Quotulatiousness

March 28, 2014

Opinions, statistics, and sex work

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:04

Maggie McNeill explains why the “sex trafficking” meme has been so relentlessly pushed in the media for the last few years:

Imagine a study of the alcohol industry which interviewed not a single brewer, wine expert, liquor store owner or drinker, but instead relied solely on the statements of ATF agents, dry-county politicians and members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Or how about a report on restaurants which treated the opinions of failed hot dog stand operators as the basis for broad statements about every kind of food business from convenience stores to food trucks to McDonald’s to five-star restaurants?

You’d probably surmise that this sort of research would be biased and one-sided to the point of unreliable. And you’d be correct. But change the topic to sex work, and such methods are not only the norm, they’re accepted uncritically by the media and the majority of those who the resulting studies. In fact, many of those who represent themselves as sex work researchers don’t even try to get good data. They simply present their opinions as fact, occasionally bolstered by pseudo-studies designed to produce pre-determined results. Well-known and easily-contacted sex workers are rarely consulted. There’s no peer review. And when sex workers are consulted at all, they’re recruited from jails and substance abuse programs, resulting in a sample skewed heavily toward the desperate, the disadvantaged and the marginalized.

This sort of statistical malpractice has always been typical of prostitution research. But the incentive to produce it has dramatically increased in the past decade, thanks to a media-fueled moral panic over sex trafficking. Sex-work prohibitionists have long seen trafficking and sex slavery as a useful Trojan horse. In its 2010 “national action plan,” for example, the activist group Demand Abolition writes,“Framing the Campaign’s key target as sexual slavery might garner more support and less resistance, while framing the Campaign as combating prostitution may be less likely to mobilize similar levels of support and to stimulate stronger opposition.”

March 16, 2014

Alcoholics Anonymous and addiction

Filed under: Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:27

In Maclean’s, Kate Lunau talks to Dr. Lance Dodes about Alcoholics Anonymous:

Dr. Lance Dodes has spent more than 35 years treating people who are battling addiction, including alcoholism. In his new book (co-written with Zachary Dodes), The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, Dodes takes a hard look at Alcoholics Anonymous, a worldwide organization that describes itself as a “non-professional fellowship of alcoholics helping other alcoholics get and stay sober.” Today, there are more than 5,000 AA groups in Canada alone, which are free and open to anyone. Dodes, a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, argues that some groups — and many for-profit private rehab centres based on the 12-step model — are often ineffective, and can cause further damage to addicts.

Q: How did you come to work on addiction?

A: I first became involved with alcoholism and addiction in the ’70s, when the place I was working, which is now part of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, needed to develop an alcoholism treatment unit. I was director of psychiatry, so I said, “I’ll develop it.” Afterward, I became involved in various addiction treatment programs, including running the state’s largest compulsive-gambling program. Over the years, I became very familiar with AA. It became clear that, while AA works for some people, the statistics just didn’t back it up. The real problem is that [doctors] refer 100 per cent of their patients with alcoholism to AA, and that’s the wrong thing to do 90 per cent of the time.

Q: AA has more than two million members around the world. You say its success rate is between five and 10 per cent. How, then, do you account for its enduring popularity?

A: AA is a proselytizing organization. The 12th step is to go out and spread the word, and they do. Because there are so many people in prominent positions who are members of AA, it gets tremendously good press. If AA were simply harmless, then I would agree that a seven per cent success rate is better than zero. But that’s not the case. It can be very destructive. According to AA, AA never fails — you fail. AA says that if you’re not doing well in the program, then it’s you. So you should go back and do the same thing you did before: Do more of the 12 steps, and go to more meetings.

March 13, 2014

It’s amazing how much data can be derived from “mere” metadata

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:25

Two Stanford grad students conducted a research project to find out what kind of actual data can be derived from mobile phone metadata:

Two Stanford computer science students were able to acquire detailed information about people’s lives just from telephone metadata — the phone number of the caller and recipient, the particular serial number of the phones involved, the time and duration of calls and possibly the location of each person when the call occurred.

The researchers did not do any illegal snooping — they worked with the phone records of 546 volunteers, matching phone numbers against the public Yelp and Google Places directories to see who was being called.

From the phone numbers, it was possible to determine that 57 percent of the volunteers made at least one medical call. Forty percent made a call related to financial services.

The volunteers called 33,688 unique numbers; 6,107 of those numbers, or 18 percent, were isolated to a particular identity.

[...]

They crowdsourced the data using an Android application and conducted an analysis of individual calls made by the volunteers to sensitive numbers, connecting the patterns of calls to emphasize the detail available in telephone metadata, Mayer said.

“A pattern of calls will, of course, reveal more than individual call records,” he said. “In our analysis, we identified a number of patterns that were highly indicative of sensitive activities or traits.”

For example, one participant called several local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare-condition management service, and a pharmaceutical hotline used for multiple sclerosis.

Another contacted a home improvement store, locksmiths, a hydroponics dealer and a head shop.

The researchers initially shared the same hypothesis as their computer science colleagues, Mayer said. They did not anticipate finding much evidence one way or the other.

“We were wrong. Phone metadata is unambiguously sensitive, even over a small sample and short time window. We were able to infer medical conditions, firearm ownership and more, using solely phone metadata,” he said.

February 17, 2014

Looking forward by looking backward – military evolution

Filed under: History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:52

Strategy Page discusses the problems of predicting the future … which isn’t just a task for science fiction writers:

How will warfare change in the next 30 years? Military leaders, and the people they protect, are always trying to figure this out. There’s an easy way to get some good insight on the future. Simply go back 120 years (1894) and note the state of warfare and military technology at the time, then advance, 30 years at a time, until you reach 2014. At that point, making an educated guess at what 2044 will be like will like will be, if not easy, at least a lot less daunting.

In 1894, many infantry were still using single shot black powder rifles. Change was in the air though, and the United States had just begun to adopt the newfangled smokeless powder, a few years after it became widely available. In 1894 American troops were still replacing their black power rifles with a smokeless powder model (the Krag-Jorgensen). The modern machine-gun had been invented in 1883 but armies took about two decades before they began adopting them on a large scale. Most artillery was still short ranged, not very accurate, and could only fire at targets the crew could see. Horses pulled or carried stuff and the infantry marched a lot when they were not being moved long distances by railroad or steamships. But the modern, quick-firing artillery was recently introduced and still unproven in battle. Communications still relied on the telegraph, a half century old invention that revolutionized, in only a few decades, the way commanders could talk to each other over long distances. They could now do it in minutes. This was a big change for warfare. Very big. At this time telephones were all local and not portable. Cavalry was still important for scouting, although less useful for charging infantry (a trend that began when infantry got muskets with bayonets two centuries earlier).

[...]

So what does this portend for 2044? Faster and deadlier, for sure. Information war will be more than a buzzword by then because better sensors and data processing technology will make situational awareness (knowing where you and your enemy are, knowing it first, and acting on it before the other guy does) more decisive than ever.

If the expected breakthrough in batteries (fuel cells) evolves as reliably and cheaply as expected, the 2040s infantryman will be something of a cyborg. In addition to carrying several computers and sensor systems, he might wear body armor that also provides air conditioning. Satellite communications, of course, and two way video. Exoskeletons are already in the works and may mature by then. A lot depends on breakthroughs in battery tech although engineers are also finding to do more with just a little juice. Historians tend to constantly underestimate the cleverness of engineers and inventors in general.

But the big new development will be the continued evolution of robotic weapons. The World War II acoustic torpedo (used by the Germans and the allies, from subs as well as the air) was the first truly robotic weapon. You turned it lose and it would hunt down its prey and attack. There may be a lot of public uproar over land based systems that have sensors, can use them to hunt, and have weapons that can be used without human intervention. But those systems will be easy and cheap to build by 2044, and as soon as one nation builds them others will have to follow. By 2044, machines will be fighting other machines more often than they will be looking for the stray human on the battlefield.

But there will be other developments that are more difficult to anticipate. In 1894 most of the 1924 technologies were already known in a theoretical sense. Same with the 1954 technologies in 1924 and so on. What is most difficult to predict is exactly how new tech will be employed. There will be imagination and ingenuity involved there, and that sort of thing is, by its very nature, resistant to prediction.

January 31, 2014

(Micro-)Break it to make a material stronger

Filed under: Science, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:18

Another example of how sometimes we can benefit by using biomimicry:

Engineers intrigued by the toughness of mollusc shells, which are composed of brittle minerals, have found inspiration in their structure to make glass 200 times stronger than a standard pane.

Counter-intuitively, the glass is strengthened by introducing a network of microscopic cracks, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

A team at McGill University in Montreal began their research with a close-up study of natural materials like mollusc shells, bone and nails which are astonishingly resilient despite being made of brittle minerals.

The secret lies in the fact that the minerals are bound together into a larger, tougher unit.

The binding means the shell contains abundant tiny fault lines called interfaces. Outwardly, this might seem a weakness, but in practice it is a masterful deflector of external pressure.

To take one example, the shiny, inner shell layer of some molluscs, known as nacre or mother of pearl, is some 3,000 times tougher than the minerals it is made of.

January 13, 2014

The GMO debate – “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:22

Nathanael Johnson says he has taken more abuse over his articles on genetically modified organisms than anything else in his writing career. And he says he learned something from his research: that it actually doesn’t matter at all.

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

I know that to those embroiled in the controversy this will seem preposterous. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment: Imagine two alternate futures, one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side “won” the debate.

In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.

In the other alternate future, where the pro-GMO side wins, we see less insecticide, more herbicide, and less tillage. In this world, with regulations lifted, a surge of small business and garage-biotechnologists got to work on creative solutions for the problems of agriculture. Perhaps these tinkerers would come up with some fresh ideas to usher out the era of petroleum-dependent food. But the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions would prove transformative. Genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt. Newer tools are already available, and scientists continue to make breakthroughs with traditional breeding. So in this future, a few more genetically engineered plants and animals get their chance to compete. Some make the world a little better, while others cause unexpected problems. But the science has moved beyond basic genetic engineering, and most of the risks and benefits of progress are coming from other technologies. Life goes on.

The point is that even if you win, the payoff is relatively small in the broad scheme of things. Really, why do so many people care?

November 20, 2013

The psychology of female aggression

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:53

Christopher Taylor linked to this New York Times article by John Tierney about a recent issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society which was devoted to the study of female aggression:

The existence of female competition may seem obvious to anyone who has been in a high-school cafeteria or a singles bar, but analyzing it has been difficult because it tends be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male variety. Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.

[...]

Stigmatizing female promiscuity — a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous. Dr. Vaillancourt said the experiment and other research suggest the stigma is enforced mainly by women.

“Sex is coveted by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”

Indirect aggression can take a psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies in many modern societies. Studies have shown that women’s ideal body shape is to be thinner than average — and thinner than what men consider the ideal shape to be. This pressure is frequently blamed on the ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on television, but Christopher J. Ferguson and other researchers say that it’s mainly the result of competition with their peers, not media images.

October 18, 2013

QotD: The hidden problem with regulating prescription drug prices

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government, Health, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

[W]hen negotiating with other governments, pharmaceutical companies operate at a severe disadvantage, not because the governments’ buying power is so vast (the national health-care systems of Canada and many European countries cover fewer people than Aetna), but because the people you’re negotiating with can change the rules under which your product gets sold. At any point they can say, like Lord Vader, “I am altering the deal. Pray that I do not alter it any further.”

But if Canada started paying more, that wouldn’t mean we’d pay less. Drug companies are charging what they think we will pay. The result of Canadians and Europeans paying less is not that we pay more for drugs; it’s that fewer drugs get developed. To the extent that they are harming us, it is in hindering the development of cures or better treatments that we are missing, and don’t even know about.

Unfortunately, this is a classic case of Bastiat’s dilemma. It is easy for each country’s government to see the high prices that people are paying and intervene to lower them. It is hard for each country’s government, much less its citizens, to envision the new medical treatments that they might get if they paid more for drugs. So their incentives are heavily skewed toward controlling the price here and now, even if that means losing future cures.

Drug development is essentially a giant international collective-action problem. The U.S. has kept it from being a total disaster because we don’t have good centralized control of our insurance market, and our political system is pretty disorganized and easy to lobby. If that changes — and maybe we just changed it! — we’ll knock down the prices of drugs to near the marginal cost using government fiat, and I expect that innovation in this sector will grind to a halt. Stuff will still be coming out of academic labs, but no one is going to take those promising targets and turn them into actual drugs.

Megan McArdle, “U.S. Consumers Foot the Bill for Cheap Drugs in Europe and Canada”, Bloomberg, 2013-10-14

October 16, 2013

Cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:51

in lab rats, anyway:

“Research Shows Oreos Are Just As Addictive As Drugs,” says the headline above a recent Connecticut College press release. “…in Lab Rats,” it adds, and I’ll get to that part later. But first note that the study’s findings could just as truthfully be summarized this way: “Drugs Are No More Addictive Than Oreos.” The specific drugs included in the study were cocaine and morphine, which is what heroin becomes immediately after injection. So the headline also could have been: “Research Shows That Heroin and Cocaine Are No More Addictive Than Oreos.” Putting it that way would have raised some interesting questions about the purportedly irresistible power of these drugs, which supposedly justifies using force to stop people from consuming them.

[...]

So what exactly did the rats do? They favored the side of a maze where they were given Oreos to the same extent that they favored that side of the maze when they were given an injection of cocaine or morphine there. Furthermore, when the researchers “used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s ‘pleasure center,’” they found that “the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine.” Given the latter finding, perhaps we should credit Connecticut College’s publicity department with restraint for not announcing that Oreos are in fact more addictive than cocaine or heroin. Or to put it another way: Cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos. Which makes you wonder why people go to prison for selling the drugs but not for selling the cookies, especially since Oreos and similar foods “may present even more of a danger.”

The idea that people can take or leave cocaine or heroin in the same way they can take or leave Oreos seems inconsistent with research that supposedly shows how powerfully reinforcing these substances are. Studies published between 1969 and 1985, for instance, found that rats and rhesus monkeys “will prefer cocaine to food” and “will self-administer cocaine until death or near-death,” as Stanton Peele and Richard DeGrandpre note in a 1998 Addiction Research article. But the animals in these studies were isolated from other animals, deprived of interesting stimuli, and prevented from engaging in normal behavior while tethered to catheters providing “an unlimited, direct flow of high concentrations of cocaine at all times at little or no cost” (in terms of effort). Research conducted in more naturalistic settings finds that monkeys and rats are much more apt to consume cocaine and morphine in moderation.

Laboratory animals’ tendency to consume drugs to excess when they are bored and lonely has pretty clear parallels in human behavior. But unlike rats and monkeys, humans are capable of reason and foresight (even if they do not always exercise those faculties) as well as emotions such as guilt and regret. They also have considerable control over their own environments. If the reinforcing power of drugs is not the only factor in addiction among rats and monkeys, it surely is not a complete explanation for why some people get hooked on these substances while most do not.

October 13, 2013

Schools with anti-bullying programs more likely to produce bullies

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:22

A counter-intuitive study result from the University of Texas – Arlington:

Anti-bullying initiatives have become standard at schools across the country, but a new UT Arlington study finds that students attending those schools may be more likely to be a victim of bullying than children at schools without such programs.

The findings run counter to the common perception that bullying prevention programs can help protect kids from repeated harassment or physical and emotional attacks.

“One possible reason for this is that the students who are victimizing their peers have learned the language from these anti-bullying campaigns and programs,” said Seokjin Jeong, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at UT Arlington and lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Criminology.

“The schools with interventions say, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘you shouldn’t do that.’ But through the programs, the students become highly exposed to what a bully is and they know what to do or say when questioned by parents or teachers,” Jeong said.

The study suggested that future direction should focus on more sophisticated strategies rather than just implementation of bullying prevention programs along with school security measures such as guards, bag and locker searches or metal detectors. Furthermore, given that bullying is a relationship problem, researchers need to better identify the bully-victim dynamics in order to develop prevention policies accordingly, Jeong said.

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

October 12, 2013

Not news: people under-report calorie intake, invalidating 40 years of federal research

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

Any study that depends on self-reporting, especially self-reporting on things like how much food they eat, can’t be assumed to be accurate:

Four decades of nutrition research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be invalid because the method used to collect the data was seriously flawed, according to a new study by the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.

The study, led by Arnold School exercise scientist and epidemiologist Edward Archer, has demonstrated significant limitations in the measurement protocols used in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The findings, published in PLOS ONE (The Public Library of Science), reveal that a majority of the nutrition data collected by the NHANES are not “physiologically credible,” Archer said.

[...]

The study examined data from 28,993 men and 34,369 women, 20 to 74 years old, from NHANES I (1971 — 1974) through NHANES (2009 — 2010), and looked at the caloric intake of the participants and their energy expenditure, predicted by height, weight, age and sex. The results show that — based on the self-reported recall of food and beverages — the vast majority of the NHANES data “are physiologically implausible, and therefore invalid,” Archer said.

In other words, the “calories in” reported by participants and the “calories out,” don’t add up and it would be impossible to survive on most of the reported energy intakes. This misreporting of energy intake varied among participants, and was greatest in obese men and women who underreported their intake by an average 25 percent and 41 percent (i.e., 716 and 856 Calories per-day respectively).

September 14, 2013

Highlights of the 2013 Ig Nobels

Filed under: Humour, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

At Ars Technica, Dean Burnett rounds up the wins and near-misses of the 2013 Ig Nobel awards:

This year’s Ig Nobel prizes were awarded on September 12 at a meeting of nerds at Harvard University. The prizes are given for genuine scientific research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think.”

So, at first glance, the research may strike you as somewhat baffling, surreal or even downright ridiculous. But science is rarely frivolous. None of the experiments awarded an Ig Nobel will have been the result of casual whims or unplanned notions, like the cast of TV series Jackass being set loose in a laboratory. If any of the prize-winning experiments really are “mad,” it is a determined, dedicated, thorough sort of madness that is probably a lot more worrying in the long run.

Like the Nobels, the Ig Nobels are awarded for individual categories.

[...]

Psychology

The Ig Nobel for psychology went to Laurent Bègue and colleagues for showing through experiment that drunk people consider themselves more attractive. With alcohol such a common intoxicant the world over, analysis of its effects on human behavior is never not-relevant. People may think it’s obvious that drunk people find themselves more attractive, but that’s never been objectively demonstrated. And with alcohol having so many knock-on effects for society, assessing how it affects people’s behavior is always potentially useful.

This award must be doubly welcome after the original experiment about whether drunk people are more aggressive if you spill their drinks had to be abandoned due to the hospitalization of several post-docs.

[...]

Probability

Bert Tolkamp and colleagues showed that cows are not more likely to lie down if they have been standing up for a longer time. Ergo, cows don’t get tired. This could be useful data for the agricultural industry.

This study was chosen ahead of the other favorite, a study titled “The defecation habits of wild bears in areas of high forestation.”

August 8, 2013

Canadian think-tanks

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

An interesting article in Forbes charts the rise of Canada’s distinctive collection of think-tanks:

Think Tanks in Canada have been developing policy analyses and advocating market oriented solutions for decades. Some of the oldest think tanks and advocacy groups, such as the C.D. Howe Institute, founded in 1958, and the National Citizens Coalition, NCC, founded in 1974, are still active. The idea for NCC developed from the success of newspaper advertorials.

The first one published by Colin M. Brown in 1967 pointed out that despite not being engaged in the Vietnam War, Canada’s federal government spending in the early 1960’s rose at a faster rate than government spending in the U.S. Canadian civil society took notice and reacted. The Fraser Institute was founded in Vancouver, B.C. in 1974, and its success and generosity in sharing its expertise led to a gradual but almost steady investment in think tanks across the country. Lest we forget, Canada is a big place. It is the second largest country in the world. The longest distance from east to west is 5,514 km — similar to the distance from New York City to London, or from New York City to Lima, Peru. Canada has six separate time zones and its provinces have considerable cultural and political diversity which call for a multiplicity of regional think tanks and policy efforts.

The “2012 Global Go To Report” devotes a section of its think tank rankings to institutes in Canada and Mexico. A growing number of Canadian free-market think tanks are appearing among the top.

Fraser Institute takes the lead. It received more mentions (10) than any other Canadian think tank and ranked first in Canada and 25th in the world. It is well known for its motto: “If It Matters, Measure It.” Many of its products, like the “Tax Freedom Day” and its economic freedom indices, have been replicated across the globe. Think tanks all over the world look at Fraser’s research as a guide in developing their own programs.

Brian Lee Crowley, the co-author of The Canadian Century, founded the Ottawa-based Macdonald Laurier Institute in 2010. It ranked third in the world in the category of best young institute. As it hit the ground running with great policy products, it also managed to rank ahead of other older think tanks, including the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in Nova Scotia, founded in 1994. Crowley was also the founding president of AIMS. AIMS itself an organization that produces interesting work on market reforms in Canada’s maritime provinces — a part of the country that typically prefers big government as opposed to market-oriented solutions.

The Montreal Economic Institute deserves special mention for working in one of the most challenging cultural environments. It publishes in French and English, and is the only think tank in Canada to focus its efforts entirely on Quebec. The institute was founded in 1985 but became consolidated when Michel Kelly-Gagnon, a talented intellectual entrepreneur, became its leader in 1999 and restructured the organization. Kelly-Gagnon’s expertise is in high demand also outside Canada, and his team has produced tremendous materials advocating specifically for reforms to government-controlled health care.

July 18, 2013

Chinese museum woes – “80 of the museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic”

Filed under: China, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:22

Tom Phillips on the sudden closure of the Jibaozhai Museum:

The museum’s public humiliation began earlier this month when Ma Boyong, a Chinese writer, noticed a series of inexplicable discrepancies during a visit and posted his findings online.

Among the most striking errors were artifacts engraved with writing purportedly showing that they dated back more than 4,000 years to the times of China’s Yellow Emperor. However, according to a report in the Shanghai Daily the writing appeared in simplified Chinese characters, which only came into widespread use in the 20th century.

The collection also contained a “Tang Dynasty” five-colour porcelain vase despite the fact that this technique was only invented hundreds of years later, during the Ming Dynasty.

Museum staff tried to play down the scandal.

Wei Yingjun, the museum’s chief consultant, conceded the museum did not have the proper provincial authorizations to operate but said he was “quite positive” that at least 80 of the museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic.

“I’m positive that we do have authentic items in the museum. There might be fake items too but we would need [to carry out] identification and verification [to confirm that],” he told The Daily Telegraph.

Mr Wei said that objects of “dubious” origin had been “marked very clearly” so as not to mislead visitors and vowed to sue Mr Ma, the whistle-blowing writer, for blackening the museum’s name.

July 17, 2013

Keep calm, and don’t panic about bee-pocalypse now

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:17

You’ve heard about the mysterious colony collapse disorder (CCD) that has been devastating bee colonies across the world, right? This is serious, as bees are a very important part of the pollenization of many crops. As you’ll know from many media reports, this is a food disaster unfolding before us and we’re all going to starve! Or, looking at the facts, perhaps not:

In a rush to identify the culprit of the disorder, many journalists have made exaggerated claims about the impacts of CCD. Most have uncritically accepted that continued bee losses would be a disaster for America’s food supply. Others speculate about the coming of a second “silent spring.” Worse yet, many depict beekeepers as passive, unimaginative onlookers that stand idly by as their colonies vanish.

This sensational reporting has confused rather than informed discussions over CCD. Yes, honey bees are dying in above average numbers, and it is important to uncover what’s causing the losses, but it hardly spells disaster for bees or America’s food supply.

Consider the following facts about honey bees and CCD.

For starters, US honey bee colony numbers are stable, and they have been since before CCD hit the scene in 2006. In fact, colony numbers were higher in 2010 than any year since 1999. How can this be? Commercial beekeepers, far from being passive victims, have actively rebuilt their colonies in response to increased mortality from CCD. Although average winter mortality rates have increased from around 15% before 2006 to more than 30%, beekeepers have been able to adapt to these changes and maintain colony numbers.

[...]

“The state of the honey bee population—numbers, vitality, and economic output — are the products of not just the impact of disease but also the economic decisions made by beekeepers and farmers,” economists Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman write in a summary of their working paper on the impacts of CCD. Searching through a number of economic measures, the researchers came to a surprising conclusion: CCD has had almost no discernible economic impact.

But you don’t need to rely on their study to see that CCD has had little economic effect. Data on colonies and honey production are publicly available from the USDA. Like honey bee numbers, US honey production has shown no pattern of decline since CCD was first detected. In 2010, honey production was 14% greater than it was in 2006. (To be clear, US honey production and colony numbers are lower today than they were 30 years ago, but as Rucker and Thurman explain, this gradual decline happened prior to 2006 and cannot be attributed to CCD).

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

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