Category Archives: Science

The Trouble with the Median Voter, as Expressed by a Scientist

A memory from Carl Sagan’s childhood, which he shares on pages 133-34 in the book version of Cosmos:

Even with an early bedtime, in winter you could sometimes see the stars. I would look at them, twinkling and remote, and wonder what they were. I would ask older children and adults, who would only reply, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.” I could see they were lights in the sky. But what were they? Just small hovering lamps? Whatever for? I felt a kind of sorrow for them: a commonplace whose strangeness remained somehow hidden from my incurious fellows. There had to be some deeper answer.

And from the following paragraph, which, while still depressing, at least ends on a positive note:

I asked the librarian for something on stars. She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained, and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book–the right kind of book.

Sagan’s career went just fine from there. But how many young would-be Sagans of all disciplines have had their growth stunted by social pressure put on them by other people’s lack of wonder?

In my own native discipline, the layman’s instinctive dismissal of the economic way of thinking is a public tragedy. I feel a twinge of sadness every time someone turns down Bastiat’s enticing invitation to see the unseen, or waves off Adam Smith’s invisible hand, without giving it a second thought (or, often, a first).

The opportunity cost of incuriosity may be even larger than Dawson and Seater suggest in their recent paper, which is a per capita income roughly triple what it actually is today. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle public policies aren’t even worse than they already are.

A little bit of simple curiosity would go a long way towards making the world not just a more interesting place to live, but a wealthier, safer, and friendlier one.


Regulations in Space

From the footnote on p. 79 of the 1985 paperback edition of Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos:

There are many unexpected developments in mustering spacecraft to explore the planets. This is one of them: Among the instruments aboard one of the Pioneer Venus entry probes was a net flux radiometer, designed to measure simultaneously the amount of infrared energy flowing upwards and downwards at each position in the Venus atmosphere. The instrument required a sturdy window that was also transparent to infrared radiation. A 13.5-karat diamond was imported and milled into the desired window. However, the contractor was required to pay a $12,000 import duty. Eventually, the U.S. Customs service decided that after the diamond was launched to Venus it was unavailable for trade on Earth and refunded the money to the manufacturer.

This reminds me of the customs form the Apollo 11 crew filled out upon their return to Earth.

Trade and Immigration Restrictions Have Evolutionary Origins

It’s a point I’ve made before, but human beings are hardwired to affirm their in-group and vilify out-groups. It takes a lot of social conditioning to get people to be polite to strangers. This also explains the continuing popularity of trade barriers and immigration restrictions, in the face of basic economics. It also explains why, despite massive improvements in recent decades, racism and homophobia will almost certainly never die. People will always look for reasons to not get along with each other.

According to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s delightful 1992 book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, humanity’s inborn suspicion of outsiders actually predates humanity. It goes back billions of years, and has been observed in bacteria (see location 1773 of the Kindle edition):

You may be a ruthless, implacable predator, but you must also be a pushover for your relatives and neighbors. So all of you may suffuse your outer membranes with a chemical that serves for species recognition. When you taste this molecule emanating from another microbe, you become very affable. “Friend,” the chemical says. “Sister.” Other chemicals carry different information. Some bacteria routinely produce their own chemical warfare agents, antibiotics that are harmless to themselves and others of their own strain, but deadly to bacteria of different strains, foreigners. A delicate balance has evolved between hostility to the outside group and cooperation with the inside group. Them and us. The first intimations of xenophobia and ethnocentrism evolved early.

CEI Podcast for November 27, 2013: Toxic Turkey Day?

Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini debunks scare stories about chemicals in your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, ranging from BPA in canned foods to naturally occurring pesticides in potatoes. Anti-chemical activists forget the cardinal rule of toxicology: it is the dose that makes the poison. Relax, eat well, and enjoy spending time with your family this Thanksgiving.

Hayek Smiles

On page 210 of his otherwise-wonderful book Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, Lee Billings lets slip a bit of hubris:

We are now beginning to appreciate the complexity of the Earth system, and we are faced with controlling that complexity.

This quote is evidence that Billings does not, in fact, appreciate the world’s complexity. Nothing can fully understand something more complex than itself. A human could not possibly understand, let alone control, something so vastly larger, older, and more complicated than he is.

As with the physical world, so with the social world. Peter Boettke counsels economists, who study social processes, to be students, rather than saviors. Bad things happen otherwise. Similar advice applies in this case to natural scientists.

This quibble aside, Billings has written an excellent book that is as well-written and personable as it is informative. I recommend it highly.

In Which Cheating at Baseball Reaches a Whole New Level

Nature: Hawkmoths zap bats with sonic blasts from their genitals

An Evolutionary Banquet

Chapter 5 of Brian Fagan’s excellent Cro-Magnon opens with the following quotation from the paleontologist Björn Kurtén:

“Imagine a dinner table set for a thousand guests, in which each man is sitting between his own father and his own son. At one end of the table might be a French Nobel laureate in a white tie and tails, and with the Legion of Honor on his breast, and at the other end a Cro-Magnon man dressed in animal skins and with a necklace of cave-bear teeth. Yet each one would be able to converse with his neighbors on his left and right, who would either be his father or his son. So the distance from then to now is not really great.”

It’s a similar conceit to the Evolution Stadium described by Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which remains one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read.