Archive

March 18th, 2016

A few do's and don'ts regarding trust in science

    It's been a tough year for science. The American Statistical Association just issued a statement scolding scientists for misusing statistical analysis. Scientists continued to fight over an evaluation of 100 psychological studies, most of which could not be reproduced. Critics have cast doubt on a widely believed psychological theory of human willpower.

    So yes, science is fallible. Scientists are only human and science is not a synonym for truth. It's a bumpy, meandering road that heads in that general direction.

    That makes skepticism good, up to a point. Beyond that point lie nonsense and superstition. The Earth really is round.

    So how do you tell what to believe?

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A chilling mathematical model of inequality

    Economists have offered various explanations for the frustrating slowness of global growth, from excessive debt to a shifting balance of power bringing an end to an American century. A new analysis suggests there's one that deserves greater attention: the chilling effect of inequality.

    Think of an economy as a large network of individuals and firms who make and use things, interact and exchange with one another. Any party can, in principle, transact with any other, buying and selling, the only constraint being the budget of the buyer. Economists have studied network models of this sort -- called random exchange economies -- to explore how normal trading activity might (or might not) make an economy approach equilibrium.

    Now some European physicists have used such a model to examine a different question: How does a significant change in inequality affect the overall level of exchange? Their study makes use of some fairly abstruse mathematics coming from physics, developed precisely for messy network problems of this kind. What they find is troubling, although not all that surprising -- rising inequality tends to undermine exchange.

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Trump wines are pretty good, but I can't put them on restaurant menus

    Over the weekend, President Barack Obama weighed in on one of the pressing issues in the campaign for the Republican nomination to succeed him in the White House.

    No, not how to stop Donald Trump - but whether the wine that bears his name is any good. "Has anybody bought that wine? I want to know what that wine tastes like," Obama said at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Dallas on Saturday. "I mean, come on. You know that's like some $5 wine. They slap a label on it. They charge you $50 and say it's the greatest wine ever."

    As those of us who live near the winery know, though, the real shame about Trump Winery is not that its wines are not good. It's that some of them actually are - but these days, their association with the GOP frontrunner is likely to keep them off wine lists they otherwise belong on.

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The real Super Tuesday arrives

    Amid a rise in violence between protesters and supporters of Donald Trump at his weekend rallies, a new cloud hangs over today's five Republican primaries, which could affect his chances to narrow the field in his stampede toward the presidential nomination.

    Although a dozen delegate-selecting Republican contests took place two weeks ago, the voting today in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina figures to be more significant in determining whether Donald Trump can yet be stopped.

    Of the five primaries, Trump's victories in Florida and Ohio could drive two of his remaining three challengers, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, from the race. That result would leave only Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has already won his own state, to take Trump on in a two-man showdown the rest of the way to the July convention in Cleveland..

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Supreme Court's precedent backs Donald Trump

    The melee at the Donald Trump rally Friday night in Chicago raises a fundamental First Amendment question: When a speaker, such as the Republican presidential candidate, is confronting angry protesters, whose speech rights come first: the speaker's or the protesters'?

    The U.S. Supreme Court's answer to this question has evolved over the years. At one time, the court was ambivalent, sometimes favoring the speaker and sometimes willing to shut down the speaker to avoid public disorder.

    Today, however, the norm is clear: Protesters who disrupt a rally can be removed by police so that they don't exercise what's called a heckler's veto over the rally's organizer. It shouldn't matter whether it's the Ku Klux Klan interrupting a civil-rights speaker or civil-rights protesters interrupting a racist diatribe. The law considers the speaker's rights as paramount.

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Republican alarmism threatens Social Security

    If you watched the last Republican presidential debate, you may have noticed the split on Social Security among the final four. Donald Trump vowed not to cut benefits. His three rivals would -- by raising the retirement age, reducing payouts for wealthier people, diverting payroll taxes to private accounts or trimming cost-of-living increases.

    Why the difference? While Trump attracts followers in almost every demographic group, his base skews toward older, non-college-educated, lower-income voters -- people who are or will be getting most of their income from Social Security, in other words.

    Pollsters for years have picked up differences of opinion among Republicans over entitlement benefits. Those without college degrees are more reluctant to support reducing them than those with a higher education.

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New Delhi's free clinics can teach America about fixing its broken health care system

    Rupandeep Kaur, 20 weeks pregnant, arrived at a medical clinic looking fatigued and ready to collapse. After being asked her name and address, she was taken to see a physician who reviewed her medical history, asked several questions, and ordered a series of tests including blood and urine. These tests revealed that her fetus was healthy but Kaur had dangerously low hemoglobin and blood pressure levels. The physician, Alka Choudhry, ordered an ambulance to take her to a nearby hospital.

    All of this, including the medical tests, happened in 15 minutes at the Peeragarhi Relief Camp in New Delhi, India. The entire process was automated -- from check-in, to retrieval of medical records, to testing and analysis and ambulance dispatch. The hospital also received Kaur's medical records electronically. There was no paperwork filled out, no bills sent to the patient or insurance company, no delay of any kind. Yes, it was all free.

    The hospital treated Kaur for mineral and protein deficiencies and released her the same day. Had she not received timely treatment, she may have had a miscarriage or lost her life.

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Keeping Germany's Trumpist politics at bay

    The outcome of Sunday's elections in three German states wasn't good for Chancellor Angela Merkel, but it also provided an example of how a well-balanced representative political system stops its Donald Trumps.

    As in the U.S., much of the day-to-day life of people and businesses in Germany is governed at the state level. So while general elections matter a lot -- the next one is in 2017 -- the state ones determine how most voters will interact with government. On what the German press dubbed Super Sunday, three states with a combined population of about 13 million voted: Saxony-Anhalt in the former East Germany, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in the west.

    Only in Saxony-Anhalt did Merkel's center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, win a plurality. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to Daimler, maker of Mercedes cars, the Green Party beat it. In Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany's top winemaking region -- and once home to the ancestors of Donald Trump -- the CDU was defeated by the center-left Social Democratic Party, its partner in the ruling federal coalition.

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Iran's sanctions windfall won't help it much

    The nuclear deal signed with Iran earlier this year will, on paper, shower more than $100 billion of unfrozen assets on the country -- a quarter of its gross domestic product. It's also fighting wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and testing its own ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel. So far, so bad; no good can come of even a share of that money winding up with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

    But a week spent in Tehran made clear that Iran's one-off sanctions windfall is unlikely to be anywhere near enough to compensate for the annual losses the country is incurring from low oil prices. Indeed, if the goal is to starve the Revolutionary Guard of funds, focusing on the unfrozen assets may be a diversion.

    In the year ahead, the government forecasts oil revenues of just $23 billion, compared to a peak of over $100 billion in 2011. According to Saeed Laylaz, an economist and former adviser to the reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami, even if exports return to pre-sanctions volumes, at a $40-per-barrel price, they will bring the government half as much revenue as in 2013, at the height of the sanctions.

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Economists are out of touch with climate change

    In the debate over climate change, there is one group you don't hear much from: economists. The failure of climate economics to make a difference in the public discussion about climate policy should be a concern for the profession.

    Climate economists are just as worried as anyone about the prospect of global warming. A recent survey by the Institute for Policy Integrity found that most climate economists believe climate change is a grave threat. Most supported carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs to limit emissions, even if these actions were taken unilaterally by the U.S. The consensus view was that a catastrophic loss of global gross domestic product -- a 25 percent decline or more -- is possible under a "business as usual" scenario.

    But for all this concern, climate econ research has had little impact on the public debate. The problem, as far as I can tell, is that there is a disconnect between climate science and economics. This goes beyond the out-of-date forecasting models used by policy makers. Even within academia, research often uses bad science.

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