Thursday, March 05, 2015

Sunlight-stealing aliens invade the Solar System!

Apparently my point in this post was misapprehended. Although I wrote this: "My comments here are from the perspective of the philosophy and history of science, two subjects which I have studied a fair bit. I have absolutely nothing to say about global warming models or these predictions of a new little ice age...," commenters immediately began talking about "forcing factors" in climate models and so forth. Maybe the AGW advocates have underplayed the significance of the sun in their models: I don't know. But if they have, that still would not mean that they were wrong that humans have been creating warming, just that they were wrong about its significance compared to solar activity.

I was making a broader point about testing scientific theories: simply because the predictions of a theory do not pan out does not mean the theory is wrong! Let me create a fantasy scenario to illustrate what I was trying to get across:

Let us imagine that by some miracle mainstream climate scientists have their models exactly right. Every bad consequence of burning fossil fuels that they worry about is coming to pass. And then...

Tomorrow, a very advanced (but energy starved) race of aliens arrives inside Earth's orbit. They set up enormous solar panels in space to generate the energy their civilization needs, panels so enormous that they deprive the earth of 25% of its solar energy. A new ice age commences.

I bet at that point someone would come on Fox News and claim, "See! Those scare-mongers involved in the 'global warming' hoax were completely wrong!"

That person would be talking nonsense. And that was my only point in the earlier post.

What Is a Model?

Some thoughts:

1) Models are constructed.
2) They are made of distinct parts. (E.g., "a supply curve, a demand curve, an x-axis, a y-axis," or "red lines for highways, black lines for local roads, dashed lines for dirt roads.")
3) The parts are made to fit together. (The supply curve is measured in the same units as the demand curve, and crosses it somewhere. The roads are laid out on the same grid, using the same scale.)
4) We can adjust those parts, either purely mentally, or with our hands (as with an architectural model), or a pencil and eraser (a mechanical drawing), a computer (a weather model), and so on. (In using a map, we actually adjust a "part" we will in: where we are. Sometimes, this part is represented by our finger, as we trace a route, or the mark of a highlighter.)
5) Adjusting the parts produces an "answer" of some sort from the model: "Oh-oh, if we move that wall there, the stairs won't fit," or "If the supply curve shifts that far right, the new price will be $4.50."
6) The modeler hopes that the answer produced by the model says something about what will happen when changes occur in (or are deliberately made to) the  thing being modeled.

What Is Most Important About the Sacred Parent-Child Relationship... Rothbard Edition

Here: "In the first place, the overriding fact of parent–child relations is that the child lives on the property of his parents."

There you have it folks: the"overriding fact" of the parent-child bond is that the child is sort of a free-loading tenant of the parent.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Sociology implies Bob Murphy is an atheist

A sociological study finds that the majority of libertarians are atheists. (I think this might be true, but let us just suppose it is.)

Now I turn my attention to Bob Murphy, and discover that he is a libertarian. I write, "Sociology implies that Bob Murphy is an atheist, but I have discovered that he is a theist!"

I present this as a refutation of sociology.

From the comments he has posted recently, apparently Bob thinks that this is a valid form of reasoning. And not only is it valid, I am 100%, unequivocally wrong when I object to it.


Is a Little Ice Age Upon Us?

Some scientists seem to think so.


1) The headline to the article linked above is sensationalist. The truth (as I gather from the body of the article) is that some scientists at or associated with NASA think we may be entering a little ice age. That is interesting, but not what the headline says.

2) If it is true, it does not mean that global warming theories have been wrong, or a "hoax," as some people absurdly have contended. What it means is, that like all scientific theories, these theories can only account for a certain range of phenomena, and when something outside the scope of the theory enters the picture... well, the theory doesn't account for that.

An example:

The government of Ruritania gives each citizen in its capital of Ruropolis the equivalent of a million dollars of the local currency, which it has just printed. An economist predicts, "Ruritania is about to see some wicked inflation."

The very next day, Ruritania's enemy, Freedonia, drops a nuclear bomb on Ruropolis, wiping out all of its citizens, along with their newly issued fiat money. No inflation ensues in Ruritania.

That does not mean the economist was wrong! We teach our students that our economic models apply ceteris paribus, but in this case, the ceteris were extremely not paribus. Economists do not include the possibility of nuclear attacks in their models, and rightly so: the usefulness of models derives from the fact that they simplify the world for us, and allow us to understand a very complex world through the lens of a much simpler model. But we must never forget the simplification involved: any model will only be applicable when the factors it ignores in its simplification have a negligible effect on some real situation. When one of those ignored factors becomes important, the model may be completely useless.

And it is not only economic theories that are only true ceteris paribus: all scientific theories are like this. E.g.: I drop a rock off of a cliff. A physicist says, "The rock will fall to the ground below with an impact derived from its mass and the equation for falling bodies, modified by the factor of air resistance."

But just after I let the rock go, someone hang-gliding snatches it from the air and carries it off with them. That does not prove the physicist wrong! His theory only holds ceteris paribus, and it did not include hang-gliding rock collectors in its equations.

The application to global warming theories should be obvious: these theories have attempted to model the effects of human activities on the global climate. The models involved may have been very accurate (I don't know: I am no climate scientist!), but they did not include a sudden decrease in the energy the sun is sending earthward in the model. And that is no black mark on the models!

3) If it turns out to be true that we are entering a new little ice age, the irony level will be remarkable: the global warming models may turn out to have been extremely accurate, but the worries unfounded, since the warming we have been creating actually may wind up acting to ameliorate the (apparently) devastating effects of the cooling that some scientists are now predicting.

4) My comments here are from the perspective of the philosophy and history of science, two subjects which I have studied a fair bit. I have absolutely nothing to say about global warming models or these predictions of a new little ice age, since I have studied climatology and solar astronomy not at all!

Innately despicable, evil beings

I saw a claim today that I've seen before: basically, that the only thing stopping normal people from doing very bad things is the consequences. See the comment from Stewart Smith here where he says, 

Ask your friend what they would do if they had one day to live and could do anything they wanted. See if they don't try and break one law with their last day on earth. I personally have asked this same question to otherwise perfectly upstanding citizens. These 'upstanding individuals' claimed they would literally rape some poor person because there were no consequences, or at the least steal loads of money to fulfil some other harebrained adrenaline rush. My point is that the only thing keeping us humans from committing evil acts is consequence, meaning we as humans are innately despicable, evil beings.

It seems to me that this can be disproven empirically. There are lots of people, right now, who are not bedridden, but know that they are experiencing their last days on earth due to a terminal diagnosis such as cancer. A quick Google search shows multiple heartwarming (and heartrending) stories. People are skydiving, getting married, going hiking, spending time with their children, and in general not being particularly evil. Can someone find some examples of the terminally ill going on rape and robbery sprees?

Andy Denis on Hayek and MI

“In his work on the evolution of social orders, Hayek thus abandons the individualist methodology he had proposed in his wartime writings, thereby rectifying the inconsistency that that precept implied for the system of his thought." (From Nell, Guinevere Liberty. 2014. Austrian Economic Perspectives on Individualism and Society: Moving beyond Methodological Individualism, p. 18)

Is there any point to these simulations?

Here is John Hollinger's description of how he gets his NBA playoff predictions:

"As always, the output of a product is only as good as its input, so let's explain a little about how this is derived. The computer starts with the day's Hollinger Power Rankings. Then, in each of the 5,000 times it replays the season, it makes a random adjustment up or down to allow for the possibility that a team will play better or worse than it has done thus far."

I've been trying to think this through: why run simulations at all? The power rankings must establish some relationship between teams, such that, say, when a 94.5 plays an 86.7 it will likely win by three points, or something like that. Now you can produce some random wiggles and determine what the likelihood 94.5 will win is. Then use similarly derived likelihoods for all remaining games to get all of the teams' final records.

In other words, my first impression here is that the run of 5000 simulations is just reproducing the data from the power rankings in its outcomes, so why not move straight from power rankings to outcomes?

Or look at it another way: if I know I have a fair "coin" (which is perhaps a computer algorithm proven to produce heads and tails with equal probability), I don't need to run 5000 "simulations" to "see" what the likely outcome of repeatedly tossing it will be: it will be 50-50. Of course, if I do run the program 5000 times, the "answer" I get is likely to be pretty accurate, but that is because I had a fair coin to begin with. The runs have not told me anything new, and if they produce 47% heads and 53% tails, that does not mean that 47-53 is really the likely long-run outcome.

Does anyone have any idea as to why one would run simulations in a case like Hollinger's?

Monday, March 02, 2015

I've Got a Sinking Feeling About This

Mike Munger brings to our attention a paper that purports to "measure" whether sunk costs matter. In the abstract, the authors claim:

"Behavioral economics implies that teams favor players chosen in the lottery and first round of the draft because of the greater financial and psychic commitment to them. Neoclassical economics implies that only current performance matters."

Now, I am not an expert on the literature on sunk costs, but I have taught the topic, and thought about it some. The mainstream view appears to me to fluctuate between:

1) a priori, only future costs can be considered, a proposition which can be made true by defining future costs appropriately; or
2) people do worry about sunk costs, but they really ought to stop doing so.

If we adopt viewpoint one, then "empirical" studies are irrelevant: the proposition is true a priori.

If we adopt viewpoint two, all this study would tell us is that NBA management has gotten this message. It certainly would not decide any question dividing behavioral and neoclassical economics. (And it is kind of weird to say that behavioral economics "implies" that people pay attention to sunk costs: it is an empirical discipline! Perhaps it finds that they do so, but it certainly doesn't assume this.)

Chronological Snobbery

I was sitting at my local near someone who is, in fact, a college professor. He happened to bring up how ancient literature is filled with barbaric practices such as crucifixion and stoning, and how "We've advanced past that" today.

"Boy, we sure have!" I thought. Today, we don't mess around taking hours to kill three people by hanging them on crosses! No, we wipe out 100,000 or more with a couple of button pushes, or tens of thousands in a single night, or use efficient, high-tech means to kill 6 million over the course of a few years.

We certainly have "advanced past" those primitive times when books like the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita were being written: today, we can kill thousands using science in the time it took the ancients to kill dozens! Thank God we are not as primitive as they were.

Neeley Talks Sense on Sand

Friday, February 27, 2015

Let's Make Up History to Suit Our Prejudices!

In a review book for AP European History, I find:

"Supernatural and miraculous forces played no role in Newton's universe."

Um, say what?! This guy saw no role for what today would be called the supernatural and miraculous? (Newton himself would not have recognized a distinction between the natural and the supernatural as meaningful, I suspect.) Even in his "pure" physics, Newton believed that God constantly intervened to keep the planets in their orbit.

It is amusing that the newspaper stories about the online publication of the Newton archives claim that they "reveal" that Newton was a mystic. Of course, people who had studied him seriously, such as Keynes and Westfall, knew this decades ago.

And here is the killer: since the is a review for a standard AP history test, I assume that if you actually know anything about Newton, you will be marked wrong on the test!