In 2007, the bhut jolokia, 100 times hotter than the average jalapeño, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s hottest chili…only to be dethroned in the book’s latest edition by the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T. Although the bhut jolokia has lost its world-record title, it’s recently found a more practical role: alleviating poverty in its home province of Assam.
At The Guardian, Helen Pidd describes how bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost chili, became a lucrative crop for impoverished Assamese farmers when its world-record status drove fans of spicy foods to offer enormous sums for the fiery chili.
The Crusades were a time of religious conflict, when territory and castles were won with bloody battles and then quickly lost again—and with all that brouhaha, who had time to make new coins? When the Christian Knights Hospitaller buried a jug of 108 gold coins at the castle of Apollonia, a now-deserted stronghold north of modern-day Tel Aviv, they were probably hoping to preserve their hoard from the Egyptian soldiers then besieging the fortress. Although they never returned for their money, its recent discovery is telling researchers a lot about Crusader economics and raising new questions—like why the Christians used primarily gold dinars forged by the Fatimids hundreds of years earlier, rather than minting their own currency, something that would have demonstrated their wealth, power, and cultural identity. Many of the coins found in the crusader castle, oddly enough, are emblazoned with the names of Muslim sultans.
Image courtesy of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University
What’s the News: Making loans to small business owners in developing countries has quite the positive reputation. It has given people in poverty, especially women, a chance to bootstrap themselves up the economic ladder despite having marginal or no credit history and little work experience, as people have used the tiny loans to start businesses, purchase herds of animals, or invest in improvements to their shops or inventory. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the economists who developed the practice in the 1970s at Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank.
But does microcredit really pay off? In a study published today in Science, economists have taken a rigorous look at it and concluded that in many or its modern implementations, it’s not having the touted benefits.
Not so helpful after all.
What’s the News: City lights are more than a pretty sight from the air—they’re also a good way to tell how a country’s economy is doing, some economists say. Over the past decade, deducing a country’s gross domestic product from how much it glows in nighttime satellite images, a factor called luminosity, has become quite the econ fad. But as clever as it sounds, luminosity isn’t as helpful as you’d think, a new study says. Only in countries that are such a disaster that gathering reliable statistics is impossible is the glow a better approximation of GDP than you’d get with traditional measures.
“It’s a jungle out there,” you might hear a big shot Wall Street type say about the high-stakes world of high finance. Yet, the jungle-ecosystem metaphor may be most applicable not to the competitiveness of the world’s financial system, but to its vulnerability.
For an unusual study in this week’s edition of the journal Nature, an economist (Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England) and a zoologist (Robert May of Oxford University) team up to argue that the banking and financial system is much like a natural system in the way that a key hit to one area caused the cascading wave of doom, which wrecked the world economy in 2008.
One way to see the resemblance is to think of the world’s many banks as the bean plants in a vast industrial mega-farm, where the nearly identical plants are all vulnerable to the same pest.
When a biological or social system is full of uniform individuals—be they bean plants or banks—one shared weakness can spell disaster for the whole lot. Even when a new beneficial trait or tool enters the picture, if all organisms adopt it, as many financial institutions did with credit default swaps and other risky trades that led to the financial meltdown of 2007-08, a tenuous balance can be quickly upset. [Scientific American]
Before the collapse, Haldane and May say, the financial sector believed that the high level of connectivity between financial firms was a way to lessen risk. No one firm was at particularly high risk, it was thought, which made it unlikely that any firm would fail. Yet little thought was given to the failure of the system as a whole.
A new study out this week has rekindled an old economics fight: When countries get richer, do they get happier?
For Richard Easterlin, the answer has always been “no.” He became famous in economics circles beginning in the 1970s for articulating his namesake idea, the “Easterlin paradox.” He found that when you compare rich countries to poor countries, the people in the wealthy nations were more satisfied. But when a country’s economic position improved over time, the people in that country didn’t get happier.
“If you look across countries and compare happiness and GDP [gross domestic product] per capita, you find that the higher the country’s income, the more likely it is to be happier,” Easterlin said. “So the expectation based on point-in-time data is if income goes up, then happiness will go up. The paradox is, when you look at change over time, that doesn’t happen.” [LiveScience]
Now Easterlin is back with a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one that extends his argument to even more countries.
The new study, Easterlin said, is the broadest finding about the paradox so far. The researchers gathered between 10 and 34 years of happiness data from 17 Latin American countries, 17 developed countries, 11 Eastern European countries transitioning from socialism to capitalism and nine-less developed countries. They found no relationship between economic growth and happiness in any case. Even in a country like China, the researchers wrote, where per capita income has doubled in 10 years, happiness levels haven’t budged. South Korea and Chile have shown similarly astronomical economic growth with no increase in satisfaction. [LiveScience]
World carbon emissions fell by 1.3 percent in 2009, most likely due to the global recession, says a report from the Global Carbon Project published today in Nature Geoscience. Emissions were originally expected to drop further (about 3 percent, as estimated from the expected drop of world GDP), but China and India’s surging economies and increasing carbon output countered the decreases elsewhere.
The largest decreases occurred in Europe, Japan and North America: 6.9% in the United States, 8.6% in the U.K., 7% in Germany, 11.8% in Japan and 8.4% in Russia. The study notes that some emerging economies recorded substantial increases in their total emissions, including 8% in China and 6.2% in India. [USA Today]
There is some good news from the report. It seems the atmospheric CO2 concentrations didn’t jump as much as they were expected to, which means the world’s carbon sinks were performing better.
While emissions did not fall much, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased by just 3.4 gigatonnes – one of the smallest rises in the last decade. Friedlingstein says the land and marine sinks performed better in 2009, because the La Niña conditions in the Pacific meant the tropics were wetter, allowing plants to grow more and store away more carbon. [New Scientist]
Has climate skeptics’ favorite Danish statistician, Bjørn Lomborg, changed his stance? In the forthcoming book edited by Lomborg, Smart Solutions to Climate Change, he calls climate change one of the world’s “chief concerns” and suggests investing $100 billion annually on climate change solutions.
The suggestion certainly comes as a surprise. In his previous books, like The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, Lomborg argues that anthropogenic climate change is real but that it isn’t a “catastrophe”–that the associated “hysteria” was causing us to spend money trying to curb the globe’s warming where it would have been better spent, say, feeding the hungry or curing HIV.
Understandably, that stance has made his work appealing to climate skeptics who don’t want to spend money on curbing emissions–and unpopular among those who see Lomborg as a distraction who misrepresents the science and confuses the issue. In his new book, the statistician apparently reorders his priorities, now arguing that climate change solutions should get more cash.
What’s not a surprise: opinions vary as to the merits of this new book and as to whether it’s a shift, a drastic shift, not a shift, or a publicity stunt. Here, we share some.
For years, scientists have debated where humanity’s sense of fairness came from. Some proposed it was a glitch in the brain’s wiring that causes people to be kind and fair to strangers, while others said it was a remnant of Stone Age thinking--that deep in our brains we see everyone we meet as part of our tiny family, and can’t imagine encountering someone who won’t ever be seen again [Wired]. But now, in a new study published in Science, scientists studying groups of people from different societies have suggested that our sense of fairness may depend on the type of society we live in.
The researchers found evidence that the more complex the society, the more developed those people’s sense of fairness. You can’t get the effects we’re seeing from genes,” said Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia evolutionary psychologist and co-author of the study.” These are things you learn as a consequence of growing up in a particular place” [Wired].
For this study, scientists observed 2,100 people from different societies–from African herders, Colombian fishermen, and Missouri wage workers. The groups varied in size, and researchers also evaluated the people’s involvement in organized social activities like markets and religion–a common marker, scientists say, of the presence of a moral code that extends beyond kin. They then administered a series of games to study how group members viewed selfish behavior and how willing they were to punish it.
Contagiousness: It’s contagious! Happiness was contagious in 2008, then loneliness last year, and don’t forget being fat. Now it’s generosity that spreads like the flu across social networks, according to James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis (who were both behind the happiness study). Their new study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To test out whether generosity spreads, the scientists devised a game. In groups of four, each person had 20 “credits,” some of which they could decide to toss into a common fund for all the players. The scoring was set up so that giving to the fund was costly unless the other players did it too: If everyone kept their money, they’d have the 20 credits, but if everyone put all they could into the fund, each player would end up with 32. However, the players had no way to know how generous the others were being. The best payoff would come if everyone gave all their money — but without knowing what others were doing, it always made sense to keep one’s money and skim from the generosity of others [Wired.com].