Why do so many people equate “natural” with “good”?

Dec 3, JDN 2458091

Try searching sometime for “all-natural” products. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for dog food, skin cream, clothing, or even furniture polish; you will find some out there that proudly declare themselves “all-natural”. There is a clear sense that there is something good about being natural, some kind of purity that comes from being unsullied by industrial technology. (Of course, when you buy something online that is shipped to you in a box carried on a truck because it’s “all-natural”….)

Food is the most extreme case, where it is by now almost universally agreed that processed food is inherently harmful and the source of all of our dietary problems if not all our social ills.

This is a very strange state of affairs, as there is no particular reason for “natural” and “good” to be in any way related.

First of all, I can clearly come up with examples of all four possible cases: Motherhood is natural and good, but gamma ray bursts are natural and bad. Vaccination is artificial and good, but nuclear weapons are artificial and bad.

Natural Artificial
Good Motherhood Vaccination
Bad Gamma ray bursts Nuclear weapons

But even more than that, it’s difficult to even find a correlation between being natural and being good. If anything, I would expect the correlation to run the other way: Artificial things were created by humans to serve some human purpose, while natural things are simply whatever happens to exist. Most of the harmful artificial things are the result of mistakes, or unintended consequences of otherwise beneficial things—while plenty of harmful natural things are simply inherently harmful and never benefited anyone in any way. Nuclear weapons helped end World War 2. Gamma ray bursts will either hardly affect us at all, or instantly and completely annihilate our entire civilization. I guess they might also lead to some valuable discoveries in astrophysics, but if I were asked to fund a research project with the same risk-reward profile as a gamma ray burst, I would tear up the application and make sure no one else ever saw it again. The kind of irrational panic people had about the possibility of LHC black holes would be a rational panic if applied to a research project with some risk of causing gamma ray bursts.

The current obsession with “natural” products (which is really an oxymoron, if you think about it; it can’t be natural if it’s a product) seems to have arisen as its own unintended consequence of something good, namely the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The very real problems of pollution, natural resource depletion, extinction, global warming, desertification, and ocean acidification led people to rightly ask how the very same industrial processes that brought us our high standard of living could ultimately destroy it if we left them unchecked.

But the best solutions to these problems are themselves artificial: Solar power, nuclear energy, carbon taxes. Trying to go back to some ancient way of life where we didn’t destroy the environment is simply not a viable option at this point; even if such a way of life once existed, there’s no way it could sustain our current population, much less our current standard of living. And given the strong correlation between human migrations and extinction events of large mammals, I’m not convinced that such a way of life ever existed.

So-called “processed food” is really just industrially processed food—which is to say, food processed by the most efficient and productive technologies available. Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, and with very good reason; much of what we eat would be toxic if it weren’t threshed or boiled or fermented. The fact that there are people who complain about “processed food” but eat tofu and cheese is truly quite remarkable—think for a moment about how little resemblance Cheddar bears to the cow from whence it came, or what ingenuity it must have taken people in ancient China to go all the way from soybean to silken tofu. Similarly, anyone who is frightened by “genetically modified organisms” should give some serious thought to what is involved in creating their seedless bananas.

There may be some kernel of truth in the opposition to industrially processed food, however. The problem is not that we process food, nor that we do so by industrial machines. The problem is who processes the food, and why.

Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, yes; but only for the last few hundred have corporations been doing that processing. For most of human history, you processed food to feed your family, or your village, or perhaps to trade with a few neighboring villages or sell to the nearest city. What makes tofu different from, say, Fruit Loops isn’t that the former is less processed; it’s that the latter was designed and manufactured for profit.

Don’t get me wrong; corporations have made many valuable contributions to our society, including our food production, and it is largely their doing that food is now so cheap and plentiful that we could easily feed the entire world’s population. It’s just that, well, it’s also largely their doing that we don’t feed the entire world’s population, because they see no profit in doing so.

The incentives that a peasant village faces in producing its food are pretty well optimized for making the most nutritious food available with the least cost in labor and resources. When your own children and those of your friends and neighbors are going to be eating what you make, you work pretty hard to make sure that the food you make is good for them. And you don’t want to pollute the surrounding water or destroy the forest, because your village depends upon those things too.

The incentives that a corporation faces in producing food are wildly different. Nobody you know is going to be eating this stuff, most likely, and certainly not as their primary diet. You aren’t concerned about nutrition unless you think your customers are; more likely, you expect them to care about taste, so you optimize your designs to make things taste as good as possible regardless of their nutrition. You care about minimizing labor inputs only insofar as they cost you wages—from your perspective, cutting wages is as good as actually saving labor. You want to conserve only the resources that are expensive; resources that are cheap, like water and (with subsidies) corn syrup, you may as well use as much as you like. And above all, you couldn’t care less about the environmental damage you’re causing by your production, because those costs will be borne entirely by someone else, most likely the government or the citizens of whatever country you’re producing in.

Responsible consumers could reduce these effects, but only somewhat, because there is a fundamental asymmetry of information. The corporation “knows” (in that each of the administrators in each of the components that needs to know, knows) what production processes they are using and what subcontractors they are hiring, and could easily figure out how much they are exploiting workers and damaging the environment; but the consumers who care about these things can find out that information with great difficulty, if at all. Consumers who want to be responsible, but don’t have very good information, create incentives for so-called “greenwashing”: Corporations have many good profit-making reasons to say they are environmentally responsible, but far fewer reasons to actually be environmentally responsible.

And that is why you should be skeptical of “all-natural” products, especially if you are skeptical of the role of corporations in our society and our food system. “All-natural” is an adjective that has no legal meaning. The word “organic” can have a legally-defined meaning, if coupled with a certification like the USDA Organic standard. The word “non-toxic” has a legally-defined meaning—there is a long list of toxic compounds it can’t contain in more than trace amounts. There are now certifications for “carbon-neutral”. But “all-natural” offers no such protection. Basically anything can call itself “all-natural”, and if corporations expect you to be willing to pay more for such products, they have no reason not to slap it on everything. This is a problem that I think can only be solved by stringent regulation. Consumer pressure can’t work if there is no transparency in the production chain.

Even taken as something like its common meaning, “not synthetic or artificial”, there’s no reason to think that simply because something is natural, that means it is better, or even more ecologically sustainable. The ecological benefits of ancient methods of production come from the incentives of small-scale local production, not from something inherently more destructive about high-tech industry. (Indeed, water pollution was considerably worse from Medieval peasant villages—especially on a per-capita basis—than it is from modern water treatment systems.)

Actually, our economic growth has been fairly ecologically sustainable lately!

JDN 2457538

Environmentalists have a reputation for being pessimists, and it is not entirely undeserved. While as Paul Samuelson said, all Street indexes have predicted nine out of the last five recessions, environmentalists have predicted more like twenty out of the last zero ecological collapses.

Some fairly serious scientists have endorsed predictions of imminent collapse that haven’t panned out, and many continue to do so. This Guardian article should be hilarious to statisticians, as it literally takes trends that are going one direction, maps them onto a theory that arbitrarily decides they’ll suddenly reverse, and then says “the theory fits the data”. This should be taught in statistics courses as a lesson in how not to fit models. More data distortion occurs in this Scientific American article, which contains the phrase “food per capita is decreasing”; well, that’s true if you just look at the last couple of years, but according to FAOSTAT, food production per capita in 2012 (the most recent data in FAOSTAT) was higher than literally every other year on record except 2011. So if you allow for even the slightest amount of random fluctuation, it’s very clear that food per capita is increasing, not decreasing.


So many people predicting imminent collapse of human civilization. And yet, for some reason, all the people predicting this go about their lives as if it weren’t happening! Why, it’s almost as if they don’t really believe it, and just say it to get attention. Nobody gets on the news by saying “Civilization is doing fine; things are mostly getting better.”

There’s a long history of these sorts of gloom and doom predictions; perhaps the paradigm example is Thomas Malthus in 1779 predicting the imminent destruction of civilization by inevitable famine—just in time for global infant mortality rates to start plummeting and economic output to surge beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Still, when I sat down to study this it was remarkable to me just how good the outlook is for future sustainability. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare was created essentially in an attempt to show how our economic growth is largely an illusion driven by our rapacious natural resource consumption, but it has since been discontinued, perhaps because it didn’t show that. Using the US as an example, I reconstructed the index as best I could from World Bank data, and here’s what came out for the period since 1990:


The top line is US GDP as normally measured. The bottom line is the ISEW. The gap between those lines expands on a linear scale, but not on a logarithmic scale; that is to say, GDP and ISEW grow at almost exactly the same rate, so ISEW is always a constant (and large) proportion of GDP. By construction it is necessarily smaller (it basically takes GDP and subtracts out from it), but the fact that it is growing at the same rate shows that our economic growth is not being driven by depletion of natural resources or the military-industrial complex; it’s being driven by real improvements in education and technology.

The Human Development Index has grown in almost every country (albeit at quite different rates) since 1990. Global poverty is the lowest it has ever been. We are living in a golden age of prosperity. This is such a golden age for our civilization, our happiness rating maxed out and now we’re getting +20% production and extra gold from every source. (Sorry, gamer in-joke.)

Now, it is said that pride cometh before a fall; so perhaps our current mind-boggling improvements in human welfare have only been purchased on borrowed time as we further drain our natural resources.

There is some cause for alarm: We’re literally running out of fish, and groundwater tables are falling rapidly. Due to poor land use deserts are expanding. Huge quantities of garbage now float in our oceans. And of course, climate change is poised to kill millions of people. Arctic ice will melt every summer starting in the next few years.

And yet, global carbon emissions have not been increasing the last few years, despite strong global economic growth. We need to be reducing emissions, not just keeping them flat (in a previous post I talked about some policies to do that); but even keeping them flat while still raising standard of living is something a lot of environmentalists kept telling us we couldn’t possibly do. Despite constant talk of “overpopulation” and a “population bomb”, population growth rates are declining and world population is projected to level off around 9 billion. Total solar power production in the US expanded by a factor of 40 in just the last 10 years.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are serious environmental problems, and we need to make policies to combat them; but we are doing that. Humanity is not mindlessly plunging headlong into an abyss; we are taking steps to improve our future.

And in fact I think environmentalists deserve a lot of credit for that! Raising awareness of environmental problems has made most Americans recognize that climate change is a serious problem. Further pressure might make them realize it should be one of our top priorities (presently most Americans do not).

And who knows, maybe the extremist doomsayers are necessary to set the Overton Window for the rest of us. I think we of the center-left (toward which reality has a well-known bias) often underestimate how much we rely upon the radical left to pull the discussion away from the radical right and make us seem more reasonable by comparison. It could well be that “climate change will kill tens of millions of people unless we act now to institute a carbon tax and build hundreds of nuclear power plants” is easier to swallow after hearing “climate change will destroy humanity unless we act now to transform global capitalism to agrarian anarcho-socialism.” Ultimately I wish people could be persuaded simply by the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the carbon tax/nuclear power argument, but alas, humans are simply not rational enough for that; and you must go to policy with the public you have. So maybe irrational levels of pessimism are a worthwhile corrective to the irrational levels of optimism coming from the other side, like the execrable sophistry of “in praise of fossil fuels” (yes, we know our economy was built on coal and oil—that’s the problem. We’re “rolling drunk on petroleum”; when we’re trying to quit drinking, reminding us how much we enjoy drinking is not helpful.).

But I worry that this sort of irrational pessimism carries its own risks. First there is the risk of simply giving up, succumbing to learned helplessness and deciding there’s nothing we can possibly do to save ourselves. Second is the risk that we will do something needlessly drastic (like the a radical socialist revolution) that impoverishes or even kills millions of people for no reason. The extreme fear that we are on the verge of ecological collapse could lead people to take a “by any means necessary” stance and end up with a cure worse than the disease. So far the word “ecoterrorism” has mainly been applied to what was really ecovandalism; but if we were in fact on the verge of total civilizational collapse, I can understand why someone would think quite literal terrorism was justified (actually the main reason I don’t is that I just don’t see how it could actually help). Just about anything is worth it to save humanity from destruction.

The Tragedy of the Commons

JDN 2457387

In a previous post I talked about one of the most fundamental—perhaps the most fundamental—problem in game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and how neoclassical economic theory totally fails to explain actual human behavior when faced with this problem in both experiments and the real world.

As a brief review, the essence of the game is that both players can either cooperate or defect; if they both cooperate, the outcome is best overall; but it is always in each player’s interest to defect. So a neoclassically “rational” player would always defect—resulting in a bad outcome for everyone. But real human beings typically cooperate, and thus do better. The “paradox” of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that being “rational” results in making less money at the end.

Obviously, this is not actually a good definition of rational behavior. Being short-sighted and ignoring the impact of your behavior on others doesn’t actually produce good outcomes for anybody, including yourself.

But the Prisoner’s Dilemma only has two players. If we expand to a larger number of players, the expanded game is called a Tragedy of the Commons.

When we do this, something quite surprising happens: As you add more people, their behavior starts converging toward the neoclassical solution, in which everyone defects and we get a bad outcome for everyone.

Indeed, people in general become less cooperative, less courageous, and more apathetic the more of them you put together. K was quite apt when he said, “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” There are ways to counteract this effect, as I’ll get to in a moment—but there is a strong effect that needs to be counteracted.

We see this most vividly in the bystander effect. If someone is walking down the street and sees someone fall and injure themselves, there is about a 70% chance that they will go try to help the person who fell—humans are altruistic. But if there are a dozen people walking down the street who all witness the same event, there is only a 40% chance that any of them will help—humans are irrational.

The primary reason appears to be diffusion of responsibility. When we are alone, we are the only one could help, so we feel responsible for helping. But when there are others around, we assume that someone else could take care of it for us, so if it isn’t done that’s not our fault.

There also appears to be a conformity effect: We want to conform our behavior to social norms (as I said, to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). The mere fact that there are other people who could have helped but didn’t suggests the presence of an implicit social norm that we aren’t supposed to help this person for some reason. It never occurs to most people to ask why such a norm would exist or whether it’s a good one—it simply never occurs to most people to ask those questions about any social norms. In this case, by hesitating to act, people actually end up creating the very norm they think they are obeying.

This can lead to what’s called an Abilene Paradox, in which people simultaneously try to follow what they think everyone else wants and also try to second-guess what everyone else wants based on what they do, and therefore end up doing something that none of them actually wanted. I think a lot of the weird things humans do can actually be attributed to some form of the Abilene Paradox. (“Why are we sacrificing this goat?” “I don’t know, I thought you wanted to!”)

Autistic people are not as good at following social norms (though some psychologists believe this is simply because our social norms are optimized for the neurotypical population). My suspicion is that autistic people are therefore less likely to suffer from the bystander effect, and more likely to intervene to help someone even if they are surrounded by passive onlookers. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any good empirical data on that—it appears no one has ever thought to check before.) I’m quite certain that autistic people are less likely to suffer from the Abilene Paradox—if they don’t want to do something, they’ll tell you so (which sometimes gets them in trouble).

Because of these psychological effects that blunt our rationality, in large groups human beings often do end up behaving in a way that appears selfish and short-sighted.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ecology. Recycling, becoming vegetarian, driving less, buying more energy-efficient appliances, insulating buildings better, installing solar panels—none of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to do, especially when weighed against the tens of millions of people who will die if climate change continues unabated. Every recyclable can we throw in the trash is a silent vote for a global holocaust.

But as it no doubt immediately occurred to you to respond: No single one of us is responsible for all that. There’s no way I myself could possibly save enough carbon emissions to significantly reduce climate change—indeed, probably not even enough to save a single human life (though maybe). This is certainly true; the error lies in thinking that this somehow absolves us of the responsibility to do our share.

I think part of what makes the Tragedy of the Commons so different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, at least psychologically, is that the latter has an identifiable victimwe know we are specifically hurting that person more than we are helping ourselves. We may even know their name (and if we don’t, we’re more likely to defect—simply being on the Internet makes people more aggressive because they don’t interact face-to-face). In the Tragedy of the Commons, it is often the case that we don’t know who any of our victims are; moreover, it’s quite likely that we harm each one less than we benefit ourselves—even though we harm everyone overall more.

Suppose that driving a gas-guzzling car gives me 1 milliQALY of happiness, but takes away an average of 1 nanoQALY from everyone else in the world. A nanoQALY is tiny! Negligible, even, right? One billionth of a year, a mere 30 milliseconds! Literally less than the blink of an eye. But take away 30 milliseconds from everyone on Earth and you have taken away 7 years of human life overall. Do that 10 times, and statistically one more person is dead because of you. And you have gained only 10 milliQALY, roughly the value of $300 to a typical American. Would you kill someone for $300?

Peter Singer has argued that we should in fact think of it this way—when we cause a statistical death by our inaction, we should call it murder, just as if we had left a child to drown to keep our clothes from getting wet. I can’t agree with that. When you think seriously about the scale and uncertainty involved, it would be impossible to live at all if we were constantly trying to assess whether every action would lead to statistically more or less happiness to the aggregate of all human beings through all time. We would agonize over every cup of coffee, every new video game. In fact, the global economy would probably collapse because none of us would be able to work or willing to buy anything for fear of the consequences—and then whom would we be helping?

That uncertainty matters. Even the fact that there are other people who could do the job matters. If a child is drowning and there is a trained lifeguard right next to you, the lifeguard should go save the child, and if they don’t it’s their responsibility, not yours. Maybe if they don’t you should try; but really they should have been the one to do it.
But we must also not allow ourselves to simply fall into apathy, to do nothing simply because we cannot do everything. We cannot assess the consequences of every specific action into the indefinite future, but we can find general rules and patterns that govern the consequences of actions we might take. (This is the difference between act utilitarianism, which is unrealistic, and rule utilitarianism, which I believe is the proper foundation for moral understanding.)

Thus, I believe the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is policy. It is to coordinate our actions together, and create enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with that coordinated effort. We don’t look at acts in isolation, but at policy systems holistically. The proper question is not “What should I do?” but “How should we live?”

In the short run, this can lead to results that seem deeply suboptimal—but in the long run, policy answers lead to sustainable solutions rather than quick-fixes.

People are starving! Why don’t we just steal money from the rich and use it to feed people? Well, think about what would happen if we said that the property system can simply be unilaterally undermined if someone believes they are achieving good by doing so. The property system would essentially collapse, along with the economy as we know it. A policy answer to that same question might involve progressive taxation enacted by a democratic legislature—we agree, as a society, that it is justified to redistribute wealth from those who have much more than they need to those who have much less.

Our government is corrupt! We should launch a revolution! Think about how many people die when you launch a revolution. Think about past revolutions. While some did succeed in bringing about more just governments (e.g. the French Revolution, the American Revolution), they did so only after a long period of strife; and other revolutions (e.g. the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution) have made things even worse. Revolution is extremely costly and highly unpredictable; we must use it only as a last resort against truly intractable tyranny. The policy answer is of course democracy; we establish a system of government that elects leaders based on votes, and then if they become corrupt we vote to remove them. (Sadly, we don’t seem so good about that second part—the US Congress has a 14% approval rating but a 95% re-election rate.)

And in terms of ecology, this means that berating ourselves for our sinfulness in forgetting to recycle or not buying a hybrid car does not solve the problem. (Not that it’s bad to recycle, drive a hybrid car, and eat vegetarian—by all means, do these things. But it’s not enough.) We need a policy solution, something like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that will enforce incentives against excessive carbon emissions.

In case you don’t think politics makes a difference, all of the Democrat candidates for President have proposed such plans—Bernie Sanders favors a carbon tax, Martin O’Malley supports an aggressive cap-and-trade plan, and Hillary Clinton favors heavily subsidizing wind and solar power. The Republican candidates on the other hand? Most of them don’t even believe in climate change. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina at least accept the basic scientific facts, but (1) they are very unlikely to win at this point and (2) even they haven’t announced any specific policy proposals for dealing with it.

This is why voting is so important. We can’t do enough on our own; the coordination problem is too large. We need to elect politicians who will make policy. We need to use the systems of coordination enforcement that we have built over generations—and that is fundamentally what a government is, a system of coordination enforcement. Only then can we overcome the tendency among human beings to become apathetic and short-sighted when faced with a Tragedy of the Commons.

What really scares me

JDN 2457327

Today is Halloween, so in the spirit of the holiday I thought I’d talk about things that are scary. Not things like zombies and witches and vampires; those things aren’t real (though people do still believe in them in many parts of the world). And maybe that’s part of the point; maybe Halloween is meant to “scare” us like a roller coaster, where we feel some of the epinephrine rush of fear but deep down we know we are safe.

But today I’m going to talk about things that are actually scary, things that are not safe deep down. I could talk about the Republican debate earlier this week, but maybe I shouldn’t get too scary.

In fiction there is whatever sort of ending the author wants to make, usually a happy one. Even tragic endings are written to be meaningful and satisfying. But in real life any sort of ending is possible. I could be driving down the street tomorrow and a semi truck could blindside me and kill me on impact. There’s no satisfying tragedy there, no comeuppance for my hubris or tragic flaw in my character leading to my doom—but this sort of thing kills over 30,000 Americans each year.

But are car accidents really scary? The way they kill just about anyone at random is scary. But there is a clear limit to how much damage they can do. No society has ever been wiped off the face of the Earth because of traffic accidents. There is no way for traffic accidents to risk the survival of the human race itself.

This brings me to the first thing that is really scary: Climate change. Human societies have been wiped off the face of the Earth due to local ecological collapses. The classic example is Easter Island, which did have an ecological collapse, but also suffered greatly from European invaders. Recent evidence suggests that the Vikings fell apart because glaciation broke their trade networks. Jared Diamond argues that a large number of ancient societies have fallen due to ecological collapse.

Yet for the first time we are now facing rapid global climate change, and it is our own doing. (As the vast majority of climate scientists agree.) We are already seeing its effects in flooding, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes. Positive feedbacks are created, such as heat waves leading to more air conditioning, which draws more electricity that releases more carbon. Even as management of fishing improves, fisheries are still being depleted—because their waters are becoming too warm for the native fish.

Just yesterday the United Nations released a report showing that current promises of reduced carbon emissions will not be sufficient—even if they are followed through, which such promises often aren’t. The goal was to keep warming under 2 C; but it looks like we are looking at more like 2.7 C. That 0.7-degree difference may not seem like much, but in fact it means thousands or even millions of additional deaths. Most of the economic damage will be done to countries near the equator—which is also where the most impoverished people tend to live. The Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that global warming is already killing 300,000 people each year and causing over $100 billion in economic damage.

Meanwhile, there is a campaign of disinformation about climate change, funneled through secretive “dark money” processes (Why are these even allowed!?), including Exxon corporation, which has known for 30 years that they were contributing to climate change but actively suppressed that knowledge in order to avoid regulation. Koch Industries has also funded a great deal of climate change denialism. West Virginia recently tried to alter their science textbooks to remove references to climate change because they considered the scientific facts to be “too political”. Supposedly serious “think tanks” with conservative ideologies twist data in order to support their claims. Rather than be caught lying or denying science, most of the Republican presidential candidates are avoiding talking about the subject altogether.
There is good news, however: More Americans than ever recognize that climate change is real. 7% changed their minds in just the last few months. Even a lot of Republican politicians are finally coming around.

What else is scary? Nuclear war, a Black Swan. This is the most probable way humanity could destroy ourselves; the probability of nuclear war in the next 50 years has been estimated as high as 10%. Every day that goes by with nuclear weapons at the ready is like pulling the trigger in a game of Russian Roulette. We don’t really know how to estimate the probability with any precision; but even 0.1% per year would be a 10% chance over the next century.

There’s good news on this front as well: Slowly but surely, the world is disarming its nuclear weapons. From a peak of 60,000 nuclear weapons in 1986, we are now down to about 10,000. But we shouldn’t get too comfortable, as the estimated number necessary to trigger a global nuclear winter with catastrophic consequences is only about 100. India or Pakistan alone probably has enough to do that. The US or Russia has enough to do it 40 times over. We will need to continue our current disarmament trend for another 30 years before no single nation has enough weapons to trigger a nuclear winter.

Then there’s one more class of scary Black Swans: Mass extinction events. In particular, I’m talking about the Yellowstone Supervolcano, which could erupt at any moment, and the possibility of a large asteroid impact which could destroy cities or even wipe out all life on the surface of the Earth. We are 99.989% sure that TV135 will not do this; but in that 0.02% chance, it would hit with the force of 2500 megatons—50 times larger than any nuclear weapon ever built. Smaller (“smaller”) sub-megaton impacts are actually remarkably common; we average about two per year. If one ever hit a major city, it would be comparable to the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. The Yellowstone supervolcano would not be as catastrophic as a planet-scouring impact, but it would be comparable to a nuclear war and nuclear winter.

With asteroids, there are actually clear things we could do to improve our chances. Above all, we could invest in space exploration and astronomy. With better telescopes and more tracking stations we could see them coming; with better long-range rockets we might be able to deflect them before they get here. A number of different deflection proposals are being studied right now. This is actually the best reason I can think of to keep at least some nuclear weapons on standby; a large nuclear blast positioned at the right place could be effective at destroying an asteroid or deflecting it enough to miss us.

With Yellowstone, there really isn’t much we can do; all we can do at this point is continue to research the supervolcano and try to find ways to reduce the probability of its eruption. It is currently estimated at a just over 1 in 1 million chance of erupting any given year, but that’s a very rough estimate. Fracking near Yellowstone is currently banned, and I think it should stay that way until we have a very clear idea of what would happen. (It’s actually possible it could reduce the probability of eruption, in which case we should start fracking like crazy.)

Forget the zombie apocalypse. I’m scared of the supervolcano apocalypse.

How to change the world

JDN 2457166 EDT 17:53.

I just got back from watching Tomorrowland, which is oddly appropriate since I had already planned this topic in advance. How do we, as they say in the film, “fix the world”?

I can’t find it at the moment, but I vaguely remember some radio segment on which a couple of neoclassical economists were interviewed and asked what sort of career can change the world, and they answered something like, “Go into finance, make a lot of money, and then donate it to charity.”

In a slightly more nuanced form this strategy is called earning to give, and frankly I think it’s pretty awful. Most of the damage that is done to the world is done in the name of maximizing profits, and basically what you end up doing is stealing people’s money and then claiming you are a great altruist for giving some of it back. I guess if you can make enormous amounts of money doing something that isn’t inherently bad and then donate that—like what Bill Gates did—it seems better. But realistically your potential income is probably not actually raised that much by working in finance, sales, or oil production; you could have made the same income as a college professor or a software engineer and not be actively stripping the world of its prosperity. If we actually had the sort of ideal policies that would internalize all externalities, this dilemma wouldn’t arise; but we’re nowhere near that, and if we did have that system, the only billionaires would be Nobel laureate scientists. Albert Einstein was a million times more productive than the average person. Steve Jobs was just a million times luckier. Even then, there is the very serious question of whether it makes sense to give all the fruits of genius to the geniuses themselves, who very quickly find they have all they need while others starve. It was certainly Jonas Salk’s view that his work should only profit him modestly and its benefits should be shared with as many people as possible. So really, in an ideal world there might be no billionaires at all.

Here I would like to present an alternative. If you are an intelligent, hard-working person with a lot of talent and the dream of changing the world, what should you be doing with your time? I’ve given this a great deal of thought in planning my own life, and here are the criteria I came up with:

  1. You must be willing and able to commit to doing it despite great obstacles. This is another reason why earning to give doesn’t actually make sense; your heart (or rather, limbic system) won’t be in it. You’ll be miserable, you’ll become discouraged and demoralized by obstacles, and others will surpass you. In principle Wall Street quantitative analysts who make $10 million a year could donate 90% to UNICEF, but they don’t, and you know why? Because the kind of person who is willing and able to exploit and backstab their way to that position is the kind of person who doesn’t give money to UNICEF.
  2. There must be important tasks to be achieved in that discipline. This one is relatively easy to satisfy; I’ll give you a list in a moment of things that could be contributed by a wide variety of fields. Still, it does place some limitations: For one, it rules out the simplest form of earning to give (a more nuanced form might cause you to choose quantum physics over social work because it pays better and is just as productive—but you’re not simply maximizing income to donate). For another, it rules out routine, ordinary jobs that the world needs but don’t make significant breakthroughs. The world needs truck drivers (until robot trucks take off), but there will never be a great world-changing truck driver, because even the world’s greatest truck driver can only carry so much stuff so fast. There are no world-famous secretaries or plumbers. People like to say that these sorts of jobs “change the world in their own way”, which is a nice sentiment, but ultimately it just doesn’t get things done. We didn’t lift ourselves into the Industrial Age by people being really fantastic blacksmiths; we did it by inventing machines that make blacksmiths obsolete. We didn’t rise to the Information Age by people being really good slide-rule calculators; we did it by inventing computers that work a million times as fast as any slide-rule. Maybe not everyone can have this kind of grand world-changing impact; and I certainly agree that you shouldn’t have to in order to live a good life in peace and happiness. But if that’s what you’re hoping to do with your life, there are certain professions that give you a chance of doing so—and certain professions that don’t.
  3. The important tasks must be currently underinvested. There are a lot of very big problems that many people are already working on. If you work on the problems that are trendy, the ones everyone is talking about, your marginal contribution may be very small. On the other hand, you can’t just pick problems at random; many problems are not invested in precisely because they aren’t that important. You need to find problems people aren’t working on but should be—problems that should be the focus of our attention but for one reason or another get ignored. A good example here is to work on pancreatic cancer instead of breast cancer; breast cancer research is drowning in money and really doesn’t need any more; pancreatic cancer kills 2/3 as many people but receives less than 1/6 as much funding. If you want to do cancer research, you should probably be doing pancreatic cancer.
  4. You must have something about you that gives you a comparative—and preferably, absolute—advantage in that field. This is the hardest one to achieve, and it is in fact the reason why most people can’t make world-changing breakthroughs. It is in fact so hard to achieve that it’s difficult to even say you have until you’ve already done something world-changing. You must have something special about you that lets you achieve what others have failed. You must be one of the best in the world. Even as you stand on the shoulders of giants, you must see further—for millions of others stand on those same shoulders and see nothing. If you believe that you have what it takes, you will be called arrogant and naïve; and in many cases you will be. But in a few cases—maybe 1 in 100, maybe even 1 in 1000, you’ll actually be right. Not everyone who believes they can change the world does so, but everyone who changes the world believed they could.

Now, what sort of careers might satisfy all these requirements?

Well, basically any kind of scientific research:

Mathematicians could work on network theory, or nonlinear dynamics (the first step: separating “nonlinear dynamics” into the dozen or so subfields it should actually comprise—as has been remarked, “nonlinear” is a bit like “non-elephant”), or data processing algorithms for our ever-growing morasses of unprocessed computer data.

Physicists could be working on fusion power, or ways to neutralize radioactive waste, or fundamental physics that could one day unlock technologies as exotic as teleportation and faster-than-light travel. They could work on quantum encryption and quantum computing. Or if those are still too applied for your taste, you could work in cosmology and seek to answer some of the deepest, most fundamental questions in human existence.

Chemists could be working on stronger or cheaper materials for infrastructure—the extreme example being space elevators—or technologies to clean up landfills and oceanic pollution. They could work on improved batteries for solar and wind power, or nanotechnology to revolutionize manufacturing.

Biologists could work on any number of diseases, from cancer and diabetes to malaria and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. They could work on stem-cell research and regenerative medicine, or genetic engineering and body enhancement, or on gerontology and age reversal. Biology is a field with so many important unsolved problems that if you have the stomach for it and the interest in some biological problem, you can’t really go wrong.

Electrical engineers can obviously work on improving the power and performance of computer systems, though I think over the last 20 years or so the marginal benefits of that kind of research have begun to wane. Efforts might be better spent in cybernetics, control systems, or network theory, where considerably more is left uncharted; or in artificial intelligence, where computing power is only the first step.

Mechanical engineers could work on making vehicles safer and cheaper, or building reusable spacecraft, or designing self-constructing or self-repairing infrastructure. They could work on 3D printing and just-in-time manufacturing, scaling it up for whole factories and down for home appliances.

Aerospace engineers could link the world with hypersonic travel, build satellites to provide Internet service to the farthest reaches of the globe, or create interplanetary rockets to colonize Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They could mine asteroids and make previously rare metals ubiquitous. They could build aerial drones for delivery of goods and revolutionize logistics.

Agronomists could work on sustainable farming methods (hint: stop farming meat), invent new strains of crops that are hardier against pests, more nutritious, or higher-yielding; on the other hand a lot of this is already being done, so maybe it’s time to think outside the box and consider what we might do to make our food system more robust against climate change or other catastrophes.

Ecologists will obviously be working on predicting and mitigating the effects of global climate change, but there are a wide variety of ways of doing so. You could focus on ocean acidification, or on desertification, or on fishery depletion, or on carbon emissions. You could work on getting the climate models so precise that they become completely undeniable to anyone but the most dogmatically opposed. You could focus on endangered species and habitat disruption. Ecology is in general so underfunded and undersupported that basically anything you could do in ecology would be beneficial.

Neuroscientists have plenty of things to do as well: Understanding vision, memory, motor control, facial recognition, emotion, decision-making and so on. But one topic in particular is lacking in researchers, and that is the fundamental Hard Problem of consciousness. This one is going to be an uphill battle, and will require a special level of tenacity and perseverance. The problem is so poorly understood it’s difficult to even state clearly, let alone solve. But if you could do it—if you could even make a significant step toward it—it could literally be the greatest achievement in the history of humanity. It is one of the fundamental questions of our existence, the very thing that separates us from inanimate matter, the very thing that makes questions possible in the first place. Understand consciousness and you understand the very thing that makes us human. That achievement is so enormous that it seems almost petty to point out that the revolutionary effects of artificial intelligence would also fall into your lap.

The arts and humanities also have a great deal to contribute, and are woefully underappreciated.

Artists, authors, and musicians all have the potential to make us rethink our place in the world, reconsider and reimagine what we believe and strive for. If physics and engineering can make us better at winning wars, art and literature and remind us why we should never fight them in the first place. The greatest works of art can remind us of our shared humanity, link us all together in a grander civilization that transcends the petty boundaries of culture, geography, or religion. Art can also be timeless in a way nothing else can; most of Aristotle’s science is long-since refuted, but even the Great Pyramid thousands of years before him continues to awe us. (Aristotle is about equidistant chronologically between us and the Great Pyramid.)

Philosophers may not seem like they have much to add—and to be fair, a great deal of what goes on today in metaethics and epistemology doesn’t add much to civilization—but in fact it was Enlightenment philosophy that brought us democracy, the scientific method, and market economics. Today there are still major unsolved problems in ethics—particularly bioethics—that are in need of philosophical research. Technologies like nanotechnology and genetic engineering offer us the promise of enormous benefits, but also the risk of enormous harms; we need philosophers to help us decide how to use these technologies to make our lives better instead of worse. We need to know where to draw the lines between life and death, between justice and cruelty. Literally nothing could be more important than knowing right from wrong.

Now that I have sung the praises of the natural sciences and the humanities, let me now explain why I am a social scientist, and why you probably should be as well.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists obviously have a great deal to give us in the study of mental illness, but they may actually have more to contribute in the study of mental health—in understanding not just what makes us depressed or schizophrenic, but what makes us happy or intelligent. The 21st century may not simply see the end of mental illness, but the rise of a new level of mental prosperity, where being happy, focused, and motivated are matters of course. The revolution that biology has brought to our lives may pale in comparison to the revolution that psychology will bring. On the more social side of things, psychology may allow us to understand nationalism, sectarianism, and the tribal instinct in general, and allow us to finally learn to undermine fanaticism, encourage critical thought, and make people more rational. The benefits of this are almost impossible to overstate: It is our own limited, broken, 90%-or-so heuristic rationality that has brought us from simians to Shakespeare, from gorillas to Godel. To raise that figure to 95% or 99% or 99.9% could be as revolutionary as was whatever evolutionary change first brought us out of the savannah as Australopithecus africanus.

Sociologists and anthropologists will also have a great deal to contribute to this process, as they approach the tribal instinct from the top down. They may be able to tell us how nations are formed and undermined, why some cultures assimilate and others collide. They can work to understand combat bigotry in all its forms, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism. These could be the fields that finally end war, by understanding and correcting the imbalances in human societies that give rise to violent conflict.

Political scientists and public policy researchers can allow us to understand and restructure governments, undermining corruption, reducing inequality, making voting systems more expressive and more transparent. They can search for the keystones of different political systems, finding the weaknesses in democracy to shore up and the weaknesses in autocracy to exploit. They can work toward a true international government, representative of all the world’s people and with the authority and capability to enforce global peace. If the sociologists don’t end war and genocide, perhaps the political scientists can—or more likely they can do it together.

And then, at last, we come to economists. While I certainly work with a lot of ideas from psychology, sociology, and political science, I primarily consider myself an economist. Why is that? Why do I think the most important problems for me—and perhaps everyone—to be working on are fundamentally economic?

Because, above all, economics is broken. The other social sciences are basically on the right track; their theories are still very limited, their models are not very precise, and there are decades of work left to be done, but the core principles upon which they operate are correct. Economics is the field to work in because of criterion 3: Almost all the important problems in economics are underinvested.

Macroeconomics is where we are doing relatively well, and yet the Keynesian models that allowed us to reduce the damage of the Second Depression nonetheless had no power to predict its arrival. While inflation has been at least somewhat tamed, the far worse problem of unemployment has not been resolved or even really understood.

When we get to microeconomics, the neoclassical models are totally defective. Their core assumptions of total rationality and total selfishness are embarrassingly wrong. We have no idea what controls assets prices, or decides credit constraints, or motivates investment decisions. Our models of how people respond to risk are all wrong. We have no formal account of altruism or its limitations. As manufacturing is increasingly automated and work shifts into services, most economic models make no distinction between the two sectors. While finance takes over more and more of our society’s wealth, most formal models of the economy don’t even include a financial sector.

Economic forecasting is no better than chance. The most widely-used asset-pricing model, CAPM, fails completely in empirical tests; its defenders concede this and then have the audacity to declare that it doesn’t matter because the mathematics works. The Black-Scholes derivative-pricing model that caused the Second Depression could easily have been predicted to do so, because it contains a term that assumes normal distributions when we know for a fact that financial markets are fat-tailed; simply put, it claims certain events will never happen that actually occur several times a year.

Worst of all, economics is the field that people listen to. When a psychologist or sociologist says something on television, people say that it sounds interesting and basically ignore it. When an economist says something on television, national policies are shifted accordingly. Austerity exists as national policy in part due to a spreadsheet error by two famous economists.

Keynes already knew this in 1936: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Meanwhile, the problems that economics deals with have a direct influence on the lives of millions of people. Bad economics gives us recessions and depressions; it cripples our industries and siphons off wealth to an increasingly corrupt elite. Bad economics literally starves people: It is because of bad economics that there is still such a thing as world hunger. We have enough food, we have the technology to distribute it—but we don’t have the economic policy to lift people out of poverty so that they can afford to buy it. Bad economics is why we don’t have the funding to cure diabetes or colonize Mars (but we have the funding for oil fracking and aircraft carriers, don’t we?). All of that other scientific research that needs done probably could be done, if the resources of our society were properly distributed and utilized.

This combination of both overwhelming influence, overwhelming importance and overwhelming error makes economics the low-hanging fruit; you don’t even have to be particularly brilliant to have better ideas than most economists (though no doubt it helps if you are). Economics is where we have a whole bunch of important questions that are unanswered—or the answers we have are wrong. (As Will Rogers said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”)

Thus, rather than tell you go into finance and earn to give, those economists could simply have said: “You should become an economist. You could hardly do worse than we have.”