What I'm Reading (Dec. 22)

Related articles

Peer review is a failure
Methane rising
The Trolley Problem has multicultural answers
Heating with Nukes




“Peer review was a huge, expensive intervention. By one estimate, scientists collectively spend 15,000 years reviewing papers every year. It can take months or years for a paper to wind its way through the review system, which is a big chunk of time when people are trying to do things like cure cancer and stop climate change. And universities fork over millions for access to peer-reviewed journals, even though much of the research is taxpayer-funded, and none of that money goes to the authors or the reviewers.

Huge interventions should have huge effects. If you drop $100 million on a school system, for instance, hopefully it will be clear in the end that you made students better off. If you show up a few years later and you’re like, “hey so how did my $100 million help this school system” and everybody’s like “uhh well we’re not sure it actually did anything and also we’re all really mad at you now,” you’d be really upset and embarrassed. Similarly, if peer review improved science, that should be pretty obvious, and we should be pretty upset and embarrassed if it didn’t.

It didn’t.”


Is peer review worth the time and bother? With so many papers retracted or misinforming, does it provide any value? All good questions and many are addressed in this piece from a substack post Experimental History, The rise and fall of peer review


“As the pandemic locked the world down in 2020, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 17 percent. But the global emission of methane—which is 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas yet disappears from the atmosphere much quicker—went up, even though industrial processes, like oil and gas extraction, slowed.

The likely culprit is in fact sneakier and more ominous than the scenario of scientists missing a massive pipeline leak somewhere. Writing today in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers found that humanity’s methane emissions did indeed fall in 2020, but nature’s didn’t: Wetlands belched up significantly more of the gas compared to 2019.”

Methane, not from our cattle, but from Mother Earth. Human behavior plays a role in climate change, but as we have seen with infections, our actions result in other changes, ecology, writ large, is interactive and dynamic. From Wired, The Grim Origins of an Ominous Methane Surge


A classic concern about autonomous vehicles is the Trolley Problem, an ethical dilemma. Simply put, if your autonomous car has to decide between saving your life or that of two or more others moments before a crash, who should it choose? A new article in Nature points out that this dilemma has no “correct answer,” and what might be the best choice varies among different cultures.

“The team found that people from countries with strong government institutions, such as Finland and Japan, more often chose to hit people who were crossing the road illegally than did respondents in nations with weaker institutions, such as Nigeria or Pakistan.

Scenarios that forced survey participants to choose whether to save a homeless person on one side of the road or an executive on the other revealed another point of departure: the choices people made often correlated with the level of economic inequality in their culture. People from Finland — which has a relatively small gap between the rich and the poor — showed little preference for swerving one way or the other. But the average respondent from Colombia — a country with significant economic disparity — chose to kill the lower-status person.”

From Nature, Self-driving car dilemmas reveal that moral choices are not universal


Winter is no longer coming, it is here, and the need for energy to keep us warm will become a new article in the next few weeks. The energy problem is especially acute this year in Europe because of the embargo on Russian natural gas. This has only served to heighten the discourse over nuclear energy.

“Without Russian gas, Europe has been racing to avoid blackouts. Every day, Paris is turning off the Eiffel Tower’s lights an hour early, Cologne has dimmed its street lights, and Switzerland is considering a ban on electric cars. Nuclear power advocates, like Strýček, are using this moment to argue that Europe needs nuclear technology to keep the lights on without jeopardizing net-zero targets. “It provides an immense amount of secure, predictable, stable baseload, which renewables are not able to provide,” he said at the World Utilities Congress in June.”


From Wired, A Tale of Two Nuclear Plants Reveals Europe's Energy Divide