(With apologies to – and continuing admiration for – The New Yorker, which for decades had a column by this name.)
While our backs have been turned, social scientists have been working on cool stuff. A sample, in no particular order, and making no claims for comprehensiveness, or timeliness for that matter – there’s a lot more out there, and most of my reading is remedial.
Starting with economics, and an article from the April 20th print edition of USA Today:
Many cities around the country will celebrate the 47th Earth Day on Saturday by highlighting their recycling programs, but the industry is grappling with a dual threat: The value of recovered waste products has plummeted over the past five years, and the amount of effort required to extract them has risen.
A study by Rob Taylor with the State Recycling Program in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality estimated that the average market value of a ton of mixed recyclable material arriving at a recovery facility in the state dropped from just over $180 in early 2011 to less than $80 at the end of 2015. That value has since rebounded a bit, Taylor found, to a little over $100, but it still leaves the industry struggling to extract profit from the millions of tons of recyclable material Americans throw away every year.
There are a host of reasons for the decline in the recycling market, ranging from global trade policy to the decline in newspaper readership, said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Much of reclaimed American waste is shipped overseas, but China erected new limits on imported waste in 2013. In other nations, “there has been a decrease in demand for that material as growth rate in foreign countries has leveled off,” Biderman said. Low oil prices have made it cheaper to produce new plastic bottles, so manufacturers don’t have as much need for reclaimed plastic. In addition, packaging producers have figured out how to make bottles and cans thinner, so they don’t need as much raw material.
And as the circulation for print newspapers has plummeted, the recycling industry has lost both a massive customer for reclaimed paper fiber and a huge source of incoming recyclable material.
Across the recycling industry, “what was once a valuable commodity five years ago is less valuable now,” Biderman said.
The change is perhaps most dramatic for glass. In most American cities, the glass bottle you toss in the recycling cart is essentially worthless, and if it breaks, the shards may make the paper in a mixed cart worthless as well.
“We work hard to keep glass in the system because it is an iconic recycled item,” said Keefe Harrison, CEO of the Recycling Partnership, a non-profit committed to improving recycling programs nationwide. But “it has very minimal market value because it has to compete with sand,” which is the raw material glass is made from. Some municipalities have simply stopped collecting glass in their curbside recycling programs. Santa Fe overhauled its recycling program this month and said it would no longer collect glass from households. Residents are being asked to take their glass to four drop-off centers around the city.
The Elkridge facility sorts a lot of glass, Mike Taylor said, but it “doesn’t add value” to the waste stream. “You can’t move it long distances without paying hefty freight rates,” Taylor said, so “it’s a negative-value material for us at the processing facility by the time you separate it and then try to truck it three or four or five hundred miles to get it to a market.”
Much reclaimed glass ends ground into a kind of gravel that can be used in road construction or other industrial projects.
When cities launched recycling programs in the 1980s and 1990s, the theory was that the revenue from the recovered materials would offset the costs of collecting and separating the waste, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Kevin Miller, recycling manager for the city of Napa, Calif., said “we get back about 20%” of the costs of collecting, sorting and shipping materials.
Miller and environmental advocates point out that recycling has other economic benefits, such as reducing the use and cost of landfills and reducing the need for harvesting virgin materials.
But the burden of paying for it falls on cities — or residents who pay for the trash service — because the U.S. has not followed the path of many European countries of requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal or recovery of their products and packaging.
Then there’s this material from the February 25th– March 3rd print edition of The Economist, in a cover story entitled Clean Energy’s Dirty Secret: Turns out that decades of subsidy-driven growth in wind and solar power is resulting in lower costs. Great news! That means that in the long term, virtually all electrical energy can and will be derived by these clean, renewable means. However, at the same time, this success is creating barriers to deployment of capital in the markets that threaten to impede the needed transition. Fossil-fuel, hydroelectric, and nuclear power plants are still needed at the moment, yet every day their expense relative to their utility decreases, reducing return on the investment. What’s more, renewables not only lower prices but reduce commercial demand, as potential customers shift from purchase of electricity to kit on rooftops and in backyards that take them off the grid. The article notes solving this requires “changing the way the world buys, sells, values, and regulates electricity to take account of the new means by which it generates it… how this [process]leads to anys system that all can rely on – and who pays for the parts of it that are public, rather than private, goods – remains obscure. The process will definitely be sensitive to politics… progress may be slow and fitful… it could stall.” The challenges that await promise to be far greater than those we’ve surmounted to date.
Whew! Once again, economics affirms its right to the title of dismal science. And even as economists conceptualize paths forward for recycling and renewables, the task remains for the business community, the financial sector, and the public to bring them to fruition.
Which calls to mind these two book reviews in the April 8th-15th print edition of the The Economist:
ECONOMISTS have been accused of “physics envy”, an obsession with constructing precise mathematical models instead of studying the real, messy, world. But a new book suggests that economists have been looking at the wrong science; they should have focused on biology.
The idea stems from the school of “behavioural economics” which observes that humans are not the kind of hyper-rational calculating machines that some models rely on them to be. As a result, markets are not always “efficient”—accurately pricing all the available information.
When Andrew Lo was a young academic, he presented a paper at a conference which showed that one of the key assumptions of the efficient market hypothesis was not borne out by the data. He was instantly told that he must have made a programming error; his results could not possibly be right.
Mr Lo, who is now a professor at MIT, has spent much of his career battling to steer economics away from such narrow-minded thinking. His grand idea is the “adaptive markets hypothesis”. The actions of individuals are driven by intellectual short cuts—rules of thumb that they use to make decisions. If those decisions turn out badly, they adapt their behaviour and come up with a new rule to follow.
The theory is bolstered by experiments that show how humans make decisions. Psychological quirks include an unwillingness to take losses and a tendency to make patterns out of random data. These traits may once have been useful in evolutionary terms (that rustle in the bushes might not be a predator, but better safe than sorry) but are less helpful when making financial decisions.
In a word, economics – a social science – no less than meteorology, or physics, is itself informed by social science, and, like the physical sciences, could perhaps stand a bit more of it.
DO YOU know how a toilet works? What about a bicycle, or a zipper? Most people can provide half answers at best. They struggle to explain basic inventions, let alone more complex and abstract ones. Yet somehow, in spite of people’s ignorance, they created and navigate the modern world. A new book, “The Knowledge Illusion” sets out to tackle this apparent paradox: how can human thinking be so powerful, yet so shallow?
Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, two cognitive scientists, draw on evolutionary theory and psychology. They argue that the mind has evolved to do the bare minimum that improves the fitness of its host. Because humans are a social species and evolved in the context of collaboration, wherever possible, abilities have been outsourced. As a result, people are individually rather limited thinkers and store little information in their own heads. Much knowledge is instead spread through the community—whose members do not often realise that this is the case.
The hive mind, with its seamless interdependence and expertise-sharing, once helped humans hunt mammoths and now sends them into space. But in politics it causes problems. Using a toilet without understanding it is harmless, but changing the health-care system without understanding it is not. Yet people often have strong opinions about issues they understand little about. And on social media, surrounded by like-minded friends and followers, opinions are reinforced and become more extreme. It is hard to reason with someone under the illusion that their beliefs are thought through, and simply presenting facts is unlikely to change beliefs when those beliefs are rooted in the values and groupthink of a community.
The authors tentatively suggest that making people confront the illusion of understanding will temper their opinions, but this could have the opposite effect—people respond badly to feeling foolish. Messrs Sloman and Fernbach show how deep the problem runs, but are short on ideas to fix it.
“The Knowledge Illusion” is at once both obvious and profound: the limitations of the mind are no surprise, but the problem is that people so rarely think about them. However, while the illusion certainly exists, its significance is overstated. The authors are Ptolemaic in their efforts to make it central to human psychology, when really the answer to their first question—how can human thought be so powerful, yet so shallow?—is the hive mind. Human ignorance is more fundamental and more consequential than the illusion of understanding. But still, the book profits from its timing. In the context of partisan bubbles and fake news, the authors bring a necessary shot of humility: be sceptical of your own knowledge, and the wisdom of your crowd.
Whew! All this while our backs have been turned. Worldwide, social scientists continue to churn out insights such as these, reminding us constantly that our thinking is powerful, but shallow.