EDGE 64 — February 28, 2000

(1,824 words)


THE THIRD CULTURE


"Is The Market on Prozac"
Randolph M. Nesse, M.D.

"WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?" CONTINUED.....

Randolph M. Nesse, M.D.
IS THE MARKET ON PROZAC?

The press has been preoccupied with possible explanations for the current extraordinary boom. Many articles say, as they always do while a bubble grows, that this market is "different." Some attribute the difference to new information technology. Others credit changes in foreign trade, or the baby boomer's lack of experience with a real economic depression. But you never see a serious story about the possibility that this market is different because investor's brains are different. There is good reason to suspect that they are......


Paul Davies
RESPONSE TO MARGARET WERTHEIM

Margaret Wertheim asks what is meant by "science." I have an answer. It must involve more than merely cataloguing facts, and discovering successful procedures by trial and error. Crucially, true science involves uncovering the principles that underpin and link natural phenomena. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret that we should respect the world view of indigineous non European peoples, I do not believe the examples she cites — Mayan astronomy, Chinese acupuncture, etc. — meet my definition....

 


EDGE IN THE NEWS



Der Spiegel

Tear down All the Statues!
February 21, 2000

"I am not favouring the popularisation of science but rather genuine contributions towards research which are, however, written in a way that is intelligible to all. Unlike textbooks, these books are intellectual adventures. They touch upon the important issues of our time.....

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The Wall Street Journal
(Subscription Required)
"Digits" Column
February 24, 2000

You don't have to be a billionaire to get invited to the "Billionaire's Dinner" tonight in Monterey, Calif. But you do have to know literary agent/author/entrepreneur John Brockman, who makes it his business to know who is among the digerati. The dinner coincides with the 10th annual Technology, Entertainment, Design or TED, conference, which brings together Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Last year's dinner guests included confirmed billionaires Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. and Steve Case of America Online Inc. as well as likely contender Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft Corp. "It's just a fun gathering for a few of my friends," Mr. Brockman says. The stock market has made new billionaires out of some previous centimillionaire guests, so Mr. Brockman doubled the size of the dinner but claims he still has to turn people away. To add suspense to this year's event, Mr. Brockman promises two surprise billionaires who prefer to remain unidentified. Hint: at least one is unmarried.....

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The Wall Street Journal
(Subscription Required)
by Kara Swisher
February 28, 2000

MONTEREY, Calif. -- Like a lot of things in the frothy Internet world, it didn't take long for an annual get-together at one of the industry's trendiest conferences to show mindboggling growth -- in this case a change in its name from the Millionaires' Dinner to the Billionaires' Dinner.

And why not? Sure, precious few of the people at the dinner supping on ahi tuna and shrimp scampi on Thursday at Cibo restaurant actually had billions in net worth. But the crowd was sprinkled generously with those who had amassed wealth beyond imagining in a historical eye blink. The muscle and money behind tech stars such as Microsoft, America Online, Sun Microsystems and others had gathered at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference here.

When the host, New York literary agent John Brockman, added three zeros to the dinner last year, there was more than a bit of giggly discomfort among the attendees. The general agreement was that the provocative Mr. Brockman, who also runs a discussion Web site called Edge.org, was poking fun more than offering a description.....

 


THE THIRD CULTURE


"WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?" CONTINUED......

Randolph M. Nesse, M.D.
IS THE MARKET ON PROZAC?

The press has been preoccupied with possible explanations for the current extraordinary boom. Many articles say, as they always do while a bubble grows, that this market is "different." Some attribute the difference to new information technology. Others credit changes in foreign trade, or the baby boomer's lack of experience with a real economic depression. But you never see a serious story about the possibility that this market is different because investor's brains are different. There is good reason to suspect that they are.

Prescriptions for psychoactive drugs have increased from 131 million in 1988 to 233 million in 1998, with nearly 10 million prescriptions filled last year for Prozac alone. The market for antidepressants in the USA is now $6.3 billion per year. Additional huge numbers of people use herbs to influence their moods. I cannot find solid data on how many people in the USA take antidepressants, but a calculation based on sales suggests a rough estimate of 20 million.

What percent of brokers, dealers, and investors are taking antidepressant drugs? Wealthy, stressed urbanites are especially likely to use them. I would not be surprised to learn that one in four large investors has used some kind of mood-altering drug. What effects do these drugs have on investment behavior? We don't know. A 1988 study by Brian Knutson and colleagues found that the serotonin specific antidepressant paroxetine (Paxil) did not cause euphoria in normal people, but did block negative affects like fear and sadness. From seeing many patients who take such agents, I know that some experience only improved mood, often a miraculous and even life saving change. Others, however, report that they become far less cautious than they were before, worrying too little about real dangers. This is exactly the mind-set of many current investors.

Human nature has always given rise to booms and bubbles, followed by crashes and depressions. But if investor caution is being inhibited by psychotropic drugs, bubbles could grow larger than usual before they pop, with potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences. If chemicals are inhibiting normal caution in any substantial fraction of investors, we need to know about it. A more positive interpretation is also easy to envision. If 20 million workers are more engaged and effective, to say nothing of showing up for work more regularly, that is a dramatic tonic for the economy. There is every reason to think that many workers and their employers are gaining such benefits. Whether the overall mental health of the populace is improving remains an open question, however. Overall rates of depression seem stable or increasing in most technological countries, and the suicide rate is stubbornly unchanged despite all the new efforts to recognize and treat depression.

The social effects of psychotropic medications is the unreported story of our time. These effects may be small, but they may be large, with the potential for social catastrophe or positive transformation. I make no claim to know which position is correct, but I do know that the question is important, unstudied, and in need of careful research. What government agency is responsible for ensuring that such investigations get carried out? The National Institute of Mental Health? The Securities and Exchange Commission? Thoughtful investigative reporting can give us preliminary answers that should help to focus attention on the social effects of psychotropic medications.

RANDOPH M. NESSE, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry, Director, ISR Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, The University of Michigan and coauthor (with George C. Williams) of WHY WE GET SICK: THE NEW SCIENCE OF DARWINIAN MEDICINE.

Margaret Wertheim asks what is meant by "science." I have an answer. It must involve more than merely cataloguing facts, and discovering successful procedures by trial and error. Crucially, true science involves uncovering the principles that underpin and link natural phenomena. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret that we should respect the world view of indigineous non European peoples, I do not believe the examples she cites — Mayan astronomy, Chinese acupuncture, etc. — meet my definition. The Ptolemaic system of epicycles achieved reasonable accuracy in describing the motion of heavenly bodies, but there was no proper physical theory underlying it. Newtonian mechanics, by contrast, not only described planetary motions more simply, it connected the movement of the moon with the fall of the apple. That is real science, because it uncovers things we cannot know any other way. Has Mayan astronomy or Chinese acupuncture ever led to a successful nontrivial prediction producing new knowledge about the world? Many people have stumbled on the fact that certain things work, but true science is knowing why things work. I am open-minded about acupuncture, but if it does work, I would rather put my faith in an explanation based on nerve impulses than mysterious energy flows that have never been demonstrated to have physical reality.

Why did science take root in Europe? At the time of Galileo and Newton, China was far more advanced technologically. However, Chinese technology (like that of the Australian Aborigines) was achieved by trial and error refined over many generations. The boomerang was not invented by first understanding the principles of hydrodynamics and then designing a tool. The compass (discovered by the Chinese) did not involve formulating the principles of electromagnetism. These latter developments emerged from the (true, by my definition) scientific culture of Europe. Of course, historically, some science also sprang from accidental discoveries only later understood. But the shining emblems of true science — such as radio waves, nuclear power, the computer, genetic engineering - all emerged from the application of a deep theoretical understanding that was in place before — sometimes long before — the sought-after technology.

The reasons for Europe being the birthplace of true science are complex, but they certainly have a lot to do with Greek philosophy, with its notion that humans could come to understand how the world works through rational reasoning, and the three monothesitic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — with their notion of a real, lawlike, created order in nature, imposed by a Grand Architect. Although science began in Europe, it is universal and now available to all cultures. We can continue to cherish the belief systems of other cultures, whilst recognizing that scientific knowledge is something special that tanscends cultures.

PAUL DAVIES is an internationally acclaimed physicist, writer and broadcaster, now based in South Australia. Professor Davies is the author of some twenty books, including OTHER WORLDS, GOD AND THE NEW PHYSICS, THE EDGE OF INFINITY, THE MIND OF GOD, THE COSMIC BLUEPRINT, ARE WE ALONE? and ABOUT TIME.

 


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