Subscribe to our weekly newsletter
Science's Toughest Test, & Higgs Particle vs Piketty
Good science allows only shakeable faiths. Its toughest test comes when new evidence meets old certainties. By that test some economics seems more art (or math masked religion) than science.
Thomas Piketty’s new book reporting historical inequality data has been called a “masterly diagnosis” that’ll “change...the way we think about society.” But also “a bizarre ideological screed,” with its "main argument...based on two (false) claims."
That seems different from how sciences like physics handle new evidence. The documentary Particle Fever about discovering the Higgs particle shows physicists are ready to dump decades of ideas and work because of new data. The key is what’s considered sacred?
Science's pre-commitments are to rigorous processes, not to particular inputs or outputs. Its experts readily defer to reality as referee. But experts in economics can be “ideologically” pre-committed to sacred assumptions (or results), dominated by “identity protective cognition,” and driven to defend tribal positions.
One aspect of Tyler Cowen’s intertribal Piketty review illustrates. He calls Piketty’s redistributive recommendations “more ideological than analytic,” then complains about “distorting effects” of “intense government control,” asserting that growing the “economy would do more than wealth redistribution to combat...inequality.” But recent IMF research finds “no observed tradeoff between redistributive...institutions and...growth.” Instead “inequality reduces growth”. Are Cowen’s ideological priors encouraging him to discount contrary evidence?
Are disputes in economics doomed to be less decidable, by nature? Some lessons:
1. Dialogue of the deaf: Paul Krugman says economic “principles are by no means universally agreed upon.” Thus data becomes less decisive.
2. Constellation errors: Many plausible pictures can be drawn between economic datapoints.
3. Analytical asymmetries: Flaws are like foreheads—those of others are easier to see. So grant greater weight to the scrutiny of opponents (e.g. Cowen is more reliable critiquing Piketty than in promoting his own views).
4. Procedural props: Escaping our own biases requires assistance, using tools like heterospective or rigorous bias-balancing procedures.
5. Disposable darlings: Experts unwilling to kill their cherished ideas are less trustworthy.
6. Generalize cautiously: Especially with humans lab research isn’t always safely generalizable to all of life (which lacks controlled conditions). But over-extrapolation remains tempting. Here’s an Ezra Klein case. Clive Cook says Piketty’s main conclusions are a stretch.
7. History isn’t sacred: Evidence from the past can disprove universal “laws,” but for humans its rules aren’t always sacred. Innovation happens. Patterns change. Yesterday’s impossibilities become today’s driving forces. This constrains Piketty’s lessons.
8. Pattern fitting: Brimming with complex factors and multiple cascading, often indirect, effects economics is closer to history or ecology than physics. Context is king and the Darwin pattern likely fits better than the Newton pattern.
Economic-man is not the measure of all things. Blessed are they whose experts are humble. And adaptable to life’s messy flux.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.
- Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
- A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
- A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter<p>Still, it's not as if the moon is dripping wet. The observations suggest that a cubic meter of the lunar surface (in the Clavius crater site, at least) contains water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. That's roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water. In comparison, the same plot of land in the Sahara desert contains about 100 times more water.</p><p>But a second study suggests other parts of the lunar surface also contain water — and potentially lots of it. Also publishing their findings in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1198-9#_blank" target="_blank">Nature Astronomy</a> on Monday, the researchers used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study "cold traps" near the moon's polar regions. These areas of the lunar surface are permanently covered in shadows. In fact, about 0.15 percent of the lunar surface is permanently shadowed, and it's here that water could remain frozen for millions of years.</p><p>Some of these permanently shadowed regions are huge, extending more than a kilometer wide. But others span just 1 cm. These smaller "micro cold traps" are much more abundant than previously thought, and they're spread out across more regions of the lunar surface, according to the new research.</p>
Credit: dottedyeti via AdobeStock<p>Still, the second study didn't confirm that ice is embedded in micro cold traps. But if there is, it would mean that water would be much more accessible to astronauts, considering they wouldn't have to travel into deep, shadowy craters to extract water.</p><p>Greater accessibility to water would not only make it easier for astronauts to get drinking water, but could also enable them to generate rocket fuel and power.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers," said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. "If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries."</p>