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In an excellent recent essay on “big visions for biology,” Sam Rodriques writes:

Ask most biologists about the cure for cancer, and they will tell you it doesn’t exist: cancer is many diseases that are mostly unrelated to each other, and that all have to be cured one at a time.

Are “most biologists” right about this?

We can get perspective on this from the history of infectious disease. After all, infection was also “many diseases,” with disparate causes (viruses, bacteria, protozoa) and disparate pathways (air, water, food, insects). And yet, while we did not exactly “cure infectious disease” (just ask the 248,544 people who got covid last week in the US alone), we did reduce every major metric of infectious disease by 90% to 99% in wealthy/developed countries:

  • Overall mortality
1jasoncrawford1dThanks Kent, can you say something about this book?

The book The Cancer Code contains three stories about the cause of cancer.

The first cause is a story about toxins; examples are lung cancer caused by smoking and asbestos.

The second cause is cancer is a genetic disease. And the book documents two or three cancers that are genetic in origin.

The third cause is poor metabolic health. The book notes that obese and diabetic people have higher cancer rates for certain types of cancer than metabolically healthy people.

The vital part for people following scientific progress is the people that believe in genetics d... (read more)

One of the defining characteristics of the modern world is the ubiquity of steel. Nearly every product of industrial civilization relies on steel, either as a component or as part of the equipment used to produce it. Without it, Vaclav Smil notes in “Still the Iron Age”, modern life would largely be impossible:

…none of [civilization’s] great accomplishments - its surfeit of energy, its abundance of food, its high quality of life, its unprecedented longevity and mobility, and indeed, its electronic infatuations - would be possible without massive smelting of iron and production (and increasingly also recycling) of steel.

...The list of items and services whose reliability and affordability have been made possible by steel is nearly endless as critical components of virtually all mining, transportation and manufacturing machines


Do you think fast progress is dangerous? Use the seat belt test. 

What if the seat belt had been invented ten years earlier? If progress in vehicle safety had been faster, thousands of lives would have been saved.

Yes, I think fast progress is dangerous, because human beings are limited in how quickly they can adapt to change.  Fast progress is dangerous because it further empowers violent men's ability to crash the entire system.

My journey as CEO for The Roots of Progress starts this week—yet in a way, it started at least four decades ago. I grew up in West Germany, a country that after the Second World War saw massive progress, with living standards and opportunities similar to those in the US. Yet I also saw what happens when progress is missing: my family regularly visited our relatives in East Germany. After crossing the heavily fortified border (where our car was searched on the way in lest we smuggle in books with prohibited ideas) 10-year-old me experienced a bleak world. In the East, coal dust lay heavy in the air, my cousin stood in line for hours to get a bottle of ketchup, and our relatives waited 10 years...

The future of this civilization will be decided by our relationship with knowledge.  Just as animals have to adapt to a changing environment or die, our relationship with knowledge has to adapt to a changing environment too.

Currently we're operating from a "more is better" relationship with knowledge philosophy left over from the 19th century.  That philosophy made sense in the long era of knowledge scarcity, an era we no longer live in.   Today we live in a time when knowledge is exploding in every direction at an accelerating rate,  a... (read more)

As you can tell from the opening, I originally posted this on my Substack in October. Inspired by Jason Crawford's post on curing cancer, I'm reposting it here. I will note that Her2+ breast cancer was not the first once-fatal disease with which I had a scrape. As a child, around 1967, I had scarlet fever, which before antibiotics could kill, as readers of Little Women know. 

I think about breast cancer every October, and not because it’s “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” which I find some mixture of ridiculous and distasteful. I’m all for raising money for breast cancer research and treatment. But making people “aware” by slapping pink on everything from the water in public fountains to specials at Dollar Tree doesn’t do much to save lives....

Amazing story, and fantastic post, thanks!

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  • German academia doesn’t have world-class universities and is self-avowedly egalitarian.
  • Without a clear top university, many talented students instead enter highly competitive medical schools to prove their ability.
  • But, as argued here, medical school is a bad default choice for these students if you care about accelerated scientific, material, and moral progress. This is for four reasons:
    1. Entering many different universities instead of one top college, talented students do not generate and thus do not profit from local agglomeration effects.
    2. Medical students aren’t allowed the intellectual flexibility to explore ideas and projects independently.
    3. Medical school takes six years, offering no intermediate degree. This locks in students' choice of study, even if they change their minds.
    4. Lastly, practicing medicine offers small impact at the margin (i.e., talented medical students

How common is it for top German students to want to attend ETH-Zurich instead?

PS: you should talk to Tim Farkas about all of this!

Space colonization and the closed material economy

Nostalgia for space (see this post by David Manheim as a nice example) is probably one of the most relevant characteristics of the techno-scientific segment of my generation. I was born in 1977 when the hangover from Apollo was fresh, and during the 1980s, while ambitious space exploration programs were already history, the space frontier narrative still had traction. Even towards the end of the 80s the idea of space cities and zero gravity factories still seemed possible in the near future.

From time to time, although with less and less conviction, the space dream is re-activated. And it is always activated in connection with rockets, space elevators and other high energy technologies. However, the essential challenge of space colonization is the...

1Aditya Vaze 5dI share a fondness for this topic and generally agree with your assessment; in fact in 2021 as part of a NASA challenge I was working on a project to design a closed-loop food system for long-duration space missions. One thing to note is that in any such closed system, the amount of material you have to carry initially scales exponentially with respect to your fraction lost per cycle. Interestingly enough, I think having access to this technology would have a lot of effects beyond space; it would make humanity more robust in existential risk scenarios, and complex distributed manufacturing would have a large transformative (and IMO beneficial) impact on socioeconomic and political systems on Earth.
1Arturo Macias5dAlso posted in Effective Altruism Forum: []

Hi everyone. I'm Eli Dourado, a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. I work on policies to advance hard technologies that generate economic growth. I have published in top newspapers, negotiated supersonic standards, derailed an international treaty, and spend too much of my time on Twitter. I got my PhD in economics from George Mason University.

Ask me anything! I will be on here from Monday, January 30 for a few days, and will endeavor to get to your questions each day during that time. 

Use the comments below to add questions, and upvote any questions you'd particularly like me to answer.

Huh, it's hard for me to imagine reaching a 98th-percentile IQ score without the ability to do lots of cognitive work (I'm not talking about some model fine-tuned on IQ tests or whatever, just a general language model that happens to score well on the test). I have different intuitions about the calculator example: the point I take away from it is...we use calculators all the time! I'm perfectly content calling calculators a transformative innovation, though these language models are already much more general than the calculator. 

Re: "There is no real... (read more)

2elidourado5dThe latter, although sometimes they overlap with academia. For example, CGO and Mercatus publish a lot of academics and are situated within universities.