January 26, 2015

Science and Politics or Science versus Politics?

A few items on the intersection of politics and science (and the tension between the two). First up is an infographic that shows the relative frequency of various "science and engineering words" during the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address by all US Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt. The "science and tech" category is at the bottom, and has been an increasingly important component of these speeches over the last 40 years.

Related to societal relevance is the whole issue of political will and action on science-related topics. This is particularly true when it comes to policies that address Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). This point was not missed during the 2015 SOTU. However, one might wonder how effectively climate policy can be when most politicians have a cursory (at best) technical understanding of scientific issues. Perhaps advocacy for science policy (e.g. lobbying) is not enough after all -- perhaps we need more scientist-politicians.

COURTESY: 350.org

Many discussions of global warming (mostly involving denialists) involve an appeal to the scientific consensus. While the consensus does point strongly towards the reality of a human-induced warming of the planet, the discoveries that lead to this consensus were individualistic quests for data. The data were not voted into existance, and neither can consensus on a scientific issue [1]. While skepticism should come into play when considering the implications of findings, it should not play a role in judging conclusions drawn from isolated findings. For one example, please see this article by Ethan Siegel on Starts With a Bang! blog on why science by democracy (or popular consensus) does not represent how science is actually done.

A call for scientist-politicians? COURTESY: Grady Carter blog (for the montage).

The final item in this post in a new Kickstarter/film initiative to bring awareness to the American space program. "Fight for Space" is a project to bring awareness of budgetary cuts to our scientific endeavors and the pressure to fulfill politically-approved missions. To change this state of affairs, check out the Planetary Society's advocacy efforts. The scientific mission of NASA has been yielding significant returns as of late [2], so help to keep this momentum going.

COURTESY: SaganSense Tumblr.

[1] The popularity of a set of ideas do not mean that they are scientifically credible. For more, see this article from Why Evolution is True regarding the lack of evidence for but popular persistence of proposals involving a divine origin of life.

January 24, 2015

SciNote: the science blog

I would like to announce the ramping up of a new science blog I am involved in called SciNote. Initially hosted (and still active) on Tumblr, SciNote is a collection of submissions by contributors, editors, and content discoverers. As of this month, I will be serving as the editorial supervisor. So check out the SciNote blog today. Perhaps you will be interested in submit content, supporting the blog's mission, or even joining the staff (on a voluntary basis).

January 5, 2015

The Flow of Time, Science, and Archives

Here are a few milestones and interesting items to report for the New Year:

2014 was a good year for both space science and science in general. It's safe to say that the biggest story in science for 2014 was the successful landing of a probe (Philae) on the surface of a comet (67p) by the European Space Agency. But the year was also not without dissapointments. Overall, many breakthrough findings and excellent papers occured in a number of fields. In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see what kinds of advances are made in 2015 from emerging work done during 2014.

If you are tired of celebrating another New Year according to the Gregorian calendar, here is an article from Futurity to make you consider an alternative. While the focus in this article is on the Hanke-Henry Permenant Calendar, there indeed is more than one way of dividing up the time it takes our planet to make a complete revolution around the Sun. This may or may not include calendars from other cultures, of course.

First milestone: The 24-year-old preprint server [1] arXiv published its one millionth (10^6th) paper on December 29, just in time for the new year. Despite being around for a quarter century, arXiv has become the template for an open access publishing revolution. Originally founded by Paul Ginsparg in 1991 [2], the bulk of the million paper total reflects impressive growth in the past several years.

The lifespan of the arXiv in terms of growth over time and abundance of articles by field. COURTESY: arXiv and [2].

Second milestone: By the end of Monday, January 5th, Synthetic Daisies will have reached 120,000 readers. Much like the arXiv, the bulk of this growth has occured in the last few years. The blog was started in December, 2008, so I also wish the blog a Happy 6th Birthday [3].

[1] Tomaiuolo, N.G. and Packer, J.G.   Pushing the Envelope of Electronic Scholarly Publishing. Searcher, 8(9), October (2000).

[2] Ginsparg, P.   arXiv at 20. Nature, 476, 145-147 (2011).

[3] Is this actually possible, or is it more like worshipping a fetish? I guess for purposes of good form, I should create an avatar that represents "the blog".

December 25, 2014

Does the Concept of "Paradigm Shift" Need a Rethink?

A faux relationship between the paradigm shift and the theoretical resynthesis. Although in terms of advancing theory, perhaps they indeed do arise from a common ancestor.

As someone who is interested in both evolutionary and "meta-" theory I read a recent comment paper in Nature [1] called "Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?" with great interest. In fact, I discussed this paper a bit in a Synthetic Daisies post from last month. There are some interesting issues here regarding the role of "extended evolutionary synthesis" ideas in making evolutionary inferences and predictions. However, the real issue here is whether theory best proceeds through soft "paradigm shifts" (in this case, extending the framework) or through "resynthesis" (in this case, relentless synthesis). As an emerging approach to evolutionary theory, the extended evolutionary synthesis includes ideas not typically embraced by the modern evolutionary synthesis [2, 3]. These might include developmental plasticity, evolvabilityepigenetic phenomena, genetic assimilation, and cultural evolution. The primary argument is not just that evolution involves more than just changes in allele frequencies over time, but that such mechanisms should take a more central role in the process of evolutionary change [4].

The landscape of how evolutionary theory might be rethought. WHITE: Darwin's core contributions, LIGHT GRAY: modern evolutionary synthesis, DARK GRAY: extended evolutionary synthesis. Notice that this diagram implicitly favors the addition of rather than a shift towards new topical areas (e.g. resynthesis over paradigm shift). COURTESY: Figure 1.1 in [2].

But why do we need to rethink theories anyway? The classic observation of theoretical change comes from Thomas Kuhn [5], who advocated the dual concepts of "theoretical paradigms" and "paradigm shifts". In the evolution of a given scientific field, many new findings and concepts are introduced over time. Yet there is also an so-called essential tension between traditional and upstart concepts. Only very occasionally, a set of findings or concepts takes root that sweeps away the prevailing worldview. Paradigm shifts are thus low-frequency events that are nonetheless transformative in the way people think about a given scientific field. As events in intellectual history, paradigm shifts can often be a neccessary progression in the history of a scientific field. This is due to both the integrative nature of theory itself and conceptual inertia from the scientific establishment.

Although less appreciated by Kuhn, the integrative nature of theory thus serves to act as a form of conceptual inertia. In terms of theoretical evolution, incremental changes are hard to come by as singular findings and propositions do not often stand on their own. To really understand what is going on, the incremental progress of empirical science must coalesce into an intellectually coherent framework. According to paradigm shifters, prevailing theoretical models tend to be established through what is often called "saltationist" or non-gradualist change. Yet I would argue that whether such advances occur through paradigm shift or through resynthesis requires an underlying set of favorable conditions in the existing literature.

Yet perhaps the predominance of paradigm shifts throughout the history of science is largely based on assumption. Earlier, I mentioned a tension between "soft paradigm shifts" and "resynthesis". It may seem that paradigm shifts are neccessary in order to enable the novel insights in understanding. However, suppose that instead of acting as a neccessity for theoretical change, the paradigm shift served as a bias for those who would build theory itself. This might explain why all too often there is an expectation that new ideas either paradigm shift a field or languish insignificantly.

As an alternative to the paradigm shift, theoretical resynthesis allows for additional information to be incorporated into an existing theoretical framework. While more conservative, it may be no less transformative. In Darwin's original formulation of evolution by natural selection, the concept of heredity was without a formal mechanism [6]. The modern evolutionary synthesis was formulated in part to reconcile the ideas of evolution by natural selection and heredity by independent assortment. While a paradigm shift might give us a sorely needed new perspective, it can also live up to the idiom of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is worth noting that while it may be possible to achieve an extended evolutionary synthesis through theoretical resynthesis, the tone of contemporary arguments for an extended synthesis (e.g. the Altenberg 16) tend to be biased towards a soft paradigm shift.

An example of a directed conceptual network, in this case featuring the intellectual evolution (1940s-present) of cybernetics and systems science. As we can see, there are several distinct intellectual traditions that cross-fertilize the field to various degrees and at various points in time. COURTESY: Castellani, Wikimedia Commons.

To answer the question of whether or not evolutionary theory needs a rethink, a literature mining exercise might be helpful [7]. This type of approach would allow us to characterize to what extent extended synthesis concepts are being considered alongside modern evolutionary synthesis concepts and vice versa in the same context. This can be characterized using a conceptual network of empirical studies. In our conceptual network topology, the overall connectivity of (e.g. linkages between) various concepts would represent their relative conceptual integration in empirical studies and literature reviews, which in turn provides a basis for theoretical advances. Think of such pre-existing linkages as the histroical contingencies of theoretical change. This is not typically considered in the paradigm shift model, but has consequences for resynthesis and paradigm shifts alike.

To illustrate how this approach might be useful, I will give two examples from the contemporary biological literature. For example, how often does a published paper consider population genetics alongside evo-devo? Alternatively, how often does cultural evolution get characterized as part of an integrated evolutionary process? In the case of the former, relatively few studies seem to sufficiently bridge population genetics and evo-devo [8]. In the case of the latter, there are only but a few established approach for using the mathematics of population genetics to characterize both genetical and cultural evolution in the same framework [9].

In terms of a network topology, each of these examples would represent sparsely connected and a bit more densely connected concepts, respectively. This also illustrates the difference between the need for a paradigm shift and room for accomodation via resynthesis. On the other hand, perhaps the state of the literature serves to predict which outcome is more or less likely. Even in cases like the cultural evolution example, examples of resynthesis might not be representative of the dominant approach.

[1] Laland, K., Uller, T., Feldman, M., Sterelny, K., Muller, G.B., Moczek, A., Jablonka, E., Odling-Smee, J., Wray, G.A., Hoekstra, H.E., Futuyma, D.J., Lenski, R.E., Mackay, T.F.C., Schluter, D., and Strassmann, J.E.   Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature, October 8 (2014).

[2] Pigliucci, M. and Muller, G.B.   Evolution: the extended synthesis. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2010).

[3] Muller, G.B.   Evo-devo: extending the evolutionary synthesis. Nature Reviews Genetics, 8(12), 943-949 (2007).

[4] Lamb, M.J. and Jablonka, E.   Evolution in Four Dimensions. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2006).

[5] Kuhn, T.S.   The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1962).

[6] For more, please see: Charlesworth, B. and Charlesworth, D.   Darwin and Genetics. Genetics, 183(3), 757-766 (2009) AND West-Eberhard, M.J.   Toward a modern revival of Darwin's theory of evolutionary novelty. Philosophy of Science, 75(5), 899–908 (2008).

[7] I am merely offering the suggestion for a full-scale analysis rather than providing one.

[8] Based on a cursory survey of PubMed entries for the terms "evo-devo" + "population genetics" (21 results). Also:

a) Two reviews that provide a verbal analysis of evo-devo's theoretical underpinnings (circa early 2000's) can be found here: Arthur, W.   The emerging conceptual framework of evolutionary developmental biology. Nature, 415, 757-764 (2002) AND Gilbert, S.F.   The morphogenesis of evolutionary developmental biology. The International Journal of Developmental Biology, 47, 467-477 (2003).

b) There is also a burgeoning but small field called "micro evo-devo". For more, see: Nunes, M.D.S., Arif, S., Schlotterer, C., and McGregor, A.P.   A Perspective on Micro-Evo-Devo: Progress and Potential. Genetics, 195, 625-634 (2013).

[9] The approaches established by Boyd and Richerson (Culture and the Evolutionary Process) and Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (Cultural Transmission and Evolution: a quantitative approach) are illustrative of such resyntheses. However, other models of culture are less integrative, and one might argue that these examples are not the most complete or parsimonious way to integrate of biology and culture.

December 18, 2014

Piketty Reviews: the year in review

Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the Twenty-first Century" became quite the phenomenon this year. Originally published in French, it was translated into English in 2014 and has since elicited a large amount of feedback. I have collected a series of book reviews over the course of this year that provide a bit of perspective on the book. This could either prove to be prophetic, or another "End of History and the Last Man". The diversity of responses presented here suggests that the relationship between inequality and economic growth will become a defining social issue in years to come.

Even at 696 pages and a large number of graphs, it is quite a captivating read. Piketty synthesizes data from multiple sources and arrives at a fundamental set of relationships between concentrations of capital (e.g. inherited wealth) and economic growth (e.g. the diffusion of capital into the broader economy). Based on this intellectual synthesis, Piketty's presents two laws of inequality [1, 2]. These laws are drawn from the cross-national and historical data analyses. In particular, the second law serves as shorthand for the book's main thesis. While people might debate how exactly to define "wealth" and "growth" or how well this framework describes the macroeconomic present, Piketty's book gives us the conceptual tools to discuss these issues more clearly.

Piketty's insight is quite simple: there is a proportional and often unbalanced relationship between wealth and growth that transcends both nation and historical era. When the returns on inherited wealth exceeds income growth generated by resource exploitation, entrepreneurship, or innovation, high degrees of social and economic inequality result (W > G -- see Figure 1). This often occurs when growth is slow or nonexistant, and the rate of return on inherited capital exceeds growth by default. In terms of social relations, the W > G scenario allows for inherited wealth to triumph over social mobility and new wealth creation. By limiting social mobility, a host of related factors act to reinforce income inequality [3]. Yet this relationship does not always hold. For example, historical periods during which opportunities for economic expansion and social mobility exceed the power of inherited wealth (such as the latter half of the 20th century) tend to be characterized by high rates of conventional growth (e.g. increases in GDP). While the power of inherited wealth is curbed by growth, it might also be curbed by taxation policy. In any case, the second half of the 20th century scenario can be formulated as G > W, or growth exceeding wealth.

Figure 1. Extreme inequality, shown in both artistic and symbolic logical form.

Piketty arrives at this conclusion by using historical data. These data suggest that the slow growth and high levels of inequality which characteerize the early 21st century will recapitulate a pattern typical of the 19th century or even the European middle ages. The predominance of rentier behavior amongst the 21st century elite is indeed reminiscent of the medivel era, where the primary source of wealth generation came from rents paid to a landed gentry [4]. While the mode of wealth generating is variable from century to century, the basic tension between inherited versus newly-generated wealth is predicted to govern economic dynamics. And in this context, inequality can inflence a host of societal characteristics, from social stratification to technological innovation [5].

Perhaps these consequences of inequality are simply a consequence of an over-domineering financial industry, which provides massive returns to investment income relative to labor productivity. In this sense, history is more contextual than cyclical. But history can also parallel broadly-stated theoretical predictions. This state of affairs can be compared with the prediction made by Karl Marx with respect to the end of capitalism itself [6]. As capitalism matures (so-called "late stage" capitalism), we can expect most forms of labor to become devalued. While this is not something that Piketty predicts for the future, this devaluation is due to both various resource consolidations promulgated by the owners of capital and a by-product of technological innnovation (particularly automation -- see [7]). Piketty's solution to countering this type of structural inequality is wealth redistribution, which is something America pioneered [8], but is needed on a global scale to avoid the predicted negative consequences of economic growth stagnation [9].

Here is my collection of Piketty reviews

Introducing Piketty:
Galbraith, J.K.   Kapital for the Twenty-first Century? Institute for New Economic Thinking blog, March 31 (2014).

Frankel, J.   Piketty's Fence. Jeffrey Frankel's blog, September 22 (2014).

Yglesias, M.   The Short Guide to Capital in the 21rst Century. Vox blog, April 8 (2014).

Dorman, P.   Piketty for Dummies. EconoSpeak blog, April 26 (2014).

Wolf, M.   "Capital in the Twenty-first Century", by Thomas Piketty. FinancialTimes.com, April 15 (2014).

R.A.   Thomas Piketty's "Capital", summarized in four paragraphs. Economist, May 4 (2014).

Cowen, T. and de Rugy, V.   Why Piketty's Book Is a Bigger Deal in America Than in France. NYTimes The Upshot, April 29 (2014).

Eakin, E.   Capital Man. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17 (2014).

Broader Economic Implications:
An Interview with Adair Turner: "Which Capitalism for the 21rst Century?". Institute for New Economic Thinking blog, November 12 (2013).

Hutton, W.   Capitalism simply isn't working and here are the reason why. The Guardian, April 12 (2014).

Boucoyannis, D.   Adam Smith is not the antidote to Thomas Piketty. WaPo Monkey Cage blog, April 22 (2014).

Cassidy, J.   Forces of Divergence: is surging inequality endemic to capitalism? The New Yorker, March 31 (2014).

Krugman, P.   Why we're in a New Gilded Age. New York Review of Books, April 10 (2014).

Shenk, T.   Thomas Piketty and Millenial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality. The Nation, April 14 (2014).

Faux, J.   Thomas Piketty Undermines the Hallowed Tenets of the Capitalist Catechism. The Nation, April 18 (2014).

Rosenberg, P.   Thomas Piketty terrifies Paul Ryan: Behind the right’s desperate, laughable need to destroy an economist. Salon, April 30 (2014).

Ritholtz, B.   Piketty vs John Stuart Mill’s Marketplace of Ideas. The Big Picture blog, May 1 (2014).

Kaminska, I.   Inequality and Hyperinflation. Dizzynomics blog, April 25 (2014).

Criticisms: In May, there was a post on the Financial Times' Money Supply blog that claimed to find flaws in Piketty's data analyses and basic aproach to studying inequality. The following articles are a rebuttal to these claims.

Piketty, T.   Appendix to Chapter 10. Inequality of capital ownership. Addendum: response to FT. May 28 (2014).

Buchanan, M.   Economists, Show your Assumptions. Bloomberg View, May 6 (2014).

Irwin, N.   Everything You Need to Know About Thomas Piketty vs. The Financial Times. NY Times The Upshot, May 30 (2014).

Winship, S.   Financial Times vs. Piketty on US. Smoke, No Fire. Forbes, June 2 (2014).

Return to an Ancien Regime?
So is growth truly over? Or are we transitioning to a new mode of production? Perhaps it is not the nature of growth that guides thinking about this but the existential need for a powerful ruling class. Such a desire for oligarchy mirrors many popular interpretations of Piketty's main thesis, but in a more fatalistic manner. This hidden cultural theme might explain the recent (and disturbing) trend towards neo-reactionary thought amongst certain segments of Western society [10, 11]. So-called neo-reactionary thinking involves a combination of radical libertarianism with dictatorship. In and of itself, this would be a fairly predictable reaction to a period of great social and economic change. Yet this movement even has legions in the technology industry, a social milieu that a) represents the "new" economy and a prime source of future economic growth, and b) represents an industry that could help us overcome the limitations of traditional growth. This might reflect an inability to think innovatively about social and cultural change, or perhaps it shows how inerred we truly are to old ideas.

[1] Galbraith, J.K.   Unpacking the First Fundamental Law. Economist's View blog, May 25 (2014). AND Krussell, P. and Smith, T.   Is Piketty's "Second Law of Capitalism" Fundamental? Vox blog, June 1 (2014).

[2] von Schaik, T.   Piketty's laws with investment replacement and depreciation. Vox blog, July 6 (2014).

[3] Krugman, P.   Piketty Day Notes. Conscience of a Liberal blog, April 16 (2014).

[4] Kaminska, I.   The Tyrrany of Land. Dizzynomics blog, February 5 (2014).

[5] Hanlon, M.   Why has human progress ground to a halt? Aeon Magazine, December 3 (2014).

[6] Jeffries, S.   Karl Marx's guide to the end of capitalism: a primer. The Guardian, October 20 (2008).

[7] Gordon, R.J.   Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds. NBER Working Paper No. 18315 (2012).

[8] Geier, K.   Taking Aim at Inequality. Blog of the Century, March 12 (2014) AND Yglesias, M.   If growth is dead, we need radical redistribution. Moneybox blog, October 7 (2013).

[9] Cowen, T.   "Unified Growth Theory" by Oded Galor. Marginal Revolution blog, June 9 (2011) AND Kuznets Curve. Wikipedia. December 30 (2013).

[10] Pein, C.   Mouthbreathing Machiavellians Dream of a Silicon Reich. The Baffler, May 19 (2014).

[11] Brin, D.   "Neo-Reactionaries" drop all pretense: End democracy and bring back lords! Contrary Brin blog, November 26 (2013).