“Extinct” Snail Found Alive

RocksnailAlabama2012-09-03.jpg “The oblong rocksnail in Alabama, 12 years after it was declared extinct.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) A freshwater snail has been rediscovered on the Cahaba River in Alabama, 12 years after it was declared extinct.

Nathan Whelan, a graduate student in biology at the University of Alabama, spotted the snail — called the oblong rocksnail, or Leptoxis compacta — on a small stretch of the river.

For the full story, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “OBSERVATORY; Snails Appear Reborn, or Were Overlooked.” The New York Times (Tues., August 14, 2012): D3.
(Note: the online version of the article has the date August 13, 2012.)

Whelan and co-authors report their findings in:
Whelan NV, Johnson PD, Harris PM (2012) Rediscovery of Leptoxis compacta (Anthony, 1854) (Gastropoda: Cerithioidea: Pleuroceridae). PLoS ONE 7(8): e42499. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042499

Ban of Affirmative Action Does Not Reduce Overall Black Enrollment

(p. 435) Using institutional data on race-specific college enrollment and completion, I examine whether minority students were less likely to enroll in a four-year public college or receive a degree following a statewide affirmative action ban. As in previous studies, I find that black and Hispanic enrollment dropped at the top institutions; however, there is little evidence that overall black enrollment at public universities fell. Finally, despite evidence that fewer blacks and Hispanics graduated from college following a ban, the effects on graduation rates are very noisy.

For the full article, from which the above abstract is quoted, see:
Backes, Ben. “Do Affirmative Action Bans Lower Minority College Enrollment and Attainment?” Journal of Human Resources 47, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 435-55.

“Education Bubble”: “A Spurious Inflation of the Credentials Required for Many Jobs”


Source of book image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-N1hV093ckVc/T8YmCXE2sQI/AAAAAAAAAYc/1B5hWDeXbzQ/s1600/basement.jpg

(p. 17) In June 2008, The Atlantic published an essay by an adjunct instructor of English, identified only as “Professor X,” whose job filled him with despair. Although the courses he taught were introductory, success was beyond many of his students, who, he wrote, were “in some cases barely literate.” X found giving F’s to be excruciating — “I am the man who has to lower the hammer,” he lamented — in part because he identified with his older students, who seemed to have lost their way in their careers much as X himself had.
. . .
. . . X’s function, in the ecology of the colleges where he teaches, is gatekeeper — most students who fail his classes will drop out — and he articulates the ethical challenge before him this way: “What grade does one give a college student who progresses from a 6th- to a 10th-grade level of achievement?” X gives F’s.
. . .
X and his wife got snookered in the housing bubble, and he wonders if the misery in his classroom might result from a similar education bubble. In 1940, there were 1.5 million college students in America; in 2006, there were 20.5 million. In X’s opinion, a glut of degrees has led to a spurious inflation of the credentials required for many jobs. Tuitions are rising, and two-thirds of college graduates now leave school with debt, owing on average about $24,000. A four-year degree is said to increase wages about $450,000 over the course of a lifetime, but X doubts the real value of degrees further down on the hierarchy of prestige. To him, the human cost is more conspicuous.
. . .
Professor X can be caustic about the euphemism and somewhat willed optimism that sometimes befog discussion of how to teach unprepared students. To relieve his and his students’ unhappiness, he proposes that employers stop demanding unnecessary degrees: a laudable suggestion, unlikely to be realized until the degree glut has dried up.

For the full review, see:
CALEB CRAIN. “Lost in the Meritocracy.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 1, 2011): 17.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 29, 2011.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:
X, Professor. In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic. New York: Viking, 2011.

Sunk-Cost Fallacy “Can Be Overcome”

(p. 346) The sunk-cost fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects. I have often observed young scientists struggling to salvage a doomed project when they would be better advised to drop it and start a new one. Fortunately, research suggests that at least in some contexts the fallacy can be overcome. The sunk-cost fallacy is identified and taught as a mistake in both economics and business courses, apparently to good effect: there is evidence that graduate students in these fields are more willing than others to walk away from a failing project.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Modern Humans Created Flutes Over 42,000 Years Ago

BoneFluteHohleFelsCaveGermany2012-09-03.jpg “LOST AND FOUND; Scientists say that this bone flute, found at Hohle Fels Cave in Germany, is at least 42,000 years old.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D4) In hillside caves of southwestern Germany, archaeologists in recent years have uncovered the beginnings of music and art by early modern humans migrating into Europe from Africa. New dating evidence shows that these oldest known musical instruments in the world, flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory, are even older than first thought.

Scientists led by Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford in England reported last week that improved radiocarbon tests determined that animal bones found with the flutes were 42,000 to 43,000 years old. This is close to the time when the first anatomically modern humans were spreading into Central Europe, presumably along the Danube River valley.
Earlier tests had yielded dates of 35,000 years ago for artifacts at several caves where flutes and also ivory statuettes of voluptuous women have been found near Ulm, Germany, and the Danube’s headwaters. The best preserved bone flute, with five finger holes, was collected at Hohle Fels Cave. The new analysis was based on material from the nearby Geissenklösterle Cave.

For the full story, see:
JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. “Flute’s Revised Age Dates the Sound of Music Earlier.” The New York Times (Tues., May 29, 2012): D4.

Some of the new results summarized above are reported to the scientific community in:
Higham, Thomas, Laura Basell, Roger Jacobi, Rachel Wooda, Christopher Bronk Ramseya, and Nicholas J. Conardf. “Τesting Models for the Beginnings of the Aurignacian and the Advent of Figurative Art and Music: The Radiocarbon Chronology of Geißenklösterle.” Journal of Human Evolution 62, no. 6 (June 2012): 664-76.

Skilled Immigrants Increase U.S. Patents

(p. 31) We measure the extent to which skilled immigrants increase innovation in the United States. The 2003 National Survey of College Graduates shows that immigrants patent at double the native rate, due to their disproportionately holding science and engineering degrees. Using a 1940-2000 state panel, we show that a 1 percentage point increase in immigrant college graduates’ population share increases patents per capita by 9-18 percent. Our instrument for the change in the skilled immigrant share is based on the 1940 distribution across states of immigrants from various source regions and the subsequent national increase in skilled immigration from these regions.

For the full article, from which the above abstract is quoted, see:
Hunt, Jennifer, and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle. “How Much Does Immigration Boost Innovation?” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 2, no. 2 (April 2010): 31-56.

Big Science Done Privately at Great Risk


Source of book image: http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQPLdrVlC1FT3ojxyxWJLq55AeAs87pw_Bw6ks1ugFnkcI_DBa_1w&t=1

(p. 23) Next time you find yourself grousing when the passenger in front reclines his seat a smidge too far, consider the astronomers of the Enlightenment. In 1761 and 1769, dozens and dozens of stargazers traveled thousands of miserable miles to observe a rare and awesome celestial phenomenon. They went by sailing ship and open dinghy, by carriage, by sledge and on foot. They endured discomfort that in our own flabby century would generate years of litigation. And they did it all for science: the men in powdered wigs and knee britches were determined to measure the transit of Venus.
. . .
The British astronomer Edmond Halley had realized that precise measurement of a transit might give astronomers armed with a clock and a telescope the data they needed to calculate how far Earth is from the Sun. With that distance in hand, they could work out the actual size of the solar system, the great astronomical problem of the era. The catch was that it would take multiple measurements from carefully chosen locations all over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But that was somebody else’s problem. Halley knew he wouldn’t live to see the transit of 1761.
That challenge fell to the French astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, who managed to energize and rally his colleagues in the years leading up to the transit, then coordinate the enormous effort that would ultimately involve scientists and adventurers from France, Britain, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and the American colonies. When you think about how hard it is to arrange a simple dinner with a few friends who live in the same city and use the same language when e-mailing, it’s enough to take your breath away.
. . .
Sea travel was so risky in 1761 that observers took separate ships to the same destination to increase the chances some of them would make it alive. The Seven Years’ War was on, and getting caught in the cross-fire was a constant concern. One French scientist carried a passport arranged by the Royal Society in London advising the British military “not to molest his person or Effects upon any account.” Others were shelled by the French or caught in border troubles with the Russians. An observer en route to Tobolsk, in Siberia, found himself floating in ice up to his waist when his carriage fell through the frozen river they were traveling in lieu of a road. He made it to his destination. Another, heading toward eastern Finland via the iced-over Gulf of Bothnia, was repeatedly catapulted out of his sledge as the runners caught on the crests of frozen waves. He made it too.

For the full review, see:
JoANN C. GUTIN. “Masters of the Universe.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 20, 2012): 19.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 18, 2012.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:
Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

ApparatusTransitVenus2012-09-01.jpg Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Kahneman Preaches that People Can and Should Act More Rationally

(p. 338) . . . I have a sermon ready for Sam if he rejects the offer of a single highly favorable gamble played once, and for you if you share his unreason-able aversion to losses:

I sympathize with your aversion to losing any gamble, but it is costing you a lot of money. Please consider this question: Are you on your deathbed? Is this the last offer of a small favorable gamble that you will ever consider? Of course, you are unlikely to be offered exactly this gamble again, but you will have many opportunities to consider attractive gambles with stakes that are very small relative to your wealth. You will do yourself a large financial favor if you are able to see each of these gambles as part of a bundle of small gambles and rehearse the mantra that will get you significantly closer to economic rationality: you win a few, you lose a few. The main purpose of the mantra is to control your emotional response when you do lose. If you can trust it to be effective, you should remind yourself of it when deciding whether or not to accept a small risk with positive expected value. Remember these qualifications when using the mantra:

  • It works when the gambles are genuinely independent of each other; it does not apply to multiple investments in the same industry, which would all go bad together.

(p. 339)

  • It works only when the possible loss does not cause you to worry about your total wealth. If you would take the loss as significant bad news about your economic future, watch it!
  • It should not be applied to long shots, where the probability of winning is very small for each bet.

If you have the emotional discipline that this rule requires, you will never consider a small gamble in isolation or be loss averse for a small gamble until you are actually on your deathbed and not even then.

This advice is not impossible to follow. Experienced traders in financial markets live by it every day, shielding themselves from the pain of losses by broad framing. As was mentioned earlier, we now know that experimental subjects could be almost cured of their loss aversion (in a particular context) by inducing them to “think like a trader,” just as experienced baseball card traders are not as susceptible to the endowment effect as novices are. Students made risky decisions (to accept or reject gambles in which they could lose) under different instructions. In the narrow-framing condition, they were told to “make each decision as if it were the only one” and to accept their emotions. The instructions for broad framing of a decision included the phrases “imagine yourself as a trader,” “you do this all the time,” and “treat it as one of many monetary decisions, which will sum together to produce a ‘portfolio’.” The experimenters assessed the subjects’ emotional response to gains and losses by physiological measures, including changes in the electrical conductance of the skin that are used in lie detection. As expected, broad framing blunted the emotional reaction to losses and increased the willingness to take risks.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

Global Warming Expands Range of Brown Argus Butterfly

BrownArgusButterfly2012-09-03.jpg “The brown argus butterfly has expanded its range in England.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) A butterfly species in England is expanding its range, thanks to climate change.

In the current issue of Science, researchers at the University of York report that the brown argus butterfly has spread its reach in England northward by about 50 miles over 20 years as a warmer climate allows its caterpillars to feed off wild geranium plants, which are widespread in the countryside.

For the full story, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “OBSERVATORY; A Butterfly Takes Wing on Climate Change.” The New York Times (Tues., May 29, 2012): D3.
(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 24, 2012.)

The results summarized above are reported to the scientific community in:
Chen, Ching, Jane K. Hill, Ralf Ohlemüller, David B. Roy, and Chris D. Thomas. “Report; Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming.” Science 333, no. 6045 (August 19, 2011): 1024-1026.