Another attempt to address the Fermi paradox — aestivation

According to a research paper accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, extraterrestrials are sleeping while they wait. In the paper, authors from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Cirkovic argue that the universe is too hot right now for advanced, digital civilizations to […]

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*False Alarm*, the new book by Bjorn Lomborg

The subtitle is How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet. I agree with the author’s claim that climate change is not an existential risk for humanity.  Still, both the title and subtitle bother me.  The alarm does not seem to be a false one, even if […]

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What should I ask Nicholas Bloom?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, so what should I ask?  Here is part of his official bio: Nicholas (Nick) Bloom is the William Eberle Professor of Economics at Stanford University, a Senior Fellow of SIEPR, and the Co-Director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. […]

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Cornell understands the equilibrium

They are reopening campus for the coming semester and here is one reason why: …the finding from Cornell researchers that holding the semester online potentially could result in more infections and more hospitalizations among students and staff members than holding the semester in person would. A study by Cornell researchers concluded that with nominal parameters, an in-person […]

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The Scientific Look-and-Feel of Public Health

An individual with a human brain can make the following value judgments: (1) maximum health is the most important thing in human life; (2) health must be as equal among individuals as physically possible; and (3) these two value judgments should be imposed on everybody. Once this is done, the most efficient means to pursue these goals can be scientifically studied, using both the medical sciences, economics (including, at the first rank, public choice analysis), and possibly other sciences. (I take a science to be a body of logical theories not disproved by observable facts.)

Of course, it will likely be found that the presence of two objective functions—maximize health and maximize equality—requires trade-offs. For example, some academics and government bureaucrats might have to eschew maximum health in order to equalize their health opportunities with ordinary people. But let’s ignore this complication.

As often, a comment in The Lancet, the venerable British medical and social-justice-warrior journal, can serve as an illustration: see Colin Angus, “Taking Public Health Policy Models Upstream,” March 1, 2020. Once value judgments like those above are accepted, the article does have a scientific look and feel. But, as far as I can see (and I am willing to be proven wrong if I am), it’s merely a look and feel. The medical sciences behind which it hides are of course scientific in any serious meaning of the term but they have nothing to say about how individuals make trade-offs on the basis of their preferences (or biases), how individual choices can be compatible in a social context, and how individual preferences can or cannot be aggregated in any sort of egalitarian way.

The article starts with the moral goal of “the reduction of societal inequalities.” The goal of reducing inequalities is certainly a value judgment that Professor Angus is free to espouse. The word “societal,” though, has no scientific meaning. It can be traced to a Minor Hugo, probably the pen name of Luke James Hansard, a utopian communist and follower of French theorist Charles Fourier. In 1843, Minor Hugo wrote:

Our monetary system, like that of trade, or any other societal occupation, is unfair from first to last.

The term “societal” does not convey anything useful that “social” doesn’t incorporate, except that it looks more serious, gnostic, more like scientific socialism. Still very rare (hence its alchemic value), the term really took off only in the 1960s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart below). At that time, scientific students of society and the economy were and still are content with “social”—including in the scientific analysis of welfare economics and social choice. Interestingly, “societal” seems on the wane, but perhaps not in The Lancet.

Interestingly, “societal” is often used by corporations as a PR term to boast of their contributions to “society,” meaning mainly noisy and politically correct “stakeholders.”

The Lancet article also speaks of “economical, cultural, or environmental policies.” “Economical policies”? One might think that the author and his editors want to make tabula rasa of what has been learned before them, but looking scientific and obscure may be a better hypothesis. Later in the piece, though, we encounter the standard expression of “economic policies.”

A minor point also fuels an impression of confusion: the author seems to assume that “financial” and “economic” are synonyms when he mentions some “policies’ redistributive financial effects.” “Economic” normally refers to the use of resources while “financial” refers to claims on those resources—claims of which money is one sort. If the author thinks that economics deals primarily with money and Wall Street matters, he is mistaken, as reading Adam Smith or Jean-Baptiste Say (for example) would show him. Perhaps he should use “financietal”?

The medical sciences are true sciences that have much to say on physical phenomena—the biology of epidemics for example—but nothing on how individuals should make trade-offs between different good things, and very little on how they actually make them.

Academic figureheads of “public health” as we know it sometimes admit that it is a political movement more than anything else. In the fifth edition of his textbook Public Health: What It Is and How It Works (2012), Bernard Turnock writes:

In many respects, it is more reasonable to view public health as a movement than as a profession.

Similarly, the late Elizabeth Fee wrote, in her introduction to George Rosen’s A History of Public Health (2015):

Public health is not just a set of disciplines, information, and techniques but is, above all, a shared social vision.

The public health movement aims to use state force to impose its participants’ moral intuitions on everybody else—or, at best, to persuade some electoral majority to impose their shared values and lifestyles on minorities. No wonder why, when a real epidemic comes, public health is so underwhelming. Of science, public health only has the look and feel.


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SARS-CoV-2 T-cell epitopes define heterologous and COVID-19-induced T-cell recognition

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic calls for the rapid development of diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic approaches. CD4+ and CD8+ T cell-mediated immunity is central for control of and protection from viral infections[1-3]. A prerequisite to characterize T-cell immunity, but also for the development of vaccines and immunotherapies, is the identification of the exact viral T-cell epitopes presented on human leukocyte […]

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Researchers speaking on the scientific process

When looking at success indicators, we found that indicators related to openness, transparency, quality, and innovation were perceived as highly important in advancing science, but as relatively overlooked in career advancement. Conversely, indicators which denoted of prestige and competition were generally rated as important to career advancement, but irrelevant or even detrimental in advancing science. […]

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China-U.S. fact of the day

Some 54 scientists have resigned or been fired as a result of an ongoing investigation by the National Institutes of Health into the failure of NIH grantees to disclose financial ties to foreign governments. In 93% of those cases, the hidden funding came from a Chinese institution. The new numbers come from Michael Lauer, NIH’s […]

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