Tag Archive | science

Science and the importance of failure: What TED talks overlook

I was just reading a transcript of Benjamin Bratton’s takedown of TED, the immensely popular series of talks on science and innovation. Perhaps the word “talk” is a bit too specific. TED is more of a “format” for presenting ideas.

To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.

Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an Astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I’m a Professor of Visual Arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about Astrophysics). After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired… you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?

Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather this is one of our most frightening problems.

I couldn’t agree more. As scientists, we are required to be able to explain our research to the outside world. Aside from the important matter of justifying our existence and use of public funds, some of us would hope that our work improves the world. However, the process of explaining shouldn’t involve unnecessarily dumbing down or overstating the potential impact of our work.

TED demands that every presentation be centered around some success. We have to end the talk on some positive note, proudly declaring that our work went the way we wanted it to and had a profound impact on the world. We are there to create, innovate and inspire.

The trouble is that science is often hardly creative, sometimes not innovative and often wholly uninspiring. Mind you, I don’t consider these to be negatives.

Much of science involved the testing of previously held results, views and conclusions. We aren’t seeking to create something new, but rather to evaluate the validity of what has been created before or commonly assumed. We are pursuing knowledge with the hope of refining how the world sees itself using methods to create hypotheses, gather evidence and rigorous test our assumptions.

The outcome, of course, is that the road of science is paved with failure. We embark on our adventures with money in hand, a plan, the proper tools and the best intentions, but, in most cases, we find out that the money didn’t go as far as we would have liked, the plan was ill-conceived given the realities on the ground, the tools were insufficient and our intentions may have been misplaced. At least, that’s my experience of science.

Again, I don’t see this as a negative. In order to improve our ability to understand the world and potentially ameliorate it’s problems, we are required to fail. A child can’t learn to walk without falling down. I can’t learn how to not offend people in Japanese without offending people more than a few times. I can’t learn how not to bake a cake without creating an inedible mess.

TED talks overlook this process of failure, focusing exclusively on the positives and the successes and, more troubling, the inspirational nature of the work. But then, this is a problem that’s not unique to TED talks. I find that TED talks are really just symptomatic of a broader trend which discourages negative results to the point where scientists troll the data hoping to find at least something that can be labelled “successful.”

Most journals won’t publish papers with negative results and most people don’t want to read them. To me, though, there is as much to learn from a paper which found that the previously held view was correct than one which refutes it. There is as much to know from a project which failed miserably as one which was “successful.” At least in my discipline, where field work under pressing circumstances is the norm, it would be nice to hear where people went miserably wrong. We could waste a lot less time, money and experience a little less frustration.

This success driven culture isn’t, of course, limited to science. It permeates our culture, particularly our children. This young generation (and their parents) appears wholly frightened of failure, potentially to the point of paralysis. If we aren’t careful, we might turn into the stagnant Japan of the 00′s.

TED talks probably have to go. While they worked well in the Gates era where small technological fixes in isolated boxes were thought to solve mankind’s most pressing problems, we need to move on to a format which effectively looks to the process of exploration. We need to know and accept that we will fail and those potential sources of failure need to inform our current strategies.

We need to integrate people of many disciplines for mutual benefit. For example, as a quantitative scientist, I learn a lot from people in the humanities, who often hold viewpoints and perspectives completely different from my own but no less important.

In short, we need more discussion and less posturing. Failure is good because we learn from it. Let’s not let the the scientific forum, as Dr. Bratton noted, becomes like cheap, inspirational, yet myopic and wholly useless megachurches.

Does malaria facilitate the development of exploitative agricultural estates? Interview with Dr. Luis Chavez

905237_334159403372948_183902807_oMy friend Luis just published a paper in PlosOne on land consolidation or the formation of “latifundia” in Spain. Latifundia were large agricultural estates owned by the Romans, often dependent on slave labor, the growth of which has been implicated in Rome’s fall.

Luis creates a mathematical model to describe the formation of these large estates. He then tests the hypothesis that malaria transmission exacerbated the situation, by forcing land owners to sell cheaply to opportunistic land owners in less malarious areas.

Luis, an ecologist who works on issues of disease transmission (and all around great guy), is somewhat unique in the world of quantitative sciences. He took a few minutes to talk to me so that you can see why.

Who are you and what’s your background?

If you ask the japanese they might say: O gata no hen na gaijinsan. As to my academic background, I studied biology/parasitology as an undergraduate, then mathematical ecology for a M.Sc. and then was granted a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology (note: at the University of Michigan).

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in the humanities, especially history since it gives the best vantage point to understand the present. I grew up in a household where mixing things/topics was usual. Both my father and grandfather went to grad school, something unusual in Latin America, and since i was child lunch time talk was heavy on the side of human rights and solidarity, science and the need for change. When Nelson Mandela died i remembered that a lovely family activity during my childhood was going to a cultural/educational event in solidarity with Nelson Mandela and the South African people to end the apartheid.

For lay people, what’s the paper about and what motivated you to explore it?

The paper presents a mathematical model that can explain the formation of latifundia (large estates) when the profitability of land varies across landowners in a landscape. The model is also used to show that when such differences are not present latifundia still can emerge if there are differences in the risk of acquiring an infectious diseases. I built the model based on historical records to show that both patterns have been observed in societies as different as “latin” Europe (Italy and Spain) and China.

What’s a “latifundium” in Spain? I dug around a bit and could find some things about Rome and Latin America, but not so much about Spain. Why choose Spain?

A latifundium is a large estate, which requires the labor of people that do not own the land. I chose Spain because a essay by Chantal Beauchamp presented a couple of striking maps showing that places where malaria was common were those where Latifundia were common during the 1930s (Fig. 2): http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/ahess_0395-2649_1988_num_43_1_283483

The pattern of association between malaria and latifundia was not new, but only Beauchamp had data amenable for a quantitative analysis.

Are you trying to say that malaria helped enable capitalist land appropriation?

It might be the case. The hypothesis that malaria helped to enable land appropriation was put forward by the great italian malariologist, Angelo Celli. He has a book on the topic [reference 8 in the paper, available at the UMICH SPH library]. Celli was probably the most advanced malaria epidemiologist at the turn of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, he and other italians [most notably Grassi] were blackbolded in the Anglo-Saxon world because they threatened the ego of Ronald Ross by saying malaria was not just due to a parasite transmitted by the bite of a mosquito [a biological fact that, nevertheless, they independently showed and published in Italian]. If you are interested just check the oldest records for malaria in the Nature archives.

Though issues of land tenure are very different in the US (given that we killed all the natives and stole it all), we did have some big and awful land plantations in the South along with a serious malaria problem. Might we also try to apply this to the United States, and, if so, how?

I think it might have helped to the consolidation of large estates in the south. Interestingly in the Midwest you never had the latifundia observed in the south, but you had malaria in Michigan (the midwest) at some point (See Humphreys M. 2001. Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore (MD): Johns Hopkins University Press.).

Nevertheless, in the south due, for example, to Jim Crow laws there might have been a differential risk of malaria infection not observed in the Midwest. However, i found no data to go beyond speculation, well other that in the Canal Zone the Jim Crow housing organization showed the differential malaria risk: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/529265

I find these quantitative approaches to historical problems fascinating (I also started work on a paper on malaria in post-conflict Angola, maybe I should publish it). Do you think applying these methods to history as informative to present day problems? If so, how?

I think so, history probably gives the best vantage point to understand the present (Rendering history a tinker damn’s is a good strategy to sell things no matter if they are useful or even safe, Henry Ford was clear about this). In theory failures can be highly educational, something the model suggests is that equity in land tenure is an unstable equilibrium that could only be maintained by an external policy as the Chinese did before the An Lushan rebellion, and that any kind of unfair land redistribution could only be expected to not work (latifundia will be eventually formed), as observed over and over in most Latin American nations.

The mix of methods is rather novel. However, in the discipline focused and partitioned environment of academia, do you find that its hard to get an audience for this kind of work? Is there a future in it?

I can tell you this stuff is only suitable for publication on the Arxiv.org or PLoS One/ Springer Plus, if you want it to be peer reviewed and you don’t sign your paper with an address in Princeton or Oxford. I think the audience does not belong in any department, though scholars working on the diverse fields of ecology, health, sociology, maths, economics and even history might find it interesting. I think there is some future, there is the emerging field of cliodynamics that looks at historical dynamics and there is even a journal for cliodynamics where they, every once on a while, publish good food for thought like this paper: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1ks0g7dr#page-1

I thought my data was not dynamical enough, so I didn’t try there.

This work is heavily political. Do you think there is a place for politics in science?

I think everything gets embedded in politics. Otherwise there would have been no shutdown in the CDC and other US government agencies few months ago, etc. I don’t think my work is more or less political than a risk factor analysis for lung cancer and smoking. I think i might be blackbolded by some of the references I cited, but to understand Capitalism even the Catholic Church is studying Marx [Funny the leading scholar is the Munich Bishop, whose last name is Marx]:

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/06/01/cardinal-marx-urges-europe-to-move-beyond-capitalism/

Brucellosis: My New Bacterial Tenant

Brucellosis hotspot?

Brucellosis hotspot?

Though the tests aren’t back yet, I am certain that I have been infected with one (or more) species of a bacteria in the genus Brucella. In humans, Brucella is usually transmitted by drinking unpasteurized milk, or through contact with the saliva, nasal excretions, urine of fecal matter of infected livestock. There are only 100-200 cases a year in the US, but it’s common in developing countries.

For those keeping up, you may remember that I spent the summer in Kenya, working with a team extracting blood samples from camels, cows, goats and sheep. We were in contact with all of these animals on almost a daily basis. We weren’t wearing any protection at all, but it’s inconceivable to wear a full hazmat suit while taking blood from goats in a Maasai community. You’d get laughed out of town.

My days right now are running in a fairly predictable pattern. I wake up, feel pretty good, eat breakfast and drink some coffee. At about 10-11 a.m. I begin to feel dizzy, sweat somewhat, a low grade fever kicks in and a horrible taste develops in my mouth. My peripheral vision is limited and I have trouble focusing on distant objects. It gets progressively worse throughout the day, but improves before dinner. After dinner, I feel worse than before. I’m positive that the brunt of the physical symptoms are associated with anemia. It’s like a low grade malaria.

The psychological effects are fascinating. Again, in the morning, I feel fine. As the day progresses, I am less and less able to string coherent sentences together (not that I’m good at it in the best of times), lose thoughts in mid sentence and can’t remember important vocabulary words. I’m stuck in an existential funk where the thought of tomorrow is dark, I’ve forgotten the past and the present isn’t all that meaningful. I often find myself staring into space and time passes quickly.

Though I have no other negative physical effects and am able to leave the house and move around, I’m finding this incredibly debilitating. Even writing this blog post is a challenge.

From the pathogen’s standpoint, this situation is ideal. It doesn’t immediately kill the host, and the bacteria tends to incubate in cells so that it can avoid the body’s immune response. If I were a herd animal, eating and defecating in the same space, I would be able to transmit for, conceivably, the rest of my life. The low grade anemia keeps the animal mobile, yet impedes its ability to evade predators, allowing transmission to occur from herbivorous ungulates to carnivorous animals.

Again, because the bacteria hides out in cells, it’s a bear to kill. I have two months of two types of antibiotics to look forward to, both with different schedules and dietary requirements. One causes awful nightmares (doxycycline).

If left untreated brucellosis can include abscesses in the joints, spinal problems, blindness and inflammation of the testicles. It is anecdotally associated with elevated rates of suicide in veterinarians. I’m wondering how much chronic brucellosis there is in pastoralist communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. The burden must be quite severe.

This is going to be rough, but it’s better than a lifetime of these symptoms. I’m certainly finding this scientifically interesting, though I will be happy to have it gone for good.

Thoughts on Environmentalism and an Anthrocentric World

Elephants in Laikipia

Elephants in Laikipia

My friend recently asked me if I thought that “humans were more important than other species.” I sent him back a rambling reply, the question was thought provoking to an extent that I turned it into a blog post, which, unfortunately, still rambles.

I think that rather than ask whether humans are “more important than other species,” we have to explore the human-nature dichotomy itself. Unfortunateley, discussions on environmental issues seem to start from an assumption that one exists. These discussions, which put humans at odds with nature, generally lose me on three points (though, again, this is not my field of expertise):

1) The intense focus on large mammals. If we are going to convince ourselves that “nature’s” needs are more important than our own (or simply worth considering) we have to eliminate the idea of a hierarchy of species and consider all living things as equally important. It often seems that conversations become less holistic and more mammal-centric. Given that we are mammals and hard wired to like cute and furry things (particularly those small and weak), this is to be expected. However, the urge to protect things like ourselves makes it impossible for humans to objectively rank the importance of living things.

How often do you hear about people screaming to save snakes? Perhaps it happens and I just don’t hear about it. Clearly, big furry animals are an easy sell.

2) The idea that “species” are distinct entities, the number of which needs to be maximized at any cost. Preserving more species is seen as a goal, when in fact, the word itself is not uncontroversial. “Species” is a rough and artificial concept created by humans to assist in our understanding of the world. Even scientists can’t agree on what a species is, given that the situation that determines how a species is defined differs by type of animal and context (and history).

Take the Zebra, which comes in three main flavors, though I’ll focus on two. The Grevy zebra is Equus grevyi and the plains zebra is Equus quagga, different “species” by classification, but able to breed with one another and create offspring which are able to reproduce. The two “species” are distinct from one another only in superficial morphological features (stripes and size) and behavior.

Gravy’s, though genetically indistinct from plains zebras, are listed as endangered, which gives them certain benefits and allows Kenya (for example) to legally restrict grazing for Maasai goat herders, with the support of international groups. It’s a simplistic example, but it makes little sense to me to ask that humans make sacrifices based on a flawed concept of what makes a “species.” It also makes little sense to create policy which impacts the lives of Africans based on a false paradigm created by 19th century Europeans (“Gravy” was a French President). Yet, here we are.

An aside, but I often think that people really believe that “species,” particularly large mammals, are individuals with distinct personalities and collective thought patterns. From the animals’ standpoint, extinction isn’t an issue. Rhinos don’t hold regular meetings and worry collectively about extinction. Individual rhinos are merely concerned with eating enough grass and mating when necessary.

3) The concept that nature is a fragile and static entity which would be ultimately benefit from our non-existence. This stems from traditional dichotomies of “man” and “nature” where man operates in his (male) world and nature operates in an entirely separate and unchanged sphere. In the West, this goes all the way back to Genesis. It is a simplistic and useless concept and does more harm than good.

Nature is a dynamic and constantly changing system of which we are one part. We create nature “reserves” which are thought to “preserve” the “natural” state of “nature” but even these are artificial, human constructed spaces, as we have dictated the location and killed all our large wildlife. We approach them are “preserves”, but forget that we have altered the system (by, for example killing the wolves or cutting all the pine trees in Michigan). Thus, arguing for the “preservation” of nature is somewhat disingenuous, since even by advocating for what part of nature needs to be preserved, we are writing its rules.

The question of whether the world would be better or worse off without us is fairly moot since humans are defining the terms of “better” and “worse.” Moreover, from the German cockroach’s (Blattella germanica) standpoint or the Black rat (Rattus rattus), humans could be considered a great thing as we tend to migrate and take our pests with us. If it could, Plasmodium falciparum should worship us like a God, since it wouldn’t exist without us.

I don’t see man as separate from nature. For better or for worse, we are a part of it. But after we have run our course, the world will go on without us. “Nature,” however it may be defined, has shown itself to be a tough beast in the past. Even if the entire planet became desertized (is that a word?), life would continue to exist. One day, with or without us, all life on Earth will cease to exist.

The most salient questions should revolve around how our environmental impacts affect our long term survival for humans. Focusing on our own needs is the only sustainable strategy (though I despise the word).

Steve Irwin’s Daughter and the “Threat” of Overpopulation

Steve Irwin's family launches Goulburn Valley Fresh - SydneyA few days ago, a friend posted a link to an article about a thought piece written by 14 year old Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late television personality Steve Irwin.

Bindi was tasked with writing on why she chose to pursue wildlife conservation as her life’s work. Instead, she went on a rant on what she believes the most pressing problem facing humanity today: overpopulation.

Here’s what she wrote:

An average of 150 people is born. Every. One. Minute. This means, every day approximately 489,600 people are born.

How can the poor have any improved lifestyles with more people to share fewer resources?

These are alarming figures as earth only has so many resources and cannot keep up with our ever growing population.

Now, I’m not saying that there is any one answer. This is an extremely delicate topic and one certainly not to be taken lightly. I’m just suggesting that perhaps this is an issue we should start discussing as a society.

Maybe family planning is one solution. Some women don’t get the freedom of choosing whether they want many children or not. Surely when these women are living on $1.00 a day it would be easier to feed 5 children than 10.

Now, I’m inclined to forgive her, as she was only 14 at the time of writing, but as a public figure, she’s fair game to be raked through the coals like anyone else.

Moreover, her basic view is not uncommon in any political circle: The world is facing a crisis because poor people are having too many kids and we need to stop it. A view that I find incredibly reprehensible. Here’s why:

1. The irony is incredible

It is true that population growth is highest among the poorest of the poor of the world. It is also true that extremely wealthy regions like Japan and Europe are facing the spectre of population shrinkage, and that population growth in North American is flattening.

It is also true that wealthy regions like Europe, Japan and the USA are consuming the lion’s share of resources and belching out copious amounts of pollution. The rural poor in Africa subsist on domestically produced corn grown on their own land often without pesticides, fertilizers and machinery (since they can’t afford it).

Moreover, they are good recyclers. They are reusing the first world’s trash. They wear our clothes, use our electronics and drive our cars and recycle all three when they reach the true point of no return (which is a long, long road).

Though I question whether the archaic agricultural methods in Africa are truly environmentally friendly, we do need to ask ourselves, who is really threatening the health and welfare of the earth here?

2. Bindi, like many people, displays an incredible ignorance as to what the true problems of developing countries are.

Poor people in developing countries (yes, the one’s who make all the kids) often eat what they produce. Developing countries themselves, lacking trade linkages and cash, often subsist only on what they can produce domestically. Thus, rather than being a drain on the world’s resources, as Bindi would suggest, they are most self-sufficient (though lacking as a result).

Environmental degradation usually occurs because, since households are producing their own food, agricultural practices are inefficient. They don’t rotate their crops. They don’t irrigate properly so that they have to over plant crops and take up more space. Inefficient regulating bodies and weak governments fail to manage water resources properly.

Most salient, is that poor countries (at least in Africa) are caught in a trap where they have trouble selling agricultural products between regions and across borders.

If Kenya experiences a drought, it can’t just import food from Zimbabwe because 1) there is no history of trade between Zimbabwe and Kenya and 2) the transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist. In the States (and Europe) we have solved the problem of trade linkages and the movement of goods which, in large part, explains why we are so wealthy. We are able to diversify our risks and there is no more risky venture than growing crops.

The problem isn’t too many kids, but a failure of development.

3. Bindi fails to recognize the agency of Africa and Africans

In another news story, she was quoted as saying that 7 year birth control implants should be provided for 11 year old children in developing countries.

“There’s such a thing as seven-year-implants, so if you had a girl that was 11 years old and gave her the seven-year implant she wouldn’t be able to have kids until she was 18.”

Of course, I am all for expanding access to birth control, family planning and women’s health resources in developing countries. Actually, I support expanding access to these things all over the world. Women, being in charge of birthing children, should be allowed to choose whatever path is right for them without interference.

I feel that what Bindi is suggesting (assuming she has any idea what she is suggesting) is that women not be given a choice at all. She’s suggesting state interference in reproductive affairs in countries. It’s always been interesting to me that, in conversation, China’s one child policy (which, minus the loss of a public sector job, really amounts to a tax on children) gets maligned so heavily in the States, but people have no qualms at all about forced sterilization and forced birth control for Africans. (Note: Bindi did not suggest forced sterilizations.)

Of course, forced sterilizations do happen in America, Kenya and Namibia.

To me (and seemingly me only), the message behind Bindi’s suggestion that 11 year olds be given seven year implants seems to be that Africans can’t take care of their own affairs. Even in development and public health circles, many people are of the opinion that Africans are incapable of taking care of themselves. I disagree. After colonization, independence, civil wars, decades of crushing structural adjustment failures, prolonged negative economic growth and failure after political failure, African countries are zooming back.

Kenya’s government restructuring and ratification of a new constitution following one of the worst and most violent elections the world has ever seen should be proof that Africans can take care of their own affairs.

Of course, it turns out that Bindi Irwin is loosely aligned with the nationalist and anti-immigration group, the Stable Population Party. A faux environmentalist group, their intro speaks for itself:

INTRODUCTION: BETTER, NOT BIGGER

The Population Party is a sustainability party with a major focus on the everything issue – population. A stable and sustainable population will help create a better quality of life for all Australians, present and future, and provide a positive example for the rest of the world.

Australia’s population is currently growing by over 1000 people per day. That adds up to over one million people every three years – the size of Adelaide! It’s no wonder Australia’s quality of life is being degraded.

From a population of 23 million today, under Liberal/Labor/Greens policies we are on target for 40 million by 2050 – and rising! We say let’s slow down and stabilise at around 26 million by 2050.

In a finite world, more people means fewer resources per person, leading to poverty and conflict. Australia’s finite natural resource base is the true source of our wealth – not our rapid population growth that both dilutes and erodes it. To meet the huge costs of population growth, Australia is using finite and non-renewable resources that should be saved for our children and grandchildren.

Economics, Austerity and the Selective Use of Data

Reinhart and Rogoff

Recently, I’ve been following the “Reinhart and Rogoff Austerity Debacle.” Reinhart and Rogoff (RR) are two well know economists who penned a paper entitled “Growth in a Time of Debt.” They showed that when the debt to GDP ratio of a given country exceeds a 90% threshold, economic growth stalls. They offer that economies may even contract.

Policy makers in the US and Europe seized on the paper as proof that cutting stimulus and social programs was a good idea, and proceeded to do so with abandon. Of course, right wingers wanted to cut money to social programs anyway, and would have done so regardless, but the paper was held out as scientific proof that it was a solid plan of action.

I won’t comment on how strange it was that Republicans were interested in science at all, given recent efforts to politicize the NSF and micromanage the grant decision process.

The trouble was that the results presented in RR were shown to be based on the selective use of data. Thomas Herndon, a 28-year-old graduate student, obtained the dataset from RR themselves and couldn’t reproduce the results.

In fact, he found that the only way to accurately reproduce the results in RR’s paper that showed that high debt restrained economic growth was to exclude important cases. When including the missing data, high debt was associated with consistently positive growth, though modestly slowed.

Originally, I took the view that this was a case of sloppy science. RR had a dataset, got some results which fit the narrative they were pushing and didn’t pursue the matter any further. Reading Herndon’s paper, however, I changed my mind.

Economic growth vs. debt to GDP Ratio (1946-2010). Loess curve included to illustrate trend.

Economic growth vs. debt to GDP Ratio (1946-2010). Loess curve included to illustrate trend.

Herdon took the data and did what any analyst would do when starting exploratory analysis, he plotted it (see figure on the right). Debt to GDP ratios and growth are both continuous measures. We can do a simple scatterplot and see if there’s any evidence that would suggest that the two things are related.

To me, this is a pretty fuzzy result. Though the loess curve (an interpolation method to illustrate trend) suggest that there is *some* decline in growth overall, I’d still ding any intro stats student for trying to suggest that there’s any relationship at all. There is no way that RR, both trained PhD’s and likely having the help of a paid research assistant, didn’t produce such a plot.

Noting that the loess curve drops past approximately 120%, I calculated the median growth for each country represented. Only 7 countries have had debt to GDP ratios greater than 120% in the past 60+ years: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the United States. Out of these only two had (median) negative growth: Belgium (-.69%, effectively zero) and the United States (-10.94%), which has only had a debt to GDP greater than 120% one time. All other countries has positive growth under high debt, even beleaguered Japan. New Zealand can even claim a strong 9.8% growth under high debt. The US, then, is a major outlier, possibly bringing the entire curve down.

As this doesn’t fit their story, RR’s solution was to categorize debt to GDP ratios into five rough classifications, and calculate the mean growth within each group. This is a common trick to extract results from bad data. It’s highly tempting for researchers (and epidemiologists do it far too often), but a bad idea to present it without all the caveats and warnings that should go with it.

I’m not surprised that ideologues such as RR would be so keen to produce the result they did. After all, they published the popular economics work “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” where they try to suggest that budget policy of the US in 2013 should somehow be informed by the economy of 14th century Spain.

I am, however, surprised that reviewers let this pass. If I would have been a reviewer, I would have:

1) pointed out the problems of categorization, where data doesn’t require it
2) noted that categorizing the data (or even plotting it) tears out temporal correlation. For example, one data point from 2008 (stimulus) may be put in the high debt category, but another from 2007 (crash) in the low debt category. While budgets of one year may have little to do with the budget of another, the economy of one year is likely related to the economy of the previous year.
3) questioned the causal mechanisms behind debt and growth. This is obviously a deep question for economists (and not epidemiologists), but of particular import. When does the economy start to react to debt? I’m pretty sure that there is a lag effect as spending bills tend to space disbursements over the course of the fiscal year.

The RR debacle should be a lesson, not only to economists, but to all scientists. While we may always be under pressure to produce results and hope that those results fit and support whatever position we take, shoddy methods don’t get us off the hook. In RR’s case, I would call this fabrication. A good many studies are merely guilty of wishful thinking, but the chance always exists that someone will come out of the woodwork and expose our flaws. After all, that’s what science is all about.

Metal Networks: Analysis of Decibel Magazine Top 40 2012

Decibel-Jan-2013-coverI had some free time today so I decided to apply some network analytic techniques to one of my favorite subjects: metal records.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture on network analysis where the investigators analyzed popular political books on Amazon.com.

Amazon lists not only information on the book but also the titles, in order of purchasing frequency, of other books that customers may have purchased. The researchers here were able to identify left leaning and right leaning books by examining the purchasing habits of Amazon customers.

Decibel “is America’s only monthly extreme music magazine” and has been in publication since 2004. Every year, they publish the titles of the 40 best metal records of the year, according to their review staff.

Here is 2012′s list:

40 Gojira – L’Enfant Sauvage
39 Meshuggah – Koloss
38 Agalloch – Faustian Echoes EP
37 The Shrine – Primitive Blast
36 Incantation – Vanquish In Vengeance
35 Samothrace – Reverence To Stone
34 Devin Townsend Project – Epicloud
33 Panopticon – Kentucky
32 Saint Vitus – LILLIE: F-65
31 Mutilation Rites – Empyrean
30 Author & Punisher – Urus Americanus
29 A Life Once Lost – Ecstatic Trance
28 Asphyx – Deathhammer
27 Farsot – Insects
26 Gaza – No Absolute For Human Suffering
25 Inverloch – Dark/Subside
24 Swans – The Seer
23 Horrendous – The Chills
22 Killing Joke – MMXII
21 Early Graves – Red Horse
20 Liberteer – Better To Die On Your Feet Than Live On Your Knees
19 High On Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis
18 Napalm Death – Utiltarian
17 Torche – Harmonicraft
16 Grave – Endless Procession Of Souls
15 Satan’s Wrath – Galloping Blasphemy
14 Testament – Dark Roots Of Earth
13 Cattle Decapitation – Monolith Of Inhumanity
12 Blut Aus Nord – 777: Cosmosophy
11 Municipal Waste – The Fatal Feast
10 Pig Destroyer – Book Burner
09 Paradise Lost – Tragic Idol
08 Royal Thunder – CVI
07 Enslaved – Riitiir
06 Neurosis – Honor Found In Decay
05 Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction
04 Witchcraft – Legend
03 Evoken – Atra Mors
02 Baroness – Yellow & Green
01 Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

I looked all of these records on Amazon. For each of them, I noted which of the others were in the first 12 titles that were purchased with it, creating a 40 by 40 adjacency matrix where rows (i) and columns (j) represented records. For each entry, a zero was noted where the customer which purchased the i-th record did not purchase the j-th record, and a one where they did.

I found that many of the records on the list were purchased with one another. The most common record purchased in combination with another on the list was Neurosis‘ “Honor Found in Decay.” Fifteen of the other records on this Top 40 were purchased with “Honor Found in Decay.”

In network terms, the Degree of this record would be 15. Pallbearer’s “Sorrow and Extinction” had a degree of 11, Royal Thunder’s “CVI” and Blut Aus Nord’s “777: Cosmosophy” both had a degree of 9.

The network of Decibel’s Top 40 looks like this:

Network of Amazon Purchases of Decibel Magazine's Top 40

Network of Amazon Purchases of Decibel Magazine’s Top 40

You can see that some records get purchased with other records more than others. The size of the dots represent the degree of the record.

Now, I did some cluster analysis on the data, looking for related groups of records within the network. Using R, I produced the following dendrogram:

Dendrogram of Amazon Purchases of Decibel's Top 40

Dendrogram of Decibel’s Top 40

There are two major clusters, each with its own subcluster (dendrograms are hierarchical). One includes Converge, Neurosis, Pallbearer Royal Thunder, Evoken and Inverloch with a subcluster including only the first four. These are all bands that might be expected to be purchased with one another. The other big one includes all the rest. Main clusters are designated by color.

I found one containing the three entries for Baroness, Municipal Waste and Napalm Death, very different bands. I’m truly not sure why those three would be in a cluster together (is the cluster is based on lonliness in the network?).

Anyway, I’m done, but glad I got any results at all. I’ll let readers (especially metal fans!) interpret the results.

Climbing on Things and Other Evolutionary Pursuits

KenyaRunnerI had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.

Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.

We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.

All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.

Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.

The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.

Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.

Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.

We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.

I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.

“Monsanto Protection Act”: Liberal Outrage or Herd Behavior?

Liberals gone wild

Liberals gone wild

I’ve been seeing a number of fiery comments from my liberal bretheren regarding the recent “Monsanto Protection Act.” Normally, I try to be sympathetic to liberal politics, but sometimes I can’t help but shake my head in disgust. I expect ignorance from the listeners of Rush Limbaugh. It’s disappointing when the supposedly better educated fall prey to the same gimmicks. It’s worth pointing out that even conpiracy nut Alex Jones has taken on the same position liberals have.

First, there is no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act” anymore than there is any such thing as “Obamacare.” This is a term created by the item’s opponents to rile up opposition, rather than foster critical analysis. I think that Liberals should be well aware of the political problems associated with demonizing and reductionist labeling of things they don’t like.

Second, though Presidents can veto any bill that comes across his desk, the veto of appropriations bills are rare, and have often been overridden by Congress in the past. It may be a shock to liberals, but Presidents aren’t kings. Conservatives often don’t seem to understand the three branches of Government. Liberals often appear to understand it even less.

Third, there was hardly “no debate.” A Google search will reveal that discussions of this particular item go back at least to June of 2012 and the “Famer’s Assurance Provision” as it is correctly known is part of another Ag Appropriations bill which passed last year. Anyone who tells you this is new, is either lying, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Even Snopes took this on.)

Fourth, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that GMO’s, which are already in our food supply, are having deleterious effects on human health or the environment. There have been some studies on mouse models that I know of, but it appears that no one can really agree on what a “GMO” really is. Until we can nail that down, and have more informed discussion of which GMOs are “bad” and which are “good”, I don’t think that screaming about GMO’s is any more productive than poorly informed discussion of complex issues such as climate change.

I’m not trying to suggest that there are no effects of “GMOs” whatever they may be. I am saying that lefties are accepting that there are broad effects without question and are relying on less-than-scientific and politically motivated sources such as Salon and the Huffington Post to inform them. That’s a very, very dangerous position to take.

Fifth, I think we should all know by now that rightists use issues like this to weaken Democratic Presidencies. I was of the opinion that much of the furor over controversial portions of the 2012 NDAA bill was stoked by right wingers hoping for a Achilles heel in the 2012 Obama campaign. When we buy into this type of sensationalist reporting without examining the evidence, we play right into their hands.

Sixth, well, I had a sixth, but lost it. But back to GMO’s: It’s interesting that discussions of GMO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa are opposite of what we hear in the US. People view the American and European opposition to GMOs, some of which have the potential to increase food yield while minimizing inputs, as an infringement on developing countries’ rights of self determination. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as uninformed. However, people and policy makers in developing countries face competing issues of immediate economic needs and broad environmental concerns. Lots of things seem obvious to us, but then we have most of our basic needs already met.

I mean this not as a defense of the Farmer’s Assurance Provision or anything else having to do with GMO’s (so chill out). The endless (and perhaps deserved) vilification of Monsanto has reached a point where examination of the facts is secondary to screaming like a blithering idiot. To me, this is dangerous. When we reduce ourselves to merely accepting positions without criticism, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by just about anything. Not everyone has the time to read all that is required to create a truly informed and reasoned opinion on all subjects, I realize. Striving toward obtaining as much information as is reasonable, however, and acting critically should be a priority for everyone, however.

Liberals are the smart ones. We can do better.

Food Prices and Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

I decided I’d continue on this theme of African conflict for a bit after noticing some interesting trends in the data.

I’ve written before on the link between unrest in South Africa and the problem of rising food prices. Looking at the plot of the right, it’s not hard to notice the similarities in the series of conflict events post 2005 to food prices as estimated by the FAO’s Food Price Index (FPI).

I began to wonder whether some of the recent rise in conflict events is somehow related to rising food commodity prices. Having found a correlation in South Africa, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

I calculated the cross correlations between the FPI and conflict events and found that the FPI was predictive of conflict, but that conflict was not predictive of FPI. This was similar to what I found in South Africa.

Plotting the FPI against the number of monthly conflict events, I found something interesting. It appears that the two are mostly unrelated until the FPI reaches a threshold of approximately 200, then the number of monthly events shoots up. It is interesting to note that in other research, 210 was the assumed maximum price that households would absorb before taking to the streets.

I’ve repeatedly written on the problem of stock market speculation in food commodities as a cause for rising volatility in world food prices. I won’t beat this into the ground again. However, results such as these indicate that the problem of rising and volatile food prices is not just an economic problem, but also a problem of human health and welfare.

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

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