Chris Horvat - Polar Oceanographer
Ever wonder what the most-heard phrase in the world is? A good bet would be:
The moving walkway is ending. Please watch your step.
Which repeats every 15 seconds at at least two locations at (approximately) all of the 50,000 airports in the world (assuming there's a few more moving walks at, for example, LHR than in a small regional Tibetan airport). That gives us a quarter of a billion broadcasts per day, meaning it could probably compete with the Muslim call to prayer, "Mind the gap", or that stupid R.Fancourt roofing song for the most heard or repeated non-spoken phrase.
Here's a similar one:
The TSA would like to remind you that unattended baggage is prohibited in the terminal area. Any unattended baggage will be removed by the airport police.
Which got me thinking about what exactly this statement meant. One hears it over and over again, to the point where I'd bet most people can form some approximation of it when asked.
Here's the thing, though: there's a difference between the prohibition of "unattended baggage" and "baggage left unattended". Prohibition necessarily requires an actor to be prohibited from performing an action, in this case leaving your bags alone in an airport. The TSA's statement, however, is banning the unattended baggage itself, without reference to who is to be punished!
This is just a good example of the implicit way language can be used to signify meaning. On its grammatical and lexical construction, the TSA's statement is a bit funky because of the misuse of "prohibition". And this may be by construction, because unattended baggage, by its very nature, has no person to blame for its existence. All interesting things to think about. Just how intelligent is the TSA?
Still, this is the danger of speaking about explicit things (scientific results, for example) using a language which places a considerable weight on implicit meaning. Words mean things that are not immediately self-evident, but data and information is independent of context, which is one of a myriad ways of viewing the reflexive disdain scientists and journalists have for one another.
Here is a link to a recent paper discussing the negative correlation between African literacy rates in the colonial and post-colonial times and the "slave export intensity" during the pre-colonial era.
Cherokee Gothic rightly points out that this is an example of economic path-dependency, a concept familiar to mathematicians: for certain quantities, it isn't where you end up, but how you got there.
Example: if one pegs their net worth at the value of the stock AAPL, and through some sorcery predicts every upturn and downturn in the stock price, liquidating at peaks and converting all cash to stock at local minima, in a year that person would have a considerable amount more money than the person who held the stock fixed, and much more than the person who made the opposite choices. The path taken to the end is what caused the discrepancy in wealth after a year.
Path dependancy is a familiar trope in political theater and is, depending on the political and philosophical bent of the person, the reason for gender and race gaps in education, poverty, and incarceration. It can be summarized (thanks to Scott E. Page) in the "old Bostonian jump roping rhyme"
I eat my peas with honey. I’ve done it all my life. It makes ’em taste quite funny, but it keeps them on the knife.
And so this recent paper attempts to gauge the level to which slave export has biased literacy rates in African countries over the proceeding centuries. The answer? According to the abstract: "a negative and signicant relationship between slave
export intensity before the colonial era and literacy rates during the colonial era."
Here's the data used to support that claim, buried in a plot in the supplementary material. This image plots literacy rate against some normalized quantity representing pre-colonial slave exports as a percentage of the extant population. Where's the trend?
To me (and this is just me), this appears to be a classic case of oversimplification. If the author wrote this paper with the exact opposite conclusion, I would be equally swayed. What causes the four outlier groups in slave export to be there? Why is there seemingly no trend? Why did the author connect two clusters with a line and call it a trend?
Bad science, even in Path Dependancy
A pretty interesting article from Massey University a few years back attempts to understand how much of the placebo effect is related to the conditioning effect (when I take a drug, I am conditioned to believe I will feel better because of my surroundings, so I feel better) or the expectancy effect (when I take a drug, I expect that it will work, so I feel better).
A number of interesting conclusions come out of this, notably that our tolerance to drugs is associated to our surroundings (as an example, consider examples of "learned tolerance", whereby drugs like alcohol affect people differently depending on their surroundings, leading to overdoses for alcoholics who find themselves drinking in unfamiliar places).
But my favorite one concerns the fact that, like humans, rats exhibit the placebo effect. This can serve to root out the misconception that the placebo effect is some mystical, made-up response at a high intellectual level. Rather it is an innate physical mechanism which exists across the animal kingdom. This can help to explain its complete prevalence (and its relationship with confirmation bias) among those susceptible to believing pseudoscience, and the reason we have such a hard time getting rid of it.
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has a more nuanced take on the SCOTUS decision from yesterday:
You might think that the law draws a bright line between discoveries which cannot be patented and inventions which can but that’s not correct. Discoveries can be patented and the ruling goes out of its way to push back against the view that they can’t. The ruling correctly notes that a “considerable danger” is that patents on basic ideas and tools would “inhibit future innovation”. Yet the law makes no mention of these considerations and the court provides no guidance on implementation.
Its important to look on the different conceptions of "discovery" here. The way I see it, there are two types of discovery:
The metaphysical discoveries (say what you want about Platonic ideals) do not exist on their own. They exist only as a byproduct of careful thought, and are essentially developed ideas and frameworks for forming ideas. Many of the metaphysical "discoveries" made by humans over the previous thousands of years have been lost to current science, mostly because they are of no real use to humanity and do not relate to any new physical discovery.
Take a silly example: Fred discovers a new novel way of making fried cups of onion. In two years it may be forgotten, and nobody but Fred may ever rediscover the method. If Fred has his memory wiped Men-in-Black style, he'll be able to find out what an onion is, even if he can't fry them just so.
It is clear to me that physical discoveries should not be patentable, since there is nothing special about them once found. To patent something which you cannot exercise any true ownership over is impossible (there is much to say here about piracy and software patents).
But there are real concerns about the discovery of ideas: the construction of a new model train should be patentable, because this is a developed strategy, wholly constructed and unique to its creator. But should the proof of the Lonely Runner Conjecture be patentable? What if it is a constructivist proof (though it can't be :) )?
In my view, something which is patentable should be so because it at minimum involves the genesis of something. Which is why I think Tabarrok has it all wrong when he says:
The ruling, for example, says that a firm can’t patent a gene that it discovers but it can patent the cDNA that it develops. It’s the discovery, however, that’s expensive. The development of cDNA is today a trivial step. Thus, you can patent the trivial step but not the giant leap.
While we have made a "giant leap" forward in our understanding the world, we didn't create anything new when BRCA was found, merely observed the gene. There has been no giant leap forward in the world, just in what we as humanity know about it. The fact that a gene codes for proteins which act out some role in human biology is true whether we know it or not. So which it may seem less of a leap to understand the development of cDNA for BRCA, it is the only actual "leap" (as it applies to metaphysical discovery) here.
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. - Mark Twain
People are more likely to answer factual questions incorrectly if the facts do not conform to their political biases, even if presented with news stories disconfirming their preferred belief. With money on the line, however, they will. The consequences for climate policy here are rather broad.
Wonkblog writes up the a reading of a recent paper by Larry Bartels at Princeton, who showed that Democrats were:
Much less likely than Republicans to correctly answer questions about whether inflation went down under President Ronald Reagan (it did) and whether unemployment also fell (it did):
A second group of researchers found:
Republicans presented with news articles pointing out that there were no WMDs in Iraq were more likely to say that such weapons were found than Republicans who didn’t read those articles.
The implication here is that people with strong political beliefs are willing to register their political belief in a survey even at the expense of disconfirming an actual fact, which recalls the beautiful quote by Twain (which he claimed originated in Benjamin Disraeli)
Yet when told that incorrect answers would be penalized by monetary fine, and by including the category "I Don't Know" as a response indicating a sort of "conscientious objection") the partisan gap (remember, this is the spread in answers on a fact based on political affiliation) dropped by 80%.
The two main takeaways here?
This calls into question reports on the acceptance of climate change in the United States: including the results from this Gallup poll.
Gallup shows a major conservative bias towards a belief that climate change is exaggerated, and a liberal bias of similar magnitude (relative to the mean) towards a belief that it is not. Being that the "controversy" over climate change has become such a trenchant partisan issue, and that there is no magic information transmitted to Democrats that Republicans can't access, could it be that people are simply registering their political or religious belief into a survey, rather than their ignorance?
Oceanographer, Mathemagician, and Interested Party