What we’ve got here is a failure to replicate

“Because science” isn’t quite the argument-ender it used to be, when more than two-thirds of scientific studies cannot be replicated:

Science is facing a “reproducibility crisis” where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, research suggests. […]

The reproducibility difficulties are not about fraud, according to Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

That would be relatively easy to stamp out. Instead, she says: “It’s about a culture that promotes impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work that most of science is about.”

She says it’s about the funding bodies that want to secure the biggest bang for their bucks, the peer review journals that vie to publish the most exciting breakthroughs, the institutes and universities that measure success in grants won and papers published and the ambition of the researchers themselves.

“Everyone has to take a share of the blame,” she argues. “The way the system is set up encourages less than optimal outcomes.”

Science as a branch of marketing. Makes me wonder if real science (the systematic search for truth about the natural world for its own sake) was a product of specific historical and cultural circumstances that no longer exist.

Saturday links

Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift (part one of a series on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte):

If, in what I had come across going out on the night shift, there was anything that had probably met the aspirations of those who had voted for Duterte as president in May, it was these two scenes. For Duterte was and is very popular, and his drug war is popular too, for the moment. People like the drug war, but they are not entirely at ease with it. They do not think that the victims of that war should die (although that is a defining characteristic of the war so far). On the other hand, when there is somebody particularly antisocial, as in the two cases above, they are prepared to say: “He deserved it.”

In a survey by Social Weather Stations, 69 percent of those polled thought the incidence of EJKs was either very or somewhat serious. Only 3 percent thought it not serious at all. As to whether they believed that police were telling the truth that the suspects they killed in buy-bust operations had really resisted arrest, doubters and believers were evenly split, with 28 percent saying the police were definitely or probably telling the truth, and 29 percent saying they were definitely or probably not doing so. Overwhelmingly, however, 88 percent agreed, strongly or somewhat, that since Duterte became president, there has been a decrease in drug problems in their area. And that is the perception that appears to have trumped all others.

Part two of the series:

Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of [opposition leader Ninoy Aquino] seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.

Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.

China fact of the day:

Mortality rates among Chinese men aged 41 to 60, who account for nearly three-quarters of the working-age population, increased by 12% over the decade through 2013, the most recent data available. This was even as mortality rates generally improved across other age groups and genders.

You’re a Completely Different Person at 14 and 77 Years Old, Personality Study Suggests:

As a result of this gradual change, personality can appear relatively stable over short intervals – increasingly so throughout adulthood. However, the longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the weaker the relationship between the two tends to be.

Our results suggest that, when the interval is increased to as much as 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.

Reddit is Being Manipulated By Big Financial Services Companies:

In December last year, I managed to place two entirely fake news stories onto influential subreddits – with millions of subscribers – and vote them to the top with fake accounts and fake upvotes for less than $200. It was simple, cheap and effective.

What I hadn’t realised at the time was how widespread this shilling issue was. Professional marketing agencies, with offices in several different countries, offer these services often under the guise of “reputation management.” They don’t specifically talk about manipulating conversations online, instead using coded, dog whistle language like “targeted techniques” and “competitor slander.”

I Ignored Trump News for a Week. Here’s What I Learned:

But as the week wore on, I discovered several truths about our digital media ecosystem. Coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever. The reasons have as much to do with him as the way social media amplifies every big story until it swallows the world. And as important as covering the president may be, I began to wonder if we were overdosing on Trump news, to the exclusion of everything else.

The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.

Elon Musk is right

Man does not live by donuts alone

The billionaire of Tesla and SpaceX fame correctly identifies the core problem with artificial intelligence wiping out maybe half of all jobs in the (near) future:

“What to do about mass employment – this is going to be a big challenge. We will need to have some kind of universal basic income – I don’t think there will be a choice. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. […] The harder challenge is how do people then have meaning – because a lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. If you are not needed, if there is not a need for your labour. What’s the meaning? Do you have meaning, are you useless? That is a much harder problem to deal with.”

Exactly. A universal basic income may be necessary, but it obviously won’t be sufficient to stave off social unrest. Mass unemployment will require some deep thinking about how to restructure our culture and society to provide meaning and purpose to people’s lives.

In the meantime, you might want to start working on your emotional intelligence:

Those that want to stay relevant in their professions will need to focus on skills and capabilities that artificial intelligence has trouble replicating — understanding, motivating, and interacting with human beings. A smart machine might be able to diagnose an illness and even recommend treatment better than a doctor. It takes a person, however, to sit with a patient, understand their life situation (finances, family, quality of life, etc.), and help determine what treatment plan is optimal.

Similarly, a smart machine may be able to diagnose complex business problems and recommend actions to improve an organization. A human being, however, is still best suited to jobs like spurring the leadership team to action, avoiding political hot buttons, and identifying savvy individuals to lead change.

It’s these human capabilities that will become more and more prized over the next decade. Skills like persuasion, social understanding, and empathy are going to become differentiators as artificial intelligence and machine learning take over our other tasks. Unfortunately, these human-oriented skills have generally been viewed as second priority in terms of training and education. We’ve all experienced the doctor, financial planner, or consultant who is more focused on his or her reports and data than on our unique situations and desires.

Hmm… looks like Bertrand Russell’s prophetic essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” will need some slight updating:

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

The “first kind of work” is increasingly being done by machines, meaning, in Russell’s model, we will soon have an entire economy based on telling, advising and persuading other people what to do.

The whole essay is worth reading as it’s surprisingly applicable to today’s situation. Russell argues that modern technology has made it possible to cut the average workday to four hours, provided there is full employment. Note that he wrote that in 1932.

To rebuild, we may need a little help from abroad

One of the roadblocks to modernizing America’s decaying infrastructure network is that we quite literally can’t build stuff anymore:

Some transport analysts caution, however, that Trump’s gargantuan vision faces equally big hurdles. Chief among them is that the cutting-edge technology and expertise to build high-speed train systems and massive highway and bridge networks no longer resides in the US.

“Are there any US companies that can build high-speed trains and related infrastructure? Not that I’ve seen,” said Kevin C. Coates, a Washington, D.C.-based advanced transportation consultant.

Other analysts echo the view that American firms aren’t well-positioned to build effective transport infrastructure on the scale of Trump’s plan. This is due to long-term neglect of the sector and a general lack of US funding for public works projects in recent decades.

The irony is that to build America, Trump may have to buy foreign.

Industry analysts say the companies with the abilities to fulfill such advanced projects are mostly Japanese, Chinese and German companies. They include Kawasaki Heavy Industries, China Railway Rolling Stock (CRRC) and Siemens AG.

Will America turn to its creditors for the know-how to rebuild its infrastructure?

(Part 2 of the article series here.)

Blast from the past

This is an amazing film about Chicago released by the city’s Board of Education circa 1945-46, with great images of architecture, commerce and industry in what was then allegedly the world’s second-largest city. (By contrast, Chicago doesn’t even make the Wikipedia list of the world’s 91 most populous cities today.)

Much of the urban landscape of today’s Chicago is recognizable in the film, but of course, a lot has changed. It’s a glimpse into a mostly vanished world.

Why China’s prosperity may be a mirage

Let me disabuse you

The American Enterprise Institute’s Derek Scissors, author of the China Global Investment Tracker, uses estimates of the country’s private (i.e. household) wealth to throw cold water on the idea of China as an economic superpower:

There are data, grounded in real-world calculations, that show China’s economic importance falling — not rising slowly, nor staying stable, but falling. The most important indicator is net private wealth, which is the single best measure of a country’s economic size and of the pool of resources available to its public sector for military or social spending.

In work dating back to 2000 and carried out with no geo-economic agenda, Credit Suisse has estimated private wealth. The new estimates, through the middle of 2016, show American private wealth at $84.8 trillion and Chinese private wealth at $23.4 trillion. Moreover, the gap is widening. With $60 trillion less in private wealth than the United States, China’s global economic leadership is a fable.

Private wealth is a more accurate measure of national prosperity than GDP, which measures activity only (including totally wasteful activity). Credit Suisse’s estimates for each country are probably off by at least a trillion dollars, but the broad strokes are clear. Counting public-sector assets (where China’s giant state-owned enterprises give it an advantage), Scissors reckons US net wealth to be $74.3 trillion vs. $27.4 trillion for China, a gap of nearly $47 trillion.

China’s global economic “leadership” may actually have peaked in 2009-2013.

Popular perception begins to go wrong at the beginning of this decade. America’s global wealth share hit a low of 26.9 percent at the end of 2009. It has since outpaced the increase in China’s global share. The key event was when growth in the PRC’s share stalled at the end of 2013. For at least a decade prior to 2010, China outran the United States. For the past six years, the United States has matched China in wealth growth, and for the past three years, the United States has outpaced it.

My observation is that the few years from 2008 (the start of the global financial crisis) was the era of maximum triumphalism/panic about China’s rise, a narrative that has since been replaced by concerns about China’s mounting economic problems. This is a case where the conventional wisdom may just be aligned with objective reality.