Wed Mar 25 13:31:39 EDT 2015

Problem with Economists

Why do people still pay attention to a profession that has been so wrong so often?

  • What Good Are Economists?

    Robert J. Shiller, Professor of Economics at Yale

    Indeed, economists failed to forecast most of the major crises in the last century, including the severe 1920-21 slump, the 1980-82 back-to-back recessions, and the worst of them all, the Great Depression after the 1929 stock-market crash.
    A cynic might ask, "If economists are so smart, why aren't they the richest people around?" The answer is simple: Most economic ideas are public goods that cannot be patented or otherwise owned by their inventors. Just because most economists are not rich does not mean that they have not made many people richer.

    I guess I must be a cynic because I disagree with the Nobel laureate. If economists understood economics they could become rich without owning or patenting anything, by for example just betting on which way interest rates will go.

  • How Economists Came to Dominate the Conversation

    There's an old Bob Dylan song that goes "there's no success like failure," and it's a lesson that's been central to the rise of the economics profession. Each economic calamity since the Great Depression -- stagflation in the 1970s, the double-dip recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 1991 downturn -- has served to boost the stock of economists. The long Clinton boom that pushed unemployment down to 3.8 percent was good news for nearly all Americans, except economists, who saw their prominence plummet. Fortunately, the last financial crisis fixed that.

  • Explaining How Economists Explain

    It takes a physicist, Mark Buchanan, to analyze what is wrong with economics:

    Academic economists, they say, use the term "explanation" in a way that other scientists never would. Instead of developing realistic and testable theories like those in biology or physics, they often aim only to develop "theoretical cases" -- imaginary mathematical worlds with their own rules of cause and effect.
    And yet, Gilboa and his colleagues suggest that most economists don't see checking the external validity of models as part of their job. Rather, they like to make whatever assumptions are needed to prove their results, get published in a journal, and then "leave the similarity judgements to practitioners." If their results are inappropriately applied in the real world, that's not their problem. In no way does it threaten the reputation of the theories they have developed.

As explained in The Economist the only reliable method to evaluate predictions is to conduct a Philip Tetlock forecasting tournament.

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Wed Mar 4 22:41:29 EST 2015


It is pretty hard to find decent coverage of Netanyahu's address to Congress from conventional reports in newspapers or on radio or television. As usual for some good coverage see how Jon Stewart covered it on The Daily Show,

Two points raised there are also mentioned by Robin Wright in The New Yorker news-desk,

  • Netanyahu has made a career out of crusading against Iran. In 1992, as a member of parliament, he predicted that Iran was three to five years away from producing a nuclear weapon, and appealed for its program to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S." He cited the same time frame three years later, in his book "Fighting Terrorism."

  • Netanyahu has long supported American military intervention. In 2002, he testified before Congress in favor of invading Iraq, and predicted that ousting Saddam Hussein would have "enormous positive reverberations on the region" and ripen Iran for revolt against the theocracy. "It's not a question of whether you'd like to see a regime change in Iran but how to achieve it," he said. Today, Iran holds more sway over Iraq than any other country.

What are the odd of someone like Charlie Rose, who gets to interview Netanyahu, ever asking him about his past comments and poor record of predictions?

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Sat Feb 28 21:36:48 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • A Skeptic's View of Pharmaceutical Progress

    To obtain a balanced view of pharmaceutical progress (or lack thereof), we need to step back, define a few terms and concepts, and make explicit certain assumptions.

    There is also no doubt that some companies have flagrantly covered up negative data. In some cases, after being "caught" the companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines or, in one recent case, settled with harmed patients for $5 billion (Singer 2009).
    Almost everyone outside the industry feels an excessive amount of money is spent on misleading advertising--especially for drugs like those in table 5 that would not sell themselves. Also, the use of ghost writers and excessive payments to thought leaders, florid conflicts of interest, and payments to practicing physicians to encourage specific drug use clearly occur (see table 1). These practices should be outlawed (Stein-brook 2009).
    Finally, scientifically worthless seeding studies (i.e., studies that do not test a hypothesis but are meant to familiarize physicians with the drug with the intent of increasing sales) may be on the wane, as is publishing only positive data and encouraging biased talks and literature. The press, academicians, journals, and public have wisely cracked down and lampooned such practices endlessly.
    However, I submit that incredible good has been done by the drugs and vaccines in tables 3 and 4 (and many others not mentioned because of space limitations, like erythropoetin for certain types of anemia).

    See the full article for more of the positives (based on facts). Overall, I think a good skeptical nuanced analysis.

  • Fluoridation
    Three part series by Discover magazine blogger George Johnson.

    "These results do not allow us to make any judgment regarding possible levels of risk at levels of exposure typical for water fluoridation in the U.S. On the other hand, neither can it be concluded that no risk is present."
    Which is the problem with all of these issues: you can never prove a negative. And that opens the door for truthiness with numbers. Scienciness.

  • Should Unprovable Physics Be Considered Philosophy?

    In some large part, science is powerful not because of ideas but because of how it treats ideas. Science asks, prove it. The distinction is what separates science from philosophy: falsifiable claims and experimentation.
    . . . String theory and the multiverse are concepts that by definition defy experimentation, and yet a small movement within cosmology is attempting to make the case that they should be exempt. At stake, according to Ellis and Silk, is the integrity of science itself.
    . . .
    The scientific high-ground is at stake, with an ocean of pseudoscientists ready to flood the landscape, taking the public with them. The answer, according to th current paper, lies in a simple question. What observational or experimental evidence is there that would convince a theorist that their theory is wrong? If there is none, then the theory is not a scientific theory.

  • The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong

    In order to recognize wrongness, scientists must maintain some level of detachment from their cherished theories and be open to the ideas of others in their respective fields.
    ... Wrongness is something we all secretly or openly dread. According to self-described "Wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz, in the abstract, we all understand that we're fallible but on the personal level, we leave little to no room for being wrong.

  • The Dark Science Of Interrogation

    How to find out anything from anyone

    Hundreds of studies have shown that interrogators would be just as well off flipping a coin

  • The Value of Violence

    Ginsberg's book is a direct challenge to the optimism of the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, whose 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that violence is playing a diminishing role in human affairs. Ginsberg counters that violence is essential both to transformational change and to the preservation of political and social order.

    Also see Ginsberg's article Why Violence Works in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • The Preference for Potential

    Paper from Stanford University and Harvard Business School

    When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, compared with references to achievement (e.g., "this person has won an award for his work"), references to potential (e.g., "this person could win an award for his work") appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions.

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Fri Feb 20 14:23:45 EST 2015

Artificial Intelligence

Several well known smart people have been voicing fears about artificial intelligence being a threat to to humanity. For example,

But I fail to see any mention of a timeline. Is it decades, centuries or millennia? Predictions without a date attached to them are meaningless since they can never be proven wrong. I disagree with the above, so it's nice to see there are plenty of others who do also.

  • No, the robots are not going to rise up and kill you

    David W. Buchanan, member of IBM Watson "Jeopardy!" system team

    Science fiction is partly responsible for these fears. A common trope works as follows: Step 1: Humans create AI to perform some unpleasant or difficult task. Step 2: The AI becomes conscious. Step 3: The AI decides to kill us all. As science fiction, such stories can be great fun. As science fact, the narrative is suspect, especially around Step 2, which assumes that by synthesizing intelligence, we will somehow automatically, or accidentally, create consciousness. I call this the consciousness fallacy. It seems plausible at first, but the evidence doesn't support it. And if it is false, it means we should look at AI very differently.

  • An Open Letter To Everyone Tricked Into Fearing Artificial Intelligence

    Erik Sofge: Don't believe the hype about artificial intelligence, or the horror

    Forget about the risk that machines pose to us in the decades ahead. The more pertinent question, in 2015, is whether anyone is going to protect mankind from its willfully ignorant journalists.
    Here's the letter at its most ominous, which is to say, not ominous at all:

        "Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research
        how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls."

    To use the CNET and BBC stories as examples, neither includes quotes or clarifications from the researchers who helped put together either the letter or its companion research document
    The truth is, there are researchers within the AI community who are extremely concerned about the question of artificial superintelligence, which is why FLI included a section in the letter's companion document about those fears. But it's also true that these researchers are in the extreme minority.

  • Scientists say AI fears unfounded, could hinder tech advances

    Recent alarms over artificial intelligence research raise eyebrows at AI conference

    "We're in control of what we program," Bresina said, noting it was his own opinion and not an official NASA statement. "I'm not worried about the danger of AI... I don't think we're that close at all. We can't program something that learns like a child learns even -- yet. The advances we have are more engineering things. Engineering tools aren't dangerous. We're solving engineering problems."

  • No need to panic -- artificial intelligence has yet to create a doomsday machine

    A malevolent AI will have to outwit not only raw human brainpower but the combination of humans and whatever loyal AI-tech we are able to command -- a combination that will best either on their own.

  • Out of control AI will not kill us, believes Microsoft Research chief

    Eric Horvitz's position contrasts with that of several other leading thinkers.

    A Microsoft Research chief has said he thinks artificial intelligence systems could achieve consciousness, but has played down the threat to human life.

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Fri Jan 30 01:44:11 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • The War with Radical Islam

    Jeffrey D. Sachs

    Yet, in most cases, terrorism is not rooted in insanity. It is more often an act of war, albeit war by the weak rather than by organized states and their armies. Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today's wars in the Middle East. And with the meddling of outside powers, those wars are becoming a single regional war -- one that is continually morphing, expanding, and becoming increasingly violent.
    From the jihadist perspective -- the one that American or French Muslims, for example, may pick up in training camps in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen -- daily life is ultra-violent. Death is pervasive, coming as often as not from the bombs, drones, and troops of the United States, France, and other Western powers. And the victims are often the innocent "collateral damage" of Western strikes that hit homes, weddings, funerals, and community meetings.
    To be clear, Western actions do not provide Islamist terrorism with a scintilla of justification. The reason to point out these actions is to make clear what Islamist terrorism in the West represents to the terrorists: Middle East violence on an expanded front. The West has done much to create that front, arming favored actors, launching proxy wars, and taking the lives of civilians in unconscionable numbers.

    Nice to see an alternative view rarely written about. Read the whole article.

  • Corruption and Revolt

    Does tolerating graft undermine national security?
    Much of the hundred billion dollars the U.S. spent to rebuild Afghanistan was stolen.

    Corruption creeps in, unnoticed, "like some odorless gas," Sarah Chayes writes in her new book, "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,"* and confounds policy objectives without attracting much policy attention. Chayes spent most of the past decade living in Afghanistan. Her book, which is part memoir and part treatise, argues that the United States has a tendency not just to ignore international corruption but to compound it, and that in places like Afghanistan this willful ignorance can be destabilizing and dangerous.
    Chayes cites a survey conducted by U.S. military commanders in Kabul, in which captured Taliban prisoners were asked why they joined the insurgency. The leading reason, according to Chayes, "was not ethnic bias, or disrespect of Islam, or concern that U.S. forces might stay in their country." It was "the perception that the Afghan government was irrevocably corrupt."
    As a general rule, occupying powers tend to push countries into corruption, not pull them out of it.

  • Redefining Mental Illness

    The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: "Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without."

    I wholeheartedly agree.

  • The Science Of Politely Ending A Conversation

    Research-based tips on finding a delicate way to part ways.

    After analyzing the final 45 seconds of the interactions, the researchers coded and tallied up the most frequent "leave-taking" behaviors. These included "reinforcement" (short, tacit agreements, such as yeah and uh-huh), "buffing" (brief transition terms, such as well and uh), and "appreciation" (an encouraging declaration along the lines of I've really enjoyed talking with you).

  • Disease Screening & Base Rate Fallacy

    The base rate fallacy refers to the neglect of prior probability of the evidence that supports the conditional probability of a hypothesis.

    Naturally, this has policy implications: if you test more and more people, a large percentage of people will be told they have cancer when they don't -- leading to more invasive testing that has other real side-effects. The trick is either to try to test a high-risk subpopulation (where the prevalence rate is higher) or to improve the test by reducing its false-positive rate.

  • Two-thirds of cancers caused by bad luck, not heredity & environment

    22 out of 31 cancers researchers studied could be explained largely by random mutations

    Plain old bad luck plays a major role in determining who gets cancer and who does not, according to researchers who found that two-thirds of cancer incidence of various types can be blamed on random mutations and not heredity or risky habits like smoking.

  • Keep Calm and Put Down the Sriracha

    It has come to my attention that some of you are becoming unable to eat good food unless it is spiced to within an inch of its life.

    If you are unable to enjoy simple, traditional fare that has been properly prepared with good ingredients, the problem is not with the food; it is with you.

  • Chocolate health myth dissolves

    Health-enhancing flavanols that end up on the shelf will likely appear in form other than chocolate

    But there are lots of foods that contain potentially healthy flavanols, along with other bioactive compounds in complex combinations. So the question is: Would academic scientists in publicly funded institutions be so interested in the cocoa bean if the chocolate industry wasn't supporting so much of the research?

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Thu Jan 22 23:51:53 EST 2015

Evidence Based Medicine (EBM)

Some links to help in deciding whether a medical treatment has any validity.

  • The Cochrane Collaboration

    Trusted evidence. Informed decisions. Better health.

    Cochrane is a global independent network of health practitioners, researchers, patient advocates and others, responding to the challenge of making the vast amounts of evidence generated through research useful for informing decisions about health. We are a not-for-profit organisation with collaborators from over 120 countries working together to produce credible, accessible health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest.

  • theNNT

    The Number-Needed-to-Treat.   Quick summaries of evidence-based medicine.

    We are a group of physicians that have developed a framework and rating system to evaluate therapies based on their patient-important benefits and harms as well as a system to evaluate diagnostics by patient sign, symptom, lab test or study.
    We only use the highest quality, evidence-based studies (frequently, but not always Cochrane Reviews) , and we accept no outside funding or advertisements.

  • Alternative Medicine Providers Show Their Greedy Side

    Fighting Pseudoscience.

    A growing lobby is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM ) providers, who have discovered a new opportunity to extract even more money from patients than they do already. They want the government to force insurance providers to pay for quack treatments, regardless of whether or not the treatments work. Any attempt to require evidence, they argue, amounts to discrimination.

    Alternative Medicine is the antithesis of evidence based medicine.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Dec 31 23:34:25 EST 2014

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • The Open-Office Trap

    The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees' satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

  • Why is everyone so busy?

    Time poverty is a problem partly of perception and partly of distribution

    Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier. Not a few presume they will cash in on all their stored leisure time when they finally retire, whenever that may be. In the meantime, being busy has its rewards. Otherwise why would people go to such trouble?
    Alas time, ultimately, is a strange and slippery resource, easily traded, visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. No one has ever complained of having too much of it. Instead, most people worry over how it flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid. Experiences become less novel and more habitual. The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.

  • The World Is Not Falling Apart

    Never mind the headlines. We've never lived in such peaceful times.
    by Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack

    The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable--homicide, rape, battering, child abuse--have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states--by far the most destructive of all conflicts--are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.
    ... Why is the world always "more dangerous than it has ever been"--even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?
    Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from "experts" with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.

  • Regular Exercise Induces Changes in DNA

    A study from scientists at Lund University found that exercise induces genome-wide changes in DNA methylation in human adipose tissue, potentially affecting adipocyte metabolism.

    Exercise, even in small doses, changes the expression of our innate DNA. New research from Lund University in Sweden has described for the first time what happens on an epigenetic level in fat cells when we undertake physical activity.
    "Our study shows the positive effects of exercise, because the epigenetic pattern of genes that affect fat storage in the body changes", says Charlotte Ling, Associate Professor at Lund University Diabetes Center.

  • The wealthy suffer from an 'empathy gap' with the poor that is feeding a rise in inequality

    It's also beyond dispute that we are approaching a social consensus that wealth and income inequality in the United States today now threatens to seriously damage our social fabric. That fabric is grounded in two fundamental ideas: liberty, or the freedom to determine our own destinies, and equality. The problem is that over the past thirty years -- in tandem with rising inequality -- we have favored liberty over equality.
    ... The reality is different. The working poor are not like the advantaged, superficial similarities aside. A very significant component of success -- one that may even be more determinative than hard work -- is luck. This is true, even if the advantaged have worked hard to maximize the benefits of that luck. By luck I mostly mean circumstances of birth and natural talents and abilities (which might well include the propensity to work hard).
    ... Why do the disadvantaged tolerate this situation? The American myth of self-reliance. No matter the vagaries of fortune, we consistently find that Americans at all levels believe in some variant of the Horatio Alger myth -- the classic American rags to riches success story -- despite strong empirical evidence that belies it. I think that there is some evidence in recent years that belief in this myth is eroding, a fact that will be dangerous for society if the the system continues as it currently is now.

  • The Rise of the Economic-Policy Truthers

    The great irony is that the trend convincing families that health spending is out of control is the same trend that is holding health spending down. Co-pays and deductibles hit families hard by forcing them to spend out of pocket. But by hitting them hard, they help to reduce hospital and doctor's visits and pull the headline health-spending number lower.

    Broaden the trend yet further and it is easy to see how many individuals do not believe in the recovery at all. More families have jobs, but they aren't getting wage increases. Many of the new jobs getting created are low-wage ones, after the recession wiped out middle-wage gigs. Families' wallets are getting squeezed with rising costs, while economists promise them that inflation is subdued. Families' health spending is rising, while economists promise them that overall health spending is remarkably flat.

  • How Technology Could Help Fight Income Inequality

    Tyler Cowen

    In the scenarios outlined here, though, growing inequality is highly contingent on particular technologies and the global conditions of the moment. Movements toward greater inequality often set countervailing forces in motion, even if those forces take a long time to come to fruition. From this perspective, rather than seeking to beat down capital, our attention should be directed to leaving open the future possibilities for innovation, change and dynamism. Even if income inequality continues to increase in the short run, as I believe is likely, there exists a plausible and more distant future in which we are mostly much better off and more equal. The history of technology suggests that new opportunities for better living and higher wages are being created, just not as quickly as we might like.

  • Penn Team's Game Theory Analysis Shows How Evolution Favors Cooperation's Collapse

    Last year, University of Pennsylvania researchers Alexander J. Stewart and Joshua B. Plotkin published a mathematical explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature. Using the classical game theory match-up known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, they found that generous strategies were the only ones that could persist and succeed in a multi-player, iterated version of the game over the long term.
    But now they've come out with a somewhat less rosy view of evolution. With a new analysis of the Prisoner's Dilemma played in a large, evolving population, they found that adding more flexibility to the game can allow selfish strategies to be more successful. The work paints a dimmer but likely more realistic view of how cooperation and selfishness balance one another in nature.

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Wed Dec 24 19:29:41 EST 2014

Extraterrestrial Life

The Great Alien Debate

In the Scientific American blog "Life, Unbounded", Caleb A. Scharf asks,"Are we alone in the Universe?" :

But the fascinating thing is how we tend to fall into either camp A or camp B, and how strongly we feel about our answers.

... The impasse would be broken if we could detect life with an independent origin elsewhere - either in the solar system or farther beyond - yet that's a challenge that remains unmet.

... In all of these examples, the non-detection of life (whether as fossils or as chemical signatures) is unlikely to eliminate the possibility of life in these places - we simply won't be able to be that thorough.

It seems to me the search for extraterrestrial life isn't than much different than the search for God. In both cases believers claim the absence of evidence just means the search should continue. In response to this article I emailed my thoughts to the author (but have yet to receive an answer):

Would the impasse be broken if we could create life (from non-life) here on earth?
Why can't we mimic the conditions necessary here on earth for single-celled microbial life to be created in a laboratory? If it was done once, why not again? Also if we know what conditions were necessary, wouldn't it narrow down where else to look for such conditions? What prevents us from doing that? Even if life is a series of low probability events, can't we make it more probable in an experimental setup? Is it too difficult to create the conditions or is it that we just don't know what the conditions are and how to do it?
If we can never prove that life does not exist elsewhere, isn't it a matter of faith that it does? How is that different than a religious belief that god exists?
If you don't have the time to answer me directly, perhaps you can address these issues in part 2 or later? Thanks for your attention.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Sun Nov 30 23:52:19 EST 2014

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Artificial Intelligence, Really, Is Pseudo-Intelligence

    One reason I'm not worried about the possibility that we will soon make machines that are smarter than us, is that we haven't managed to make machines until now that are smart at all. Artificial intelligence isn't synthetic intelligence: It's pseudo-intelligence.

    ... But it's striking that even the simplest forms of life -- the amoeba, for example -- exhibit an intelligence, an autonomy, an originality, that far outstrips even the most powerful computers. A single cell has a life story; it turns the medium in which it finds itself into an environment and it organizes that environment into a place of value. It seeks nourishment. It makes itself -- and in making itself it introduces meaning into the universe.
    Now, admittedly, unicellular organisms are not very bright -- but they are smarter than clocks and supercomputers. For they possess the rudimentary beginnings of that driven, active, compelling engagement that we call life and that we call mind. Machines don't have information. We process information with them. But the amoeba does have information -- it gathers it, it manufactures it.

  • Treating disease with fecal transplants

    Some disease sufferers have benefitted from fecal transplantation, in which a healthy person's stool is transferred to a sick person's colon.

    Then, in January, 2013, The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the first randomized controlled trial involving FMT, comparing the therapy to treatment with vancomycin for patients with recurrent disease. The trial was ended early when doctors realized that it would be unethical to continue: fewer than a third of the patients given vancomycin recovered, compared with ninety-four per cent of those who underwent fecal transplants -- the vast majority after a single treatment. A glowing editorial accompanying the article declared that the trial's significance "goes far beyond the treatment of recurrent or severe C. difficile" and predicted a spate of research into the benefits of fecal transplants for other diseases.

  • Doubling Saturated Fat in the Diet Does Not Increase Saturated Fat in Blood

    New research links diabetes, heart disease risk to diet high in carbs, not fat.
    But note:

    This work was supported by the Dairy Research Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Egg Nutrition Center.

  • Weight influenced by microbes in the gut

    Our genetic makeup influences whether we are fat or thin by shaping which types of microbes thrive in our body, according to a study by researchers at King's College London and Cornell University.
    By studying pairs of twins at King's Department of Twin Research, researchers identified a specific, little known bacterial family that is highly heritable and more common in individuals with low body weight. This microbe also protected against weight gain when transplanted into mice.

  • What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change

    Today's renewable energy technologies won't save us.

    Google's boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do.

    ... As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today's renewable energy technologies simply won't work; we need a fundamentally different approach.

    ... What's needed are zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over within the next 40 years.

  • Forvo: All the words in the world pronounced by native speakers

    Worlds largest pronunciation guide: 2,655,619 words 2,804,143 pronunciations 322 languages

  • Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone -- Especially the Wealthy

    "Wealth -- its uses and abuses -- is a subject that has intrigued me since my youth in the rural Midwest," West writes in the introduction to his study of billionaires. From his seat in Washington, D.C., he has grown concerned about the effects on democracy of a handful of citizens controlling more and more wealth.

  • Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don't Think They're Smart

    But praising their intelligence can make them feel even more insecure. A self-esteem expert offers a way out of the conundrum.

    They (parents) often praise the ability, the talent, or the intelligence too much. The opposite of this is the good process praise. This is praise for the process the child engages in -- their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement.

  • Comforting the NSA and Afflicting Its Dissenters

    Defending Edward Snowden from criticism by Yishai Schwartz in the New Republic.

    No serious defense of the surveillance state can ignores its anti-democratic abuses, its lawbreaking, and its record of punishing whistleblowers.

  • Even Israel's Best Friends Understand That It Is Disconnecting From Reality

    A lead editorial in The New York Jewish Week, the flagship American Jewish newspaper, center to center-right in orientation, with many thousands of Orthodox Jews among its readers and an ardently pro-Israel editorial line, bluntly asks whether the Israeli government has become unmoored from reality.

    ... It also means understanding that while most settlement expansion that is now taking place in the West Bank is happening in areas that will most likely come under Israeli control in the event of a final peace deal, the Palestinians haven't agreed to this division yet. Unilateral moves do not help. They certainly don't help Israel's international standing, which is lower than it has ever been, and they certainly don't help maintain Israel as a cause that garners bipartisan support in the U.S.

  • Can you build up a tolerance to ice cream?

    Research suggests that those individuals who frequently eat a given highly palatable food derive less satisfaction from the subsequent consumption of that same food, such as ice cream.
    ... In short, this study found an inverse relationship between the frequency of ice cream consumption and the activation of the brain's reward centers in response to ingesting an ice cream milk shake.
    ... In a sense, the observation is similar to the developed drug tolerance seen among drug addicts, where the high of the second hit is never as good as the first.

    I eat ice cream every day but don't notice that effect.


    Next Century Cities supports communities and their elected leaders, including mayors and other officials, as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet.
    It is a consortium of 32 cities with the mission of making 1 Gbps fiber-based broadband available to any community in the United States.

  • A New Macroeconomic Strategy by Jeffrey D. Sachs

    It is time for a new strategy, one based on sustainable, investment-led growth.

    Most high-income countries -- the US, most of Europe, and Japan -- are failing to invest adequately or wisely toward future best uses. There are two ways to invest -- domestically or internationally -- and the world is falling short on both.

    Though policy alternates between supply-side and neo-Keynesian enthusiasm, the one persistent reality is a significant decline of investment as a share of national income in most high-income countries in recent years. According to IMF data, gross investment spending in these countries has declined from 24.9% of GDP in 1990 to just 20% in 2013.
    In the US, investment spending declined from 23.6% of GDP in 1990 to 19.3% in 2013, and fell even more markedly in net terms (gross investment excluding capital depreciation). In the European Union, the decline was from 24% of GDP in 1990 to 18.1% in 2013.
    Neither neo-Keynesians nor supply-siders focus on the true remedies for this persistent drop in investment spending. Our societies urgently need more investment, particularly to convert heavily polluting, energy-intensive, and high-carbon production into sustainable economies based on the efficient use of natural resources and a shift to low-carbon energy sources. Such investments require complementary steps by the public and private sectors.

  • Why Experts Reject Creativity

    People think they like creativity. But teachers, scientists, and executives are biased against new ways of thinking.

    In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term "the Innovator's Dilemma" to describe the choice companies face between incrementally improving their core business (perfecting old ideas) and embracing emerging markets that could upend their core business (investing in new ideas).

    ... Indeed, it turns out that our aversion to new ideas touches more than technology companies. It affects entertainment executives deciding between new projects, managers choosing between potential projects or employees, and teachers assessing conformist versus non-conformist children. It is a bias against the new. The brain is hardwired to distrust creativity.

    ... The researchers found that new ideas -- those that remixed information in surprising ways -- got worse scores from everyone, but they were particularly punished by experts. "Everyone dislikes novelty," Lakhami explained to me, but "experts tend to be over-critical of proposals in their own domain." Knowledge doesn't just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers. (In the real world, everybody has encountered a variety of this: A real or self-proclaimed expert who's impatient with new ideas, because they challenge his ego, piercing the armor of his expertise.)

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Tue Nov 25 23:50:34 EST 2014

About Science

Some links related to the understanding and practice of science that interest me.

  • Understanding Research

    Series from The Conversation -- Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair

  • The evidence crisis, by Jim Baggott

    it seems science is confronted with nothing less than a crisis of evidence

    Last year Jim Baggott published a book, called Farewell to Reality, which challenges some of the prevailing opinions about contemporary theoretical physics of the kind which address our `big questions' concerning the nature of the physical universe. In it I argue that some theorists have crossed a line. They are suffering a `grand delusion,' a belief that they can describe physical reality using mathematics alone, with no foundation in scientific evidence. I call the result `fairy-tale' physics.

  • How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything

    Intellectuals of all persuasions love to claim the banner of science. A vanishing few do so properly.

    What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It's a form of engineering -- of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not "true" knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions -- which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment.

  • Scientific consensus has gotten a bad reputation - and it doesn't deserve it

    It's used by both sides in the climate debates, but consensus is part of a process.

    Reproducible results are absolutely relevant. What Crichton is missing is how we decide that those results are significant and how one investigator goes about convincing everyone that he or she happens to be right. This comes down to what the scientific community as a whole accepts as evidence.
    There have clearly been times in the past where the consensus wasn't especially brilliant. Mendel was ignored instead of starting to build a consensus, and Alfred Wegner's formative ideas about plate tectonics were roundly ridiculed. But it's worth noting that these cases are the exception. The majority of the time, the consensus is a bit closer to being right than whatever came before it. And while it may be slow to change sometimes, it can eventually be shifted by the weight of the evidence.

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