Adonis Diaries

Archive for October 16th, 2015

Is Economics a science? 

Nobel prizes in economics are Not convincing.

As subjective as Literature and Peace. Think of Obama, Menahim Began, Sadat, Shimon Perez…

Business as usual. That will be the implicit message when the Sveriges Riksbank announces this year’s winner of the “Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”, to give it its full title.

Seven years ago this autumn, practically the entire mainstream economics profession was caught off guard by the global financial crash and the “worst panic since the 1930s” that followed.

And yet on Monday the glorification of economics as a scientific field on a par with physics, chemistry and medicine will continue.

The problem is not so much that there is a Nobel prize in economics, but that there are no equivalent prizes in psychology, sociology, anthropology. Economics, this seems to say, is not a social science but an exact one, like physics or chemistry – a distinction that not only encourages hubris among economists but also changes the way we think about the economy.

A Nobel prize in economics implies that the human world operates much like the physical world: that it can be described and understood in neutral terms, and that it lends itself to modelling, like chemical reactions or the movement of the stars.

It creates the impression that economists are not in the business of constructing inherently imperfect theories, but of discovering timeless truths.

To illustrate just how dangerous that kind of belief can be, one only need to consider the fate of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund set up by, among others, the economists Myron Scholes and Robert Merton in 1994.

With their work on derivatives, Scholes and Merton seemed to have hit on a formula that yielded a safe but lucrative trading strategy.

In 1997 they were awarded the Nobel prize. A year later, Long-Term Capital Management lost $4.6bn (£3bn)in less than four months; a bailout was required to avert the threat to the global financial system. Markets, it seemed, didn’t always behave like scientific models.

Andrew Bossone shared this link
The award glorifies economists as tellers of timeless truths, fostering hubris and leading to disaster|By Joris Luyendijk
In the decade that followed, the same over-confidence in the power and wisdom of financial models bred a disastrous culture of complacency, ending in the 2008 crash.
Why should bankers ask themselves if a lucrative new complex financial product is safe when the models tell them it is?
Why give regulators real power when models can do their work for them?

Many economists seem to have come to think of their field in scientific terms: a body of incrementally growing objective knowledge.

Over the past decades mainstream economics in universities has become increasingly mathematical, focusing on complex statistical analyses and modelling to the detriment of the observation of reality.

Consider this throwaway line from the former top regulator and London School of Economics director Howard Davies in his 2010 book The Financial Crisis: Who Is to Blame?:

“There is a lack of real-life research on trading floors themselves.” To which one might say: well, yes, so how about doing something about that? After all, Davies was at the time heading what is probably the most prestigious institution for economics research in Europe, located a stone’s throw away from the banks that blew up.

All those banks have “structured products approval committees”, where a team of banking staff sits down to decide whether their bank should adopt a particular new complex financial product.

If economics were a social science like sociology or anthropology, practitioners would set about interviewing those committee members, scrutinising the meetings’ minutes and trying to observe as many meetings as possible.

That is how the kind of fieldwork-based, “qualitative” social sciences, which economists like to discard as “soft” and unscientific, operate.

It is true that this approach, too, comes with serious methodological caveats, such as verifiability, selection bias or observer bias.

The difference is that other social sciences are open about these limitations, arguing that, while human knowledge about humans is fundamentally different from human knowledge about the natural world, those imperfect observations are extremely important to make.

Compare that humility to that of former central banker Alan Greenspan, one of the architects of the deregulation of finance, and a great believer in models. After the crash hit, Greenspan appeared before a congressional committee in the US to explain himself.

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” said the man whom fellow economists used to celebrate as “the maestro”.

In other words, Greenspan had been unable to imagine that bankers would run their own bank into the ground.

Had the maestro read the tiny pile of books by financial anthropologists he may have found it easier to imagine such behaviour. Then he would have known that over past decades banks had adopted a “zero job security” hire-and-fire culture, breeding a “zero-loyalty” mentality that can be summarised as: “If you can be out of the door in five minutes, your horizon becomes five minutes.”

While this was apparently new to Greenspan it was not to anthropologist Karen Ho, who did years of fieldwork at a Wall Street bank.

Her book Liquidated emphasises the pivotal role of zero job security at Wall Street (the same system governs the City of London). The financial sociologist Vincent Lépinay’s Codes of Finance, a book about the division in a French bank for complex financial products, describes in convincing detail how institutional memory suffers when people switch jobs frequently and at short notice.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the status of economics in public life has been the hegemony of technocratic thinking.

Political questions about how to run society have come to be framed as technical issues, fatally diminishing politics as the arena where society debates means and ends.

Take a crucial concept such as gross domestic product. As Ha-Joon Chang makes clear in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, the choices about what not to include in GDP (household work, to name one) are highly ideological.

The same applies to inflation, since there is nothing neutral about the decision not to give greater weight to the explosion in housing and stock market prices when calculating inflation.

GDP, inflation and even growth figures are not objective temperature measurements of the economy, no matter how many economists, commentators and politicians like to pretend they are.

Much of economics is politics disguised as technocracy – acknowledging this might help open up the space for political debate and change that has been so lacking in the past seven years.

Would it not be extremely useful to take economics down one peg by overhauling the prize to include all social sciences?

The Nobel prize for economics is not even a “real” Nobel prize anyway, having only been set up by the Swedish central bank in 1969.

In recent years, it may have been awarded to more non-conventional practitioners such as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. However, Kahneman was still rewarded for his contribution to the science of economics, still putting that field centre stage

Think of how frequently the Nobel prize for literature elevates little-known writers or poets to the global stage, or how the peace prize stirs up a vital global conversation:

Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel introduced Arab literature to a mass audience, while last year’s prize for Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai put the right of all children to an education on the agenda.

Nobel prizes in economics, meanwhile, go to “contributions to methods of analysing economic time series with time-varying volatility” (2003) or the “analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity” (2008).

A revamped social science Nobel prize could play a similar role, feeding the global conversation with new discoveries and insights from across the social sciences, while always emphasising the need for humility in treating knowledge by humans about humans.

One good candidate would be the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, whose writing on the “liquid modernity” of post-utopian capitalism deserves the largest audience possible.

Richard Sennett and his work on the “corrosion of character” among workers in today’s economies would be another. Will economists volunteer to share their prestigious prize out of their own acccord? Their own mainstream economic assumptions about human selfishness suggest they will not.

Nature of Light: As explained by optic scientist Ibn al-Haytham (1,000 years ago)

Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics),

Playing a vital role in our everyday lives, technologies based on light are in use all around us.

From art and science to modern technology, the study of light – and how it behaves and interacts with matter has intrigued scientists for over a century.

This year, 2015, marks the 1,000th anniversary of the Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics), a 7-volume treatise written by the Iraqi scientist Ibn al-Haytham – a pioneering thinker whose views have been crucial to our understanding of how the universe came into existence.

Physicist Jim al-Khalili reveals how Islamic thinkers played a crucial role in explaining light and optics.

Shaping our understanding of vision, optics and light, Ibn al-Haytham interrogated theories of light put forward by the Greeks – men like Plato and Euclid who argued that the way we see objects is by shining light out of our eyes onto them.

Ibn al-Haytham argued instead, and correctly, that the way we see is by light entering our eyes from outside either reflecting off objects or directly from luminous bodies like candles or the sun.

His methodology of investigation, in which he combined theory and experiments, were also remarkable for their emphasis on proof and evidence.

In the first episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili, looks at state-of-the-art applications of optics and traces the science of light back to the medieval Islamic world.

Al-Khalili recreates Ibn al-Haytham’s famous ‘camera obscura’ experiment with stunning results and also uncovers the work of Ibn Sahl, a mathematician and physicist associated with the Abbasid court of Baghdad.

According to a recently discovered manuscript, he correctly described “Snell’s law of refraction” centuries before Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snellius was even born.

We also look at the work of Ibn Mu’adh, who brought together knowledge of optics and geometry in order to estimate the height of the atmosphere.

Source: Al Jazeera

Animating what cannot be seen in biology? Fiction animation?

What I’m going to show you are the astonishing molecular machines that create the living fabric of your body.

Now molecules are really tiny.  They’re smaller than a wavelength of light, so we have no way to directly observe them. But through science, we do have a fairly good idea of what’s going on down at the molecular scale.

So what we can do is actually tell you about the molecules, but we don’t really have a direct way of showing you the molecules.

Patsy Z  shared this link TED
Animations of unseeable biology (If animation video is available)|By Drew Berry

0:47 One way around this is to draw pictures. And this idea is actually nothing new. Scientists have always created pictures as part of their thinking and discovery process.

They draw pictures of what they’re observing with their eyes, through technology like telescopes and microscopes, and also what they’re thinking about in their minds.

I picked two well-known examples, because they’re very well-known for expressing science through art.

And I start with Galileo who used the world’s first telescope to look at the Moon. And he transformed our understanding of the Moon. The perception in the 17th century was the Moon was a perfect heavenly sphere. But what Galileo saw was a rocky, barren world, which he expressed through his watercolor painting.

Another scientist with very big ideas, the superstar of biology, is Charles Darwin. And with this famous entry in his notebook, he begins in the top left-hand corner with, “I think,” and then sketches out the first tree of life, which is his perception of how all the species, all living things on Earth, are connected through evolutionary history — the origin of species through natural selection and divergence from an ancestral population.

Even as a scientist, I used to go to lectures by molecular biologists and find them completely incomprehensible, with all the fancy technical language and jargon that they would use in describing their work, until I encountered the artworks of David Goodsell, who is a molecular biologist at the Scripps Institute. And his pictures, everything’s accurate and it’s all to scale. And his work illuminated for me what the molecular world inside us is like.

So this is a transection through blood.

In the top left-hand corner, you’ve got this yellow-green area. The yellow-green area is the fluids of blood, which is mostly water, but it’s also antibodies, sugars, hormones, that kind of thing.

And the red region is a slice into a red blood cell. And those red molecules are hemoglobin. They are actually red; that’s what gives blood its color. And hemoglobin acts as a molecular sponge to soak up the oxygen in your lungs and then carry it to other parts of the body.

I was very much inspired by this image many years ago, and I wondered whether we could use computer graphics to represent the molecular world. What would it look like? And that’s how I really began. So let’s begin.

This is DNA in its classic double helix form.

And it’s from X-ray crystallography, so it’s an accurate model of DNA.

If we unwind the double helix and unzip the two strands, you see these things that look like teeth. Those are the letters of genetic code, the 25,000 genes you’ve got written in your DNA.

This is what they typically talk about — the genetic code — this is what they’re talking about. But I want to talk about a different aspect of DNA science, and that is the physical nature of DNA.

It’s these two strands that run in opposite directions for reasons I can’t go into right now. But they physically run in opposite directions, which creates a number of complications for your living cells, as you’re about to see, most particularly when DNA is being copied.

 What I’m about to show you is an accurate representation of the actual DNA replication machine that’s occurring right now inside your body, at least 2002 biology.

So DNA’s entering the production line from the left-hand side, and it hits this collection, these miniature biochemical machines, that are pulling apart the DNA strand and making an exact copy.

DNA comes in and hits this blue, doughnut-shaped structure and it’s ripped apart into its two strands. One strand can be copied directly, and you can see these things spooling off to the bottom there. But things aren’t so simple for the other strand because it must be copied backwards. So it’s thrown out repeatedly in these loops and copied one section at a time, creating two new DNA molecules.

Now you have billions of this machine right now working away inside you, copying your DNA with exquisite fidelity. It’s an accurate representation, and it’s pretty much at the correct speed for what is occurring inside you.

I’ve left out error correction and a bunch of other things. This was work from a number of years ago.

But what I’ll show you next is updated science, it’s updated technology. So again, we begin with DNA. And it’s jiggling and wiggling there because of the surrounding soup of molecules, which I’ve stripped away so you can see something. DNA is about two nanometers across, which is really quite tiny. But in each one of your cells, each strand of DNA is about 30 to 40 million nanometers long.

So to keep the DNA organized and regulate access to the genetic code, it’s wrapped around these purple proteins — or I’ve labeled them purple here. It’s packaged up and bundled up. All this field of view is a single strand of DNA. This huge package of DNA is called a chromosome. And we’ll come back to chromosomes in a minute.

We’re pulling out, we’re zooming out, out through a nuclear pore, which is the gateway to this compartment that holds all the DNA called the nucleus.

All of this field of view is about a semester’s worth of biology, and I’ve got seven minutes. So we’re not going to be able to do that today?

5:37 This is the way a living cell looks down a light microscope. And it’s been filmed under time-lapse, which is why you can see it moving. The nuclear envelope breaks down.

These sausage-shaped things are the chromosomes, and we’ll focus on them. They go through this very striking motion that is focused on these little red spots. When the cell feels it’s ready to go, it rips apart the chromosome.

One set of DNA goes to one side, the other side gets the other set of DNA — identical copies of DNA. And then the cell splits down the middle. And again, you have billions of cells undergoing this process right now inside of you.

Now we’re going to rewind and just focus on the chromosomes and look at its structure and describe it. So again, here we are at that equator moment.

The chromosomes line up. And if we isolate just one chromosome, we’re going to pull it out and have a look at its structure. So this is one of the biggest molecular structures that you have, at least as far as we’ve discovered so far inside of us. So this is a single chromosome.

And you have two strands of DNA in each chromosome. One is bundled up into one sausage. The other strand is bundled up into the other sausage.

6:41 These things that look like whiskers that are sticking out from either side are the dynamic scaffolding of the cell. They’re called mircrotubules. That name’s not important. But what we’re going to focus on is this red region — I’ve labeled it red here — and it’s the interface between the dynamic scaffolding and the chromosomes.

It is obviously central to the movement of the chromosomes. We have no idea really as to how it’s achieving that movement.

We’ve been studying this thing they call the kinetochore for over a hundred years with intense study, and we’re still just beginning to discover what it’s all about.

It is made up of about 200 different types of proteins, thousands of proteins in total. It is a signal broadcasting system. It broadcasts through chemical signals telling the rest of the cell when it’s ready, when it feels that everything is aligned and ready to go for the separation of the chromosomes. It is able to couple onto the growing and shrinking microtubules.

 It’s involved with the growing of the microtubules, and it’s able to transiently couple onto them. It’s also an attention sensing system. It’s able to feel when the cell is ready, when the chromosome is correctly positioned.

It’s turning green here because it feels that everything is just right. And you’ll see, there’s this one little last bit that’s still remaining red. And it’s walked away down the microtubules. That is the signal broadcasting system sending out the stop signal. And it’s walked away. I mean, it’s that mechanical. It’s molecular clockwork.

This is how you work at the molecular scale.

So with a little bit of molecular eye candy, we’ve got kinesins, which are the orange ones. They’re little molecular courier molecules walking one way. And here are the dynein. They’re carrying that broadcasting system. And they’ve got their long legs so they can step around obstacles and so on.

So again, this is all derived accurately from the science. The problem is we can’t show it to you any other way.

Exploring at the frontier of science, at the frontier of human understanding, is mind-blowing.

Discovering this stuff is certainly a pleasurable incentive to work in science. But most medical researchers — discovering the stuff is simply steps along the path to the big goals, which are to eradicate disease, to eliminate the suffering and the misery that disease causes and to lift people out of poverty.

Note: Can you imagine the number of factors that have to function correctly and coordinate their activities in order generate sane cells? It is a miracle if everyone has no cancerous cells for any period in his lifetime. As these technologists claiming to emulate human functions and activities!




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