Sunday, November 25, 2018

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck. Patrick Collison, Michael Nielsen. The Atlantic, Nov 16, 2018

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

What’s causing the productivity slowdown? The subject is controversial among economists, and many different answers have been proposed. Some have argued that it’s merely that existing productivity measures don’t do a good job measuring the impact of new technologies. Our argument here suggests a different explanation, that diminishing returns to spending on science are contributing to a genuine productivity slowdown.

We aren’t the first to suggest that scientific discovery is showing diminishing returns. In 1971, the distinguished biologist Bentley Glass wrote an article in Science arguing that the glory days of science were over, and the most important discoveries had already been made:
It’s hard to believe, for me, anyway, that anything as comprehensive and earthshaking as Darwin’s view of the evolution of life or Mendel’s understanding of the nature of heredity will be easy to come by again. After all, these have been discovered!

In his 1996 book The End of Science, the science writer John Horgan interviewed many leading scientists and asked them about prospects for progress in their own fields. What he found was not encouraging. Here, for instance, is Leo Kadanoff, a leading theoretical physicist, on recent progress in science:
The truth is, there is nothing—there is nothing—of the same order of magnitude as the accomplishments of the invention of quantum mechanics or of the double helix or of relativity. Just nothing like that has happened in the last few decades.

Horgan asked Kadanoff whether that state of affairs was permanent. Kadanoff was silent, before sighing and replying: “Once you have proven that the world is lawful to the satisfaction of many human beings, you can’t do that again.”

But while many individuals have raised concerns about diminishing returns to science, there has been little institutional response. The meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, the current nominee to be President Donald Trump’s science adviser, claimed in 2016 that “the pace of discovery is accelerating” in remarks to a U.S. Senate committee. The problem of diminishing returns is mentioned nowhere in the 2018 report of the National Science Foundation, which instead talks optimistically of “potentially transformative research that will generate pioneering discoveries and advance exciting new frontiers in science.” Of course, many scientific institutions—particularly new institutions—do aim to find improved ways of operating in their own fields. But that’s not the same as an organized institutional response to diminishing returns.

Check also Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find? Nicholas Bloom, Charles I. Jones, John Van Reenen, and Michael Webb. NBER Working Paper No. 23782.

How does nature exposure make people healthier?: Evidence for the role of impulsivity and expanded space perception

How does nature exposure make people healthier?: Evidence for the role of impulsivity and expanded space perception. Meredith A. Repke, Meredith S. Berry, Lucian G. Conway III, Alexander Metcalf, Reid M. Hensen, Conor Phelan. PLOS One, Aug 22 2018,

Abstract: Nature exposure has been linked to a plethora of health benefits, but the mechanism for this effect is not well understood. We conducted two studies to test a new model linking the health benefits of nature exposure to reduced impulsivity in decision-making (as measured by delay discounting) via psychologically expanding space perception. In study 1 we collected a nationwide U.S. sample (n = 609) to determine whether nature exposure was predictive of health outcomes and whether impulsive decision-making mediated the effect. Results indicated that Nature Accessibility and Nature Exposure From Home significantly predicted reduced scores on the Depression, Anxiety, Stress Scales (DASS) (p < .001, p = .03, respectively) and improved general health and wellbeing (p < .001, p < .01, respectively). Nature Accessibility also predicted reduced impulsive decision-making (p < .01), and Nature Accessibility showed significant indirect effects through impulsive decision-making on both the DASS (p = .02) and general health and wellbeing (p = .04). In Study 2, a lab-based paradigm found that nature exposure expanded space perception (p < .001), and while the indirect effect of nature exposure through space perception on impulsive decision-making did not meet conventional standards of significance (p < .10), the pattern was consistent with hypotheses. This combination of ecologically-valid and experimental methods offers promising support for an impulsivity-focused model explaining the nature-health relationship.

Sex workers sell information gleaned from their customers—specifically, corrupt police officers—to al-Shabaab; “If you want information here, you use the prostitutes and street kids"

al-Shabaab’s Mata Hari Network. Katharine Petrich. War on the Rocks, Aug 14 2018.


I recently spent several weeks in the slum districts of Nairobi, researching al-Shabaab’s criminal activities in the Horn of Africa. I expected to learn about the traditional criminal practices of terrorist groups: drugs, arms, money laundering, and perhaps even a regional particularity like sugar smuggling. What I wasn’t expecting to discover was a highly structured, hierarchical network in which sex workers sell information gleaned from their customers — specifically, corrupt police officers — to al-Shabaab. As one interviewee noted, “If you want information here, you use the prostitutes and street kids — they see everything, go everywhere, and nobody notices them.”

The strength and depth of this sex worker-militant network surprised me and many terrorism experts in the West I spoke with, but it’s an open secret among Nairobi residents. My first interview subject didn’t understand why I wanted more details — surely everyone knew about it? Many of my interviewees were neighbors of, or otherwise friendly with, the sex workers involved. They described an arrangement in which al-Shabaab offered money to women who picked up interesting information in the course of their regular sex work — pillow talk from politicians, police officers, and businessmen. One local memorably opined: “Of course! Half the reason these men go to [sex workers] is to complain about their lives. Why not get paid for listening?”

The co-option of sex workers as intelligence officers suggests that al-Shabaab is a rational actor willing to circumvent its highly public ideological stances when there is significant operational benefit to be gained. This calculating, bottom-line mentality runs counter to much of the international narrative about the group. The “Mata Hari” network also shows that al-Shabaab is an innovative organization that looks for unconventional solutions and is actively seeking to survive and expand, despite the long-running efforts by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and its international military partners. Al-Shabaab has increased its resilience to counter-terrorism operations by leveraging the safe haven of neighboring Kenya, a sanctuary of sorts created by porous borders, weak government integrity, and sympathetic communities. Finally, this is a group interested in working “behind the lines” deep in adversarial territory that has learned how to exploit human weakness and failures of integrity in its area of operation.


The rational choice to leverage sex workers’ access to powerful government and law enforcement figures offers a window into al-Shabaab’s cost-benefit calculations. The group imposes strict restrictions on female sexuality in Somalia, its primary area of operation: It bans independent sex work, has imposed the death penalty for adultery, considers sexual assault to be adultery (and thus punishable by stoning to death), and utilizes forced marriages and rape as a reward system for its male soldiers. Given this deeply conservative position inside Somalia, its willingness to cooperate with and reward sex work in Nairobi, where the group is more constrained in its activities, suggests al-Shabaab is a limited, rational organization with concrete territorial aims. It is not a maximalist extremist group prioritizing ideological principles over tangible benefits, and because the group has a state-based goal, it is comfortable supporting or at least engaging with activities that contravene sharia law. An informant remarked wryly, “Al-Shabaab likes [that group of sex workers] very much. They are worth many sins.” Other interviewees described how group members publicly banned and beat sex workers in one neighborhood, decrying their “wickedness,” while simultaneously protecting the sex workers involved in the intelligence network. Immorality seems to be a reasonable price to pay for real-time intelligence.


The strength of Nairobi’s “prostitute spy” network demonstrates al-Shabaab’s organizational innovation, rationality, and broad geographic range. If the militia has learned the effectiveness of co-opting sex work in Nairobi, organizational learning theory argues it will attempt to replicate that success in other areas. Indeed, media reports indicate similar gambits of using “very beautiful women” as intelligence officers have also occurred in Kenya’s Lamu, Tana River, and Garissa counties. This evolution suggests al-Shabaab may be permanently incorporating sex work into its portfolio of intelligence operations.


Full text with much more and many links in War on the Rocks, link above.

Paperwork burdens, “sludge,” reduces access to important licenses, programs, & benefits; its defenses turn out to be more attractive in principle than in practice; a form of cost-benefit analysis is essential

Sunstein, Cass R., Sludge and Ordeals (November 20, 2018). Duke Law Journal, Forthcoming.

Abstract: In 2015, the United States government imposed 9.78 billion hours of paperwork burdens on the American people. Many of these hours are best categorized as “sludge,” reducing access to important licenses, programs, and benefits. Because of the sheer costs of sludge, rational people are effectively denied life-changing goods and services; the problem is compounded by the existence of behavioral biases, including inertia, present bias, and unrealistic optimism. In principle, a serious deregulatory effort should be undertaken to reduce sludge, through automatic enrollment, greatly simplified forms, and reminders. At the same time, sludge can promote legitimate goals. First, it can protect program integrity, which means that policymakers might have to make difficult tradeoffs between (1) granting benefits to people who are not entitled to them and (2) denying benefits to people who are entitled to them. Second, it can overcome impulsivity, recklessness, and self-control problems. Third, it can prevent intrusions on privacy. Fourth, it can serve as a rationing device, ensuring that benefits go to people who most need them. In most cases, these defenses of sludge turn out to be more attractive in principle than in practice. For sludge, a form of cost-benefit analysis is essential, and it will often argue in favor of a neglected form of deregulation: sludge reduction. Various suggestions are offered for new action by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the Paperwork Reduction Act; for courts; and for Congress.

My comment:

This was the most cited legal and constitutional scholar in the US, almost as much as the next two guys combined (between 2009 and 2013)... It is difficult to overstate how harmful has been the kind of theories Mr Sunstein supported in his work for the previous federal president, justifying in many occasions laws and regulations of great cost with abandon. Partially compensating this, he acknowledges in a paper devoted for the first time to law/regulations costs and how unfair they are, that:

1  the costs of paperwork are enormous; 2  rational people are effectively denied life-changing goods and services; 3  the problem is compounded by the existence of behavioral biases, including inertia, present bias, and unrealistic optimism; 4  defenses of paperwork burden are specious (are more attractive in principle (!) than in practice); 5  a form of cost-benefit analysis is essential, and 6   analysis will often argue in favor of paperwork burden reduction, "neglected form of deregulation."

Welcome to sanity, all of you guys that most of the time payed so little attention to regulation costs and the rights of the people, and how our cognitive defects, our biases, make lots of regulatory actions not only unworkable, but damaging in big ways.

Choosing a meal to increase your appeal: How relationship status, sexual orientation, dining partner sex, and attractiveness impact nutritional choices in social dining scenarios

Choosing a meal to increase your appeal: How relationship status, sexual orientation, dining partner sex, and attractiveness impact nutritional choices in social dining scenarios. Michael Baker, Andie Strickland, Nicole D. Fox. Appetite,

Abstract: The impact of social context on dining choices was investigated via an online experiment. Participants were assigned to different hypothetical dining partners of the same or opposite sex and varying levels of attractiveness (or no partner in a control condition) and were then asked to indicate what foods they would order if they were dining with this individual. Following a food selection task, the attractiveness of the hypothetical partner was rated, followed by the measurement of personal characteristics such as current relationship status, participant sex, and sexual orientation. Results revealed that among heterosexual participants, relationship status, partner sex, and partner attractiveness interacted to influence the total number of calories ordered. Heterosexual male and female participants who were not currently in a relationship and had been assigned to an opposite-sex dining partner tended to order fewer calories the more attractive that they perceived their partner to be. The findings of this study build upon previous research on social influences on dining behavior by examining the roles of relationship status and dining partner attractiveness on nutritional decision-making.

Social media as a source of political information do not reduce the compatibility of individual issue horizons: they are not caught in an 'echo chamber' or reduce issue diversity, top issue focus or issue overlap with others

Stefan Geiß, Melanie Magin, Birgit Stark, Pascal Jürgens, „Common Meeting Ground” in Gefahr? Selektionslogiken politischer Informationsquellen und ihr Einfluss auf die Fragmentierung individueller Themenhorizonte in: M&K Medien & Kommunikationswissenschaft, Seite 502 - 525, Jahrgang 66 (2018), Heft 4,

Abstract: The diversification of the political information supply has raised concerns about social integration and collective democratic self-determination. Automatically personalised media content on social network sites such as Facebook which make use of individual online behaviour are often suspected of facilitating fragmentation. People with extreme political attitudes are particularly seen as vulnerable and likely to losing touch with society as a whole, for instance, if they are caught in an ‘echo chamber’. We draw on data from an innovative operationalisation of issue fragmentation using individual-level data, investigating whether the use of such content reduces the compatibility of individual issue horizons; i.e. reduced issue diversity, top issue focus, and issue overlap with others. We also investigate how this contributes to the fragmentation of society, both generally and among political extremists. Empirically, we rely on data from a two-week daily diary study with 333 participants, who provided information on the two political issues they found most important on that day. Participants also specified which sources they relied on for political information about the relevant issue. Our results show that social media as a source of political information do not reduce the compatibility of individual issue horizons. However, relying on these media outlets increases the compatibility of issue horizons, particularly among those with extreme political attitudes. In conclusion, we discuss the implications of these findings for the self-determination of individuals and society in the digital world.

Sumatran orangutan mothers suppressed alarm calls up to 20 min until the model was out of sight in function of perceived danger for themselves & for an infant, suggesting high-order cognition

Time-space–displaced responses in the orangutan vocal system. Adriano R. Lameira and Josep Call. Science Advances, Nov 14 2018, Vol. 4, no. 11, eaau3401. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau3401

Abstract: One of the defining features of language is displaced reference—the capacity to transmit information about something that is not present or about a past or future event. It is very rare in nature and has not been shown in any nonhuman primate, confounding, as such, any understanding of its precursors and evolution in the human lineage. Here, we describe a vocal phenomenon in a wild great ape with unparalleled affinities with displaced reference. When exposed to predator models, Sumatran orangutan mothers temporarily suppressed alarm calls up to 20 min until the model was out of sight. Subjects delayed their vocal responses in function of perceived danger for themselves, but four major predictions for stress-based mechanisms were not met. Conversely, vocal delay was also a function of perceived danger for another—an infant—suggesting high-order cognition. Our findings suggest that displaced reference in language is likely to have originally piggybacked on akin behaviors in an ancestral hominid.