Thursday, November 26, 2015


If you doubt that "Americanism" is a religion, watch the beginning of a football game. A huge religious icon (the American flag) is spread across the field. Everyone puts their hands over their hearts (similar to making the sign of the cross) and then sings a religious hymn ("The Star Spangled Banner"). The singer is surrounded by a coterie of "monks": Marines, Navy SEALs, paratroopers, etc. Then, like a great spectacle in the coliseum from pagan times, two groups of warriors do battle, interspersed with ads touting consumption (the chief sacrament of Americanism) and the mystical ecstasies that can be achieved by total devotion to one's subcult (favorite team).

Every time Nick Rowe writes a macro post...

you should contemplate it very carefully... you will always learn to think about he macroeconomy more deeply.

In Which I Knock the Bottom out of Niall Ferguson

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Noah, lost at sea

Noah Smith is trying to defend empiricism in economics, but when it comes to empirical facts about the history of science... well, those we can just make up to suit our purposes! And so he writes:

"Our most spectacularly successful leaps of theoretical insight - Newton's Principia, Einstein's relativity stuff, Mendel's theory of inheritance - were all very closely guided by data. The general pattern was that some new measurement technology would be invented - telescopes, plant hybridization experiments, etc. - that would provide some new unexplained data. Then some smart theorists would come up with a new theoretical framework (paradigm?) to explain it, and the new framework would then also explain a bunch of other stuff besides, and so people would switch to the new theory."

Now, I haven't studied the history surrounding Mendel much, so I am not going to comment on it (imagine that: choosing not to write about something because one doesn't know much about it!), except to note that it is a little weird to call plant hybridization experiments a "measurement technology." But with Newton and Einstein, Smith just doesn't know what he is talking about.

First, Newton: the telescope was what spurred on the Principia?! This is a bizarre contention. Perhaps it is true that discovering that Jupiter has moons played some small part in prompting Newton's new physics: I spent a year studying the scientific revolution in graduate school, and subsequently read the top scholarly biography of Newton, but while I don't recall those moons being mentioned as important in Newton's thinking, I won't categorically deny that they might have played a part. However, Kepler's conceptual breakthrough in realizing that the planets have elliptical orbits was much more important to Newton's physics, and it had nothing to do with telescopes. Kepler did rely on improved data collected by Tycho Brahe, but that data could have been handled with epicycles, and the idea of elliptical orbits might have been arrived at without that new data: it was abandoning the idea that celestial objects must move in circles that was the crucial factor here: a new idea.

But what is perhaps even more salient in this regard is that Newton's three laws of motion are not empirically verifiable as a whole: they really are a re-conceptualization of motion, and we need to assume at least one of them to empirically verify the other two.

With Einstein, Smith is on even shakier ground, and it is noteworthy that here he does not even try to suggest what new "measurement technology" prompted Einstein's breakthrough. And as far as "new unexplained data" goes, it is usually the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment that empiricists indicate as the impetus for Einstein's special theory of relativity. But Einstein himself told Michael Polanyi that "The Michelson–Morley experiment had no role in the foundation of the theory... the theory of relativity was not founded to explain its outcome at all." In fact, it was Einstein's thought experiment considering what it would be like to travel alongside a beam of light that was the chief driver for developing the "relativity stuff."

So: oops! When it comes to history, scientific "empiricists" appear not to care about "the data" in the least!

PS: Since I do care about the data, I am prompting my friend Thony, who knows much more history of science than I, to correct me here if I have strayed from "the data."

Sunday, November 22, 2015


One-book-itis is a malady that strikes amateurs in an academic field (e..g. history) when their reading in that field, on a particular topic, is largely restricted to one strong defense of a controversial position about that topic. The amateur simply doesn't know the field (e.g. history) well enough to realize that:

1) Of course any competent professional historian can marshall a strong case for any position he puts forward: he wouldn't put a case forward unless he could marshall strong evidence for it, and his entire professional life has been spent learning how to make the historical case for proposition X strong.

In particular, what the amateur overlooks here is that their champion for this controversial position is in a dialogue with other professional historians. And whatever view he is disputing, those others themselves put forward good cases for the view he is disputing: if they hadn't, he wouldn't even bother disputing it!

2) The professional discussion is nuanced. Say the topic is the causes of some revolution. The "old" view was that the main cause was the decadent actions of the royal family. The "new" view is that it was due to the ascendancy of a propertied class in the towns.

The amateur reads a single book, making the case for the new view, and becomes its enthusiastic proponent: "Smythe-Williams crushes the idiots who think the cause was royal decadence." But if the amateur were to attend a conference where a panel of "new-viewers" and "old-viewers" discussed the issue, he would find widespread agreement among the panelists that both sides have a good case, and that of course the discussion is simply over a matter of emphasis.

A case in point that has come up in comments on this very blog: did Rome "fall," or was there a smooth transition from "late Antiquity" to "the early Middle Ages"?

Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather have each written books arguing for the "fall" side of things, and an amateur who has read either book might declare either one to be gospel, and claim that it "demonstrated" that the gradualists have been completely wrong. By contrast, a professional reviewing the books understands that they appear as part of a dialogue, and that of course they are stressing one side of the events that they feel their predecessors have under-emphasized, and recognize the validity of claims for the other side. As O'Donnell writes in his review just linked:

"[Heather] is well aware, e.g., of the work of C.R. Whittaker on the symbiotic relations and evolution of relations back and forth across the Roman frontiers, but I suspect that the general reader of this volume will benefit little from it -- it takes the sharp scholarly eye to notice that the qualification is being made and then dropped."

The amateur lacks the "sharp scholarly eye" necessary to notice the qualifications, which essentially say, "Of course the gradualists are not nuts, and there is a lot about this transition that was, in fact, gradual, but I think they have over-emphasized that side of things, and unduly neglected the sudden transitions that occurred."

And an actual scholar of the period in question can recognize the merit in the "more of a fall" case, and still demur:

"In the end, both books are too linear in argument, too much devoted to special pleading for a single line of argument to sustain victory on a crowded field of interpreters. Heather is the better narrative history for the reader who wants to know what happened, while Ward-Perkins does a better job of situating narrative in a context of interpretative possibilities. If there is an implicit moral to each book, Ward-Perkins's is that human prosperity and happiness are fragile things and need to be worked at assiduously, while Heather's is that immigrants can be very bad for a society. The present reviewer will still be numbered amid the Reformers [gradual transition] and not the Counters [sudden fall], but of the two he finds Ward-Perkins's message more persuasive."

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages

A few quotes from the work with the above title by Richard C. Dales:

"The really important thing to be noted, however, is the rapidity with which the scientists of the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries learned to differ with Aristotle..." (quoting Lynn White).

"The striking thing about this [twelfth] century is the attitude of its scientists. These men are daring, original, inventive, skeptical of traditional authorities although sometimes overly impressed by new ones, and above all steadfastly determined to discover purely rational explanations of natural phenomena."

"Despite the fact that many excellent illuminating studies of medieval science, as well as the texts of the works themselves, have been published in easily accessible volumes during the past fifty years, it is not unusual to find even well-educated people abysmally ignorant of the subject. Unfortunately this does not inhibit them from writing authoritatively about it."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My review of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britian

To appear soon in History: Review of New Books.


Floud, Roderick, Jane Humphries, and Paul Johnson. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Volume 1: 1700-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

This work is an excellent survey of the important region and period of economic history that was Britain’s industrial revolution. It consists of fifteen essays by a variety of top scholars, each taking up a different aspect of the overall subject: nutrition, international trade, technology, ideology, agriculture, transportation, regional variations, occupations, labor markets, finance, social mobility, and political economy. With such a wealth of information on hand, a short review can only sample a few of the abundant offerings in the volume.

Rational heating

Houses used to have radiators. These were "irrational," as it was hotter near the radiator than on the other side of the room. What people wanted was uniform heat over the entire house.

Except, if they have any sense, that's not what they want. Some people will find the uniformly heated room chilly, while others find it stifling. When we had radiators and fires, one could move closer to the heat source, or further from it, and set one's own room temperature. Now we must all have a single temperature, like it or not.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My thermostat is a Presbyterian

I have said before on this blog that if we wish to ascribe thoughts about chess to a chess-playing computer, we should, for the very same reasons, ascribe thoughts about home heating to our thermostats. It is nice to see that one of the founders of the discipline of artificial intelligence agrees with me on this point:

'In 1979 McCarthy wrote an article[22] entitled "Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines." In it he wrote, "Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs..."'

Of course, McCarthy thinks thermostats have beliefs about home heating and Big Blue has beliefs about chess, while I think neither is true, but we agree that the evidence should lead us to decide both cases the same way. (It is like we agree on the proposition, "If Joe is guilty, then Bill is guilty too," but disagree on whether Joe is guilty.)

Lost in the Medicine Cabinet

Saturday, November 14, 2015

13-digit ISBN required, without hyphen

Every time you see a message like this from a web site, a programming angel falls from the sky and is imprisoned on earth until he can get the programmer who wrote that code to stop being a lazy so-and-so. Do you realize how easy it is to strip a hyphen out of a string of text?

Programmers: accept any reasonable format, and change it for the user into the format you need!