Monthly Archives: June 2006

Just how do economists reach their conclusions?

Here’s a primer:

Let’s start with how economists reach our conclusions. Non-economists might be forgiven for presuming that we construct our arguments in the same way that they do: apply their preferred mixture of values and interests in order to decide whether or not they like a policy, and then assemble arguments to support that position. This might explain why many would view economists as opponents: by the simple act of disagreeing, aren’t economists making it clear that we don’t share the same values?

Except that’s not how we work. Our starting point is always a model: a stylized representation of how the economy works. Once we’re satisfied that we have a model that incorporates the main features of interest — this step necessarily involves a certain amount of subjective judgment — we compare what the model would predict if the policy were in place with what would happen without it. The difference between the two predictions is the effect of the policy.

After describing the problems that arise from this fundamental misunderstanding, the author (Stephen Gordon of the University of Laval at Quebec City) goes on to offer some suggestions about what can be done:

Clearly, economists can make a more concerted effort to explain to non-specialists what it is they are saying, and why. This isn’t a simple task — economics is a difficult and technical subject — and it’s made more complicated by the fact that there are any number of commentators who have built their careers on misunderstanding and misrepresenting what economists have to say.

But it would be easier if progressives made an effort to set aside their distrust of economists and actually listen to what we are trying to say. Yes, you may be forced to re-examine some long-held opinions, but is that really a bad thing? And you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that we too are preoccupied with finding solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality.

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Illusory link between income and happiness

Ttwo Princeton professors, economist Alan B. Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in collaboration with three others from other universities (psychologists David Schkade of the University of California-San Diego, Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Arthur Stone of the State University of New York-Stony Brook) are reporting something quite interesting:

While most people believe that having more income would make them happier, Princeton University researchers have found that the link is greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion.

People surveyed about their own happiness and that of others with varying incomes tended to overstate the impact of income on well-being, according to a new study. Although income is widely assumed to be a good measure of well-being, the researchers found that its role is less significant than predicted and that people with higher incomes do not necessarily spend more time in more enjoyable ways.

… The new findings build on their efforts to develop alternative methods of gauging the well-being of individuals and of society. The new measures are based on people’s ratings of their actual experiences, instead of a judgment of their lives as a whole.

The study is being published in Science, in the issue dated 30 June 2006. Here’s the abstract:

The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.

The Ward Churchill case

Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, recounts the story of the investigation by a faculty committee into allegations of academic misconduct by Ward Churchill, “Native American activist and professor of ethnic studies at [the University of Colorado at Boulder]”. It appears to be a balanced story, and there are lots of details there that I was not aware of (I wasn’t following this case closely enough, I suppose).

Janet Stemwedel, who’s “working the ethics beat at ScienceBlogs“, offers a crib-sheet on the important ethical questions in this case. She concludes thus:

It would have been nice if the University of Colorado had investigated the earlier allegations of academic misconduct. It would have been swell if the careful investigation that [actually] happened hadn’t been precipitated by a politically motivated firestorm. But given the facts in evidence, he has to go.

Is Economics the ‘New’ Physics?

For a long time, physicists have had a reputation for boldly venturing into other disciplines. Indeed, in a recent Physics Today article recounting the history of physics since 1931, Spencer Weart specifically mentions the rise of ‘hyphenated physics’ (bio-physics, geo-physics, etc) during this period as a key development.

The natives of the other disciplines, of course, would grumble because they felt that many of these wandering physicists were promiscuous (with no long term commitment to their field) and, more importantly, arrogant. I remember a wanderer saying several years ago, “You know, these metallurgists know a lot of stuff about X. I don’t know how they know so much, but they just do!” Among the natives, the joke is that these promiscuous physicists were just looking for interesting problems, because there weren’t any in physics. I suppose all this is a part of a healthy disdain for other disciplines that scientists imbibe and develop.

I am reminded of all this by this paragraph, quoted in Peter Klein’s post (which was triggered by an earlier post):

Economists are extending the range of their studies to include all of the social sciences. . . . What is the reason why this is happening? One completely satisfying explanation . . . would be that economists have by now solved all of the major problems posed by the economic system, and, therefore, rather than become unemployed or be forced to deal with the trivial problems which remain to be solved, have decided to employ their obviously considerable talents in achieving a similar success in the other social sciences. However, it is not possible to examine any area of economics with which I have familiarity without finding major puzzles for which we have no agreed solutions, or, indeed, questions to which we have no answers at all. The reason for this movement of economists into neighbouring fields is certainly not that we have solved the problems of the economic system; it would perhaps be more plausible to argue that economists are looking for fields in which they can have some success. [from Ronald Coase’s 1978 paper titled “Economics and Contiguous Disciplines”.

Just replace ‘economics’ and ‘social sciences’ with ‘physics’ and ‘natural sciences’, respectively, and you have a perfect analogy!

[Peeter Klein’s posts also discuss and critique the ‘freakonomics’ kind of incursions into other fields; do read them.]

* * *

Last year, the New York Times proclaimed ‘econophysics’ as one of the most noteworthy ideas of the year. Given the reputation of physics and economics in their respective domains (natural and social sciences), econophysics sounds like a marriage between two domineering individuals. Has it been a marriage filled with joy and peace? Hardly!

In a recent article in Nature (subscription required), Philip Ball (author of this survey article on interating agent models in sociology) describes the scene rather well. Here’s how the article opens:

For the past two decades, some physicists have been trying to apply their ideas and tools to an area that seems a long way from traditional physics. They are exploring the notion that there might be a kind of physics of the economy — an ‘econophysics’, as it has been dubbed1. Last year, some of these econophysicists even went as far as to suggest that economics might be “the next physical science”.

But now this unlikely marriage is showing signs of turning sour. Even those economists who at first welcomed econophysics are starting to wonder whether it is ever going to deliver on its initial promise. Early successes in modelling financial markets have not led to insights elsewhere, some complain. Matters came to a head at the Econophysics Colloquium, held at the Australian National University in Canberra last November. A group of economists attending the meeting were so dismayed with what they saw many physicists doing that they penned a forthcoming paper entitled ‘Worrying trends in econophysics’.

To me, this paragraph is telling:

So why have some of these physics-friendly economists become fed up? Although Ormerod and colleagues are highly critical of mainstream economic theory, they point out that “economics is not at all an empty box.” The Canberra critique accuses econophysicists of ignoring the existing literature — a charge also levelled at physicists when they began to dabble seriously in biology.

* * *

Over a year ago, I covered a different kind of interdisciplinary war: the one between sociologists and physicists about the theory of social networks.

Online books in materials science?

Note: Originally posted on 24 January 2005.

Towards the end of his Netspeak column in today’s Hindu, J. Murali points to the Internet Text Archive, “an excellent web location that hosts links to several free open source textbook digitizing [or] hosting projects that include Project Gutenberg, Children’s Library, Million Books Project and Open Source Books”. It is probably worth a look.

If you look around on the web, you will find quite a few books whose authors (and in some cases, publishers too) have chosen to offer them for free. Among the publishers, the following are noteworthy:

  • Open Book project of O’Reilly, a well known publisher in the fields of programming and software development
  • eScholarship program of the California Digital Library, one of the University of California libraries. Some of the books in CDL are open for public; check out this subject list to see if there is anything of interest to you.

Then there are books that live both in shelves and in hard disks. Sure, some of them are quite specialized (with a potential readership of, say, a few hundreds); but, there are a few others which are at the undergraduate or equivalent level in popular subjects (software development!); Examples of the latter include:

I am not sure about the others, but I do know that the first two are very popular: they are still in print, you can buy them in shops, and apparently, many people do! In fact, Eckel loves this publishing model, and says, “All of my future books will be electronically published on my site first, and will stay on the site”.

There are still a few other books which live almost entirely in the electronic world; for example, The Temple of Quantum Computing is an introductory book that its author has described as quantum computing for dummies.

Is there a good reason why there are not many online books (available either for free or for a reasonably small price) in materials science and engineering? I found two online texts in Chemistry: Dynamic Textbook of Physical Chemistry and Concepts in Chemistry. I listed them in my Thermodynamics course website.

It is entirely possible that there are more such books that are available online, and are useful for students of materials science and engineering. If you know of any, do please send me its URL, and let us start compiling a list here!

Update (25 Jan 2005): The process of building up this list begins here! Here we go:

If you know more such online texts, bring’em on!

Crystallization

Bento, a chemical physicist (or should it be a physical chemist?) has a two part   series on the liquid-to-solid transformation (aka solidification in metallurgy!). The treatment, which uses the concept of an order paramter, is quite common in physics and chemistry literature (actually, statistical mechanics literature). Those working with phase filed models should be quite comfortable with it.

Papers retracted by chemistry professor: an update

Remember this post from three months ago? Now, we have an update by Kenneth Chang in the NYTimes. Prof. Dalibor Sames, the Columbia University professor of chemistry, who retracted two papers in March has now retracted four more papers. These papers were published in 2002 and 2003, and Sames was the lead author in all of them. Reason?

The retractions came after the experimental findings of the papers could not be reproduced by other researchers in the same laboratory.

The professor, Dalibor Sames, was the senior author of all the papers in question. Another author, Bengu Sezen, a former graduate student of Dr. Sames who received her doctorate last year, performed most of the experiments described in the papers.

Bengu Sezen, on the other hand, “has vigorously disputed the retractions. She said she had not been told that the papers were being withdrawn, and she questioned whether other members of Dr. Sames’s group had even tried to repeat the experiments.”

Janet Stemwedel, aka Dr. Free-Ride, has some more thoughts and an analysis of this episode. After examining the available evidence (all of which is from NYTimes, and through its reporter, Kenneth Chang, she has this to say:

Sames says others in his laboratory haven’t been able to reproduce Sezen’s experiments. Sezen says others in Sames’ lab already have reproduced them — and she’s willing to come back and perform the experiments herself under Sames’ supervision. No word on whether folks in other laboratories have tried to reproduce these experiments yet.

Sezen’s consternation here is understandable. The retraction of these papers seems to cast aspersions on her experimental competence, or on her integrity. But if it’s true that Sames didn’t contact her about the problems, that’s fishy.

Given the importance of reproducibility to the scientific enterprise, maybe we need to start thinking about what sort of burden of proof needs to be met before new findings are reported — and what kind of burden of proof needs to be met before we declare findings irreproducible.

Flow

Pleasure by itself does not bring happiness. We can experience pleasure (e.g. eating, sleeping, sex) without an investment of psychic energy. Enjoyment on the other hand, happens only as a result of an unusual amount of attention. Pleasure is fleeting and, unlike enjoyment, does not bring complexity (growth) to the self. If one only invests energy in new directions solely for extrinsic rewards, one may end up no longer enjoying life, and pleasures become the only source of positive experience. Without enjoyment life can be endured and can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment.

From this article by Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi, the author of the wonderful book on Flow. This article presents a good summary of the main ideas in his book.

Hwang says he didn’t fake it, his underlings did

The disgraced scientist, Hwang Woo Suk, firmly believed his lab’s purported stem cell breakthroughs were genuine until confronted last year with evidence that they were faked, his lawyer insisted Tuesday at the start of Hwang’s trial for fraud. …

The opening comments by Hwang’s lawyer, Park Jong Rok, appeared to stem from Hwang’s long-running strategy of blaming the scandal on underlings in his research team.

From this story. Clearly, Hwang wants to blame his subordinates, and deny responsibility for the original crime of fabricating results. Yesterday’s Economic Times seemed to indicate that one of them said something to the effect that he fabricated some of the findings under pressure, and that Hwang was unaware of his shenanigans. [Sorry, I am unable to get a link to this story online].