Sunday, June 30, 2013

The superorganism awakes

Earlier today I came into the kitchen and Kate was listening to a Radiolab rebroadcast called "Emergence," and they were talking about the way that ants individually are pretty hopeless creatures, but ants in a colony are capable of astonishing feats of purposive action.

An excavation of a massive ant colony,

(This idea has been on my mind a lot lately, showing up in my talk "Is God on our side?" and also in the paper I'm finishing up on money in a biophysical conception of economics. It's also one that's lain in my brain for a while, since about 25 years ago when my brother gave me The mind's I, which has some essays making a similar point.)

Then at dinner Kate mentioned the CDC's use of Twitter to see where flu is spreading (here's a paper from a couple of years ago analyzing the potential). Doctors already report flu cases to the CDC, so that public-health officials can see the movement of the disease and try to craft better containment measures. But it turns out that Twitter allows them to get a jump on the information.

People Tweet everything, so when they're coughing and their muscles are sore, they Tweet about that. If you see a spike in those Tweets, there's a high chance you're seeing the leading edge of the flu.

But while people Tweet their pain right away, many of us don't go to the doctor until we realize just how sick we are, so it might be a week or more before our doctor has any information to send to the CDC. So careful analysis of Twitter allows the CDC to learn about the flu a week faster than before.

If we consider the whole society as an organism, it's as if we're developing a better nervous system. "Look at that--my toe is on fire. It used to take me 10 days to figure that out. Now it only takes three. Progress!"


What are we evolving toward, anyway?,19434/

Friday, June 28, 2013

The United States of Innumeracy

Paul Krugman took apart a post by Erick Erickson, where the redstate blogger complained about a range of things, including, "the price of a gallon of milk and loaf of bread that keep going up though Ben Bernanke tells them there is no inflation."

Krugman answered with two charts, taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the entity charged with gathering price information and calculating inflation:


The comments were ... interesting. People commented with higher prices where they live. Fair enough, but it doesn't disprove the data Krugman presented, which are national averages--some places are always going to be more expensive than others.

Other people reported prices going higher where they lived, which is more interesting, but hard to know what to make of without additional info.

But what really struck me were the number of people saying some version of, "Look at those charts! Those prices are going up!"

Well, the prices now are higher than the prices at the beginning of the charts, in January 2003, but look again at what Erickson wrote:

the price of a gallon of milk and loaf of bread that keep going up though Ben Bernanke tells them there is no inflation
I don't see any reading of that other than implying that prices are currently rising, and they're clearly not. Bread spiked in the middle of 2011, but it's been right around $1.40 since spring of 2008. Milk is higher than it was in the middle of 2009, but lower than in the middle of 2008. Those charts really give no evidence of any current rise.

Others comment (correctly) that a loaf of good bread might be $4, but read what the chart says: "Bread, white, pan, per pound." If you're looking at a 24-oz. loaf of quality bread, don't expect to pay $1.40 anywhere. (It's a real problem that the only bread some households can afford is of low quality, but that's not the problem that Krugman's talking about, and I suspect it's not what Erickson meant either.)

For my money, as it were, the most disheartening comment was from a user with the handle oldchemprof:
But, Professor Krugman, you own chart shows that bread cost 40% more since Obama became President than it was was when President Younger Bush took office.

What are we to think about that.

Well, other than the fact that it's not true? Lord help this person's students if he/she actually is/was a chemistry professor and is that incapable of reading a simple time-series chart. The students should ask for a refund.

Unless the issue is that oldchemprof simply doesn't know when Obama became president. In which case, it's all good, and their $40,000 tuition was totally worth it.

In the spirit of President Younger Bush, Is our voters learning?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The schismatic's brief

I'm in Burlington, VT, for the 7th biennial meeting of the US Society for Ecological Economics, which wraps up today. One of the presenters is the physicist Tom Murphy from UC San Diego, who is the proprietor of the blog Do the math.

In conversation, Tom observed that the people here represent a small minority of all the economics departments in the country. Personally, he sees a lot of sense in the basic perspective of ecological economics, including the idea that the use of natural resources is not a specialized question for a subdiscipline of economics, but is central to economics itself. But obviously that perspective is not generally shared among economists. Or as I might put it (Tom didn't), the people gathered here are schismatics among the economists.

(The meeting was held jointly with the 5th annual meeting of biophysical economics, which is sort of a schism within a schism. That's how these things go.)

Tom had a question for those of us actually in econ. Say you had a more conventional-minded economist, a sharp person open to evidence and persuasion. What argument would they make against the project of ecological economics?

I mentioned that Paul Krugman's recent textbook had a page that neatly encapsulated three fallacies about resources and the economy. Of course, not everyone agrees that they're fallacies—many economists are eye-to-eye with Krugman and see them as true statements. If you think they're fallacies, you end up at places like this meeting, among the schismatics.

On the fly in conversation, I could only remember two of the fallacies. The full set is:
  1. A focus on land specifically rather than resources in general.
  2. A conflation of the availability of resources within a country and the quantity of resources actually used by that country's economy.
  3. An excessively abstract view of technology and capital that mischaracterizes the relationship between them and resources.
Below the fold, the original passage, and the explanation.