Monthly Archives: December 2009

Real Science

Fascinating observations from watching real science in action.  Half of data conflicts with theoretical expectations:

Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) … “The results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” …

There were models that didn’t work and data that couldn’t be replicated and simple studies riddled with anomalies. “These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.” …

Most such anomalies are just ignored:

The vast majority of people in the lab followed the same basic strategy. First, they would blame the method. The surprising finding was classified as a mere mistake; perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale. … The experiment would then be carefully repeated. Sometimes, the weird blip would disappear, in which case the problem was solved. But the weirdness usually remained, an anomaly that wouldn’t go away.  …

Even after scientists had generated their “error” multiple times — it was a consistent inconsistency — they might fail to follow it up. “Given the amount of unexpected data in science, it’s just not feasible to pursue everything.” …

Marginalized folks contribute more to innovation:

Thorstein Veblen was commissioned … to write an essay on how Jewish “intellectual productivity” would be changed if Jews were given a homeland. … [he] argued instead that the scientific achievements of Jews — at the time, Albert Einstein was about to win the Nobel Prize and Sigmund Freud was a best-selling author — were due largely to their marginal status.  … They were able to question everything, even the most cherished of assumptions. …

Diversity induces far view talk, which finds creative answers:

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. …. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved.” .. The intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. … These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.

Thorstein Veblen is under-appreciated, as is how weak are our theories.  How much innovation do we lose because Jews are no longer on the margin?  Hat tip to R0bert Koslover.

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Neutrality Isn’t Popular

Wikipedia on Thucydides:

Thucydides has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” due to his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods, … [and] the father of the school of political realism, which views the relations between nations as based on might rather than right.

This famously objective historian was however actually rather partisan:

If Herodotus retains his proper title as the “father of history,” Thucydides, his younger contemporary and author of the “History of the Peloponnesian War,” an elaborate account of that bloody 30-year internecine spat between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century, B.C., might be called the father of all those historians who aspire to comprehend the past coolly, objectively, dispassionately, scientifically and without a brief for any partisan cause. He was the first sociologist. Or so we have blithely tended to believe. …

Contrary to prevailing notions that Thucydides penned his work from a distant, Olympian remove, he was actually a participant — an accomplice, really — in the war he so eloquently and painstakingly depicted; his was a partisan’s point of view. A general high in the Athenian command earlier in the war, he was forced into exile after he lost Amphipolis to the enemy in 422. Years later, he wrote his account to defend his actions and indeed those of his class. Democracy was, he believed, ever prone to dangle before citizens the deceptive promises and baubles of demagogues like Alcibiades, at whose door he placed blame for the Sicilian debacle. And so it was Athenian democracy itself that caused Athens’s eventual defeat, not her more enlightened generals like Nicias and himself. The “History,” according to Kagan, represented as much as anything else Thucydides’ apologia, not a detached rationalist’s tale of simple cause and effect.

Real objectivity is much more a niche than a mass market.  So while one might expect the rare historian to try to be cool and objective, one should be surprised to find that such a historian is very popular.  So one should have been surprised by Thucydides’ popularity, given his supposed objectivity.  Learning that he was in fact quite partisan resolves that puzzle quite nicely.

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Smart Sincere Syndrome

Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends.  We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.

Now human characteristics vary quite a bit, and so some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals.  More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it.  And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions, with matching actions that range far from the norm.

The chance to show sincerity and smarts via our ideals makes it more important that one’s far ideals fit with a coherent and well-thought out ideology, than to be accurate relative to some external standard.  So humans are relatively unconcerned to discover they have wildly divergent ideologies; they accept that they disagree.  While a middle average opinion might be more accurate on average, it would less sparkle with the shine of clear clever sincere thought.  In addition, divergence lets folks show loyalty to particular groups.

This smart sincere syndrome less afflicted our distant ancestors because fuzzy far feelings rarely lead to clear inescapable conclusions.  While far mode is good for creative thinking, it usually leaves plausible excuses for rejecting conclusions that one does not like.  But the more recent invention of near-mode-based math/logical style analysis, applicable to far abstract problems, has made it easier for humans to notice and avoid inconsistencies.  So today, the smart sincere syndrome especially afflicts many folks with high math ability.

Now a modest dose of smart sincerity, limited by time, topic or temperament, is a good sign, as it indicates the positive qualities of intelligence and conscientiousness, qualities most any organization can put to good use.  So everyone wants to seem ideological to some degree.  And even a large dose of smart sincerity, if bundled with complements such as beauty, stamina, or charisma, can bring success as a “movement” or spiritual leader.  But without such complements, an overdose of smart sincerity tends toward evolutionary failure, typically achieving less success relative to ability.

Today, a common solution to this dilemma is libertarian axiomatics, a simple coherent ideology supporting most, but hardly all, ordinary practical actions.  Another common solution is to embrace a particular successful person, profession, or institution as the key to achieving global ideals; full loyalty and support of such a thing may, if reciprocated, help one achieve standard measures of success.

However, pity the simply smart sincere, who try make sense of their inherited incoherent impractical far ideals, via more coherent if idiosyncratic ideologies, that encourage unusual, and usually unadaptive, behavior.  Stories told of their dramatic bids for ideal consistency may be their main legacy from this our dream-time era.

Added 17Jan: Rob Wiblin says terrorists fit this pattern.

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Docs vs MBAs

In a Florida operating room … there’s an anesthesiologist alternating with a nurse anesthetist, an X-ray technician and a circulating nurse; … there’s the surgeon, a middle-aged orthopedist who has never performed this type of operation before.  And, at the foot of the operating table, there’s Chuck Bates, a guy who studied biology in college. … Come up one centimeter and make your incision there, Bates tells the surgeon. …

The job wholesaling hot dogs enabled Bates to get an MBA … which led to employment with Kyphon, a manufacturer of medical devices.  … Bates was the salesman in the operating room. … Sales representatives … in operating rooms … serve as simple reminders that medicine is a business, with all the potential that entails to promote efficiency, boost sales and extract profit.  But should they be there at all?  In an age of rapidly proliferating technologies, the salesmen may know more about their products than the doctors who use them do. … They speed procedures along, making time for more. …

Many medical devices could not be used — or used safely — without sales reps. … Richmond gynecologist Catherine A. Matthews said that’s a frightening argument.  “They’re not in any way motivated to recommend what might be the best thing for the patient,” Matthews said. “They’re there to sell their product.”  Doctors shouldn’t have to depend on reps for expertise, she added. … The presence of the salesman in the operating room has long raised concerns that it can put the interests of manufacturers before those of patients.

More here.  Can’t you feel the shame?  You pick a prestigious doctor to solve your problem, and instead he’s taking orders from some lowly MBA!  Horrors.  Such low status folks might, gasp, recommend things to make money, not like surgeons, who are far too high status and “professional” to care about such lowly things as money.  Riiiight.

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World Government

The scope and intensity of governments have clearly increased over the centuries, as have the size of firms.  We’ve had some near global empires in the last few centuries, some serious attempts at world domination, and we now coordinate more via the United Nations and international treaties.

So it seems to me quite likely that we will soon try a stronger world government.  And since a world government has no outside threats, it could more easily preserve itself, even if harmful.  So we risk locking in a harmful world government, little interested in improving that situation.

On the other hand, we expect a world government to suffer especially from the empire bias, more than most other organizations.  So a world government may well over-reach, promising more than it can deliver, and making people visibly worse off.  In addition, since nations today often feel unified in response to outside threats, a world government will induce less loyalty and more local complaints, the seriousness of which it is likely to underestimate.

So not only is the world likely to try a world government soon, that experiment is also likely to end badly, with many folks vowing “never again.”  As I said yesterday:

Whether a world governments will be worth its empire costs depends on how serious and frequent are [global coordination] problems, and on how much better we learn to structure large organizations to avoid the empire bias.

Those who think a world government would be worth its cost in the long run should probably not be that eager for its first experiment to start soon; they should instead work to improve our mechanisms of governance, to make an efficient world government actually be feasible.  A later better effort has a better chance of lasting.

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The Empire Bias

Firms tend to be managed with an “empire” bias, i.e., toward being too big.  The largest firms are less profitable, they too often reinvest rather than pay dividends, and firm mergers and acquisitions tend to lose money.  Also, as I suggested yesterday, the fact that organizations can be too big at all is probably due to a bias to over-manage top subordinates, to justify and affirm supervisor status.

The fact that we can so easily see this bias shows that investors have limited control over managers.  If it were easier to buy firms out and change their management, presumably we’d see more large firms forced to break up, and more top managers forced to accept autonomous subordinates.  (Which would be a good thing.)  Instead, overly large firms are now disciplined mainly by having to shrink when they run out of money.

Non-business organizations also suffer this empire bias; their managers also overly focus on increasing size and overly-managing subordinates to justify and assert their status.  This empire bias seems worse for states than firms because:

  1. Financial losses quickly threaten firms, but states can be less efficient before war or revolt threatens them.
  2. Preventing war or revolt depends less on supplying value and more on ensuring loyalty, which empire aids.
  3. States accountable to voters or elites tilt toward their biases, and most people under-appreciate org scale disecon.
  4. Non-pivotal voters or elites gain status by advocating more empire, even when empire policies hurt them on net.

A world government should be even more biased to overly-manage overly-large overly-intrusive agencies.  After all, its existence is much less threatened by war or comparison with productive outsiders.  The Soviet Union collapsed because its citizens could eventually see clearly the West’s superior productivity; a world-wide Soviet Union would avoid such embarrassment.

Of course future world governments might add great value dealing with global coordination problems.  Whether a world government will be worth its empire costs depends on how serious and frequent are such problems, and on how much better we learn to structure large organizations to avoid such costs.

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Up In The Air

Up in the Air is like Doubt, both in being a well done movie and in tempting viewers to project their values onto its ambiguity.  It is about Ryan Bingham, who fires folks for a living.  At first the film seems to criticize corporations for firing folks, and to criticize Ryan for his collaboration.  But eventually the film doesn’t so much change its mind as lose interest.  The movie cares far more about what a willingness to fire people says about Ryan’s character, than it does about the people fired.  Once Ryan has an awakening to self-insight, we the audience are fine with whatever he chooses.

To the extent the movie criticizes firing folks, it mainly frowns on doing so on the cheap, via a low paid newbie following a script by phone rather than a handsome thoughtful professional in person.  Apparently we are ok with firing folks, as long as the occasion has sufficient solemnity to show respect for the departed.  It is like how we respect a hunter who pauses to say an eloquent prayer for the animal he killed, in contrast to an insensitive slaughterhouse worker just passing time till his shift ends.  As with executing humans, we don’t really mind animals dying, if we show we are good people via the process.

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Animal Smoking Studies

Some seem to think experiments show smoking causes cancer in animals.  Not so, for mice or rats:

I review the results of a representative selection of chronic inhalation studies with rats and mice exposed to mainstream cigarette smoke. … Smoke-induced epithelial hypertrophy, hyperplasia, and squamous metaplasia were reported in the conducting airways in most of the studies, along with increased numbers of intra-alveolar macrophages that were occasionally associated with alveolar metaplasia. Lung adenomas and adenocarcinomas were reported in only a few of the studies. No statistically significant increase in the incidence of malignant lung tumors was seen. …

The 14 studies reviewed … [showed] significant increases in the numbers of malignant tumors were not produced in the respiratory tracts of rats or mice exposed chronically by inhalation to cigarette smoke.  The studies clearly involved the inhalation of very large amounts of smoke (usually from unfiltered, high-tar cigarettes) …  The results of this work clearly indicate that maximal amounts of smoke were inhaled into the lungs of the animals (blood COHb concentrations very close to those associated with lethality) daily for up to 2 yr with no carcinogenic effect noted.

Nor for hamsters, dogs, or primates:

This paper makes an identical evaluation as before, but, restricting the species being evaluated to representative studies of smoke-exposed hamsters, dogs (both by tracheostomy and by direct inhalation), and nonhuman primates. As was seen previously, no statistically significant increase in the incidence of malignant tumors of the respiratory tract was found in any of the 3 species, even though very long exposures and high doses of smoke were used.

Now the number of animals in these studies is a few thousand at most, and their duration is less than decades, but experimenters did have complete control over making animals smoke heavily.  Yes this review author works for a tobacco firm, but his papers seem professional.

Searching for “animal smoking experiments,” I found many sources admitting we haven’t found much evidence smoking hurts animals, and none saying the opposite.  Here is a ’97 Scientific American article “Animal Research is Wasteful and Misleading”: Continue reading "Animal Smoking Studies" »

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Whence Scale Diseconomies?

For good or evil, one of our greatest legacies will be global governance:

Our institutions of global governance may grow, follow us as we expand, and entrench themselves forever. On the downside, they might perpetuate themselves even if they hurt our descendants on net. On the upside, we might use them to overcome key coordination failures.

What will determine the breadth and strength of future global governance? Ideology and public opinion will play a part, but more important is probably organizational innovation; we’ll need better mechanisms to make it work.

As I’ve mentioned before, our use today of larger scale government is limited by the fact that local governments are usually more efficient.  The recent failure to create a global climate treaty offers a vivid example; central coordination is typically slow, expensive, and error prone.  So I doubt we’ll use central government to coordinate much more than we do now, until we learn how to do that more effectively.

While ancient empires sometimes covered wide areas, they didn’t get much involved in most activities, as long as tribute was paid.  Similarly, most ancient businesses were small scale.  But organizational innovations over the centuries have enabled both larger firms and larger governments.  Governments today get involved in more areas of life, and do so at larger scales; issues that were once private or municipal are now national or international.  This trend may or may not continue.

To avoid ideological distractions, let’s focus on how this plays out in business.  In particular, consider organizational economies and diseconomies of scale. Economies of scale are ways in which a larger organization are more efficient that smaller ones.  For example, larger organizations can produce using larger plants, share coordinated distribution networks, or share broader reputations.

Diseconomies of scale are ways in which larger organizations are less efficient that smaller ones.  Those not very familiar with large organizations often find it hard to imagine such diseconomies exist, and this failure of public imagination is arguably a big reason governments are often too large.  This review lists Williamson’s four factors hurting larger firms: Continue reading "Whence Scale Diseconomies?" »

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Smoking Trials Again

Recently I talked about checking on smoking skeptics.  I described three studies:

  1. A randomized trial of 1400 high risk smokers.  After 10 years one half had half the smoking rate of the other, and after 20 years it had an insignificant 7% lower mortality (13% less heart disease, 11% less lung cancer).
  2. MRFIT randomized multifactor trial of 8000 smokers.  After 6 years one half quit 49% (vs. 29%), and after 16 years had an insignificant 6% lower mortality (11% less heart disease, and -15% less lung cancer).
  3. A randomized multifactor trial of 1200 high risk men.  After five years one half reduced smoking by 3/8 (vs 2/9), but had twice the mortality (10 vs. 5 count).

I’ve now had time to look over seven more studies:

  1. A randomized trial of 6000 smokers with “asymptomatic airway obstruction”, i.e., weak lungs. (HT Karl.)  After 5 years in two-thirds, 22% (vs 5%) stopped smoking, and after 14.5 years they died a (3% level significant) 15% less (20% less of heart disease, 15% less of lung cancer, and 50% less of “respiratory disease other than cancer.”) (More details here, which I don’t have.)
  2. WHO collaborative multifactor randomized trial of 61,000 men.  After six years one half had 2% fewer smokers, 7% among highest risk men, giving an insignificant 5% lower mortality (7% in heart disease).
  3. Gotenborg multifactor randomized trial of 30,000 men.  After ten years one third had 9% fewer smokers (32.5 vs. 35.4%) than the other two thirds, and an insignificant 2% lower mortality (0% heart disease, 15% cancer).
  4. Norwegian multifactor randomized trial of 1200 men.  After five years one side had 1/8 less smoking, and after 28 years it had 46% more mortality (95 vs 65 count).
  5. Oslo mulitfactor randomized trial of 1200 men.  After 8.5 years one side had 45%(?) less smoking, and 40% less mortality (19 vs. 31 count).  (This just from abstract; anyone have the paper?)
  6. A non-randomized study of 1600 men over 26 years. Initial lung quality was unrelated to mortality for non-smokers, but high smokers with initially bad lungs died 62% more than initially good lungs.
  7. A non-randomized AER ’06 study of WWII vetrans.  Its key “identifying assumption is that cohort and age effects in the smoking equation are the same for men and women” and that the entire increased mortality of WWII veterans is due to their smoking more. (HT Alex T.)  It finds “a nonveteran average annual mortality rate of 13.1 per 1,000 men and a veteran … rate of 16.6” (1.2 vs. 2.2 for lung cancer), suggesting “36 to 79 percent of the excess veteran deaths due to heart disease and lung cancer are attributable to military-induced smoking”.  Since heart disease and lunch cancer were 38% of deaths, this suggests ~4-12% higher smoking mortality.

OK, so how best to summarize this evidence?  Based on study #4, I tentatively estimate smoking raises mortality for folks with bad lungs, about 10 to 25% of folks, by 50-100%.  (This affect appears to not work mainly via lung cancer.)  This is supported by study #9 and could explain a 5-25% overall smoking mortality increase.

In the rest of the studies, if we assume the entire effect seen was from smoking, we can collect smoking mortality affect estimates.  Setting aside #8, as I haven’t read the paper, #1 had the biggest change in smoking rates, and suggests a ~20% mortality.  The next biggest change was #2, and suggests ~30% mortality.  Study #6 had the next less change, and suggests ~22% mortality.  The rest were all across the map, as expected from their small count and change.

So, we seem to see a 50-100% smoking mortality increase on bad lungs, which predicts a 5-25% overall smoking mortality increase.  If we attribute to smoking the full benefit seen in our three most relevant multifactor randomized trials, we get crude smoking harm estimates of 20,22,30%.  And if, from study #10, we attribute the entire higher mortality of WWII veterans to their smoking more we get ~4-12% mortality effect.

Bottom line:  a randomized trial suggests a large smoking harm on bad lungs, which can explain the entire apparently average smoking harm seen elsewhere.  My best guess: smokers die ~10-30% more on average, living about 2-6 months less, but there’s much less net harm to strong lung folks.

Added 10a: Wikipedia says

Male and female smokers lose an average of 13.2 and 14.5 years of life, respectively. .. The risk of dying from lung cancer before age 85 is 22.1% for a male smoker and 11.9% for a female current smoker, in the absence of competing causes of death. The corresponding estimates for lifelong nonsmokers are a 1.1% probability [20 times less] of dying from lung cancer before age 85 for a man of European descent, and a 0.8% probability [15 times less] for a woman.

Other sources mention risk factors of 15, 23 or 100. Such figures are common and, it seems, rather misleading. The above studies clearly suggest that the causal effect of smoking on mortality, even for lung cancer, is much less than the factors of 15+ often thrown around.

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