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Friday, April 24, 2015

Is success within a profession a criterion of truth?!

Earl and Littleboy, the authors of G. L. S. Shackle are rather critical of Shackle's unwillingness to compromise his ideas so that they would gain more mainstream acceptance. For instance, they write: "Shackle rebelled, and he lost. His tactics and timing were not quite right; he overreached. The reward even from partial victory could well have been a Noble Prize" (p. 81).

They seem to be putting forward, rather than a correspondence theory of truth, or a coherence theory of truth, what we might call the "professional advancement theory of truth": your ideas are true to the extent they gain you accolades and prizes!

But if Shackle was correct in his most radical proposals, wasn't he right to stick to his guns, even if it cost him recognition? And if those ideas were wrong, isn't that the reason he should have changed them, and not the fact he might have won a Nobel Prize had he done so?

Consider the case of Copernicus. My lecturer in the history of science noted that, while the Catholic Church had actually paid Copernicus little heed, professional astronomers had taken note of his theory, and almost uniformly rejected it. As John Milton (my lecturer, not the poet) put it, "As far as I have been able to determine, five or so decades after Copernicus's death, there were about four Copernicans in the world. And two of them were named Galileo and Kepler."

Would Earl and Littleboy want to chastise Copernicus, contending that, if only he had come up with a compromise system, like, say, Brahe's, he could have gained more professional acceptance?

Evasion Does Not Equal Dishonesty!

My friend's wife has been cheating on him for years. But if you asked him about this, he would say she was faithful. And he is not lying, merely deceived, and not just by her, but by himself as well.

His "prior," if we want to speak like Bayesians, is that she is a faithful woman: after all, he married her. For me and the rest of his friends, not having this strong prior, the evidence of her cheating is obvious. But he explains away each instance: "Oh, he is her old high school friend, and they had a lot to talk about." "That fellow: no, she assures me he is gay." And so on.

He is not being deliberately dishonest.  It is just that, given his large emotional investment in believing she is faithful, he winds up evading the evidence that she is not. It is a very human thing to do, and one I myself have done all too frequently!

So when I note that people misconstrue analogies to evade their force, I am not claiming they are being deliberately dishonest! In the specific case cited in that post, I was engaged with people with a strong prior that libertarianism is correct. So, when faced with an analogy that points towards a flaw in libertarian reasoning, they naturally look for a flaw in the analogy, and hit upon the first difference they detect between the cases in the analogy, without carefully analyzing exactly what the analogy is claiming is similar between the analogous cases.

Again, not dishonest, simply human, and no doubt something I too have done! It is nevertheless a "slippery" maneuver: it protects us form having to re-examine our priors.

Oh, and let me apologize: I realize my initial post was not clear enough on this point. I did not mean to defame anyone by accusing them of deliberate dishonesty, but I can see how people could have read my post that way.

Logical, psychological, and normative theories of choice under uncertainty

When looking at a formal theory of choice under uncertainty, there are (at least) three questions one might ask about it:

1) Is it mathematically sound?
2) Should people be applying it in some or all situations? If some, which ones?
3) Do people actually reason that way?

The authors of G. L. S. Shackle sometimes seem to be mixing these three questions together, to the detriment of their analysis. For instance, they contend, "Whether probability is relevant [to single cases, rather than to a sequence of repeated trials,] is testable even by simple thought experiments" (p. 71). Well, first of all, what the authors next describe are not thought experiments à la Einstein, but experiments they have thought about someone performing. (The difference being they are asking "Think about this: how will people really respond in this situation?" rather than claiming the thought experiment itself proves anything.)

And what they claim (I think correctly) is that, in the situations they describe, many people would indeed apply probabilistic reasoning. But this hardly addresses Shackle's point: he was arguing against applying probabilistic reasoning to single cases precisely because he knew people do so. So showing that people do so merely shows he was not tilting at windmills, and not that he was wrong.

A little later, they write: "Specialists indeed later found serious faults in Bayesian reasoning (e.g. the Ellsberg paradox)" (p. 81). Let me admit that when I first read that sentence, I chuckled to myself and thought, "Named after Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, no doubt, ha ha!" Well, I looked it up, and it is named after Daniel Ellsberg!

In any case, having now studied the paradox, I cannot see that it shows any fault in Bayesian reasoning at all. Instead, it shows that people often don't use Bayesian reasoning. But this is something most Bayesians readily acknowledge, as I often see them criticizing people's reasoning by saying something like, "Well, if they had been good Bayesian reasoners, they would have reached conclusion X."


Reports from the Ent Wald

"I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me." -- Treebeard

"Who can stop what must arise now?
Something new is waiting to be born" -- Robert Hunter

Dreher writes:
It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.
Rieff, a secularist, understood the point I have been making here. In my estimate, the old order is not coming back, because old orders never do come back. And there are reasons they fade: what was once living faith turns into dogma, what was once a natural unity turns into persecution of those who question it, and so on.

But the Enlightenment is only a reaction, an attack on the old order. It is the analogue of the skeptical philosophies that arose as the pagan world order ceased to attract belief. It has no new order to put in the place of the order it is tearing down. That new order is waiting to be born.

Siri Loves a Naughty Word

If you see an "f-bomb" or somesuch show up in my text at this blog, well:

I was writing my bio for my summer at Duke in 2013. I spoke "His latest book was..." Siri wrote, "His latest f*ck was..."

At Duke, a friend, John, asked me out for Ethiopian food. I wanted to suggest something else. I said, "I really love it, but..."

Siri wrote, "I really love d*ck, but..."

Luckily I caught each of those. John, especially, would have been a bit nonplussed to get that response to a simple dinner invitation: "Gene, it was just for dinner, really..."

Online Poker Stars

Is a major source of hits for this blog this week.

Does the merest whiff of probability theory on a web site bring the poker players streaming in?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shackle on case probaility

It is interesting how Shackle and Mises are partners in this matter. The authors of G. L. S. Shackle discuss Shackle's rejection of the notion that a singular event can meaningfully be said to have probability X.

Shackle puts forward an example where England and Australia are to have a cricket match. But instead of the usual coin toss deciding who bats first, England has managed to get the matter on the toss of a die, where a one will mean Australia bats first, and any other number, England will do so. He asks, "Can we now give any meaningful answer whatever to the question 'Who will bat first?' except 'We do not know'?" (p. 63)

The authors reject Shackle's agnosticism here, claiming: "Of course, the right answer is 'England will, most probably'" (p. 64).

But this simply begs the question that Shackle was raising: In the case of a single event, what exactly do we mean when we assert its probability is X? Of course everyone agrees that if a long series of matches takes place with this method of determining who bats first, England will in the majority of cases. In defense of their view, the authors note that a bettor will want to place his bet on England. But that truth appears to rely on the fact that, over the long run, a repeated series of such bets will pay off, i.e., it seems to rely on the frequency-based interpretation of probability, an interpretation that Shackle endorses!

I don't assert that Shackle was right here, but only that his argument against case probability cannot be dismissed with a mere "Of course!"

Liberal Argumentation

Discussing political issues with liberals is fascinating, and can bring home the reality of certain historical/theoretical points. For example, let us say that an Orthodox Jewish rabbi wants to explain to a liberal why circumcision is not only justified but important. The liberal is likely to reject everything the rabbi puts forward (the Torah, the Talmud, and his traditions) by claiming that the rabbi is engaged in "sheer assertion."

Or consider an "average Joe," who, when asked why we should not buy and sell children, will probably respond something like, "Well, that's awful!" The liberal will reject his answer as well, calling it an "argument from personal repugnance." The liberal will insist that only by (liberal) argumentation can we arrive at rational moral conclusions. This answer might suffice if only:

1) Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics) and later Michael Oakeshott (Rationalism in Politics) demonstrated that morality is not a matter of theoria but of phronesis, and thus is rightly guided by practical and not theoretical reason. Argumentation may influence action, but the proper sort of argument for influencing practical action is not a theoretical one, but a practical one, along the lines of "Your mother will be really hurt if you do that."

This would mean that applying the conclusions of liberal argumentation to practical decisions is a category error, and thus not a rational procedure at all. But luckily, that is easily avoidable, since:

2) Alasdair McIntyre (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) had not shown that, in any case, liberal argumentation pretty much never reaches a conclusion. (Rawls argues that some redistribution is morally justified, Nozick argues back that no it isn't, Cohen responds that not only is it, it is required at a much higher level than Rawls' envisioned, someone else responds to Cohen, etc.) Instead, as MacIntyre demonstrates, engaging in argumentation has itself become the central liberal virtue. If one is a communist, one shows one's virtue by organizing a workers' strike, if a Muslim, by undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca, and if a liberal, by engaging in endless, inconclusive argumentation. This is illustrated in the fate of philosophy in liberal hands: whereas it originated as the search for wisdom, in philosophy departments today, one is likely to be told that philosophy is all about (clever) arguments.

Truncating Your Utilitarian Analysis

We should not want to treat human babies as a commodity whether or not we "gain utils" by doing so. But that is not the only problem with Abby Hall's "analysis" of the issue. She also severely truncates her utilitarian analysis.

First of all, she treats the number of "unwanted" babies as being unmoved by a legal market for children. Coming from a crew of people who can never stop telling us that "incentives matter," this is a rather shocking omission. Of course, once they know they can legally get a new car or a trip around the world for the infant that is whining at 3 A.M. and keeping them up, a lot more mothers are going to "realize" that they don't want their babies. In fact, it won't take long before poor mothers see that they have years of good-paying work ahead of them, becoming pregnant again and again.

And Hall also fails to look at "substitute goods" in a broader context: adopted babies are a substitute for your own. She invokes the sad cases of people who cannot conceive, but there is no way to limit a market for babies to just such couples. People will naturally form business marketing babies, and marketing the idea that the "rational" thing to do is to avoid the risk and mess of pregnancy, and pick your ideal child out of a catalog.

So, we will have a world in which poor mothers will produce child after child as their "job," children that will be corporate commodities marketed on glitzy Internet sites to the wealthy. And having bought their children the same way they would a TV or jacuzzi, if they find their purchase to be "defective," they will want the right to return it. And what will "Babyland" do with a defective product that gets returned several times?

Your analogy is broken, bcause *X is not exactly like Y*!

It is shocking how often this slippery trick is used when someone wants to evade the force of an analogy. Consider this post. The point of it, of course, was not to show that buying and selling children is equivalent to slavery! If that was what I wanted to claim, I would have simply claimed it. No, what I wanted to show was that the exact same sort of arguments Hall uses to justify buying and selling children could be used to justify slavery.

But of course, not one person who wanted to defend Hall's argument, here or on Facebook, tried to dispute the similarity between Praetorium's fictitious arguments in my post and Hall's real arguments. How could they? I basically just copied and pasted her arguments into my post, and then substituted "Africans" for "children"!

Since they couldn't dispute that the arguments are point-for-point in the exact same form, with just this simple substitution made, they tried a sleight-of-hand: they noted that buying and selling children is, in some ways, different than slavery! Wow, what a revelation! But since the (rather obvious) point of my post was not to show that they are exactly the same... so what? Well, it provides a nice distraction from the actual point.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Shackle on gambling

"Even in gambles in which the downside outcome involves money being lost, gamblers get something that is not available by holding on to their money, namely, the opportunity to 'indulge their hopes' by imagining what it would be like to receive a gain of some kind. In other words, the traditional theory of risktaking mistakenly focuses purely on the value the decision-maker would assign to each potential outcome if it actually eventuated. It thereby ignores the impact that expectations about the possible outcome of a gamble have on how one feels between the moment of choice and the revelation of the outcome. This is an early statement of an idea that he later developed at length as 'enjoyment by anticipation'..." -- G. L. S. Shackle, p. 104

This passage does, unfortunately, illustrate the authors' penchant for clunky writing. What do they mean, "Even in gambles in which the downside outcome involves money being lost..." It's not a gamble if there is no risk of losing, and it hardly matters if what is lost is money in particular. A bit later, they choose to write "if it actually eventuated," when "if it actually happened" sounds a lot more like real English to me, and says the same thing.

A Shocking Discovery in a Monastery Library


While doing research in the Aedificium of the Kloster Eberbach, I came across the following fascinating manuscript, apparently written by a monk named Abbius Praetorium, and presenting an early argument for the legitimacy of the African slave trade. I present these arguments, by the way, not to endorse them, but to show the depths to which the moral imagination may sink when it is weighed down by the shackles of a false world view:

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It is with the high costs of finding labor in mind, and the knowledge that there are thousands of farmers that would like to expand their labor force but cannot (if you will, a shortage in workers), that I’d like to make a suggestion.

African chiefs should be allowed to sell the lordship rights to their tribesmen, or to those they have captured in war.

Stick with me here. I am not advocating human trafficking or the idea of kidnapping Africans in order to sell them to desperate farmers. What I am suggesting is a general deregulation of the market for labor. Allow African chiefs to enter into contracts with willing farmers for the rights to work Africans for profit.

Before unleashing your moral outrage at the idea of "selling human beings," consider the potential for very significant, very positive outcomes for all parties involved. Allowing African chiefs to profit from such sales  fundamentally changes the costs and benefits of a variety of transactions. They include:
  1. The "labor shortage" will diminish or be eliminated as chiefs enter  the market to sell the rights to work their tribesmen. The "supply" of tribesmen  to be purchased is more likely to meet current demand.

  2. Chiefs will experience greater wealth as they may profit from the sale of their sovereignty rights.

  3. There will be fewer executions in Africa. As chiefs experiencing troublesome tribesmen look at their options, the potential for financial gain means fewer chiefs are likely to execute.

  4. The health of Africans will improve. Since healthy Africans are likely to command a higher purchase price than ill ones, chiefs would face strong incentives to improve the health of their tribesmen.

  5. Africans themselves are likely to be better off: who wouldn't want to be moved from a tribe, where their presence is a cause of consternation, to a farm community, where they will be loved and wanted?

  6. Tribesmen abuse would decline. The current system incentivizes chiefs  to keep their tribesmen, rather than give them up, even if they find them a royal pain in the butt.

  7. The above argument especially applies to prisoners of war. African chiefs now often have no choice but to kill those prisoners. But, if there is a market for them, they won't need to be killed. Anyone in favor of less slaughter of prisoners of war ought to be for a market in Africans.

  8. The price of labor will fall. Since hiring free workers and buying Africans are what economists call "substitute goods," or goods that can be used for the same purpose, an increase in Africans for sale would decrease the demand for free labor. As demand falls, wages would fall as well, and farmers will prosper, meaning cheaper food for everyone.

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But, of course, we children of the Enlightenment are much better people than the barbarians of a few centuries back, and would never endorse buying and selling human beings. I only share the above to show how far we have advanced since those dark times.