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Blog posts

The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Filtering by Category: Miscellaneous

Off the Clock

John Rennie

Unemployed people have time on their hands, you say? Sure, if by "time" you mean the ability to travel backward through time. I would have thought it was impossible, too, until esteemed economist Arthur Laffer set me straight with his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Laffer was arguing that it is economically counterproductive to raise unemployment benefits during economic hard times—say, now, for example—because it only creates disincentives for people to work:

Imagine what the unemployment rate would look like if unemployment benefits were universally $150,000 per year. My guess is we'd have a heck of a lot more unemployment. Common sense and personal experience indicate higher unemployment benefits will make unemployment less unattractive and thereby increase unemployment even in the Great Recession.

Can't argue with that. True, unemployment benefits aren't actually $150,000 a year—about three times the median household income in 2008. They're closer to just $300 a week, or $15,600 a year. This hypothetical argument that supposes the exact opposite of reality, that one could on average make much more money by being unemployed, is nevertheless irrefutably compelling.

What really persuaded me, though, was this graph that Laffer and the WSJ supplied to bolster the argument that "since the 1970s there's been a close correlation between increased unemployment benefits and an increase in the unemployment rate."

The correlation is indeed close—with increases in unemployment benefits lagging spikes in unemployment by a year or so. This can only mean one thing. Those unemployed layabouts are using some of their $150,000 a year incomes to lounge around in Hot Tub Time Machines, jump back in time and get themselves laid off and so that they can soak up all that sweet, sweet government gravy.

Laffer is apparently not alone in his profession in believing that time travel is a major influence on the U.S. economy. Nobel laureate economist Edward C. Prescott recently stated at the Society for Economic Dynamics meeting in Montreal that Obama caused the current recession, which is a neat trick because the recession started in December 2007.

In summary, then, the keys to time travel are: (1) Lose your job. (2) Study economics.

The Best Test

John Rennie

Physicist Michael Faraday's journal from 1849 provided the epigram currently perched on the welcome page of my personal site, and I suspect it may already be familiar to most readers of popular science:

"Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature, and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency."

The first clause has developed an epigrammatic life of its own; science writers often roll it out when they want to convey appreciative awe for some brilliant intricacy or unexpected beauty of the natural world. That was certainly the intention of the late, great polymathic team of Philip and Phylis Morrison when they introduced me to Faraday's quote during the 1990s while planning the reinvention of their long-running book reviews as a monthly essay column, "Wonders," for Scientific American. (Originally, they wanted the title of the column to be "Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True," until I gently pointed out to them that such a lengthy phrase might not even fit across the top of the page in the new design.)

Far be it from me to knock anyone's sense of natural wonder, or the power of science to uncover glories that inspire it. Yet I notice that most casual uses of the quotation leave out "...and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency." And in so doing, I think, they are unfortunately omitting the most important part of Faraday's reflection.

Faraday is, after all, not just cheering for us to marvel at nature. He is cautioning us to test our most marvelous hypotheses through rigorous experiment to see if they hold true and consistent with the rest of physical reality. The universe's inventiveness can far surpass anything we might imagine, but we therefore should not let either our own incredulity or rapture at the amazing possibilities lead us astray.

The first half of Faraday's quote makes it poetry. The second half makes it science. The union of the two yields the richest human experience from engaging the universe with all our faculties. As such, I couldn't think of a more fitting sentiment to take as a slogan.

And with this opening solemnity out of the way, away we go....