Social outcomes are substantially determined at birth

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

Gregory Clark’s latest (pre-print) paper, For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls, argues that a lineage of 400,000 English individuals 1750-2020 shows genetics determines most social outcomes:

It is generally assumed that the elements that define social status — occupational status, educational attainment, wealth, and even health — are transmitted across generations in important ways by the family environment. Above we show that the patterns of correlation of social status attributes in an extended lineage of 402,000 people in England are mainly those that would be predicted by simple additive genetic inheritance of social status in the presence of highly assortative mating around status genetics. Parent-child correlations for a trait equal those of siblings, and the patterns of correlation of relatives of different degrees of genetic affinity is mainly consistent with that predicted by additive genetics. Further family size and birth order, elements that would significantly affect the family environment for children, have modest effects on adult outcomes. The underlying persistence of traits is such that people who have likely never interacted socially, such as second to fifth cousins, remain surprisingly strongly correlated in terms of occupational status and wealth. The patterns observed imply that marital sorting must be strong in terms of the underlying genetics.

If this interpretation is correct then aspirations that by appropriate social design, rates of social mobility can be substantially increased will prove futile. We have to be resigned to living in a world where social outcomes are substantially determined at birth. Personally I would argue that this should push us towards compressing differences in income and wealth that are the product of such inherited characteristics. The Nordic model of the good society looks a lot more attractive than the Texan one.

We’ve gotten so good at preventing so many diseases, there’s been a loss of knowledge and a loss of experience

Saturday, February 27th, 2021

In our quest for perfect solutions to the current pandemic, we’d forgotten an extremely obvious and simple one — fresh air:

A colleague joked, at one point, that things would have gone better in the pandemic if we still believed in miasma theory.

Miasma theory — discredited, of course, by the rise of germ theory — held that disease came from “bad air” emanating from decomposing matter and filth. This idea peaked in the 19th century, when doctors, architects, and one particularly influential nurse, Florence Nightingale, became fixated on ventilation’s importance for health. It manifested in the physical layout of buildings: windows, many of them, but also towers erected for the sole purpose of ventilation and elaborate ductwork to move contaminated air outdoors. Historic buildings still bear the vestigial mark of these public-health strategies, long after the scientific thinking has moved on.

The obsession with ventilation — and miasma theory in general — was indeed wrong when it came to pathogens such as cholera and yellow fever that we now know spread through other means (water and mosquitoes, respectively). But it did make sense for the diseases that invisibly stalked people through 19th-century air: measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza — all much diminished as threats in the 21st century. “We’ve gotten so good at preventing so many diseases, there’s been a loss of knowledge and a loss of experience,” Jeanne Kisacky, the author of Rise of the Modern Hospital, says. Science is not a simple linear march toward progress; it also forgets.

Today, amid a pandemic caused by a novel airborne virus, these old ideas about ventilation are returning. But getting enough schools and businesses on board has been difficult. Fixing the air inside modern buildings, where many windows don’t or barely open, means fighting against the very nature of hermetically sealed modern buildings. They were not built to deal with airborne threats. Nineteenth-century hospitals were.

That era saw the rise of well-ventilated “Nightingale pavilions,” named after Florence Nightingale, who popularized the design in her 1859 book, Notes on Hospitals. As a nurse in the Crimean War, she saw 10 times more soldiers die of disease than of battle wounds. Nightingale began a massive hygiene campaign in the overcrowded hospitals, and she collected statistics, which she presented in pioneering infographics. Chief among her concerns was air. Notes even laid out exact proportions for 20-patient pavilions that could allow 1,600 cubic feet of air per bed.

Each pavilion was a separate wing, radiating from a central corridor. And it had large windows that faced each other, which allowed a cross breeze to blow between the beds. The windows stayed open no matter the weather. There were stories, Kisacky told me, of hospitals in winter where “the patients are closing the windows, and the nurses are opening them. And the doctors come and knock the glass out to make sure they stay open.” In some pavilions, a central fireplace heated the room, so that contaminated air rose out of the ward via the chimney effect.

The world’s first successfully cloned Black-footed ferret has been born

Friday, February 19th, 2021

The world’s first successfully cloned Black-footed ferret has been born, marking the first time a U.S. endangered species has been cloned:

“Elizabeth Ann” was born on December 10, 2020, and is the clone of “Willa,” a wild-caught Black-footed ferret whose cell line was cryopreserved in 1988. A genomic study led, funded, and developed by Revive & Restore in 2014 helped determine that Willa’s genome possessed nearly three times more genetic diversity than the current Black-footed ferret population. This means that her clone Elizabeth Ann is now the most genetically valuable Black-footed ferret alive. This birth is the result of a long-standing genetic rescue effort for the Black-footed ferret species, the goal of which is to increase the genetic diversity and fitness of one of America’s most endangered species to help ensure its full recovery in the wild.

Much more than you wanted to know about COVID and Vitamin D

Wednesday, February 17th, 2021

Scott Alexander shares his beliefs after doing the research on COVID and Vitamin D:

Does Vitamin D significantly decrease the risk of getting COVID?: 25% chance this is true. The Biobank and Mendelian randomization studies are strong arguments against this; the latitude, seasonal, and racial differences are only weak evidence in favor.

Does Vitamin D use at a hospital significantly improve your chances?: 25% chance this is true. I trust the large Brazilian study more than the smaller Spanish one, but aside from size and a general bias towards skepticism I can’t justify this very well.

Do the benefits of taking a Vitamin D supplement at a normal dose equal or outweigh the costs for most people?: 75% chance this is true. The risks are pretty low, and it will probably bring you closer to rather than further from a natural range if you’re a modern indoor worker (side effects are few; the most serious is probably kidney stones, so don’t take it if you have any tendency towards that). And maybe some day, after countless false leads and stupid red herrings, one of the claims people make about this substance will actually pan out. Who knows?

This tokamak produces magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at around 20 kilometers per second

Sunday, February 14th, 2021

A new type of rocket thruster proposed by a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) would apply magnetic fields to propel plasma:

The new concept would accelerate the particles using magnetic reconnection, a process found throughout the universe, including the surface of the sun, in which magnetic field lines converge, suddenly separate, and then join together again, producing lots of energy. Reconnection also occurs inside doughnut-shaped fusion devices known as tokamaks.

“I’ve been cooking this concept for a while,” said PPPL Principal Research Physicist Fatima Ebrahimi, the concept’s inventor and author of a paper detailing the idea in the Journal of Plasma Physics. “I had the idea in 2017 while sitting on a deck and thinking about the similarities between a car’s exhaust and the high-velocity exhaust particles created by PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX),” the forerunner of the laboratory’s present flagship fusion facility. “During its operation, this tokamak produces magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at around 20 kilometers per second, which seemed to me a lot like thrust.”


Current plasma thrusters that use electric fields to propel the particles can only produce low specific impulse, or speed. But computer simulations performed on PPPL computers and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, showed that the new plasma thruster concept can generate exhaust with velocities of hundreds of kilometers per second, 10 times faster than those of other thrusters.

(Hat tip to Jon Jeckell.)

The no supplementation group was associated with 14.3 times the risk of death compared to those who regularly supplemented with vitamin D

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

Peter Attia wouldn’t claim that vitamin D is a magic pill against infection, given the evidence we have:

While it is easy to fool ourselves, quasi-experimental studies like this one, for example, shouldn’t be overlooked completely. The study reported the 14 day mortality of 77 elderly (mean age 88 years) hospitalized patients comparing those that regularly supplemented vitamin D in the preceding 12 months and those that started supplementing after COVID-19 diagnosis. Both groups were compared to a third group that didn’t supplement with vitamin D at all. Long-time supplementers had a 93.1% survival rate compared to 81.7% survival rate in the more recent supplementers, and there was a 68.7% survival rate in the group that didn’t take vitamin D. Given the hazard ratio 0.07 in the first group, the study reported a 93% reduced associated risk for those that regularly supplemented vitamin D. In other words, the no supplementation group was associated with 14.3 times the risk of death compared to those who regularly supplemented with vitamin D.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) do, nonetheless, continue to be the gold standard. There is one pilot RCT that looked at the rate of ICU admission and death for 76 people with and without in-hospital vitamin D supplementation. It reported that 98% of the treatment group did not get admitted to the ICU compared to 50% admission in the untreated group, of which 15% (2 people) later died. After adjusting for confounding variables, patients treated with vitamin D had 0.03 times the risk for ICU admission compared to non-treatment. Put another way, patients not treated with vitamin D had 33.3 times the risk of ICU admission compared to patients treated with vitamin D. And if you want further commentary on the importance of RCTs to distinguish signal from noise on issues like this, my conversation with Vinay Prasad gets to the heart of the matter.

The faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ:

A facial recognition algorithm was applied to naturalistic images of 1,085,795 individuals to predict their political orientation by comparing their similarity to faces of liberal and conservative others. Political orientation was correctly classified in 72% of liberal–conservative face pairs, remarkably better than chance (50%), human accuracy (55%), or one afforded by a 100-item personality questionnaire (66%). Accuracy was similar across countries (the U.S., Canada, and the UK), environments (Facebook and dating websites), and when comparing faces across samples. Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

Glucosamine may reduce overall death rates as effectively as regular exercise

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Glucosamine may reduce overall death rates as effectively as regular exercise:

[Dana King, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University] and his research partner, Jun Xiang — a WVU health data analyst — assessed data from 16,686 adults who completed the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2010. All of the participants were at least 40 years old. King and Xiang merged these data with 2015 mortality figures.

After controlling for various factors — such as participants’ age, sex, smoking status and activity level — the researchers found that taking glucosamine/chondroitin every day for a year or longer was associated with a 39 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.

It was also linked to a 65 percent reduction in cardiovascular-related deaths. That’s a category that includes deaths from stroke, coronary artery disease and heart disease, the United States’ biggest killer.

“Once we took everything into account, the impact was pretty significant,” King said.

The results appear in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

We should embrace the Cassandras when the next disaster comes

Wednesday, December 30th, 2020

Megan McArdle decided to close the year by reflecting back on the COVID-19 Cassandras, who fell into two groups: the Voice of Experience, and the Voice of Dissent:

Aside from a few infectious-disease doctors or virologists, the Voice of Experience was inevitably someone who’d lived in Asia during the 2003 SARS crisis, or else had a parent or a spouse who did, and thus had already overcome their natural skepticism about the likelihood of a major epidemic.


So what made the Dissenters stand out from the herd?

First, they were comfortable enough with technical writing and data to understand early scientific reports about the Wuhan epidemic. Second, they were sufficiently statistics-minded to not confuse “very rarely” with “never,” as most people do. Third, they resisted the normal tendency to discount catastrophic risks simply because addressing them would wreck their other plans. And fourth, they persisted in their conclusion even when their peers thought they were crazy. The most prominent example of this type is probably Peter Navarro, Trump’s chief trade adviser.

Notice that neither Cassandra type was a public health expert.


Humans are social animals; we long to agree with the group, and usually defer to people with higher status, such as scientific experts. We also tend to assume that something is safe if everyone else is doing it, or at least maintain a shamefaced silence about our fears. We hate being wrong, but we’re most terrified of being wrong on a question that everyone else got right.

Even if everyone could become the kind of person who calls a pandemic early, most of us wouldn’t want to. The social cost would be too high, and not just to ourselves. Pandemics aren’t fought only by identifying them; they’re also fought by persuading people to do something about it. For that latter task, you want agreeable people who are good at reading social cu


But if we don’t want to be the Cassandras, we do need to heed them, even when they speak hard truths. When the next disaster comes, as it will, we’ll respond quicker and better if they’re within the citadel working to avert our common doom, rather than out in the wilderness shouting in vain.

Its potential as an explosive was not recognized for three decades

Thursday, December 24th, 2020

I recently stumbled across a reference to toluene, and I couldn’t help but think, how hard is it to transform toluene into trinitrotoluene, or TNT? (Which has an interesting history…)

TNT was first prepared in 1863 by German chemist Julius Wilbrand and originally used as a yellow dye. Its potential as an explosive was not recognized for three decades, mainly because it was too difficult to detonate and because it was less powerful than alternatives. Its explosive properties were first discovered by another German chemist, Carl Häussermann, in 1891. TNT can be safely poured when liquid into shell cases, and is so insensitive that it was exempted from the UK’s Explosives Act 1875 and was not considered an explosive for the purposes of manufacture and storage.

The German armed forces adopted it as a filling for artillery shells in 1902. TNT-filled armour-piercing shells would explode after they had penetrated the armour of British capital ships, whereas the British Lyddite-filled shells tended to explode upon striking armour, thus expending much of their energy outside the ship. The British started replacing Lyddite with TNT in 1907.

The process for making TNT is simple, but not easy:

In the laboratory, 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene is produced by a two-step process. A nitrating mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids is used to nitrate toluene to a mixture of mono- and di-nitrotoluene isomers, with careful cooling to maintain temperature. The nitrated toluenes are then separated, washed with dilute sodium bicarbonate to remove oxides of nitrogen, and then carefully nitrated with a mixture of fuming nitric acid and sulfuric acid.

Borders have been out of fashion, but they are very useful in a crisis

Friday, December 18th, 2020

It’s important to note that COVID is a crisis of moderate magnitude:

The problem is that it’s been very hard to come up with a measured, moderate response proportionate to the dangers of an infection that spreads exponentially and thus tends to be either growing or shrinking.

As Tyler Cowen has pointed out, it’s very hard to fight coronavirus to a draw. It’s probably beyond our skill set. Instead, at any point in time, the place where you live is either winning over it or losing to it.


Unfortunately, coronavirus is not like most problems where you can make fine adjustments in your response.


The fundamental problem the USA has faced in winning against COVID is that we are a vast, continent-size country with no effective internal political boundaries for shutting down travel within the landmass. New Zealand could isolate itself from the world, Australia could politically separate its big cities because they are in separate states. And Europe could reactivate its pre-EU national borders. But in the U.S., where numerous metropolitan areas such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City sprawl across state lines, it’s been virtually inconceivable to shut down internal travel. Borders have been out of fashion, but they are very useful in a crisis.

So we are now in a third wave.


As you see, the shape of the COVID and non-COVID curves are nearly identical, with both peaking in April and mid-summer. This suggests that many of the excess deaths not attributed to COVID actually were related to COVID.

In the long run, we no doubt will pay a price in deaths due to hunkering down to avoid the virus, such as in cancer screenings canceled. But those would be expected to pile up later in the year. Instead this year’s peak for excess deaths not blamed on COVID came during the early-April COVID crisis that ripped through New York City, suggesting that most of the excess deaths were either undiagnosed COVID or, say, people suffering heart attacks who didn’t dare go to the hospital until too late.

Hence the official count of 300,000 COVID deaths so far is likely an underestimate, with the real number being between 350,000 and 400,000. Moreover, with a lag of roughly 22 days between cases and deaths on average, tens of thousands more people who are presently infected can be expected to die over the next month.


As of late September, the CDC estimated that 53 million Americans, or 16 percent, have been infected. Back then there were about 200,000 confirmed deaths and likely a quarter of a million actual deaths, suggesting an infection fatality rate of almost 0.5 percent.

If achieving herd immunity the hard way requires nearly 250 million natural infections, that would mean about 1.2 million COVID deaths.

That’s a lot.

Any conflict in space will be much slower and more deliberate than a Star Wars scene

Saturday, November 14th, 2020

When considering how to control space , Rebecca Reesman and James Wilson lay out the ways in which space combat is counter-intuitive for policymakers and strategists:

Satellites move quickly, but predictably:  Satellites in commonly used circular orbits move at speeds between 3km/s and 8km/s, depending on their altitude. By contrast, an average bullet only travels about 0.75km/s. They are here, and then gone.

Space is big: The volume of space between low-earth orbit and geostationary orbit is about 200 trillion cubic kilometers. That is 190 times larger than the volume of Earth.

Timing is everything: Within the confines of the atmosphere, airplanes, tanks, and ships can nominally move in any direction. Satellites do not have that freedom. Due to the gravitational pull of Earth, satellites are always moving in either a circular or elliptical path, constantly in free-fall around the Earth. Getting two satellites in the same spot is not intuitive. Therefore, it requires careful planning and perfect timing.

Satellites maneuver slowly: While satellites move quickly, space is big, and that makes purposeful maneuvers seem relatively slow. Once a satellite is in orbit, it requires time and a large amount of delta-V to perform phasing maneuvers.

Given all of this, for engagements in space, maneuvers and actions will have to be planned far in advance, Reesman said in an interview. “Any conflict in space will be much slower and more deliberate than a Star Wars scene,” she said. “It requires a lot more long-term thinking and strategic placement of assets.


Radio signals can be used to jam an opponent’s satellites, or spoof them by sending harmful commands. This would be an extension of electronic warfare already used in naval and air battles.

Some nations, such as France, have gone so far as to talk about deploying weapons in space to protect their own satellites. However, the authors suggest that satellites using kinetic weapons to shoot down opposing satellites seems unlikely for now, given the extraordinary energy required to maneuver an orbital weapon into a proper trajectory. More likely would be a “T-bone” collision between satellites, which does not require plane matching but rather occurs when two orbits cross.

Nations do have a strong incentive to not destroy other satellites because of the potential to create hazardous debris that would potentially affect all nations’ assets in space—and debris generated in space has a lasting effect. However, in the immediacy of war, a nation may decide it is worth permanently losing access to some slots in geostationary orbit, due to debris, in order to win a ground-based war.

All of the studies on face masks and social distancing are based on preventing flu transmission

Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

In the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season happens during our summer months, the WHO data suggests it never took off at all:

In Australia, just 14 positive flu cases were recorded in April, compared with 367 during the same month in 2019 — a 96 per cent drop.

By June, usually the peak of its flu season, there were none. In fact, Australia has not reported a positive case to the WHO since July.

In Chile, just 12 cases of flu were detected between April and October. There were nearly 7,000 during the same period in 2019.

And in South Africa, surveillance tests picked up just two cases at the beginning of the season, which quickly dropped to zero over the following month — overall, a 99 per cent drop compared with the previous year.

In the UK, our flu season is only just beginning. But since Covid-19 began spreading in March, just 767 cases have been reported to the WHO compared with nearly 7,000 from March to October last year.

And while lab-confirmed flu cases last year jumped by ten per cent between September and October, as a new season gets under way this year they’ve risen by just 0.7 per cent so far.


‘All of the studies on face masks and social distancing are based on preventing flu transmission and have shown huge reductions,’ he adds. ‘So it’s no surprise it worked.’

Oxophilicity of the surface plays a very important role in electrolysis

Monday, October 26th, 2020

Chemist Ian McCrum used a special platinum crystal to bring sustainable hydrogen one step closer:

To understand what is so special about this crystal, we need to zoom in on the surface of the platinum. This is not flat and smooth, but irregular with tiny steps and kinks. And it is precisely at these irregularities that chemical reactions take place. McCrum designed the special crystal in such a way that the surface has the same number of these irregularities throughout the crystal. He then decorated the edges with different metals, such as ruthenium and molybdenum. In this way, he ensured that all the electrodes had exactly the same atomic structure, but each time with a different metal in the edges. This enabled him to vary the interaction of the electrode with the oxygen atom of water in a systematic and well-defined way.

Measurements then began, with a surprising outcome. Marc Koper says, “Our breakthrough is that there appears to be a clear link between the activity of the electrode for making hydrogen and the degree to which the metal in the edge binds to the oxygen atom of water.” The latter is also known as oxophilicity, with oxophilic literally meaning oxygen-loving. “We have even found an optimum for this oxophilicity,” says Koper. “We have now definitively established that the oxophilicity of the surface plays a very important role in electrolysis.”

Not every maverick is a new Galileo

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

One of the hardest questions a science commentator faces, Matt Ridley says, is when to take a heretic seriously:

It’s tempting for established scientists to use arguments from authority to dismiss reasonable challenges, but not every maverick is a new Galileo. As the astronomer Carl Sagan once put it, “Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea and hypothesis—which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism—especially rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested—and you’re not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science.” In other words, as some wit once put it, don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Peer review is supposed to be the device that guides us away from unreliable heretics. A scientific result is only reliable when reputable scholars have given it their approval. Dr. Yan’s report has not been peer reviewed. But in recent years, peer review’s reputation has been tarnished by a series of scandals. The Surgisphere study was peer reviewed, as was the study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, hero of the anti-vaccine movement, claiming that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) caused autism. Investigations show that peer review is often perfunctory rather than thorough; often exploited by chums to help each other; and frequently used by gatekeepers to exclude and extinguish legitimate minority scientific opinions in a field.

Herbert Ayres, an expert in operations research, summarized the problem well several decades ago: “As a referee of a paper that threatens to disrupt his life, [a professor] is in a conflict-of-interest position, pure and simple. Unless we’re convinced that he, we, and all our friends who referee have integrity in the upper fifth percentile of those who have so far qualified for sainthood, it is beyond naive to believe that censorship does not occur.” Rosalyn Yalow, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, was fond of displaying the letter she received in 1955 from the Journal of Clinical Investigation noting that the reviewers were “particularly emphatic in rejecting” her paper.

The health of science depends on tolerating, even encouraging, at least some disagreement. In practice, science is prevented from turning into religion not by asking scientists to challenge their own theories but by getting them to challenge each other, sometimes with gusto. Where science becomes political, as in climate change and Covid-19, this diversity of opinion is sometimes extinguished in the pursuit of a consensus to present to a politician or a press conference, and to deny the oxygen of publicity to cranks. This year has driven home as never before the message that there is no such thing as “the science”; there are different scientific views on how to suppress the virus.