Julian Simon and John Tierney were just lucky, he guesses

Michael Giberson

Cornucopian views on resources are back in the news a bit due to John Tierney’s column at the New York Times in which he reports the settling of a wager on oil prices entered into in 2005 with oil industry analyst/peak oil proponent Matt Simmons. In brief, Simmons bet Tierney oil prices would average $200 bbl (in 2005$) during 2010, oil prices were substantially lower than that in 2010, and Tierney won the bet.

But of course that bet, and the results of the more famous related bet between Julian Simon and Paul Erhlich, don’t settle arguments. Money may change hands, but there is no end to disputation.

At The Oil Drum, David Murphy writes: “Lucky Economists, Unlucky Scientists?”  Murphy makes a number of useful points as he stumbles toward some sort of conclusion that will help him protect his preexisting pessimistic views.  Curiously, the conclusion he comes to is that Ehrlich and Simmons and Simon and Tierney must all be foolish idiots, or at least that is the implication:

The bets made by Ehrlich and Simon as well as Simmons and Tierney were faulty because they assumed ceteris paribus conditions; that all other conditions aside from the one on which the bet is made (depletion in these cases) will not influence prices. In the real world, however, there are a number of factors that influence price. As a result, it is incorrect for Tierney to claim that his victory, or that of Simon, is a validation of the economists’ viewpoint on the price of commodities. The economists were lucky, and the scientists unlucky.

Murphy wants us to believe that these four gentlemen assumed that nothing else in the world would change over the five (Simmons-Tierney) or ten (Simon-Ehrlich) years of the wagers? C’mon, these aren’t a bunch of schoolboys betting their lunch money. Somehow I think we need to give them a little more credit than that.

Sure, two guys settling a public bet doesn’t establish what understanding of the nature of the world and society is most reflective of reality. But claiming that folks with opposing views are “just lucky” doesn’t seem like a useful way to advance understanding of the world, either.

Technological developments useful in eventually producing the equivalent of Neal Stephenson’s “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”

Michael Giberson

As any reader of Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age knows, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer would be quite handy to have. Unfortunately, technology hasn’t quite advanced to the point necessary to actually produce such a thing.

A recently published research report seems like one small step in the right direction. From a summary:

Researchers report that they can predict “with unprecedented accuracy” how well you will do on a complex task such as a strategic video game simply by analyzing activity in a specific region of your brain.

The findings, published in the online journal , offer detailed insights into the brain structures that facilitate learning, and may lead to the development of training strategies tailored to individual strengths and weaknesses.

The new approach used established brain imaging techniques in a new way. Instead of measuring how brain activity differs before and after subjects learn a complex task, the researchers analyzed background activity in the basal ganglia, a group of brain structures known to be important for procedural learning, coordinated movement and feelings of reward.

Using magnetic resonance imaging and a method known as multivoxel pattern analysis, the researchers found significant differences in patterns of a particular type of MRI signal, called T2*, in the basal ganglia of study subjects. These differences enabled researchers to predict between 55 and 68 percent of the variance (differences in performance) among the 34 people who later learned to play the game.

More from Chris Kohler at WIRED.

The article, “Predicting Individual’s Learning Success From Patterns of Pre-Learning MRI Activity,” will be published in the journal PLoS One (but I couldn’t find a link to the article there this morning).

HT to Mark Thoma.