Science and Technology links (December 15th 2018)

  1. Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. There is weak correlation between grades and job performance. Grant reviews the evidence in details in his New York Times piece.When recruiting research assistants, I look at grades as the last indicator. I find that imagination, ambition, initiative, curiosity, drive, are far better predictors of someone who will do useful work with me. Of course, these characteristics are themselves correlated with high grades, but there is something to be said about a student who decides that a given course is a waste of time and that he works on a side project instead. Breakthroughs don’t happen in regular scheduled classes, they happen in side projects. We want people who complete the work they were assigned, but we also need people who can reflect critically on what is genuinely important. I don’t have any need for a smart automaton: I already have many computers.I have applied the same principle with my two sons: I do not overly stress the importance of good grades, encouraging them instead to pursue their own interests and to go beyond their classes.
  2. Our hearts do not regenerate. Thus a viable strategy might to transplant brand new hearts from pigs. This is much harder than it appears, however. But progress is being made. Researchers are now able to keep baboons alive for months with transplanted pig hearts. To achieve this good result, the scientists had to use an immunosuppressant drug to prevent unwanted growth in the pig’s heart. With some luck, some of us could benefit from transplanted heart pigs in the near future.
  3. Cataract is the most common cause of blindness. It can be “cured” by removing your natural lens and replacing them with artificial lenses called IOL (intraocular lenses). This therapy was invented in the 1940s, but it took 40 years before it became widespread in wealthy countries. It is still out of reach in many countries. Yet the cost of intraocular lenses is less than 10$ and the procedure is inexpensive (it costs less than 25$ in total in some countries). Even today, in many rich countries, access to this therapy is restricted. Finally, in 2017, a government agency in UK recommended that we stop rationing access to cataract surgery.
  4. Physically fit middle-age women are much less likely to develop dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s).
  5. You might expect that research results published in more prestigious venues would also be more reliable. Brembs (2018) suggests it works the other way around:

    an accumulating body of evidence suggests the inverse: methodological quality and, consequently, reliability of published research works in several fields may be decreasing with increasing journal rank

    My own recommendation to colleagues and students has been that if peer-reviewed publications are warranted, then it is fine to target serious well-managed venues, irrespective of their “prestige”.

    It is hard enough to do solid research, if you also have to tune it so that it outcompetes other proposals in a competition for prestige, I fear that you may discourage good research practices. Scientists care too little about modesty, it is their downfall.

  6. Lomborg, a reknown economist, writes about climate change:

    Using the best individual and collectively peer-reviewed economic models, the total cost of Paris – through slower GDP growth from higher energy costs – will reach $1-2 trillion every year from 2030. (…) It’s so expensive because green energy isn’t ready to replace fossil fuels at scale. Nations are using expensive subsidies and other policies to force immature green technologies on consumers and businesses. We need to change course. The smart option, backed by economic science, is to adopt a technology-led policy. This means investing far more into green energy research and development. Rather than forcing the rollout of immature energy sources, we need to ensure that green energy can out-compete fossil fuels.

    I really like the term “technology-led policy”. If you want to change the world for the better, then making the good things cheap using technology and science is the golden path.

  7. About 60% of all scientists never lead a research project of their own which indicate that they always play a supporting role. In fields like astronomy, ecology and robotics, half of all researchers leave the field every five years, a consequence of the fact that there are many more aspiring scientists than there are good jobs. Though this sounds bad, but one must consider that the number of scientists doubles every 15 years. Thus even though the job prospects for scientists look poor in relative terms, we must consider that we never had so many gainfully employed scientists.
  8. The state of Louisiana is adopting digital drive licenses. Meanwhile, in Montreal, I still can’t take the subway without constantly recharging a stupid card.
  9. Lack of copper might lead to heart disease. Copper is found in shiitake mushrooms, oysters, dark chocolate, sesame seeds, cashew nuts, raw kale, beans and avocados.
  10. The diabetes drug Metformin is under study as an anti-aging drug. It is believed to be very safe yet Konopka et al. suggests that it may lower the benefits due to exercise.
  11. Over time, our bodies accumulate a small fraction of “senescent cells”. It is believed that these disfunctional cells contribute to the diseases of old age. For the last few years, researchers have been looking for senolytics, drugs that can kill senescent cells. It turns out that two antibiotics approved for medical use are potent senolytics.
  12. The first autonomous vehicule (the ancestor of the self-driving car) was built in 1961.
  13. Billions of dollars have been spent on clinical trials to try to cure Alzheimer’s, all in vain. Golde et al. propose that the problem might have to do with poor timing: we need to apply the therapy at the right time. Wadmam suggests that Alzheimer’s might spread like an infection.
  14. China is introducing far reaching penalties for researchers who commit scientific fraud:

    Chinese leaders have been increasingly focused on scientific misconduct, following ongoing reports of researchers there using fraudulent data, falsifying CVs and faking peer reviews. In May, the government announced sweeping reforms to improve research integrity. One of those was the creation of a national database of misconduct cases. Inclusion on the list could disqualify researchers from future funding or research positions, and might affect their ability to get jobs outside academia. (Source: Nature)

    We need to recognize that the scientific enterprise is fundamentally on an honor-based system. It is trivial to cheat in science. You can work hard to collect data, or make it up as you go. Except for the most extreme cases, the penalty for cheating is small because there is almost always plausible deniability.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Science and Technology links (December 15th 2018)”

  1. Regarding number 6 (climate change)…

    My apologies for the lengthy rant, but this is a pet peeve of mine. GDP is is not a meaningful economic indicator in any way, shape or form. Any economist who focuses on GDP when discussing economic development or economic well-being is a fraud, no matter how many Nobel prizes he/she may have. GDP is a measure of economic activity. (And a pretty bad one at that.) It is not a measure of economic development, of economic well-being, or anything like that.

    It’s like tracking your health by how much you eat every day. Maybe you eat a lot, but you’re a very active person, so you have a strong, healthy body that everyone is jealous of. Or maybe you eat a lot and you’re just fat. There’s no way to tell by looking only at how much you eat. It’s a single data point. It doesn’t tell much of the story, and if you assume that it tells you the entire story, you will be very wrong. Yet politicians, economists and journalists everywhere keep using GDP when discussing the economy. It’s madness. It’s a very real case of collective insanity. (I have a master’s degree in economics, so I’m not just pulling stuff out of my ass. This collective insanity is the main reason I left the field. I wanted no part in it.)

    Another common example of a bad indicator is using weight as a proxy for health, with the assumption that losing weight is doubtlessly good and gaining weight is doubtlessly bad. If you weight 200 pounds, train hard a couple times a week for a year, gain 50 pounds of muscle and lose 30 pounds of fat, you’ll now weight 220 pounds, but you’ll probably be healthier than you were before. Your weight going up or down, on its own, doesn’t mean anything. GDP is exactly the same kind of useless non-sense.

    If you’re fat and want to get healthier, waist circumference is probably a much better indicator. If your belly is melting, you’re probably moving in the right direction. You should track more than that, ideally, but if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose between either weight or waist circumference – and only one of them -, I’d say waist circumference is by far the more meaningful thing to track.

    If we were serious about tracking how well we’re doing economically, we would use GAAP accounting instead. It tracks assets, revenues, costs. It would be an infinitely saner approach to economics, but most people’s reaction to the idea is “Governments are not businesses and should not be run as if they were”, which completely misses the point. If you manage your family’s budget the way governments manage the economy, you’ll all be sleeping on the street, starving, in no time.

    The biggest problem with GDP is that it does not take into account value destruction (or value creation, for that matter – it only tracks economic activity). If I buy a nuclear bomb for a billion dollars and then blow up the planet, GDP will go up by a billion dollars because I bought a bomb worth that much. The destruction caused by blowing up the planet (and ending all life on Earth) won’t be accounted for in any way – until the next period rolls around and GDP is down for some reason. (This is an extreme example. Value destruction in the current period does not necessarily cause future GDP to go down. GDP going up or down doesn’t say anything about value creation or destruction.) Using GAAP, we’d be down one planet, with everything valuable on it. The value destroyed would get accounted for directly, immediately, and we’d make smarter choices because our cost-benefit analyses would be based on much more meaningful numbers.

    So when politicians are talking about the cost of reducing our carbon footprint, what they are actually saying is that we should continue subsidizing pollution by allowing people to destroy the environment without compensating the community for the destruction they cause. It’s the same as allowing people to destroy your property without compensating you. If my neighbour drives a tank over my car and turns it into a pancake, everyone would say I obviously deserve compensation for my lost car. If someone puts toxic chemicals into a lake on land I own, I could sue for damages because it’s obviously not OK in our legal system to destroy someone else’s property without their explicit prior consent. If I destroy a city bus, the city can sue me for damages to city property. There’s no reason the environment should be treated any differently.

    When polluters have to pay the real cost of their pollution, we’ll see real investment in green technologies. For example, if Canada adopted a 200$-per-tonne carbon tax, the average Canadian would probably pay a whole lot more for fuel, and green tech would become a whole lot more of an issue when election time comes – because having the government invest in green technologies could help lower the citizens’s fuel expenses. That said, businesses would probably do most of the investment because they would feel the most pain, and they could earn a lot by re-selling the technologies they developed to consumers, governments and other businesses.

    Pain is a fantastic motivator. When business-as-usual costs too much, people (and organizations) look for better ways of doing things. If we had had a 200$-per-tonne carbon tax since the 1970s, all cars would have gone electric a long time ago, coal-based power centrals would have been phased out ages ago, smog would be a distant memory of times long gone, etc.

    Maybe GDP will go down if the world’s various countries all implement a high carbon tax, but we have to let go of the idea that GDP going down means we’re worse off economically. It’s simply not true. It has never been. I’m not anti-science. I’m not saying we should fly blind. I’m saying that there are smarter ways to look at economic development, and we should have started using them ages ago. Better now than never though. It’s time for us to wake up. It’s time for us to shake ourselves out of this collective insanity.

  2. I’ve always heard that heart and brain cells don’t regenerate and once gone are gone, etc.

    But this has always made little common sense to me. Speaking of heart cells, athletic training in the highest heart rate zone builds denser heart muscle that contracts with more strength, and the zone just below increases the volume of blood pumped per beat. And top athletes are known to have enlarged hearts for these reasons.

    Thus… clearly change is afoot?

    And there are similar arguments about brain plasticity.

    (accidentally posted this on the Dec 8 thread, with no way to delete lol)

  3. RE “senescent cells” and other cellular dysfunction, autophagy activated through fasting seems to keep the house in order.

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