Tag Archives: Discover

Is Fox Mulder’s Life Work About To Get Vindicated?

Jason Kottke:

Here’s a curious press release from NASA:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

I did a little research on the news conference participants and found:

1. Pamela Conrad (a geobiologist) was the primary author of a 2009 paper on geology and life on Mars

2. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (an oceanographer) has written extensively on photosynthesis using arsenic recently (she worked on the team mentioned in this article)

3. Steven Benner (a biologist) is on the “Titan Team” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they’re looking at Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) as an early-Earth-like chemical environment. This is likely related to the Cassini mission.

4. James Elser (an ecologist) is involved with a NASA-funded astrobiology program called Follow the Elements, which emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves (and not just looking at water or carbon or oxygen).

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I’d say that they’ve discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that.

Vlad Savov at Engadget:

So NASA seems to have made some hot new astrobiology discovery, but just like the tech companies we’re more used to dealing with, it’s holding the saucy details under embargo until 2PM on Thursday. That’s when it’s got a press conference scheduled to discuss its findings, which we’re only told “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” It’s unlikely, therefore, that little green (or brown, or red, or blue) men have been captured somewhere on the dark side of the moon, but there’ll definitely be some impactful news coming within only a couple of days. NASA promises a live online stream of the event, which we’ll naturally be glued to come Thursday.

Alessondra Springmann at PCWorld:

What does that mean? Judging by the researchinterests of the scientistsinvolved in the upcoming announcement, our guess is that this astrobiological discovery will have something to do with water, evolutionary biology, and aquatic bacteria.

We’ll be covering the press conference and the discovery that’ll be announced on Thursday after 11AM PST (2PM EST), so keep an eye on GeekTech, or watch the press conference on NASA’s site. NASA will also show a video broadcast of the press conference to journalists at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Until then, what do you think this discovery will be? Has extraterrestrial bacterial been discovered preserved in a meteorite? Have we seen evidence of life on a ocean-covered exoplanet?

Alasdair Wilkins at IO9:

Considering NASA’s claim that this will impact our search for alien life, I’d have to figure this has something to do with expanding the definition of “life as we know it”, suggesting more elements than we previously thought possible can be used as the raw materials for life. All this, of course, is just speculation – we’ll be listening in to the press conference on Thursday and have the news for you as it breaks.

Mike Wall at Space.com

Max Read at Gawker:

Of course, the announcement could be something totally different! Or, it could be that NASA has been contacted by a warlike race of space aliens and a certain-to-fail mission carried out by a ragtag bunch of scientists is our only hope of survival.

Phil Plait at Discover Magazine:

So what’s the press conference about? I don’t know, to be honest, beyond what’s in the announcement. The scientists on the panel are interesting, including noted astrobiologists and geologists who work on solar system objects like Mars and Titan. So this is most likely going to be something about conditions on another moon or planet conducive for life.

Of course, the speculation is that NASA will announce the discovery for life. Maybe. I can’t rule that out, but it seems really unlikely; I don’t think they would announce it in this way. It would’ve been under tighter wraps, or one thing. It’s more likely they’ve found a new way life can exist and that evidence for these conditions exists on other worlds. But without more info, I won’t speculate any farther than that.

As for the public reaction, well, we’ve seen this type of thing before. Just last June, JPL had a press release about a surprising lack of acetylene in Titan’s atmosphere, with the title “What Is Consuming Hydrogen & Acetylene on Titan?” That sparked vast speculation, and even though the press release was clear enough it was misleadingly reported as NASA finding signs of life on Titan. It got so silly that I wound up writing a post about it, and a NASA scientist went so far as to write an article to clear up the rumors of life on Titan.

I can’t really blame NASA, the press outlets, or the public about this. When scientists have newsworthy findings that are published in a journal, there may be a press conference about them. But some journals have embargoes; they don’t want the news released until the issue is published. Fair enough. So NASA schedules a press conference for the time the issue publishes, and sends out a notice to the press about it. I got just such an email for this one, for example. They have to say something in the email so the press can decide whether to cover it or not, and NASA doesn’t want give too much away. So they give some minimal line about findings that’ll have an impact on the search for life, and those of us who’ve dealt with it before know what that means.

But the public is naturally more inclined to interpret that line as NASA having found life, or at least solid evidence of it. That’s not surprising at all. But it can lead to “news letdown”, where the reality is something less than the speculation. And that leads to news fatigue, which is worse. If people keep expecting really exciting news and don’t get it, well, there you go.

I don’t want to blame anyone, but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like that provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars. And that’s too bad, because the news is usually pretty interesting and scientifically exciting. As soon as I got this latest announcement, my first flood of thoughts literally were: “Sounds like cool news/I bet there will be tons of over-the-top speculation/I hope people aren’t disappointed when the real news comes out/I wonder if I’ll have to make a post a couple of days before to cool off rumors?”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Science

And The Silver Medal Goes To China… Or Does It?

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Ryan Avent at DiA at The Economist:

CHINA has, at long last, surpassed Japan in terms of nominal GDP, making the Chinese economy the world’s second largest. Second quarter output in China came in at $1.337 trillion, to Japan’s $1.288 trillion (Japan’s output was larger in the first quarter; for comparison, America’s second quarter nominal output was $3.522 trillion). The shift is sure to be widely discussed and widely misinterpreted. There are a few key things to mention.

First, while Chinese growth has been truly impressive in recent decades, the rapid overtaking of the Japanese economy also reflects years of disappointing growth there. This story is as much about Japan’s travails (and the risk to other rich economies facing a descent into Japanese-style stagnation) as it is China’s boom.

Second, China remains a very poor country in per capita terms. It uses over four times as many citizens as America to produce less than half America’s output. That’s a bit misleading—urban productivity in China doesn’t lag America by quite as much but is offset by the limited growth contribution of China’s hundreds of millions of rural poor. Still, the total output figures encourage observers to vastly overstate the developmental level of the Chinese economy.

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

The world economy reached a major milestone Monday when China officially became the world’s second-largest economy, displacing Japan, which has held the title for more than four decades. The recognition of China’s new status came after the Japanese government reported that, after a quarter of slow economic growth, the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to be around $1.28 trillion, slightly below China’s $1.33 trillion. Do all countries use the same method for estimating GDP?

They’re supposed to. The System of National Accounts (SNA), a set of guidelines developed jointly by the United Nations, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the World Bank, specifies the methods by which countries measure the size of their economies.

There are two main methods for estimating GDP. One involves looking at production. This includes the value of the goods produced by all the firms in the country, the added value of government work projects, and — particularly in developing countries — the value of goods produced for personal consumption, like the crops grown by subsistence farmers. Not all wealth counts toward GDP. For instance, if you build a new house, that’s considered value added to the economy.  If a pre-existing house increases in value, the owner may be better off, but the country’s GDP is unaffected. Of course, companies often have a vested interest in exaggerating their profits, so reliable figures can sometimes be tough to calculate.

The other method of calculating GDP involves measuring total consumption of products by a country’s population. Since it relies mostly on household surveys, this method also has flaws. People tend to underreport the amount they spend on alcohol and cigarettes, for instance. But hopefully, the two measures should come up with close to the same number and when the results from the two approaches are compiled, they should give you a pretty good idea of the size of a country’s economy.

[…]

But for most countries, there’s no international legal authority to ensure that statistical offices are following the SNA guidelines, and international economists largely have to rely on self-reported numbers. While no one’s disputing China’s new status, the country has often been suspected of cooking its books. Although China is not a member of the OECD, it does cooperate with the organization in producing statistics according to the SNA guidelines.

Those guidelines are updated every few years. The most recent edition, which was made in 2008 and has so far only been implemented by Australia, was revised so that a firm’s investments in research and development are considered added value. This means that as the new standard is implemented worldwide over the next four years or so, many countries will see their GDP numbers increase by as much as 1 percent. That’s one way to stimulate growth.

Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider:

Let’s just put some of today’s headlines about Japan’s GDP being surpassed by Chinese GDP in perspective.

In the quarter, Japan had economic output of $1.28 trillion, or $10,085 per capital, based on a population of 127 million.

China?

It had economic output of $1.337 trillion for the quarter, but a population of about $1.3 billion, so per-capita output of… $1000, about a 1/10th as big.

Let us know when China passes Albania.

Derek Scissors at Heritage:

It’s true that simple GDP does matter. The increasing size of China’s economy means the entire world is now affected by its voracious demand for oil, iron ore, and other commodities, as well as its low-cost supply of consumer electronics, clothing, and other goods.

But for successful economic development, what matters far more is the wealth of individuals and families. Japanese economic weakness is not shown in its still impressive 3rd place in world GDP but in its roughly 40th place on measures of personal income. From an economy once thought better managed and better performing than the U.S., the average citizen of Japan is now poorer than the average citizen of Mississippi. American citizens are noticeably richer than citizens of most other developed countries, such as in the EU. But Japan, in particular, is moving backward.

In contrast to Japan’s 20 years of weakness, there has been stunning growth in Chinese GDP per capita for 30 years. Yet China is still a developing economy. Chinese GDP per capita, even adjusted for purchasing power, is about 15 percent the level of the U.S. Further, GDP per capita actually exaggerates China’s performance.

The PRC’s incomplete data revisions undermine comparisons but, from the middle of 2000 to the middle of 2010, GDP per capita increased by more than 9500 yuan or, at present exchange rates, another $2800 in annual income. However, urban disposable income increased less than 6800 yuan, or about $2000 in annual income. And rural income increased less than 2000 yuan, or $600 in annual income.

Razib Khan at Discover

Robert Reich at Wall Street Pit:

Think of China as a giant production machine that’s growing 10 percent a year (this year, somewhat less). The machine sucks in more and more raw materials and components from rest of world – it’s now the world’s #1 buyer of iron ore and copper, and close to the #1 importer of crude oil – and spews out a growing mountain of stuff, along with huge environmental problems.

But because the Chinese consume a smaller and smaller proportion of this stuff, it has to be exported to consumers elsewhere (Europe, North America, Japan) to keep the Chinese working. Much of the money China earns by selling it around the world is reinvested in factories, roads, trains, and power plants that enlarge China’s capacity to produce far more. Another big portion is lent to or invested in the rest of the world (helping to finance America’s budget deficit at very low cost).

But this can’t go on. China’s workers won’t allow it. Workers in other nations who are losing their jobs won’t allow it, either.

The answer is not simply more labor agitation in China or an upward revaluation of China’s currency relative to the dollar. The problem is bigger. All over the world, we’re witnessing a growing gap between production and consumption, while the environment continues to degrade. The Chinese machine is fast heading for a breakdown only because it’s growing fastest.

Leave a comment

Filed under China

“Don’t Trust One-Offs”

Jim Manzi in City Journal:

[…]

Another way of putting the problem is that we have no reliable way to measure counterfactuals—that is, to know what would have happened had we not executed some policy—because so many other factors influence the outcome. This seemingly narrow problem is central to our continuing inability to transform social sciences into actual sciences. Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior, including the impact of proposed government programs.

The missing ingredient is controlled experimentation, which is what allows science positively to settle certain kinds of debates. How do we know that our physical theories concerning the wing are true? In the end, not because of equations on blackboards or compelling speeches by famous physicists but because airplanes stay up. Social scientists may make claims as fascinating and counterintuitive as the proposition that a heavy piece of machinery can fly, but these claims are frequently untested by experiment, which means that debates like the one in 2009 will never be settled. For decades to come, we will continue to be lectured by what are, in effect, Keynesian and non-Keynesian economists.

Over many decades, social science has groped toward the goal of applying the experimental method to evaluate its theories for social improvement. Recent developments have made this much more practical, and the experimental revolution is finally reaching social science. The most fundamental lesson that emerges from such experimentation to date is that our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound. Despite confidently asserted empirical analysis, persuasive rhetoric, and claims to expertise, very few social-program interventions can be shown in controlled experiments to create real improvement in outcomes of interest.

[…]

After reviewing experiments not just in criminology but also in welfare-program design, education, and other fields, I propose that three lessons emerge consistently from them.

First, few programs can be shown to work in properly randomized and replicated trials. Despite complex and impressive-sounding empirical arguments by advocates and analysts, we should be very skeptical of claims for the effectiveness of new, counterintuitive programs and policies, and we should be reluctant to trump the trial-and-error process of social evolution in matters of economics or social policy.

Second, within this universe of programs that are far more likely to fail than succeed, programs that try to change people are even more likely to fail than those that try to change incentives. A litany of program ideas designed to push welfare recipients into the workforce failed when tested in those randomized experiments of the welfare-reform era; only adding mandatory work requirements succeeded in moving people from welfare to work in a humane fashion. And mandatory work-requirement programs that emphasize just getting a job are far more effective than those that emphasize skills-building. Similarly, the list of failed attempts to change people to make them less likely to commit crimes is almost endless—prisoner counseling, transitional aid to prisoners, intensive probation, juvenile boot camps—but the only program concept that tentatively demonstrated reductions in crime rates in replicated RFTs was nuisance abatement, which changes the environment in which criminals operate. (This isn’t to say that direct behavior-improvement programs can never work; one well-known program that sends nurses to visit new or expectant mothers seems to have succeeded in improving various social outcomes in replicated independent RFTs.)

And third, there is no magic. Those rare programs that do work usually lead to improvements that are quite modest, compared with the size of the problems they are meant to address or the dreams of advocates.

Razib Khan at Discover Magazine:

A friend once observed that you can’t have engineering without science, making the whole concept of “social engineering” somewhat farcical. Jim Manzi has an article in City Journal which reviews the checkered history of scientific methods as applied to humanity, What Social Science Does—and Doesn’t—Know: Our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound.

The criticisms of a scientific program as applied to humanity are deep, and two pronged. As Manzi notes the “causal density” of human phenomena make teasing causation from correlation very difficult. Additionally, the large scale and humanistic nature of social phenomena make them ethically and practically impossible to apply methods of scientific experimentation. This is why social scientists look for “natural experiments,” or involve extrapolation from “WEIRD” subject pools. But as Manzi notes many of the correlations themselves are highly context sensitive and not amenable to replication.

Arnold Kling:

If David Brooks is going to give out his annual awards for most important essays, I would nominate this one.

One of the lessons that is implicit in the essay (and that I think that Manzi ought to make explicit) is, “Don’t trust one-offs.” That is, do not draw strong conclusions based on a single experiment, no matter how well constructed. Instead, wait until many experiments have been conducted, in a variety of settings and using a variety of techniques. An example of a one-off that generated a lot of recent excitement is the $320,000 kindergarten teacher study.

Mark Kleiman:

I’m sorry, but this is incoherent. What is this magical “trial-and-error process” that does what scientific inquiry can’t do? On what basis are we to determine whether a given trial led to successful or unsuccessful results? Uncontrolled before-and-after analysis, with its vulnerability to regression toward the mean? And where is the mystical “social evolution” that somehow leads fit policies to survive while killing off the unfit?

Without any social-scientific basis at all (unless you count Gary Becker’s speculations) we managed to expand incarceration by 500 percent between 1975 and the present. Is that fact – the resultant of a complicated interplay of political, bureaucratic, and professional forces – to be accepted as evidence that mass incarceration is a good policy, and the “counter-intuitive” finding that, past a given point, expanding incarceration tends, on balance, to increase crime be ignored because it’s merely social science? Should the widespread belief, implemented in policy, that only formal treatment cures substance abuse cause us to ignore the evidence to the contrary provided by both naturalistic studies and the finding of the HOPE randomized controlled trial that consistent sanctions can reliably extinguish drug-using behavior even among chronic criminally-active substance abusers?

For some reason he doesn’t specify, Manzi regards negative trial results as dispositive evidence that social innovators are silly people who don’t understand “causal density.” So he accepts – as well he should – the “counter-intuitive” result that juvenile boot camps were a bad idea. But why are those negative results so much more impressive than the finding that raising offenders’ reading scores tends to reduce their future criminality?

Surely Manzi is right to call for metholological humility and catholicism; social knowledge does not begin and end with regressions and controlled trials. But the notion that prejudices embedded in policies reflect some sort of evolutionary result, and therefore deserve our respect when they conflict with the results of careful study, really can’t be taken seriously.

Manzi responds at The American Scene:

This leads Kleiman to ask:

What is this magical “trial-and-error process” that does what scientific inquiry can’t do? On what basis are we to determine whether a given trial led to successful or unsuccessful results? Uncontrolled before-and-after analysis, with its vulnerability to regression toward the mean? And where is the mystical “social evolution” that somehow leads fit policies to survive while killing off the unfit?

I devoted a lot of time to this related group of questions in the forthcoming book. The shortest answer is that social evolution does not allow us to draw rational conclusions with scientific provenance about the effectiveness of various interventions, for methodological reasons including those that Kleiman cites. Social evolution merely renders (metaphorical) judgments about packages of policy decisions as embedded in actual institutions. This process is glacial, statistical and crude, and we live in the midst of an evolutionary stream that we don’t comprehend. But recognition of ignorance is superior to the unfounded assertion of scientific knowledge.

Kleiman then goes on to ask this:

Without any social-scientific basis at all (unless you count Gary Becker’s speculations) we managed to expand incarceration by 500 percent between 1975 and the present. Is that fact – the resultant of a complicated interplay of political, bureaucratic, and professional forces – to be accepted as evidence that mass incarceration is a good policy, and the “counter-intuitive” finding that, past a given point, expanding incarceration tends, on balance, to increase crime be ignored because it’s merely social science?

My answer is yes, it should be counted as evidence, but that it is not close to dispositive. We can not glibly conclude that we now live in the best of all possible worlds. I devoted several chapters to trying to lay out some principles for evaluating when, why and how we should consider, initiate and retrospectively evaluate reforms to our social institutions.

Kleiman’s last question is:

Should the widespread belief, implemented in policy, that only formal treatment cures substance abuse cause us to ignore the evidence to the contrary provided by both naturalistic studies and the finding of the HOPE RCT that consistent sanctions can reliably extinguish drug-using behavior even among chronic criminally-active substance abusers?

My answer to this is no, and a large fraction of the article (and the book) is devoted to making the case that exactly such randomized trials really are the gold standard for the kind of knowledge that is required to make reliable, non-obvious predictions that rationally outweigh settled practice and even common sense. The major caveat to the evaluation of this specific program (about which Kleiman is deeply expert) is whether or not the experiment has been replicated, as I also make the argument that replication is essential to drawing valid conclusions from such experiments – the principle that Arnold Kling called in a review of the article, “Don’t trust one-offs.”

Steven Pearlstein at WaPo

Steve Sailer:

That all sounds plausible, but I’ve been a social science stats geek since 1972, when the high school debate topic that year was education, so I’m aware that Manzi’s implications are misleading.

First, while experiments are great, correlation studies of naturally occurring data can be extremely useful. Second, a huge number of experiments have been done in the social sciences.

Third, the social sciences have come up with a vast amount of knowledge that is useful, reliable, and nonobvious, at least to our elites.

For example, a few years, Mayor Bloomberg and NYC schools supremo Joel Klein decided to fix the ramshackle admissions process to the gifted schools by imposing a standardized test on all applicants. Blogger Half Sigma immediately predicted that the percentage of Asians and whites admitted would rise at the expense of blacks and Hispanics, which would cause a sizable unexpected political problem for Bloomberg and Klein. All that has come to pass.

This inevitable outcome should have been obvious to Bloomberg and Klein from a century of social science data accumulation, but it clearly was not obvious to them.

No, the biggest problem with social science research is not methodological; it’s that we just don’t like the findings. The elites of America don’t like what the social sciences have uncovered about, say, crime, education, discrimination, immigration, and so forth.

Andrew Sullivan:

But there is a concept in this crucial conservative distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom that has been missing so far: individual judgment. A social change can never be proven in advance to be the right answer to a pressing problem. We can try to understand previous examples; we can examine large randomized trials; but in the end, we have to make a judgment about the timeliness and effectiveness of certain changes. It is the ability to sense when such a moment is ripe that we used to call statesmanship. It is that quality that no wonkery can ever replace.

It is why we elect people and not algorithms.

Will Wilkinson:

In my thinking about the contrasts between Rawlsian and Hayekian liberalism, I’ve begun to think about the former as the “liberalism of respect” and the latter as the “liberalism of discovery.” The liberalism of discovery recognizes the pervasiveness of our ignorance and the necessity of liberty for the emergence of useful knowledge. I would argue that the ideal of a social order embodying respect for persons as free and equal–the ideal of the liberalism of respect–comes to seem appealing only after a society has attained a certain level of economic development and general education, and these are largely consequences of a prior history of the relatively free play of the mechanisms of discovery celebrated by liberals like Hayek and Jim. But liberals of respect have tended to overlook the conditions under which people come to find the their favored ideal worth aspiring to, and so have tended to fail to acknowledge in their theories of justice the role of the institutions of discovery in creating and maintaining a society of mutual respect and fair reciprocity.

Via Sullivan, Kleiman responds to Manzi:

I suppose I’ll have to read Manzi’s book to find out how existing practices constitute “(metaphorical) judgments about packages of policy decisions;” I’m inclined to regard them as mostly mere resultants-of-forces, with little claim to deference. (Thinking that existing arrangements somehow embody tacit knowledge is a different matter from thinking that big changes are likely to have unexpected consequences, mostly bad, though both are arguments for caution about grand projects.)

I’m also less unimpressed than Manzi is with how much non-obvious stuff about humans living together the social sciences have already taught us. That supply and demand will, without regulation, come into equilibrium at some price was a dazzling and radical social-scientific claim when Adam Smith and his friends suggested it. So too for Ricardo’s analysis of comparative advantage, which, while it doesn’t fully support the free-trade religion that has grown up around it, at least creates a reasonable presumption that trade is welfare-increasing.

The superiority of reward to punishment in changing behavior; the importance of cognitive-dissonance and mean-regression effects in (mis)shaping individual and social judgments; the intractable problem of public-goods contributions; the importance of social capital; the problems created by asymmetric information and the signaling processes it supports; the crucial importance of focal points; the distinction between positive-feedback and negative-feedback processes; the distinction between zero-sum and variable-sum games; the pervasiveness of imperfect rationality in the treatment of risk and of time-value, and the consequent possibility that people will, indeed, damage themselves voluntarily: none of these was obvious when proposed, and all of them are now, I claim, sufficiently well-established to allow us to make policy choices based on them, with some confidence about likely results. (So, for that matter, is the Keynesian analysis of insufficient demand and what to do about it.)

But, if I read Manzi’s response correctly, my original comment allowed a merely verbal disagreement to exaggerate the extent of the underlying substantive disagreement. If indeed Manzi can offer some systematic analysis of how to look at existing institutions, figure out which ones might profitably be changed, try out a range of plausible changes, gather careful evidence about the results of those changes, and modify further in light of those results, then Manzi proposes what I would call a “scientific” approach to making public policy.

Manzi responds to Kleiman:

I think that he is reading my response correctly. While I don’t think that “all I meant” was that “you shouldn’t read some random paper in an economics or social-pysch journal” and propose X, I certainly believe that. Most important, I acknowledge enthusiastically his “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” point that the recognition of our ignorance should apply to things that I theorize are good ideas, as much as it does to anything else. The law of unintended consequences does not only apply to Democratic proposals.

In fact, I have argued for supporting charter schools instead of school vouchers for exactly this reason. Even if one has the theory (as I do) that we ought to have a much more deregulated market for education, I more strongly hold the view that it is extremely difficult to predict the impacts of such drastic change, and that we should go one step at a time (even if on an experimental basis we are also testing more radical reforms at very small scale). I go into this in detail for the cases of school choice and social security privatization in the book.

Megan McArdle:

I have been reading with great interest the back-and-forth between Mark Kleiman and Jim Manzi on how much more humble we ought to be about new policy changes.  I know and like both men personally, as well as having a healthy respect for two formidable intellects, so I’ve greatly enjoyed the exchange.

Naturally, this has put me in mind of just how hard it is to predict policy outcomes–how easy it is to settle on some intuitively plausible outcome, without considering some harder-to-imagine countervailing force.

Consider the supply-siders.  The thing is intuitively appealling; when we get more money from working, we ought to be willing to.  And it is a mathematical truism that revenue must maximize at some point.  Why couldn’t we be on the right-hand side of the Laffer Curve?

It was entirely possible that we were; unfortunately, it wasn’t true.  And one of the reasons that supply-siders failed was that they were captivated by that one appealing intuition.  In economics, it’s known as the “substitution effect”–as your wages go up, leisure becomes relatively more expensive relative to work, so you tend to do less of the former, more of the latter.

Unfortunately, the supply-siders missed another important effect, known as the “income effect”.  Which is to say that as you get richer, you demand more of some goods, and less of others.  And one of the goods you demand more of as you get richer–a class of goods known as “superior goods”–is leisure.

Of course, some people are so driven that they will simply work until they drop in the traces.  But most people like leisure.  So say you raise the average wage by 10%.  Suddenly people are bringing home 10% more income every hour.  Now, maybe this makes them all excited so they decide to work more.  On the other hand, maybe they decide they were happy at their old income, and now they can enjoy their old income while working 9% fewer hours.  Cutting taxes could actually reduce total output.

(We will not go into the question of how much most people can control their hours–on the one hand, most people can’t, very well, but on the other hand, those who can tend to be the high-earning types who pay most of your taxes.)

Which happens depends on which effect is stronger.  In practice, apparently neither was strong enough to thoroughly dominate, at least not when combined with employers who still demanded 40 hour weeks.  You do probably get a modest boost to GDP from tax cuts.  But you also get falling tax revenue.

Naturally, even-handedness demands that I here expose the wrong-headedness of some liberal scheme.  And as it happens, I have one all ready in the oven here:  the chimera of reducing emergency room use.  The argument that health care reform could somehow at least partially pay for itself by keeping people from using the emergency room was always dubious.  As I, and others argued, there’s not actually that much evidence that people use the emergency room because they are uninsured–rather than because they have to work during normal business hours, are poor planners, or are afraid that immigration may somehow find them at a free clinic.

Moreover, we argued, non-emergent visits to the emergency room mostly use the spare capacity of trauma doctors; the average cost may be hundreds of dollars, but the marginal cost of slotting ear infections in when you don’t happen to have a sucking chest wound, is probably pretty minimal.

But even I was not skeptical enough to predict what actually happened in Massachusetts, which is that emergency room usage went up after they implemented health care reform.

Leave a comment

Filed under Go Meta

Phytoplankton Numbers Are Phalling

Lauren Morello at Scientific American:

The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.

The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world’s oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet’s carbon cycle.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.

The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.

Ed Yong at Discover:

Graduate student Daniel Boyce focused on some of oceans’ smallest but most important denizens – the phytoplankton. These tiny creatures are the basis of marine food webs, the foundations upon which these watery ecosystems are built. They produce around half of the Earth’s organic matter and much of its oxygen. And they are disappearing. With a set of data that stretches back 100 years, Boyce found that phytoplankton numbers have fallen by around 1% per year over the last century as the oceans have become warmer, and if anything, their decline is getting faster.  Our blue planet is becoming less green with every year.

Meanwhile, post-doc Derek Tittensor has taken a broader view, looking at the worldwide distributions of over 11,500 seagoing species in 13 groups, from mangroves and seagrasses, to sharks, squids, and corals. His super-census reveals three general trends – coastal species are concentrated around the western Pacific, while ocean-going ones are mostly found at temperate latitudes, in two wide bands on either side of the equator. And the only thing that affected the distribution of all of these groups was temperature.

Together, the results from the two studies hammer home a familiar message – warmer oceans will be very different places. Rising sea temperatures could “rearrange the global distribution of life in the ocean” and destabilise their food webs at their very root. None of this knowledge was easily won – it’s the result of decades of monitoring and data collection, resulting in millions of measurements.

Boyce’s study, for example, really began in 1865, when an Italian priest and astronomer called Father Pietro Angelo Secchi invented a device for measuring water clarity. His “Secchi disk” is fantastically simple – it’s a black-and-white circle that is lowered until the observer can’t see it any more. This depth reveals how transparent the water is, which is directly related to how much phytoplankton it contains. This simple method has been used since 1899. Boyce combined it with measurements of the pigment chlorophyll taken from research vessels, and satellite data from the last decade.

Boyce’s data revealed a very disturbing trend. Phytoplankton numbers have fallen across the world over the last century, particularly towards the poles and in the open oceans. The decline has accelerated in some places, and total numbers have fallen by around 40% since the 1950s. Only in a few places have phytoplankton populations risen. These include parts of the Indian Ocean and some coastal areas where industrial run-off fertilises the water, producing choking blooms of plankton.

On a yearly basis, the rise and fall of the phytoplankton depends on big climate events like the El Nino Southern Oscillation. But in the long-term, nothing predicted the numbers of phytoplankton better than the surface temperature of the seas. Phytoplankton need sunlight to grow, so they’re constrained to the upper layers of the ocean and depends on nutrients welling up from below. But warmer waters are less likely to mix in this way, which starves the phytoplankton and limits their growth.

Michael O’Hare:

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.

Kevin Drum:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can’t possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action. As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you’d rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

Megan McArdle:

The die-off of most of the phytoplankton would be a huge catastrophe.  However, here are some reasons that we shouldn’t succumb to outright panic quite yet:

1.  It’s one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they’re using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we’re now using.  That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we’re burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we’re burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction.

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen; I’m not a fan of tampering with large, complex systems that I don’t really understand, which is why I tend not to support much direct government intervention in the economy–and why I do, nonetheless, support a hefty carbon tax.

But there’s a certain tendency to ignore mitigating offsets, such as the fact that higher carbon concentrations make terrestrial plants grow more lushly, sucking up some of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At least, as long as we don’t turn them into biofuels, that is.  There’s also a tendency to ignore mitigation rather than reduction, on the grounds that emissions reduction is “easier”.  Well, I suppose it is easier if you assume away the political problems.  But no matter how hard I assume, I keep waking up in a world where we’ve made no meaningful progress on emissions reductions.  At this point, I’ve got more faith in America’s engineering talent than in her ability to conquer fierce political resistance to reductions at home and abroad.

Brad Plumer at TNR on McArdle:

She’s partly right. Not every side effect will be negative. Just this week, The New York Times ran a piece about how marmots will thrive in a hotter world. So, three cheers for marmots. But the bad news tends to far outweigh the good. As the IPCC concluded in 2007, “Costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will vary widely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.” No one’s ignoring the upsides. They’re just focused on the larger downsides. For instance, McArdle suggests that more CO2 in the air will boost plant growth, which in turn will help suck more carbon out of the air and ameliorate things somewhat. It might surprise her to learn that scientists are perfectly well aware of that fact. But recent modeling suggests that this effect will likely be offset by other plant-related factors—like changes in evaporation—and the net result will likely be more warming, not less.

One main point to note here is that, on the whole, global warming will be neutral for this round little rock adrift in the ether that we like to call Earth. You could even say this is an exciting time for Mother Nature. Big changes are afoot. Some species will thrive and many others will die. Evolution will proceed apace. There will still be some forms of life around even if the planet heats up by 5°C or 10°C. As McArdle rightly notes, there have been periods in the past, millions of years ago, when carbon concentrations in the atmosphere were even higher than today, and, to quote Jurassic Park, life found a way.

The problem here is for one very particular life form: people. As I wrote in this TNR piece on planetary boundaries, we big-brained hominids have enjoyed a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years—a geological period dubbed the Holocene. Sea levels have been kept in check. Temperatures have fluctuated around a narrow band. And that relative predictability has enabled us to stay rooted in one location, to set up farms and cities, to plan for the future. We’ve adapted very well to the planet we have, and we’ve grown quite used to it. Most of our infrastructure has been built under the impression that the planet will basically look the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. That means that wrenching shifts in our ecosystem run the risk of being extremely painful—in the same way a big disruption to our financial system was extremely painful.

The second problem is that we just don’t know what’s in store. By belching up millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re running a massive science experiment on the planet, one that can’t really be reversed. Maybe this phytoplankton stuff is just a blip. Or maybe it’s part of an ominous trend that’s going to rearrange the face of the oceans as we know it—oceans we’ve come to rely on for our survival. That doesn’t strike me as a gamble worth taking.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Science

It Is Far Away, It Is Hot, And It Is Not Named Mel Gibson

Phil Plait at Discover:

Astronomers have confirmed that an object in an image from 2008 — thought at the time to possibly be a direct image of a planet orbiting another star — is in fact a planet.

I’ll explain in a sec, but I want people to understand that this discovery is being touted as the first direct image of a planet around another star. It isn’t. Nor is it the first direct image of a planet orbiting a sun-like star. What this is is the first direct image of a planet orbiting a sun-like star taken using a ground-based telescope. While that may sound overly picky, it’s actually a significant achievement, and worth noting.

Rebecca Boyle at Popular Science:

“Our new observations rule out this chance alignment possibility, and thus confirms that the planet and the star are related to each other,” says David Lafrenière of the University of Montreal and Center for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec.

The team also took the planet’s spectrum, measuring its temperature and composition. Now that they know it really does orbit this star, Lafrenière retroactively claims firstie on an exoplanet spectrum.

Other famous exoplanet photos have shown us blocked-out stars with fuzzy dots at their sides. This one shows the blazing star, too, putting in context that this is really a solar system.

The planet is also special because it challenges planetary scientists’ best planet-formation theories. It’s far from its star, about 300 times farther than Jupiter is from the sun. It would take the planet roughly 1,000 years to complete one orbit.

The unlikely locale of this alien world could be telling us that nature has more than one way of making planets,” says Ray Jayawardhana of the University of Toronto, who co-authored a paper on the findings, recently accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal. “Or, it could be hinting at a violent youth when close encounters between newborn planets hurl some siblings out to the hinterlands.”

Denise Chow at SPACE.com:

The host star, which has an estimated mass of about 85 percent that of our sun, is located approximately 500 light-years away in a group of young stars called the Upper Scorpius Association that formed about 5 million years ago.

The planet has an estimated temperature of over 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,500 degrees Celsius). This makes the planet much hotter than Jupiter, which has an atmospheric cloud-top temperature of approximately minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 110 degrees Celsius).

The relatively young age of the system — our solar system is 4.6 billion years old — explains the high temperature of the planet, according to the researchers. [The Strangest Alien Planets]

The contraction of the planet under its own gravity during its formation quickly raised its temperature to thousands of degrees. But, once this contraction phase is over, the planet will slowly cool down by radiating infrared light. Within billions of years, the planet will eventually reach a temperature that is much more similar to that of Jupiter.

Robert Quigley at Geekosystem:

Why did the confirmation process take two years? Astronomers had to account for the possibility that the planet wasn’t actually orbiting 1RSX J160929.1-210524, but that it merely appeared to be doing so by chance. Space.com quotes the astronomer who led the research team involved as saying, “Our new observations rule out this chance alignment possibility, and thus confirms that the planet and the star are related to each other.”

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

According to Radar Online, Mel Gibson, anti-Semitic star of What Women Want, yelled racist garbage at the embattled mother of his child. Anyway, speaking of radar, guess what scientists located via telescope today? Alien planet! Alien planet, everyone!

According to Space.com, designated non–Mel Gibson Internet safe haven, “[a] planet outside of our solar system, said to be the first ever directly photographed by telescopes on Earth, has been officially confirmed to be orbiting a sun-like star, according to follow-up observations.” The planet is around 2,700 degrees Farenheit, approximately the temperature in New York this past Monday. The Huffington Post reports that the planet is orbiting the star 1RXS 1609 and is part of a star cluster known as the Upper Scorpius Association. Now that you are more familiar with our new alien friend, let’s pick a name. We’ll humbly put forth the following for the consideration of the scientific community: Harold, Maisie, Mad Max, Jupiter II: 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Christ, and Planet Hollywood.

Leave a comment

Filed under Science

Popping Out Children Like Brooms In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Part Of “Fantasia”

Bryan Caplan at Wall Street Journal:

Amid the Father’s Day festivities, many of us are privately asking a Scroogely question: “Having kids—what’s in it for me?” An economic perspective on happiness, nature and nurture provides an answer: Parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and much larger than it has to be.

Most of us believe that kids used to be a valuable economic asset. They worked the farm, and supported you in retirement. In the modern world, the story goes, the economic benefits of having kids seem to have faded away. While parents today make massive personal and financial sacrifices, children barely reciprocate. When they’re young, kids monopolize the remote and complain about the food, but do little to help around the house; when you’re old, kids forget to return your calls and ignore your advice, but take it for granted that you’ll continue to pay your own bills.

Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we’ve finally grasped the winning strategy. In almost all developed nations, the total fertility rate—the number of children the average woman can expect to have in her lifetime—is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. (The U.S. is a bit of an outlier, with a rate just around replacement.) Empirical happiness research seems to validate this pessimism about parenting: All else equal, people with kids are indeed less happy than people without.

[…]

A closer look at the General Social Survey also reveals that child No. 1 does almost all the damage. Otherwise identical people with one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy. Beyond that, additional children are almost a happiness free lunch. Each child after the first reduces your probability of being very happy by a mere .6 percentage points.

Happiness researchers also neglect a plausible competing measure of kids’ impact on parents’ lives: customer satisfaction. If you want to know whether consumers are getting a good deal, it’s worth asking, “If you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?” The only high-quality study of parents’ satisfaction dates back to a nation-wide survey of about 1,400 parents by the Research Analysis Corp. in 1976, but its results were stark: When asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?” 91% of parents said yes, and only 7% expressed buyer’s remorse.

You might think that everyone rationalizes whatever decision they happened to make, but a 2003 Gallup poll found that wasn’t true. When asked, “If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?” 24% of childless adults over the age of 40 wanted to be child-free the second time around, and only 5% more were undecided. While you could protest that childlessness isn’t always a choice, it’s also true that many pregnancies are unplanned. Bad luck should depress the customer satisfaction of both groups, but parenthood wins hands down.

The main problem with parenting pessimists, though, is that they assume there’s no acceptable way to make parenting less work and more fun. Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money and time are all that stands between their kids and failure. But decades’ worth of twin and adoption research says the opposite: Parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.

Think about everything parents want for their children. The traits most parents hope for show family resemblance: If you’re healthy, smart, happy, educated, rich, righteous or appreciative, the same tends to be true for your parents, siblings and children. Of course, it’s difficult to tell nature from nurture. To disentangle the two, researchers known as behavioral geneticists have focused on two kinds of families: those with twins, and those that adopt. If identical twins show a stronger resemblance than fraternal twins, the reason is probably nature. If adoptees show any resemblance to the families that raised them, the reason is probably nurture.

Parents try to instill healthy habits that last a lifetime. But the two best behavioral genetic studies of life expectancy—one of 6,000 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900, the other of 9,000 Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925—found zero effect of upbringing. Twin studies of height, weight and even teeth reach similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that diet, exercise and tooth-brushing don’t matter—just that parental pressure to eat right, exercise and brush your teeth after meals fails to win children’s hearts and minds.

Parents also strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart. In fact, pioneering research by University of Minnesota psychologist David Lykken found that twins raised apart were more alike in happiness than twins raised together. Maybe it’s just a fluke, but it suggests that growing up together inspires people to differentiate themselves; if he’s the happy one, I’ll be the malcontent.

David Mills at First Things:

“Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we’ve finally grasped the winning strategy,” writes Bryan Caplan in The Breeder’s Cup, published in The Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition. Readers will remember the widely promoted study of a few years ago declaring that having children made parents less happy or, depending on the writer, outright unhappy.

In yet another example of the mainline press picking up on what our own David Goldman had been saying for years in his Spengler columns (search “demography” and “population”) and in Demographics and Depression, Caplan argues that the studies we have show that this equation of limited families with the good life is wrong. After challenging the study I just mentioned, he writes:

Happiness researchers also neglect a plausible competing measure of kids’ impact on parents’ lives: customer satisfaction. If you want to know whether consumers are getting a good deal, it’s worth asking, “If you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?”

The only high-quality study of parents’ satisfaction dates back to a nation-wide survey of about 1,400 parents by the Research Analysis Corp. in 1976, but its results were stark: When asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?” 91% of parents said yes, and only 7% expressed buyer’s remorse.

You might think that everyone rationalizes whatever decision they happened to make, but a 2003 Gallup poll found that wasn’t true. When asked, “If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?” 24% of childless adults over the age of 40 wanted to be child-free the second time around, and only 5% more were undecided.

While you could protest that childlessness isn’t always a choice, it’s also true that many pregnancies are unplanned. Bad luck should depress the customer satisfaction of both groups, but parenthood wins hands down.

He goes on to argue that parents could make themselves happier, but his reason is a little uncomfortable: “the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.”

Matt Zeitlin:

For Caplan, you start with what economists think, then see what voters think and then chalk up the difference as evidence as irrationality. He, in accordance with this general faith in what economists think, proposes all sorts of reforms that would take decision making power out of the hands of the public and into the hands of economists, like giving the Council of Economic Advisors “the power to invalidate legislation as ‘uneconomical,’”  and giving college graduates an extra vote.

The problem for Caplan is that economists generally agree that voters are rational and that insomuch as voters are misinformed, it tends to cancel itself out. So, Caplan has to make a further argument for why we should trust economists on policy issues, but why we should ignore their collective judgment on whether or not voters are rational.

He seems to have pulled this trick again in regard to his arguments for why, despite the rather robust finding in happiness research that having kids decreases reported happiness, people should have lots of kids. And, to take this argument even further, that they should have kids for selfish reasons; they should do so for themselves. Now, he makes some arguments for why this research need not lead to non-fertile outcomes and why the stuff that leads to the negative happiness effects due to having kids isn’t all that useful or important, but we are still left with another case where Caplan is making a significant, contestable point that is at odds with what economists’ think about the issue.

I’m not saying that this is a bad thing in and of itself, but it sure puts Caplan in a weird position where he agrees with economists on everything except the stuff he devotes his time to researching and writing about.

Will Wilkinson at Megan McArdle’s place:

Bryan really struggles with the fact that children tend to have a negative effect on self-reported happiness. (Most economists are dismissive of survey evidence, but, to his credit, Bryan isn’t.) He tries to minimize the damage this finding does to his argument by pointing out that the negative effect is small for the first kid, and even smaller for additional kids. But it remains that if one is trying to maximize happiness, no kids appears to be the best bet and fewer is better than more.

Of course, self-reported happiness is just one dubiously reliable piece of evidence about the effect of kids on well-being. The trouble with Bryan’s strategy in the WSJ essay is that he resorts to even less reliable survey evidence to support his position. He cites polls that show that people tend not to report regrets about having had kids, but that a large majority of those who have not had kids say that would choose to have them if they “had it to do over again.” Now, Darwinian logic suggests that the belief that one would be better off without children will not tend to be widespread. That is, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues, we should expect to find conviction in the satisfactions of parenthood to be strong and all-but universal whether or not those convictions reflect the truth. So one would want check them against, say, the self-reported life satisfaction of those with and without children. Or, if one is inclined to think like an economist, one might say “talk is cheap” and check these beliefs against what people actually do.

In that case, what one finds is that increases in average levels of education, levels of disposable income, gender equality, and access to birth control — that is, increases in the ability of people (and especially women) to deliberately control the conditions of their own lives — generally lead people to choose a smaller rather than larger number of children. As far as I can tell, Bryan’s response is that it “lacks perspective” to take at face value this truly striking tendency of choice under conditions of increasing personal control. If Bryan really thinks rising education, wealth, and gender equality have somehow made us worse at evaluating the costs and benefits of children, he probably ought to turn in his economist card.

None of this is to say that there aren’t excellent reasons to have families larger than the relatively small rich-country norm. It’s just that these tend not to be the kinds of reasons economists consider “selfish.”

Razib Khan at Discover:

Being an economist he focuses on rational individual behavior, but I want to point to another issue: group norms. In the left-liberal progressive post-graduate educated circles which I come into contact with in the USA childlessness is not uncommon, and bears no stigma (on the contrary, I hear often of implicit and explicit pressure on graduate students to forgo children for the sake of maximizing labor hour input into research over one’s lifetime from advisors). On the other hand, the norm of a two-child family is also very strong, and going above replacement brings upon you a fair amount of attention. The rationale here is often environmental, more children = more of a carbon footprint. But my friend Gregory Cochran has stated that as an individual who is well above replacement whose social milieu is more conservative that he perceives that more than two children is also perceived as deviant in Middle American society. In other words, the reasoning may differ, but the intuition is the same (in Italy the reasoning mostly involves the cost of raising children from the perspective of parents, both in cash and time).

The numbers in the General Social Survey tell the tale. In 1972 42% of adults had more than 2 children. In 2008 32% did. More relevantly in 1972 47% of adults between the ages of 25 and 45 had more than 2 children. In 2008 the figure for that age group is 27% for those with more than 2 children.

Of course the numbers mix up a lot of different subcultures. One anecdote I’d like to relate is a conversation I had with a secular left-of-center university educated couple. They expressed the aspiration toward 4 children. I asked them out of curiosity about the population control issue, and they looked at me like I was joking. It needs to be mentioned that they weren’t American, rather they were from a Northern European country which seems on the exterior to resemble the United States very much. But it reminds us of the importance of group norms in shaping life choices and expectations, the implicit framework for our explicit choices.

All that goes to my point that Bryan Caplan’s project will be most effective among demographics geared toward prioritizing individual choice, analysis and utility maximization, as opposed to relying upon the wisdom of group norms. Economists, quantitative social science and finance types, libertarians, etc.

Andrew Leonard at Salon:

But that leads us to the truly deranged part of the argument: Caplan believes that we shouldn’t be working so hard to be good parents, because, hey, the quality of our parenting doesn’t really make any difference to how our kids turn out. He cites a few behavioral genetics studies, mostly on sets of twins, that purport to show very little difference in outcomes when children with the same genetic makeup are raised by different parents.

It’s the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free parenting card!

Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it’s great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments” — and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids “for their own good” rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.

So we should have more kids, and spend less time and effort parenting them, and just kick back and enjoy the fruits of our non-labors, presumably generated when our offspring stroke our egos by visiting us in our nursery homes and telling us how cool we were for setting no curfews and letting them play videogames until they keeled over in front of their computers from lack of proper hydration.

I guess I do see a certain libertarian world view integrity here. If you judge modes of political organization from the foundational precept that good government is impossible, then why not also assume that good parenting is, if not impossible, merely useless? If you’re going to dump John Maynard Keynes then why not throw out Dr. Spock as well?

Who knew that lazy permissiveness would become a calling card of libertarian parenting ideology? I’ll concede that there are tendencies towards over-parenting in American culture that verge on the extreme, and could quite possibly be counter-productive. The frantic competition to get your baby into the best pre-school in Manhattan — a struggle that seems to start before the child is even born — may not be the most efficient use of resources. Caplan is certainly right on one point, we should relax more — relaxed parents, I would submit, are better parents. But to leap from that starting point to the contention that our choices have little effect on our children’s development seems, in my own anecdotal understanding of the world, to go too far. Even worse, it smacks of an abdication of responsibility, a surrender to the worst kind of easy rationalization. Good parenting is hard, but even if the differences we are making are only perceivable at the margins, that shouldn’t absolve us from the necessity and pleasure of making any effort at all. It’s not a winning or losing strategy: It’s a way to be in the world.

Tony Woodlief at Megan McArdle’s place:

To be sure, there are too many parents who, despite their children, remain narcissistic nimrods. But the nature of parenting is to beat that out of you. There’s just no time to spend on ourselves, at least not like we would if we didn’t have babies to wash and toys to clean up, usually in the middle of the night, after impaling our feet on them.
People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There’s something to be said for ordeals — like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken — which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all. I’m still trying to get it right.
I suppose an economist could make this all fit. What I’m really saying, the economist might contend, is that one element of my self-interest, in addition to enjoying a leisurely meal, and plenty of sleep, and the ability to go away on vacations without worrying about who will watch the youngsters, is not becoming (remaining?) a jerk. Kids certainly don’t guarantee that won’t happen, but they help mitigate the risk. And if we conceptualize that self-interest, in turn, as happiness, we’re right back where we started.
But I wonder if the questions would change. Instead of asking parents and non-parents whether they are happy right now, we might ask whether they are becoming more like the people they want to be. And then we might see children not as factors that may or may not be contributing to our happiness, but as opportunities to practice what most of us — perhaps me most of all — need to do more often, which is to put someone else before ourselves.

James Poulos at Ricochet:

The unique thing about children is that, at one and the same time, we both share our identity with them and don’t. In some ways, there’s no one more deeply ‘identical’ than you and your child. But in other ways, of course — marvelously awesome and frustrating ways — there’s no one more deeply different, precisely because your kid’s differences with you are so intimately connected to your own differences with him or her. That’s the amazing foundation of an astonishing kind of relationship. There’s nothing like it. Not even friendship compares.

In our broader relations with at first undifferentiated ‘others’, it makes us happy to develop friendships. There’s something inherent, I think, in the connection between friendship and happiness. A happy society is one where lots and lots of people are friends with each other — where there are ‘thick webs of social trust,’ as an academic might say. And yes, a happy family is one where relations are of a kind we’d describe in popular shorthand as ‘friendly’…but that’s not quite it. That’s not the full story, is it?

Happiness might not be beside the point of life. But the stubborn persistence of family leads me to believe that oftentimes we humans want, maybe desperately, maybe in spite of ourselves, something more than happiness. If we ignore this in our political life, we’re going to wind up with a system of laws and a power structure that cuts against the grain of that powerful human longing. And the costs of that might be very high indeed.

James Joyner:

Moreover, I’d argue that the definitions of “happiness” at work here are dubious.

My 17-month-old woke up a few minutes ago and interrupted my writing.  She does that kind of thing a lot.   Indeed, pretty much every morning.   And when she does, I have to stop what I’m doing, usually at an inopportune time.   And that makes me unhappy!

Is this momentary inconvenience outweighed by the joy she brings me?  Of course.

But having kids means constant diversion from doing what you want to be doing at any given moment.  And having multiple children, I’m reliably told, tends to increase that phenomenon geometrically.    Indeed, parents the world over agree:  Kids are a giant pain in the ass!

Those of us who are reasonably intelligent and had children by conscious decision knew all this going in.   Indeed, one of the amusing things about impending first-time fatherhood is the number of people who dispense the advice “It’ll change your life!”   But that doesn’t make the sacrifices and trade-offs less real.

While I’m a social scientist by training, I’m not a sociologist, much less steeped in the literature in question here.   But I don’t know that it’s possible to develop measures to quantify the thousands of instances of “unhappiness” that come from the annoyances of parenthood and the less frequent but far more potent joys.   And I certainly don’t think it’s possible to do it in a way that satisfies an economist’s notion of “happiness.”

UPDATE: Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine

Ezra Klein

1 Comment

Filed under Families

So Not Only Are There Definitely Aliens, But They Are Stealing Our TVs

Chris McKay:

Recent results from the Cassini mission suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are depleted at the surface of Titan. Both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. However the findings are interesting for astrobiology. Heather Smith and I, in a paper published 5 years ago (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based (rather than water-based) life – ie, organisms called methanogens — on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper (last line of the abstract) was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”

Now there seems to be evidence for all three of these on Titan. Clark et al. (2010, in press in JGR) are reporting depletions of acetylene at the surface. And it has been long appreciated that there is not as much ethane as expected on the surface of Titan. And now Strobel (2010, in press in Icarus) predicts a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface.

This is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting.

Andrew Moseman at Discover:

If there were life on the Saturnian moon of Titan, the thinking goes, it would have to inhabit pools of methane or ethane at a cool -300 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the aid of water. While scientists don’t know just what that life would look like, they can predict what effects such tiny microbes would have on Titan’s atmosphere. That’s why researchers from the Cassini mission are excited now: They’ve found signatures that match those expectations. It’s far from proof of life on Titan, but it leaves the door wide open to the possibility.In 2005, NASA’s Chris McKay put forth a possible scenario for life there: Critters could breathe the hydrogen gas that’s abundant on Titan, and consume a hydrocarbon called acetylene for energy. The first of two studies out recently, published in the journal Icarus, found that something—maybe life, but maybe something else—is using up the hydrogen that descends from Titan’s atmosphere to its surface:

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” says Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored a paper published in the journal Icarus [Popular Science].

Erring on the side of caution, the scientists suggest that life is but one explanation for this chemical oddity. Perhaps some unknown mineral on Titan acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction of hydrogen and carbon to form methane, and that’s what accounts for the vanishing hydrogen. (Normally, the two wouldn’t combine fast enough under the cold conditions on Titan to account for the anomaly.) That would be pretty cool, though not as much of a jolt as Titanic life.

Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today:

Two papers released last week detailing oddities found on Titan have blown the top off the ‘jumping to conclusions’ meter, and following media reports of NASA finding alien life on Saturn‘s hazy moon, scientists are now trying to put a little reality back into the news. “Everyone: Calm down!” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco on Twitter over the weekend. “It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible.” Porco also put out a statement on Monday saying such reports were “the unfortunate result of a knee-jerk rush to sensationalize an exciting but rather complex, nuanced and emotionally-charged issue.”

Astrobiologist Chris McKay told Universe Today that life on Titan is “certainly the most exciting, but it’s not the simplest explanation for all the data we’re seeing.”

McKay suggests everyone needs to take the Occam’s Razor approach, where the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.

The two papers suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are being depleted at the surface of Titan. The first paper by Darrell Strobel shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. This is a disparity between the hydrogen densities that flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second, but none showing up at the surface.

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”

The other paper (link not yet available) led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist, maps hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface and finds a surprising lack of acetylene. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest a high level of acetylene in Titan’s lakes, as high as 1 percent by volume. But this study, using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard Cassini, found very little acetylene on Titan’s surface.

Of course, one explanation for both discoveries is that something on Titan is consuming the hydrogen and acetylene.

Even though both findings are important, McKay feels the crux of any possible life on Titan hinges on verifying Strobel’s discovery about the lack of hydrogen.

“To me, the whole thing hovers on this determination of whether there is this flux of hydrogen is real,” McKay said via phone. “The acetylene has been missing and the ethane has been missing, but that certainly doesn’t generate a lot of excitement, because how much is supposed to be there depends on how much is being made. There are a lot of uncertainties.”

Phil Plait at Discover:

Titan is a monster, the second biggest moon in the solar system at 5150 km (3200 miles) in diameter. If it weren’t orbiting Saturn, it would probably be considered a planet in its own right: it’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto. It has a thick atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, methane, and other molecules. It’s very cold, but it’s known that lakes, probably of liquid methane, exist on the surface.

Five years ago, McKay and other scientists pointed out that if methane-based life existed on Titan, it might be detectable through a surface depletion of ethane, hydrogen, and acetylene. New observations show that this is the case; there are lower amounts of these substances than the chemistry of Titan would indicate.

As McKay points out, “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”

Those are the basics. Go read McKay’s article for details. The point he makes is that the results are preliminary, may yet turn out to be wrong, if they’re right may have non-biological explanations, and we should not conclude biology is involved until we get a lot more evidence.

As far as the media goes, headlines get eyeballs and sell advertisements, of course. But in cases where the news is like this, news outlets should be particularly careful how they phrase things. They know how the public will react to certain phrases, and the phrase “evidence of life” is substantially less accurate and more likely to incite chatter than “evidence for possible life” — and the Telegraph’s technically accurate but seriously misleading “evidence ‘that alien life exists on Saturn’s moon’” is just asking for trouble.

The point is, when it comes to media outlets and big news like this, the phrase going through your head should be a variant of an old one, updated for this modern age:

“Don’t trust, and verify”.

John Matson at Scientific American

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:

This is the kind of research that easily sets hearts aflutter and space nerds to making high-pitched happy squealing sounds, so let’s knock out one basic thing right off the bat: Nobody has discovered alien life. We have not found E.T. This is only a test of the emergency high-pitched happy squealing system.

That said, it probably wouldn’t be remiss to clap your hands delightedly, like a little girl. As I said, nobody has found alien life, but they did find the sort of evidence that might suggest alien life is down there on the surface of Titan, waiting to be found. It’s a little like walking up to a house and finding the front door open, and, inside, a T.V. stand that’s missing a T.V. It’s reasonable to assume the house might have been burglarized, but there are also other plausible explanations and you don’t have enough evidence to know one way or the other.

Rod Dreher

Leave a comment

Filed under Science