Early cost estimates of government projects tend to be optimistic, but does that mean an ambitious project should be scrapped when its price increases?
The Washington Post reports on the political storm surrounding continued funding of the Webb Space Telescope, our planned next-generation instrument:
In 2006, NASA estimated that Webb would cost $2.4 billion and could launch in 2014. In 2008, the price tag rose to $5.1 billion. A congressionally mandated report released last year found that NASA had underestimated costs and mismanaged the project. This summer, NASA said it had already spent $3.5 billion on the project and needed a total of $8.7 billion to launch in 2018.
Against critics who say the gap has been growing and the project should be shut down,
[Edward J.] Weiler [retired head of NASA space sciences] said estimating costs on a project that's never been built before is difficult. "You bid optimistically. That's not just a problem with the James Webb Space Telescope. We see it at NASA all the time; you see it at defense contractors. I would argue -- and I'm not making excuses here -- that [the budget overrun] is a product of the way we do business in America."
Top astronomers said early estimates were never realistic.
"People were used to lowballing," said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Congress has been part of the game."
The much-acclaimed Hubble Space Telescope, Weiler reminded critics, was also way over budget. And that very point is reflected in the new book by the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in the chapter dealing with what he and his colleague Amos Tversky called the Planning Fallacy: using best-case scenarios and not reflecting actual costs of similar projects. Poster child: the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, originally budgeted in 1997 at £40 million and finished only in 2004 at a cost of £431 million.
But would we always be better off by following Dr. Kahneman's wise counsel? Shouldn't we look the future squarely in the eye and not fool ourselves about costs? Mark Twain, who virtually bankrupted himself backing an ultimately unworkable typesetter, might have agreed.(Or maybe not; he kept backing esoteric projects like a Polish-Austrian inventor's carpet-pattern machine.) But Dr. Illingworth's remarks suggest there's something else at work, a tacit agreement to keep original estimates deliberately low. Regarding the Scottish Parliament and other architectural megaprojects, the Danish-born program management guru Bent Flyvbjerg believes such enterprises are more often than not Machiavellian charades.Of course that leaves open the question of whether some notorious cases like the Sydney Opera House may turn out to have been worth the deception or self-deception, while others like New Jersey's Xanadu have at least so far been mere money pits.
Scientific instruments are different from monuments; even ardent Scottish nationalists might not claim that the new building will give their country better laws, while the Webb instrument, like the Hubble, might change our view of the universe and our place in it, and yield the surprising economic benefits that expensive pure science (and some military cost overruns) often do. The question is whether the benefit of greater realism in the majority of cases would be offset by the loss of benefits if legislators ruled out all projects that by Kahneman's criteria were likely to produce substantial cost overruns. Sometimes coping with unexpected difficulties produces surprising new solutions, a phenomenon that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand.
Fiscal realism can also have unintended consequences. Cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, it has often been observed, helped drive legions of physicists from big science to even bigger finance, where they developed the computer infrastructure behind the trading that is now the target of Occupy Wall Street. The NASA executive Dr. Charles Beichman wrote tongue-in-cheek to the Financial Times two years ago that it's cheaper to pay scientists and engineers to work on accelerators and telescopes than to turn them loose writing derivatives.
So, on balance I would suggest implementing Dr. Kahneman's procedure, but (in the case of potentially productive investments) looking not just at all the potential additional costs but at the kinds of benefits, including spinoffs, that previous big projects have created. I find it hard to believe that in the context of the whole Federal budget, the Web Space Telescope would not survive that kind of realism.
Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Polymath computer scientist David Gelernter’s wide-ranging ideas about American life.
Last month, David Gelernter, the pioneering Yale University computer scientist, met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of joining the White House staff. An article about the meeting in the Washington Post was headlined, “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.”
It is hard to imagine a more misleading treatment.
By one common definition, anti-intellectualism is “hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”
Here is the exchange that I had with Gelernter when I reached out to ask if he would be interested in discussing the substance of his views on science, politics and culture.
Tucker Carlson’s latest reinvention is guided by a simple principle—a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe.
Tucker Carlson is selling me hard on the swamp. It is an unseasonably warm afternoon in late January, and we are seated at a corner table in Monocle, an upscale Capitol Hill eatery frequented by the Fox News star. (Carlson, who typically skips breakfast and spends dinnertime on the air, is a fan of the long, luxurious, multi-course lunch, and when I requested an interview he proposed we do it here.) As we scan the menus, I mention that I’ll be moving soon to the Washington area, and he promptly launches into an enthusiastic recitation of the district’s many virtues and amenities.
“I’m so pathetically eager for people to love D.C.,” he admits. “It’s so sad. It’s like I work for the chamber of commerce or something.”
“No… it’s a magic potty,” my daughter used to lament, age three or so, before refusing to use a public restroom stall with an automatic-flush toilet. As a small person, she was accustomed to the infrared sensor detecting erratic motion at the top of her head and violently flushing beneath her. Better, in her mind, just to delay relief than to subject herself to the magic potty’s dark dealings.
It’s hardly just a problem for small people. What adult hasn’t suffered the pneumatic public toilet’s whirlwind underneath them? Or again when attempting to exit the stall? So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized—made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them—that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it's evolving separately from human use.
A new report explores why those who benefitted from Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion supported the man who promised to reverse it.
Here’s a question that’s baffled health reporters in the months since the election: Why would people who benefit from Obamacare in general—and its Medicaid expansion specifically—vote for a man who vowed to destroy it?
Some anecdotal reports have suggested that people simply didn’t understand that the benefits they received were a result of the Affordable Care Act. That was the case for one Indiana family TheNew York Times described in December:
Medicaid has paid for virtually all of his cancer care, including a one-week hospitalization after the diagnosis, months of chemotherapy, and frequent scans and blood tests.
But Mr. Kloski and his mother, Renee Epperson, are still not fans of the health law over all. They believed that it required that Mr. Kloski be dropped, when he turned 26, from the health plan his mother has through her job at Target — not understanding that it was the law that kept him on the plan until he was 26.
Neil Gaiman’s remarkable new book has triggered a debate about who, exactly, owns pagan tales.
Myths are funny. Unlike histories, they are symbolic narratives; they deal with spiritual rather than fact-based truths. They serve as foundations for beliefs, illustrating how things came to be and who was involved, but they’re often sketchy about when or why. There’s a brief scene from Neil Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology that does a remarkable job of capturing just this: the wonderfully nebulous sense of being in illo tempore—the hazy “at that time” of the mythic past. It begins, as many creation myths do, with “an empty place waiting to be filled with life,” but in this instance some life already exists. There’s Ymir, whose enormous body produces all giants and, eventually, the earth, skies, and seas. There’s Audhumla, the celestial cow, who licks the first gods out of blocks of ice. And there are three brothers—the gods Ve, Vili, and Odin—who must devise a way out of this timeless nowhere:
All in all, the United States has already set more than 2,800 new record high temperatures this month. It has only set 27 record lows.
Most people handle this weather as the gift it is: an opportunity to get outside, run or bike or play catch, and get an early jump on the spring. But for the two-thirds of Americans who are at least fairly worried about global warming, the weather can also prompt anxiety and unease. As one woman told the Chicago Tribune: “It’s scary, that’s my first thing. Because in all my life I’ve never seen a February this warm.” Or as one viral tweet put it:
The Key & Peele comedian Jordan Peele makes a confident, richly textured debut as a writer and director.
The opening scene of Get Out is a familiar horror-movie image—a stranger walking an unfamiliar street, in the dead of night, nervously looking over their shoulder at every rustle of sound. The setting is the suburbs, a frequent favorite of the slasher genre, only the victim is not a scantily clad teen girl, but an African American man, uneasily navigating what seems like hostile territory. A car pulls up alongside him, blasting the dirge-like old-fashioned ditty “Run Rabbit Run.” “Not today,” he mutters, turning around and walking in the opposite direction. But of course, his fate is already sealed.
Get Out was written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the legendary sketch-comedy duo behind Key & Peele. That show had a remarkable grasp on the visual hallmarks of the film genres it often mimicked, and its humor often lay in the preciseness of its parody. But Get Out is no mere pastiche. It’s an atmospheric, restrained, extremely effective work of horror with a clear point of view, a darkly hilarious movie that never trips over itself in search of a cheap laugh or scare. What might sound like a one-joke premise turns into something richly textured; what might seem like an easy metaphor is, in fact, anything but.
High-school textbooks too often gloss over the American government’s oppression of racial minorities.
Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.