or so of inflation that impacts our Universe. The exponential nature of inflation wipes out any information that occurred prior to that, separating it from anything we can observe by, well, inflating it beyond the portion of our Universe that we can observe.
    The total amount of information accessible to us in the Universe is finite, and hence, so is the amount of knowledge we can gain about it. There's a whole lot left to learn and a whole lot that science has yet to reveal. But some things we will likely never know. The Universe may yet be infinite, but our knowledge of it never will be.

  • Why is So Much Reported Science Wrong, and What Can Fix That?
    • 1998: Year in which the British medical journal The Lancet published a study suggesting a link between autism and vaccines.
    • 2010: Year The Lancet published a retraction of the discredited study.
    • 33: Percentage of American parents surveyed by The National Consumers League in 2014 who believe vaccines are linked to autism.
    • 10: Factor by which retraction notices in scientific journals increased between 2000 and 2010.
    • 44: Percentage of retractions attributed to "misconduct," including fabrication and plagiarism.
    • 44: Percentage of health care journalists who said, in a 2009 survey, that their organization sometimes or frequently reported stories based only on news releases.
  • How do we fix bad science?

    Independently verifying research can help science regain its credibility, argues Laurie Zoloth.

    Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, wrote in April: "Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness."

    Something needs to change. In this spirit in November 2011, a group of American scientists led by Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, began The Reproducibility Project.

  • Why String Theory Is Not A Scientific Theory

    Although there was an entire conference on it earlier this month, spurred by a controversial opinion piece written a year ago by George Ellis and Joe Silk, the answer is very clear: no, string theory has not yet risen to the level of a scientific theory. The way people are trying to turn it into science is -- as Sabine Hossenfelder and Davide Castelvecchi report -- by redefining what "science" is.
    If you want to rise to the level of a scientific theory, you have to make a testable -- and hence, falsifiable or validatable -- predictions. Even a physical state that arises as a consequence of an established theory, such as the multiverse, isn't a scientific theory until we have a way to confirm or refute it; it's only a hypothesis, even if it's a good hypothesis.

And related to the problem:

  • Why Critical Thinking Is in Short Supply

    While information is cheap and getting cheaper, meaning is increasingly expensive. We are beset by confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and accept evidence that supports what we already think we know and ignore the rest. Per motivated reasoning, we tend to reject new evidence when it contradicts our established beliefs. Sadly, the smarter we are, the more likely we are to deny or oppose data that seem in conflict with ideas we deem important. Finally, bringing true believers together in a group tends only to compound the problem.

  • On skepticism, pseudo-profundity, Deepak Chopra, and bullshit

    And sometimes even bullshit is made to sound scientific.

    Of all the slick woo peddlers out there, one of the most famous (and most annoying) is Deepak Chopra.
    Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.

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Thu Jun 30 19:43:02 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • The interesting thing that happened when Kansas cut taxes and California hiked them

    In 2012, voters in California approved a measure to raise taxes on millionaires, bringing their top state income tax rate to 13.3 percent, the highest in the nation. Conservative economists predicted calamity, or at least a big slowdown in growth. Also that year, the governor of Kansas signed a series of changes to the state's tax code, including reducing income and sales tax rates. Conservative economists predicted a boom.

    Neither of those predictions came true. Not right away -- California grew just fine in the year the tax hikes took effect -- and especially not in the medium term, as new economic data showed this week.

    Now, correlation does not, as they say, equal causation, and two examples are but a small sample. But the divergent experiences of California and Kansas run counter to a popular view, particularly among conservative economists, that tax cuts tend to supercharge growth and tax increases chill it.

  • Billion-dollar brain training industry a sham--nothing but placebo, study suggests

    Sampling bias and a belief in malleable intelligence may be behind small IQ changes.

    In a study designed to assess the experimental methods of earlier brain-training studies, researchers found that sampling bias and the placebo effect explained the positive results seen in the past. "Indeed, to our knowledge, the rigor of double-blind randomized clinical trials is nonexistent in this research area," the authors report. They even suggest that the overblown claims from brain training companies may have created a positive feedback loop, convincing people that brain training works and biasing follow-up research on the topic.

    "The specter of a placebo may arise in any intervention when the desired outcome is known to the participant--an intervention like cognitive training," the authors note. Coupled with evidence that "people tend to hold strong implicit beliefs regarding whether or not intelligence is malleable" and that those beliefs may skew research findings, the authors conclude that past research is basically bunk.
    Such a placebo effect isn't worthless, the authors caution. It may be useful for future studies to assess how far the placebo effect could get brain training-believers. But to truly assess effects of the training, researchers need to turn to trials where participants don't self-select their group or know the point of the study--randomized, controlled studies. "By using such methods, we can begin to understand whether true training effects exist and are generalizable to samples (and perhaps populations) beyond those who expect to improve," the authors argue.

  • Is there a reproducibility "crisis" in biomedical research?

    The new NIH rules are a step in the right direction but clearly don't go far enough. I don't believe that reproducibility in science is in "crisis," as so many are claiming, but I do believe it's a significant problem that needs to be addressed in a thoughtful way. I also have to concede that it's scientists' fault that we're in the mess we're in and that we haven't addressed problems with reproducibility more robustly before now, given that this problem has been festering for a while. If it takes labeling the problem as a "crisis" to get some action, I suppose I can live with that.

    In considering how to encourage good science and discourage bad science, it is important to note that not all science, particularly biomedical science, should be assumed or expected to result in findings that have direct applications or to result in treatments for humans. As Ioannidis and Begley put it, an efficacy "of 100% and waste of 0% is unlikely to be achievable", even as they note that there is "probably substantial room for improvement." It is also important to note that, contrary to the way some paint this problem, the concerns about reproducibility in science don't invalidate the scientific method itself nor disprove "scientism." Science-based medicine has yielded incredible benefits to human health over the last 150 years. Indeed, the solutions to this problem being proposed are intended to enhance the rigorous application of science, not to abandon it. Finally, I can't help but note that it is scientists themselves who are being openly self-critical and debating how to fix perceived problems in science. That is a major strength, not weakness, of science.

  • The Mistrust of Science

    Atul Gawande commencement address at the California Institute of Technology

    Today, you become part of the scientific community, arguably the most powerful collective enterprise in human history. In doing so, you also inherit a role in explaining it and helping it reclaim territory of trust at a time when that territory has been shrinking. In my clinic and my work in public health, I regularly encounter people who are deeply skeptical of even the most basic knowledge established by what journalists label "mainstream" science (as if the other thing is anything like science)--whether it's facts about physiology, nutrition, disease, medicines, you name it. The doubting is usually among my most, not least, educated patients. Education may expose people to science, but it has a countervailing effect as well, leading people to be more individualistic and ideological.

    The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people--the bigger the better--pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

  • Rethinking Robin Hood

    Angus Deaton

    Huge strides have undoubtedly been made in reducing global poverty, more through growth and globalization than through aid from abroad. The number of poor people has fallen in the past 40 years from more than two billion to just under one billion -- a remarkable feat, given the increase in world population and the long-term slowing of global economic growth, especially since 2008.

    While impressive and wholly welcome, poverty reduction has not come without a cost. The globalization that has rescued so many in poor countries has harmed some people in rich countries, as factories and jobs migrated to where labor is cheaper.

  • Race, Activism, and Hillary Clinton at Wellesley

    Hill and the other four African-American women who graduated from Wellesley's four-hundred-and-twenty-person class of 1969 remember Clinton, with whom many of them still communicate, fondly.
    At graduation in 1969, the entire class, many parents, and faculty members watched as Clinton rebuked a sitting Republican senator, Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, during her now famous, largely improvised commencement speech. (Earlier this month, Wellesley posted an audio clip of the speech on YouTube.) Students stood and cheered when it was over. Faculty and parents mostly remained in their seats. It was the last time a student spoke after a visiting commencement speaker. "Did she move over the course of four years from being a Republican to a Democrat? Yes," Wilson said. "But I don't think any of us saw her as a radical. In her speech, she was provoked by Senator Brooke's endorsement of the war and the fact that he was rather patronizing."

  • Why Startups Are Struggling

    While Stern and Guzman show that high-growth firms are being formed as actively as ever, they also find that these companies are not succeeding as often as such companies once did. As the researchers put it, "Even as the number of new ideas and potential for innovation is increasing, there seems to be a reduction in the ability of companies to scale in a meaningful and systematic way." As many seeds as ever are being planted. But fewer trees are growing to the sky.

    Stern and Guzman are agnostic about why this is happening. But one obvious answer suggests itself: the increased power of established incumbents. We may think that we have been living in a business world in which incumbents are always on the verge of being toppled and competitive advantage is more fragile than ever. And clearly there are industries in which that has been the case--think of how Amazon transformed book retailing, or how digital downloads and streaming disrupted the music business. But as Hathaway and Litan document, American industry has grown more concentrated over the last 30 years, and incumbents have become more powerful in almost every business sector. As they put it, "it has become increasingly advantageous to be an incumbent, and less advantageous to be a new entrant." Even in tech, the contrast is striking between the ferment of the late 1990s, when many sectors had myriad players struggling for share, and the seeming stability of today's Google/Amazon/Facebook-dominated world.

  • Google's Remarkably Close Relationship With the Obama White House

    Over the past seven years, Google has created a remarkable partnership with the Obama White House, providing expertise, services, advice, and personnel for vital government projects.
    As the interactive charts accompanying this article show, Google representatives attended White House meetings more than once a week, on average, from the beginning of Obama's presidency through October 2015. Nearly 250 people have shuttled from government service to Google employment or vice versa over the course of his administration.

    A chart of lobbyists' White House visits reveals its close ties with Google

  • The Future of Podcasting

    Podcasting is giving me a case of déjà vu… The variety and quality of work being done is thrilling; outside attention is growing; new formats are evolving. We're seeing the same unlocking of creative potential we saw with blogging, and there's far more good work being produced than anyone has time to take in. The question now is whether podcasting's future will play out as the last decade of blogging has.
    A major challenge in podcast monetization is the complete lack of data: listeners still download MP3s and that's the end of it; podcasters can measure downloads, but have no idea if the episode is actually listened to, for how long, or whether or not the ads are skipped. In a complete reversal from the online world of text, the measurement system is a big step backwards from what came before: both radio and TV have an established measurement system for what shows are watched, and the scale of advertising is such that surveys can measure advertising effectiveness. Thus the direct marketing advertisers: they can simply do the measurement themselves through coupon codes or special URLs that measure how many people responded to a podcast ad. It's not totally efficient -- some number of conversions forget the code or URL -- but it's something.

  • RentAFriend has Friends from around the world available for hire. Rent a Friend to attend a social event, wedding, or party with you. Hire someone to introduce you to new people, or someone to go to a movie or a restaurant with. Hire a Friend to show you around a new town, teach you a new skill/hobby, or just someone for companionship.

  • Nordic countries: Highest in gender equality and intimate partner violence against women

    Insights into the phenomenon dubbed the 'Nordic paradox'

    The Nordic countries are the most gender equal nations in the world, but at the same time, they also have a disproportionately high rate of intimate partner violence against women. This is perplexing because logically violence against women would be expected to drop as women gained equal status in a society. A new study explores this contradictory situation, which has been labeled the 'Nordic paradox.'

  • Why I "Need" an AR-15

    The AR-15 is less a model of rifle than it is an open-source, modular weapons platform that can be customized for a whole range of applications, from small pest control to taking out 500-pound feral hogs to urban combat. Everything about an individual AR-15 can be changed with aftermarket parts -- the caliber of ammunition, recoil, range, weight, length, hold and grip, and on and on.
    For what it's worth, I do actually believe the fact that this violent nutjob who had been interviewed by the FBI three times was able to get a gun is so obviously messed up that it's foolish to suggest otherwise. In an even slightly less crazy world, this guy would never have had a weapon -- not even a Cricket children's rifle.

  • Psychiatrists Can't Tell Us What They Think About Trump

    Because 1,189 told us what they thought about Goldwater.

    In the aftermath, Goldwater sued Fact (and won), Fact went defunct, and the American Psychiatric Association tried to make sure that none of this would ever happen again. The result was Section 7.3 of the APA's Principles of Medical Ethics

  • The Spectacle of the Spectacles

    A recent little sensation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art delights and bemuses. Two teen-age boys from San Jose were perusing, with perplexity, the museum's exhibits of contemporary art when they had a notion. One of them, Kevin Nguyen, sixteen, set his opened eyeglasses on the floor, neatly perpendicular to a nearby wall. He and T. J. Khayatan, seventeen, then stood back to watch what ensued: viewers observing the glasses with the curiosity and respect befitting a work of art--which, under the circumstances, they were.
    But consider: an object manufactured to enhance seeing, presented as something to see. By being underfoot, the glasses were divorced from their function and protected only by the don't-touch protocol of museums. They might have seemed, to a suggestible audience, to be about being-in-a-museum--and that audience could have included me. Suggestibility, undaunted by fear of proving foolish, is essential to art love.

  • Brutalist websites

    In April, the internet seemed to abruptly discover a trend that had been lurking in its midst for years: Brutalism, an aesthetic borrowed from architecture and applied to minimally designed, bare-knuckle websites.
    As a descriptor, "Brutalist" seems to imply that the sites are somehow ugly or offensive to the viewer, but this isn't always the case. Often, it just means a website is constructed from essential coding elements and very little else -- no frills, redundant images, or advertising.

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Fri Jun 10 13:28:16 EDT 2016

Election Matters

Various web links related to the 2016 primaries and the election of US President.

  • The Elites and the Rise of Donald Trump

    To start with the simplest case, the pundits, who are all free traders, get really blank faced when the topic of protectionism for doctors, dentists, lawyers and other highly paid professionals comes up. Just as there are hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who are prepared to do factory labor for a fraction of the pay of our manufacturing workers, there are tens of millions of really smart ambitious people in the developing world (and Europe) who would happily train to U.S. standards and work as professionals here for a fraction of the pay of our doctors and lawyers. The difference is that we have designed our trade deals to subject our manufacturing workers to competition, while we have maintained or increased the protection for our doctors and lawyers.
    Then we have our financial sector where the bankers benefit from "too big to fail" insurance from the government. We also exempt trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives from the same sort of sales tax that applies to clothes, cars, and most other products. Even an extremely small tax in the financial sector could raise over $100 billion a year, while putting many of the Wall Street high rollers out of business.

  • I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist.

    Here's what they said.

    Kagan is wrong. Donald Trump is not a fascist. "Fascism" has been an all-purpose insult for many years now, but it has a real definition, and according to scholars of historical fascism, Trump doesn't qualify. Rather, he's a right-wing populist, or perhaps an "apartheid liberal" in the words of Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism. He doesn't want to overthrow the existing democratic system. He doesn't want to scrap the Constitution. He doesn't romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society. He's simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing.

  • The System Isn't `Rigged' Against Sanders

    Clinton's winning because more Democrats want her to be the nominee.

    Realistically, if you throw everything together, the math suggests that Sanders doesn't have much to complain about. If the Democratic nomination were open to as many Democrats as possible -- through closed primaries -- Clinton would be dominating Sanders. And if the nomination were open to as many voters as possible -- through open primaries -- she'd still be winning.

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Tue May 31 14:19:05 EDT 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Growth of income and welfare in the U.S, 1979-2011

    John Komlos, NBER Working Paper.

    The major consistent findings include what in the colloquial is referred to as the "hollowing out" of the middle class. According to these estimates, the income of the middle class 2nd and 3rd quintiles increased at a rate of between 0.1% and 0.7% per annum, i.e., barely distinguishable from zero. Even that meager rate was achieved only through substantial transfer payments. In contrast, the income of the top 1% grew at an astronomical rate of between 3.4% and 3.9% per annum during the 32-year period, reaching an average annual value of $918,000, up from $281,000 in 1979 (in 2011 dollars).
    With interdependent utility functions only the welfare of the 5th quintile experienced meaningful growth while those of the first four quintiles tend to be either negligible or even negative.

  • How the Pentagon punished NSA whistleblowers

    Long before Edward Snowden went public, John Crane was a top Pentagon official fighting to protect NSA whistleblowers. Instead their lives were ruined -- and so was his.

    The first is Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the very same NSA activities 10 years before Snowden did. Drake was a much higher-ranking NSA official than Snowden, and he obeyed US whistleblower laws, raising his concerns through official channels. And he got crushed.
    But there is another man whose story has never been told before, who is speaking out publicly for the first time here. His name is John Crane, and he was a senior official in the Department of Defense who fought to provide fair treatment for whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake -- until Crane himself was forced out of his job and became a whistleblower as well.

  • Intuitive And Reflective Responses In Philosophy

    Cognitive scientists have revealed systematic errors in human reasoning. There is disagreement about what these errors indicate about human rationality, but one upshot seems clear: human reasoning does not seem to fit traditional views of human rationality. This concern about rationality has made its way through various fields and has recently caught the attention of philosophers. The concern is that if philosophers are prone to systematic errors in reasoning, then the integrity of philosophy would be threatened. In this paper, I present some of the more famous work in cognitive science that has marshaled this concern. Then I present reasons to think that those with training in philosophy will be less prone to certain systematic errors in reasoning. The suggestion is that if philosophers could be shown to be less prone to such errors, then the worries about the integrity of philosophy could be constrained. Then I present evidence that, according to performance on the CRT (Frederick 2005), those who have benefited from training and selection in philosophy are indeed less prone to one kind of systematic error: irrationally arbitrating between intuitive and reflective responses. Nonetheless, philosophers are not entirely immune to this systematic error, and their proclivity for this error is statistically related to their responses to a variety of philosophical questions. So, while the evidence herein puts constraints on the worries about the integrity of philosophy, it by no means eliminates these worries. The conclusion, then, is that the present evidence offers prima facie reasons to ascribe a mitigated privilege to philosophers' ability to rationally arbitrate between intuitive and reflective responses.

  • Scientists say there's such a thing as "ethical amnesia"

    and it's probably happened to you

    A study published (paywall) today (May 16) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that when we act unethically, we're more likely to remember these actions less clearly. Researchers from Northwestern University and Harvard University coined the term "unethical amnesia" to describe this phenomenon, which they believe stems from the fact that memories of ourselves acting in ways we shouldn't are uncomfortable.

    "Unethical amnesia is driven by the desire to lower one's distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image as a moral individual," the authors write in the paper.

  • Is Big Data Taking Us Closer to the Deeper Questions in Artificial Intelligence?

    A Conversation With Gary Marcus (with Edge Video and audio).

    Even though there's a lot of hype about AI and a lot of money being invested in AI, I feel like the field is headed in the wrong direction. There's been a local maximum where there's a lot of low-hanging fruit right now in a particular direction, which is mainly deep learning and big data. People are very excited about the big data and what it's giving them right now, but I'm not sure it's taking us closer to the deeper questions in artificial intelligence, like how we understand language or how we reason about the world.

  • An introduction to The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox

    Nordic societies seem to have it all: a historic tradition of women's entrepreneurship, modern welfare states that provide support to working parents, outstanding levels of women's participation in the labour market and populations that strongly support the idea of gender equality. It therefore comes as a surprise that Nordic countries, in one international ranking after another, are shown to have few women among top-managers and business owners. Another surprise is that the three Baltic countries, which have more conservative societies and a more small-government approach than their Nordic neighbors, have more women managers, top executives and business owners.
    In this book, Dr. Nima Sanandaji shows that the apparent paradox has a simple answer: Nordic welfare states are -- unintentionally -- holding women back. Public sector monopolies and substantial tax wedges limit women's progress in the labour market. Overly generous parental leave systems encourage women to stay home rather than work. Welfare state safety nets discourage women from self-employment.

  • Denmark Ranks as Happiest Country; Burundi, Not So Much

    The report found that inequality was strongly associated with unhappiness -- a stark finding for rich countries like the United States, where rising disparities in income, wealth, health and well-being have fueled political discontent.

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Wed May 25 00:00:00 EDT 2016

Economic Matters

Some web links related to economics and finance.

  • Chameleons: The Misuse of Theoretical Models in Finance and Economics

    • Cherry Picking in Empirical Research = Carefully Selecting Data to Support a Desired Result
      • If one has sufficient freedom to select the data, one can support almost any result.
    • Potential Cherry Picking in Theoretical Research = Searching for a Set of Assumptions that Produces a Desired Conclusion
      • If one has sufficient freedom to select assumptions, one can create a model to support almost any result.
      • Are the assumptions reasonable?
      • Are there other more reasonable assumptions that explain what we see?

  • Risk Doesn't Stand Still

    Review of Greg IP's book, Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe

    In this provocative new book, the Wall Street Journal's chief economics commentator Greg Ip contemplates how actions to reduce and control risk are often discovered to have increased it in some other way, and thus, "how safety can be dangerous."

    This is an eclectic exploration of the theme, ranging over financial markets, forest fires, airline and automobile safety, bacterial adaptation to antibiotics, flood control, monetary policy, and financial regulation. In every area, Ip shows the limits of human minds trying to anticipate the long-term consequences of decisions whose effects are entangled in complex systems.

  • The State of the Art in the Economics of Education

    the most promising areas for policy are:

    • Teacher effectiveness is by far the most important thing that matters in school. The difference in outcomes for pupils taught by effective or ineffective teachers is huge.   . . .
    • Investment in the early years of child development is very important.   . . .
    • A coherent market structure for schools to operate in is very important.   . . .
  • Jeremy Grantham's Take on Oil, Metals and Agriculture

    Quarterly market outlook from the hedge fund manager.

    The commodities guru argues that oil stocks can recover while farmland is his "first choice" for the long run.

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Thu May 12 22:52:57 EDT 2016

Encryption Backdoors

  • Exploiting Emotions About Paris to Blame Snowden, Distract from Actual Culprits Who Empowered ISIS
    Glenn Greenwald

    One key premise here seems to be that prior to the Snowden reporting, The Terrorists helpfully and stupidly used telephones and unencrypted emails to plot, so Western governments were able to track their plotting and disrupt at least large-scale attacks. That would come as a massive surprise to the victims of the attacks of 2002 in Bali, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London, 2008 in Mumbai, and April 2013 at the Boston Marathon. How did the multiple perpetrators of those well-coordinated attacks -- all of which were carried out prior to Snowden's June 2013 revelations -- hide their communications from detection?

  • Spying on Congress and Israel: NSA Cheerleaders Discover Value of Privacy Only When Their Own Is Violated
    Glenn Greenwald

    In January 2014, I debated Rep. Hoekstra about NSA spying and he could not have been more mocking and dismissive of the privacy concerns I was invoking. "Spying is a matter of fact," he scoffed.
    But all that, of course, was before Hoekstra knew that he and his Israeli friends were swept up in the spying of which he was so fond. Now that he knows that it is his privacy and those of his comrades that has been invaded, he is no longer cavalier about it. In fact, he's so furious that this long-time NSA cheerleader is actually calling for the criminal prosecution of the NSA and Obama officials for the crime of spying on him and his friends.

  • Why Governments Lie About Encryption Backdoors
    Lauren Weinstein

    They know that the smart, major terrorist groups will never use systems with government-mandated backdoors for their important communications, they'll continue to use strong systems developed in and/or distributed by countries without such government mandates, or their own strong self-designed apps.

    So it seems clear that the real reason for the government push for encryption backdoors is an attempt not to catch the most dangerous terrorists that they're constantly talking about, but rather a selection of "low-hanging fruit" of various sorts.

  • What the FBI Really Wants from Apple -- and Why Apple Has Said No
    Lauren Weinstein

    In other words, what we're seeing play out right now may be the federal government's first real attempt to get "the camel's nose under the tent" of strong phone encryption systems, to try demonstrate any feasibility of full-blown backdoor attacks against these systems.
    For if the government can gain access to these systems in such manners, it is axiomatic and unquestionable that evildoers of all stripes will find ways to do so as well, in a black hat hacking dream come true.

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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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