The crowds knows better than you?

Justin Wolfers & Betsy Stevenson have a piece up in Bloomberg, Crowds Are This Election’s Real Winners. In The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver has a chapter on Wolfers’ belief that prediction markets are superior to the sort of quantitative analysis that is his stock & trade. The belief isn’t based on an intuition. One of Wolfers’ graduate students produced a paper showing that Intrade was actually better than FiveThirtyEight in 2008. Silver demurs in the chapter because he suggests that the model which Wolfers and his student lay out in the paper had some modifications which allowed for one to judge Intrade’s performance superior. I’m willing to accept Silver’s assertion here because I’ve seen enough economic models which are modulated just enough to produce elegant and clean results. That being said, the general tone of the chapter is such that in his heart Silver seems to agree that Wolfers is fundamentally correct in the long term. Prediction markets, when done right, are more powerful than any analytic an individual could cook up.

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Iterating science, supercharged

Science is about “updating” with new information. But people are attached to their propositions, and shifts in paradigms can take a very long time, often dependent more on human lifespans than the constellation of the data. But please see this post by Luke Jostins’ over at Genomes Unzipped. He has “updated” his own view of his recent Nature paper on inflammatory bowel disease. This is rather awesome, because yes, there was some talk about the balancing selection aspect of the paper at ASHG, and now Luke has gone and amended his own position.

The reality is that emotions are a big deal in science. But in theory we simply look at the evidence. Bridging that gap, and shifting the balance to the latter, is very important in keeping the enterprise honest, fruitful, and attractive to young scholars. I’m hoping that the more rapid dissemination of information via projects like Haldane’s Sieve will aid in the rate of iteration.

The Kindle price

I’ve had a Kindle for a few years now. I read a lot on it. And yet I observed something recently: I’ve stopped going to the library much. This is a big deal for me…probably since the age of 7 I’ve clocked in at least one visit to the public library per week in my life. I never turn books in past due because of the frequency with which I patronize the public or university libraries which I’ve had access to in life. Until recently. Now on occasion books go overdue, because I don’t go very often.

In the short term the Kindle has been a boon. But I’m not sure if it’s good for us in the long term. I’d rather pay more for a device which allowed for easier usage of different formats, as well as looser distribution policies.

Mine eyes have seen the glory; we are as gods!

Earlier today Erick Erickson of RedState put up a long and meandering post titled “I Believe and Am Thankful”. As you might infer from the title it elaborates Erickson’s own theological position, and his stance toward the expression of faith in the public square. Because I am an atheist I disagree with many aspects of his position, and because I am not a liberal I agree with other elements of his argument. But there was one portion of which alarmed me a great deal, because I believe it displays an epistemological superificiality which is all too common. Erickson’s first paragraph is:

Marco Rubio is getting beaten up by the press for not decisively and convincingly saying he thinks the world is billions of years old. It has become the new litmus test in the media. Believing what was believed to be literally true for a few thousand years is now nutty. Christian homeschool kids, often taught that the world is not as old as some believe and who routinely kick the rear ends of the ivy prep kids in academics, are considered stupid.

There are two components to my reaction. One is rather general and abstract, while the other is specific. I will begin with the abstract. The fact is that you would be foolish to accept what people believed for “thousands of years” in many domains of natural science. When it comes to the ancients or the moderns in science always listen to the moderns. They are not always right, but overall they are surely more right, and less prone to miss the mark. In fact, you may have to be careful about paying too much attention to science which is a generation old, so fast does the “state of the art” in terms of knowledge shift. That was part of my critique of Richard Lewontin. A great evolutionary biologist of the 1960s, today Lewontin seems far behind the times, tackling issues near and dear to the 1970s, when we live in the post-genomic era.

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Being pro-life and pre-implantation diagnosis

The recent controversy over Peter Singer and Fordhman got me thinking about the logical implications of a consistent ethos. Singer certainly has a consistent ethos. Or at least he tries to work out the logical implications of his axioms, no matter where that goes. I don’t agree with Peter Singer’s utilitarianism because I am skeptical of his extreme ethical reductionism, but it’s clarifying at least.

But that got me to thinking about the implications of being pro-life in the 21st century, as biotechnology becomes more and more a part of our lives. From what I gather the standard pro-life position is that life begins at conception, where you have the potential for a human being. One aspect of this has always disturbed me: it is likely that more than 50% of conceptions miscarry, without anyone being the wiser. Most karyotype abnormalities, for example, miscarry. If these are human lives, does this mean that the majority of humans die even before they are born? How can we fix this tragedy?

In the pre-modern age there wouldn’t be a tragedy to fix. Saving these humans would be beyond our power. But today there are ways we may reduce the harm. First, one could fertilize a range of eggs, and then screen them for genetic abnormalities. Only the ones who pass a quality control threshold would be implanted, to minimize miscarriage risk.* The others could be put in ‘stasis,’ until the point where medical technology has advanced to the point that ailments can be fixed by genetic re-engineering at the zygotic stage.

And that is my attempt to think like a pro-life Peter Singer.

* In the future artificial wombs are definitely the way to go, as the developing fetus could be closely monitored.

San Francisco supported Proposition 37!

A few weeks ago I alluded to the controversy around proposition 37. This was the GMO labeling law proposal. Many life scientists in California opposed this law. One aspect of this issue is that it is an area where the Left may be stated to be “anti-science.” This is why this was highlighted in Science Left Behind. But there’s a problem with this narrative: the survey data for it is weak. There are broad suggestive patterns…but the reality is that the strongest predictor of skepticism of genetically modified organisms is lower socioeconomic status. The GSS has a variable, EATGM. Here are the results by ideology:

Liberal Moderate Conservative
Don’t care whether or not food has been genetically modified 15 16 17
Willing to eat but would prefer unmodified foods 55 53 52
Will not eat genetically modified food 30 30 31


I would caution that the sample size is small. But, if you dig deeper into the survey data you can find evidence that conservatives are more unalloyed in their support of biotech.

And yet with all this said, today I noticed that the California proposition 37 results are rather stark in their geographic distribution. The measure failed statewide, but 2/3 of the people in San Francisco and Santa Cruz counties supported it, as did 60% of the people in Marin (interestingly, only a little over 50% supported it in San Mateo and Santa Clara). I couldn’t find a tabular list with the results by county, but there are interactive maps. If someone was industrious (and had more time than I do) they would go and collect the data from the maps, and do a loess of “support proposition 37” vs. “support Obama.”

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Richard Lewontin against the age

Richard Lewontin’s fame rests in part on his pioneering role in the development of the field of molecular evolution, and secondarily due to his trenchant Left-wing politics. Several readers have already pointed me to his rather strange review of two new works in The New York Review of Books. The prose strikes me as viscous and meandering, but some of the assertions are rather peculiar. For example:

The other exception to random inheritance is not in the chromosomes, but in cellular particles called ribosomes that contain not DNA but a related molecule, RNA, which has heritable variation and is of basic importance to cell metabolism and the synthesis of proteins. Although the cells of both sexes have ribosomes, they are inherited exclusively through their incorporation in the mother’s egg cell rather than through the father’s sperm. Our ribosomes, then, provide us, both male and female, with a record of our maternal ancestry, uncontaminated by their male partners.

Harry Ostrer, who is a professor of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Raphael Falk, who is one of Israel’s most prominent geneticists, depend heavily on our ability to trace ancestry by looking at the DNA of Y chromosomes and ribosomes….

There is no mention of ribosomes in Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. I know, because I used Amazon’s ‘search inside’ feature. Rather, there’s a lot of reference to mitochondrial DNA and mtDNA, which is what Lewontin truly meant. Or at least I hope that’s what he meant. Because Lewontin is an eminent evolutionary biologist I assume they felt like they didn’t need a science editor, but perhaps they need to reconsider that.

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Why Marco Rubio waffled on the age of rocks (in numbers)

If you have a pulse and follow “science news” you are aware that Marco Rubio gave a very equivocal answer to a very simple question about the age of the earth. As many have noted this is basically a way to call out Republican politicians for the fact that they have to satisfy the cultural signals of a segment of the American population which has a deep hostility to science which undercuts their naive reading of the Bible. To Mitt Romney’s credit he did not evade on this question, but gave a mainstream answer among the well educated. This sort of political pandering isn’t too surprising. Remember Hillary Clinton dismissing ‘elite economists’ when it came to her silly gas tax suspension idea? It’s a democracy, and that means you can get very far appealing to the populist sentiment.

More concretely, I want to address something Rod Dreher asserted at The American Conservative:

I wish one of these liberal journalists would go into a black or Latino church supper and ask people their thoughts about how the universe began. I’d bet that 99 percent of the people there would agree with Marco Rubio, even if most of them would vote for his opponent. People just don’t care about this stuff at the national political level. You’d better believe I’d fight over this issue if it came down to a matter of what was going to be taught in my local school. But I couldn’t possibly care less what the guy who lives in the White House thinks, unless he tries to impose it on the country.

When I hear the word “bet” I start thinking of laying down odds and stealing someone’s cash! But in this case I’ll assume Rod was being rhetorical. But let’s review the numbers, shall we?
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The archaeologist, James Fallows, and Neandertals

A month ago I posted Don’t trust an archaeologist about genetics, don’t trust a geneticist about archaeology, in response to James Fallows at At 5% Neanderthal, You Are an Outlier. Fallows has now put up a follow up, The Neanderthal Defense Committee Swings Into Action, where he links to my response post. This prompted the original archaeologist in question to reach out to me via email. I am posting the letter, with their permission, below.

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