Category Archives: Science & Ideas

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely (2008)

Predictably Irrational is a book by Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT, and it’s subtitled ‘The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions’.  Ariely takes issue with the standard economics assumption of the fully rational man, and shows through various experiments a few of the many ways in which we make systematically irrational decisions.  Some topics I’ve heard about before, such as the effect of anchoring (the notion that thinking of a random number, such as a value between 1 and 100, can then influence how much you might be willing to pay for an item), but there’s plenty of new findings here that really make you think about your own habits.

I’ll let Dan himself tell you the bottom line, from page 239:

Standard economics assumes that we are rational – that we know all the pertinent information about our decisions, that we can calculate the value of the different options we face, and that we are cognitively unhindered in weighing the ramifications of each potential choice.

The result is that we are presumed to be making logical and sensible decisions. And even if we make a wrong decision from time to time, the standard economics perspective suggests that we will quickly learn from our mistakes either on our own or with the help of ‘market forces.’ On the basis of these assumptions, economists draw far-reaching conclusions about everything from shopping trends to law to public policy.

But, as the results presented in this book (and others) show, we are all far less rational in our decision making than standard economic theory assumes. Our irrational  behaviors are neither random nor senseless – they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains. So wouldn’t it make sense to modify standard economics and move away from naive psychology, which often fails the tests of reason, introspection, and – most important – empirical scrutiny?

Recommended, an easy yet thought-provoking book.

What will change everything?

That’s this year’s Edge question, as posed by John Brockman, with answers from an array of big thinkers.  Here’s one I like very much from Stuart Kauffman, as a sample; much interesting reading at the site.

John Brockman’s question is dramatic: What will change everything? Of course, no one knows. But the fact that no one knows may be the feature of our lives and the universe that does change everything. Reductionism has reigned as our dominant world view for 350 years in Western society. Physicist Steven Weinberg states that when the science shall have been done, all the explanatory arrows will point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry and ultimately to physics and the final theory.

I think he is wrong: the evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open.

A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson (2003)

A Short History of Nearly Everything

I picked up this book, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, at the Amsterdam airport for the long flight back to the U.S. It’s a good read, covering the stories of important scientific findings in physics, biology, chemistry, geology, paleontology and more, often digging into the stories of the scientists themselves. I’d recommend this book if you’d like to catch up on a wide range of sciences (and the last time you thought about science was in high school 20-30 or more years ago!).

My main conclusions:

1. Scientists can be a strange, obsessive bunch.
2. New ideas are frequently rejected initially, even those which seem to do a much better job of explaining the known facts better than existing ideas.
3. Scientists frequently express great certainty, which is frequently unwarranted.
4. There’s still a whole lot we don’t know!

Earth Day Thoughts

Just saw this post from Jamais Cascio, titled “The Earth Will Be Just Fine, Thank You”, which I think sums things up pretty well:

Critics of environmentalism often claim that eco-activists hate humans, that we value the Earth more than we value ourselves. With very few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmentalism is fundamentally about making sure that human beings, and human civilization, can continue to thrive on our home planet for centuries, millennia to come. Environmentalism, in its demands for respect for nature, ultimately demands that we respect ourselves.

Our Modern World

This story is the most indicative I’ve seen lately about the brave new world we’re living in – bio-tech edition…    “Finnish patient gets new jaw from own stem cells” by Sami Torma at Reuters (via BoingBoing).  The lead:

Scientists in Finland said they had replaced a 65-year-old patient’s upper jaw with a bone transplant cultivated from stem cells isolated from his own fatty tissue and grown inside his abdomen.

So does it really make sense for the U.S. to restrict stem cell research?  Not that I really know the current state of affairs – I’ve read some things that suggest that stem cells are now much more readily cultivated, so the old controversy is now moot.

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2008. I spent the last days of 2007 in Ouray, Colorado, a mining town that peaked in population back in about 1893, but is on the rise again as a tourist spot both winter and summer, with its hot spring pools, dramatic mountain setting, and access to both winter and summer sports.

Each year begins with an intriguing question at the Edge – this year it’s “What have you changed your mind about? Why?” – as answered by many prominent thinkers. I’ve only started browsing, and there’s plenty to ponder. To pick out just a couple so far…

Joseph Ledoux – neuroscientist

Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it.

Colin Tudge – science writer (on GMO crops)

But anyone who knows anything about farming in the real world (as opposed to the cosseted experimental fields of the English home counties and of California) knows that yield is by no means the be-all and end-all. Inter alia, high yields require high inputs of resources and capital — the very things that are often lacking. Yield typically matters far less than long-term security — acceptable yields in bad years rather than bumper yields in the best conditions. Security requires individual toughness and variety — neither of which necessarily correlate with super-crop status. In a time of climate change, resilience is obviously of paramount importance — but this is not, alas, obvious to the people who make policy.

Stewart Brand – innovator!

Good old stuff sucks. Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it’s just stupid.

Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers’ market, preferably), this-year’s laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs.

The Precautionary Principle tells me I should worry about everything new because it might have hidden dangers. The handwringers should worry more about the old stuff. It’s mostly crap.

(New stuff is mostly crap too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.)

The Air Car

Air car

I’m not quite sure how I’ve missed this concept, but in any case yesterday I learned of the Air Car – a car that runs on simple compressed air!  The compressed air moves the pistons, and an onboard air compressor can keep the tank full using very little energy.

The main designer behind it, Guy Nègre, has worked on Formula One race cars.  But this car is being targeted to urban environments, where most trips are short and it makes sense to have a small vehicle.  Apparently he did offer the design to established companies:

During the first phase of development, Guy Nègre, thought that he could develop an engine and sell it to the large automotive manufactures. Unfortunately, because adapting an air engine to traditional cars meant changing bodies and production line the large companies refused and he was forced to change his approach. The inventor then set out to develop a vehicle according to his philosophy. This car had to be ecology friend, silence, and practical.

As usual, it looks like the big car companies can’t see innovation when it hits them on the head!

Sounds like commercial introduction is next year in Europe and perhaps in India.  I’m fascinated to see how this works out…

Common sense isn't so common

I’ve written previously about Bryan Caplan’s work. I’m very much in agreement with one of his latest posts, in part on meeting and talking with people about his ideas. Here’s the good stuff from Bryan:

Since the publication of my book, I’ve been meeting a much wider range of people. I’ve talked to an elite Republican book club, a room full of vaguely Marxist academics at the New School, retirees, Cato, Heritage, a conference of largely leftist philosophers, the State Department (!), the Yale law school, DC economists, and UVA social scientists. I’ve also spoken on a wide range of radio shows and podcasts, left and right.

What have I learned? Primarily, I’m more convinced than ever that virtually everyone is sincere. The legions of people who imagine that their opponents secretly agree with them are utterly deluded. Even when you’ve got undeniable facts on your side, your opponents probably think that those facts don’t matter; you’re missing the deeper picture.

The lesson I draw: Sincerity is greatly overrated. It’s an easy and widely distributed virtue. So what is in short supply? Common-sense. Literalism. Staying calm. Listening. Sticking to the point. Accepting and working through hypotheticals.

Addendum:  I pulled this out of the comments section of the above blog entry, written by a fellow named Chris, and I think it makes a couple more important and useful points:

 … a useful test when debating someone. Ask your opponent what statements, if true, would convince him to change his position. If no such statements exist, then the debate is over.

Similarly, I frequently ask myself the same question: what type of data and/or reasoning would convince me that my position is wrong. If I can’t think of any, then I need to take a deep breath and evaluate how I reached my opinion in the first place.


Poor lighting

From the August 20, 2007 New Yorker, “The Dark Side” by David Owen (not online), about the decrease in true darkness at night due to all the lighting. Here’s the counter-intuitive (which of course makes sense once you think about it):

Much so-called security lighting is designed with little thought for how eyes – or criminals – operate. Marcus Felson, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, has concluded lighting is effective mainly if it enables people to notice criminal activity as it’s taking place, and if it doesn’t help criminals to see what they’re doing. Bright, unshielded floodlights – one of the most common types of outdoor security lights in the country – often fail on both counts….

In the early seventies, the public-school system in San Antonio, Texas, began leaving many of its school buildings, parking lots, and other property dark at night and found that the no-lights policy not only reduced energy costs but also dramatically cut vandalism.

Here’s an interesting page that shows examples of bad and better lighting solutions.

25 Standard Deviations??

Bell Curve

From an Aug 13 Financial Times story on the losses at Goldman Sachs:

“We were seeing things that were 25-standard deviation moves, several days in a row,” said David Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer. “There have been issues in some of the other quantitative spaces. But nothing like what we saw last week.”

Now either the virtually impossible is happening on a regular basis, or the bell-curve models these guys are using are way off. I vote the latter. I think Taleb would agree.

via Brad deLong.

Update:  deLong subsequently posted a few other things on this topic, suggesting that it’s not a bell curve model – but the same principle still applies – it seems that too many folks in the business do not fully understand their risks.