Quick Study

Illustrations by Istvan Banyai

Ghosts in the Machine

Uncle Sam is losing the war in cyberspace. In the past few years, the defense secretary’s e-mail was hacked, the State Department lost terabytes of information, and both Homeland Security and NASA suffered serious foreign cyber attacks. But the most pressing threat is economic: foreign com­pet­i­tors are stealing billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. military technology and intellectual property.

—“Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency,” Center for Strategic and International Studies

Dupes for Detail

Do you know what a megapixel is, or what horsepower measures? Consumers are irresistibly drawn to product specifications—from the “distortion rate” of a stereo to the calories in a snack—even when the numbers mean nothing to them. In fact, given a chance to directly experience competing products, buyers are still more likely to just pick the item with impressive-sounding features on the package, even if it’s more expensive.

—“Specification Seeking: How Product Specifications Influence Consumer Preference,” Journal of Consumer Research

Black-Market Efficiency

One cure for a country beset by government bureaucracy and incompetence may be some old-fashioned corruption. In countries with robust institutions, corruption decreases efficiency. But in weak states, graft and bribes can “grease the wheels” by enabling intelligent investors to circumvent a crooked, incapable government and invest money directly in the private sector.

—“Is Corruption an Efficient Grease?,” Bank of Finland

Close Encounters

Green men, spaceships, all that probing—why do alien-abduction stories always sound the same? Possibly because the abductees share an abnormal psychological profile. Unsurprisingly, “experiencers” are apt to believe in the paranormal. But they’re also more likely to hallucinate, lose themselves in vivid fantasies, experience dissociation, and suffer from sleep paralysis—a condition between sleep and wakefulness that seems to trigger supposed abductions.

—“Psychological Aspects of the Alien Contact Experience,” Cortex

Yields of Dreams

Are we finally in for a Malthusian reckoning? Despite advances in pesticides, fertilizers, and breeding, agriculture has “barely kept pace” with a booming population, leaving 14 percent of the world underfed. Without a major technological leap, this will mean extreme food shortages in the next 40 years as the world population surpasses 9 billion. As a result, genetically modified crops may soon become a necessity: yields of bioengineered U.S. corn will increase more than 40 percent in the next four decades—far faster than those of low-tech crops.

—“Revisiting Malthus in Light of Agricultural Biotechnology,” University of Georgia

Morality Bites

Most high-school students have lied to their teachers, and nearly two-thirds have cheated on tests. One-third admitted to Internet-assisted plagiarism, and 82 percent to copying another’s work. In fact, the study itself fell victim to teenage dishonesty: 26 percent of respondents said they lied on at least one question. Ninety-three percent said they had good ethics.

—“Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth,” Josephson Institute

The Civic Assassin

Who needs the Secret Service? Politicians fearing assassins could just do a better job, or delegate more: increased government accountability, political stability, a larger cabinet, and decentralized power all diminish assassination attempts by reducing the incentive to murder a single politician to effect executive change. This helps explain why politicians in the decentralized Swiss system—who generally have no security and take public transit—are never assassinated, while Hitler faced some 40 attempts on his life.

—“Politicians: Be Killed or Survive,” CESifo Working Paper