Sunday, May 31, 2015

As Long as Anarchy Exists, Our Freedom Is Insecure?

My friend Sheldon Richman contends that, "As Long as Government Exists, Our Freedom Is Insecure."

But, of course, for every society that ever existed without a government, either that society disappeared, it gave rise to a government, or it was conquered by a society with a government. So if Sheldon's title is correct, logically we ought to also note that "When Government Does Not Exist, Our Freedom Is Insecure."

Or, more simply, freedom is insecure.

Which, I think, is correct.

I Am an Idiot Hero!

Because while researching a review I am writing, I accidentally turned up this fantastic site, which includes tropes like... idiot hero.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Nature Is Intrinsically Valuable...

Not just valuable "to us" because of whatever utility it might yield:

"Tolkien’s sense of the supernatural’s indwelling within the natural further fostered a keen ecological sensibility and an ensuing ethic of stewardship... ''As all of reality bears the mark of its divine maker, it has intrinsic value and an independent identity rather than being merely the raw material for sating human desires. Conservation of nature is therefore an act of pietas and vigilance on its behalf is a vocation." -- "The Holiness of Hobbitry"

Clever Plants

The wild tobacco plant is able to detect which species of insect is eating it, and adjust its defenses based on that fact.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

More choices does not make us happier

What makes a person happy is knowing the right thing to do, and doing it. When someone is disoriented, and does not know the right thing to do, giving them more and more choices only makes them more and more miserable.

Fifty-inch plasma screen TVs cannot cure spiritual emptiness.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rape occurs in many animals, therefore…


Would anyone use this as an argument that human rape is therefore morally unproblematic?

If not, then there is no reason to think other arguments of the same form are valid either.


"Nothing is more important than family"

I often hear people state the above as if by doing so they are proving that they are a good person. But as Rod Dreher came to recognize, not just golden calves, but things that if viewed from the right perspective can be quite positive, will turn into idols if taken as more important than they are:
Once Dante unmasked this [family worship] within me, I saw that I too had made false idols of family and place. It's not that loving family and loving place are bad, but that are only good relative to the ultimate good, which is unity with God. We were all professed Christians, but it sometimes seemed that the family's real religion was ancestor worship. -- How Dante Can Save Your Life, p. 125
I had the experience, as a child, of realizing that, while my family's apparent religion was Catholicism, it's true religion was social respectability. This affected my relationship with religion for many, many years.

Nothing is more important than The Good itself: anything else you put in its place has become your golden calf.

Fallacies

Ed Feser points out, as I have in the past, that an appeal to authority generally is only a fallacy when the authority isn't really an authority at all. (There is the minor case when someone mistakes it for a deductive proof, but that essentially never happens.)

Furthermore, he notes:
Similarly, not every ad hominem attack -- an attack “against the man” or person -- involves a fallacious ad hominem. "Attacking the man" can be entirely legitimate and sometimes even called for, even in an argumentative context, when it is precisely the man himself who is the problem.
Incorrectly accusing an opponent of one or both of these fallacies is a favorite last resort of the Internet jerk. He shows up in some comment section, and claims, "That's nonsense: everyone knows electrons move at the speed of light!" When someone finally gives up arguing with the fellow, and notes, for the benefit of onlookers, "Well, every physicist in the world disagrees with you," he is sure to be met with the invective: "Appeal to authority!"

But this is a good appeal to authority: physicists know what they are talking about on this topic, and the Internet jerk doesn't.

The other accusation arises when someone evades all attempts at counter-argument. The person trying to reason with him finally declares, "You are being an idiot!" Immediately, he will hear: "Ad hominem!"

But, as Feser says:
There is in such a case nothing wrong with calling such a person an ignoramus, a crank, a troll, etc. and refusing to engage with him any further. That is certainly an attack on the person, but it is no fallacy. It is just a straightforward inference from the facts, a well-founded judgment about him and his behavior, rather than a fallacious response to some argument he has given.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dreher Is on to Rationalism in Religion

Here.

And he sees the resemblance between "conservative" fundamentalists and most modern, American "conservatives":
Well, anyway, I have no interest in engaging in theological disputation here, and won’t. What prompts this post is my curiosity about this question: Does laying hold to a position so extreme and so ungrounded in history leave people like Mr. Bible Church vulnerable in other ways to the forces of modernity, which deny the authority of the past? That is, does the nature of their conservatism leave Christian fundamentalists particularly vulnerable to the cultural forces that are tearing Christianity apart in the West?

This reminds me of firebrand political conservatives who seem to think conservatism began with Ronald Reagan, and that before his appearance among us, there was a vast void between the age of the Founding Fathers, and Reagan’s coming. Their historical ignorance denies them deeper philosophical resources that they could rightly draw on to defend their position against contemporary challenges. All true conservatives — as opposed to ideologues — lay hold to continuity with the past, and the democracy of the dead.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Designing sophisticated equipment...

Without words:

"Now, in my work, before I attempt any construction, I test run the equipment in my imagination. I visualize my designs being used in every possible situation, with different sizes and breeds of cattle and in different weather conditions. Doing this enables me to correct mistakes prior to construction... I can view it from any angle, placing myself above or below the equipment and rotating it at the same time. I don't need a fancy graphics program that can produce three-dimensional design simulations. I can do it better and faster in my head." -- Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, pp. 4-5

I think it is ridiculous for someone to deny that Grandin is thinking when she does the above. (By the way, fully a third of the cattle and hogs processed in the US pass through her equipment.)

Thinking in Pictures

"I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage." -- Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, p. 3

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Bad Boudreaux Critique of Minimum Wage Hikes

Here. He claims: "If this minimum-wage hike is truly justified by employer monopsony power, there’s no reason for any delay in hiking the wage."

Well, one reason to phase in the hike, even if one believes in monopsony power, is epistemic modesty: perhaps one's diagnosis is wrong, so let's start the treatment slowly, and see how the patient responds. If critics are right, and unemployment spikes, we can always repeal the law.

A second good reason for gradualism would be that even adopting a healthy diet or dropping a bad habit can be a shock to the system: cold turkey can kill a serious alcoholic, while gradual withdrawal might work fine.

It only took me a couple of minutes to come up with two perfectly sound reasons for phasing this hike in. If one is going to write a column claiming there is "no good reason for X," it is a good idea to spend at least a couple of minutes thinking about whether there might be a good reason for X.

Note: As I've said before, I think minimum wage hikes are at best a crude way to help the poor, and more likely to be a way to hurt them. Still, a bad argument against a bad idea is still a bad argument.

A Good Murphy Critique of Krugman

Here. Murphy honestly notes that his predictions were  often wrong on the macroeconomy as well.

My explanation as to why essentially no macroeconomists have a consistently good prediction record on the macroeconomy: while almost all of their models make sense
1) given their assumptions, and
2) if those assumed factors were the only things influencing the macroeconomy,
number 2) is never true: the macroeconomy is influenced by a myriad of factors, ceteris is never paribus, and the real use of these models should be to give us hints as to what factors, among others, are at play in any situation.

So, for instance, I still think the Austrian model of distortion of the capital structure is a fine model, and captures something important that sometimes occurs, and that can be a factor in a boom-and-bust cycle, a distorted capital structure is only one thing among many that can be wrong about the economy, and its effect can be swamped by a thousand other things going on.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What is needed to teach X

1) One must understand X.

2) One must understand why it is difficult for the student to understand X.

3) One must understand The correct next step to take in removing the difficulty in 2).

And that is pretty much it. If you don't have 1 to 3 down, years of studying "education" won't help much. And if you do have 1 to 3 down, then those years of study will mostly be icing on the cake.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Embracing the Gambler's Fallacy...

gets you a job commenting for ESPN:

ESPN: "Who or what will be the X-factor in this series?"

Brian Windhorst: "Korver. If he gets going, he can terrorize a defense. The fact that he hasn't been making shots is even more worrisome for the Cavs."

So the idea is that, because Korver has been cold recently, he's bound to be hot now! But what if he has been "cold" because of an undetected wrist injury? Because he has lost his confidence? Because he has been on a drinking binge? Because he has picked up a hitch in his stroke at some point? Any of those reasons for his recent "cold streak" would mean that he might get even "colder" still, e.g., if it is a wrist injury, and continuing to play aggravates it more.

What Would You Pay to Make Your Essays This Illogical?

There is a fair amount of nonsense in this Alex Renton essay, but this is the worst bit:

"But his findings appeared to say elemental things about the human condition – not least that people are more motivated by fear of financial loss than by the possibility of financial gain, to the extent that they will behave highly illogically. Most of us, for example, would rather forgo a pay rise if our colleagues are going to get more than us."

And so if we actually care more about our relative pay than our absolute pay, and we act on that preference... this is illogical how?

Gene Says Relax!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Spaniard Marc Gasol Has Learned AAVE

As well he should have, since AAVE is a perfectly grammatical dialect, and only "inferior" to other dialects in the judgment of those who think its speakers are themselves inferior. Here is Gasol's usage of it:

"'It won't be no drama; it won't be nothing crazy,' said Gasol."

Schelling on Equilibrium

Noting that "equilibrium" does not equate to "good":

"The body of a hanged man is in equilibrium when it finally stops swinging, but nobody is going to insist that the man is all right." -- Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, pp. 26-27

Economic Analysis Only Provides us with Things to Consider

My father recently told me that when he was young, and he would go shopping with his mother, she knew every single person she bought merchandise from. Today, he says, he hardly knows anyone he buys things from.

Of course, taking a very limited amount of factors into our analysis, Walmart and other such giant chains are "more efficient" than the numerous mom-and-pop shops with which my grandmother dealt. But what is the effect on human well-being of moving from a society of interactions with friends and neighbors to one in which one deals largely with anonymous strangers? How will this play out over three or four generations?

Obviously, no economist can answer those questions with enough certainty to be able to plug a number into some utility function and decide "Big chains are (not) beneficial."

Economic analysis, to give us any clear answers, must carefully circumscribe what it includes. As such, the best it ever gives us is something to consider in our policy analysis. It can never tell us definitively what to do.

Evaluating exchange backwards

It is not that we should assume that because some exchange is voluntary, it is mutually beneficial, and therefore moral.

To the contrary, our evaluation ought to run in the reverse direction: because some exchange is moral, therefore it is likely to be mutually beneficial. And the reverse holds as well: a coke dealer and an addict are engaged in mutually harmful exchange.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My Cat Knows the Window Is Closed

And that it could be open, and how to get it opened. Consider:

"If [a] desire is consciously for an object… it implies, as we have seen, an intellectual apprehension at least of the difference between the object as desired and its realisation." -- T. H.  Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 155

My cat likes to look out the apartment window through the screen, so she can watch and smell and hear the birds and squirrels in the garden beyond. But the glass window is often closed. When this is the case, she hops up onto the windowsill and scratches at the glass window. Now, this is never ever actually opens the window. No, what she is doing is calling our attention to the fact that she wants the window opened. Then, so long as it is not freezing or sweltering outside, one of us will go over and open it for her.

It is clear to me that she has "an intellectual apprehension at least of the difference between the object as desired and its realisation," i.e., she is thinking. Of course her thoughts aren't in words, but in images: So what? As Temple Grandin explains, "I think in pictures." And so do many of us, at least some of the time. The fact that verbal thinkers are stumped by this does not mean it isn't true. And the fact that a dog can work out a syllogism shows it is true.

Applied religious technology

Long before Scientology called itself "applied religious technology," there was a predecessor: chivalric romances.

Around 1000 A.D., the problem of "noble violence" was acute. The Church tried to stem this with programs like "The Peace and Truce of God." But it is quite possible that an independent reform program actually did the most good.

The most common authors of chivalric romances were court chaplains, and what they sought to do with them was to re-channel noble violence. They combined elements and values nobles already liked (fighting, adventure, courage, strength) with "Christianizing" influences that directed those preexisting dispositions towards spiritual and benevolent goals, so that adventurers might seek the Holy Grail and a knight would fight to protect the weak from predation. And there is evidence that chivalric ideals had some effect: tournaments, for instance, became notably less violent after the idea of chivalry became popular. (Source: The High Middle Ages, Phillip Daileader.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Programming as Soulcraft

"If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. … My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal." -- Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics

This is a role education in programming can serve today.

Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here

Legend has it that the above words were written over the entrance to Plato's Academy. Whether that is true or not, the legend reflects the fact that Plato valued mathematical training for philosophers. But why?

The usual suggestion is that he thought it "trained the mind." But this is a rather modern spin on education, I suspect. I think the real reason is closer to this: Plato lived at a time when sophism was rampant in Athens. The sophists generally were moral subjectivists. What mathematical training could do, in my opinion, is convince students that there are truths about the mental world that are not just matters of opinion. That having occurred, they ought to then be more open to the idea that there are moral truths that are not simply a matter of opinion as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A season of sexual frenzy

Once we recognize that plants are much, much more active than they appear to be to casual observation, possessing memories, communicating with other plants, sharing resources, driving off predators, and so on, it is clear to me that there is no reason to regard them as less sentient than animals. Animals simply move at our speed (we being animals!), while the activity of plants is slower and thus much less apparent to us. (Tolkein, for one, saw this, characterizing Ent speech as being extremely slow moving compared to other Middle Earth creatures with language.)

And recognizing that, spring suddenly looks a lot different: it is an explosion of sexual activity, with, say, the trees in our yards having week-long orgasms. We just got a new car, and after we left it parked on the street for two days, I went to start it only to find it coated with a thick layer of pollen. "Ugh," I thought, "that tree has just ejaculated all over my car!"

The right to be beheaded

This was an important right that the nobility held during the High Middle Ages.

Once one understands that the alternatives were burning or hanging, the fact that this was considered a right is more comprehensible.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How can Microsoft Word possibly be as awful as it is?

This program has been in development for roughly 30 years. Nevertheless, the simplest tasks are often impossible for ordinary mortals to achieve. I am finishing a review with a blockquote style defined. I have a block quote with an extra line above and below it.

I can easily delete these lines with no effect on the formatting of any other text, right?

Wrong! Sometimes, when I delete the line above the block quote, the previous four paragraphs will all become block quoted as well! The Microsoft attitude seems to be, "The user is an idiot, who cannot possibly know what he wants, so we will have to guess for him." But their guesses are often ludicrous. It seems I will have to just leave blank lines around this block quote and hope my publisher can sort this out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Hayek's The Sensory Order

This is, I think, an overrated book. It begins by trying to solve a non-problem: "A precise statement of the problem raised by the existence of sensory qualities must start from the fact that the progress of the physical sciences has all but eliminated these qualities from our scientific picture of the external world."

This is nonsense. The physical sciences quite deliberately abstracted from the sensory world only those aspects of it which could be quantitatively measured. The "problem" Hayek sets out to solve is like the "problem" of where all the potholes went in a road map of New York State.

What he goes on to attempt to show is how consciousness "arises" as an emergent property of a complex system of neurons. But what we get is a description of neural classification through patterns of connections of neurons, and then... magic! Consciousness!

But Hayek shouldn't be blamed for failing here: as T. H. Green (among many other philosophers) demonstrated, consciousness, being what it is, can't be the outcome of some sequence of spatio-temporal events. What can "emerge" from any such sequence is only another item in the sequence. But consciousness can take in the whole sequence, and see it as a unity. So it cannot be another item in the sequence.

An analogy: lots of things can emerge from the sequence of plays in a basketball game. We may see, for instance, the defense respond with a certain pattern of positioning in response to made shots. But what can never emerge from such a sequence is an ESPN story describing the game.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Aristotle was a good physicist

Says physicist Carlo Rovelli:

"I show that Aristotelian physics is a correct and nonintuitive approximation of Newtonian physics in the suitable domain (motion in fluids) in the same technical sense in which Newton's theory is an approximation of Einstein's theory. Aristotelian physics lasted long not because it became dogma, but because it is a very good, empirically grounded theory. This observation suggests some general considerations on intertheoretical relationships.

Shackle on Simon

"In schemes on thought of the Simon type the 'decision-maker' is faced with a choice among existents in a system which is already complete and closed in the sense that its structure, the set of relations composing it, cannot be added to by the decision-maker himself, but must be accepted by him and made the best of. His task is to understand this structure and then, by the exercise of judgment only, to deal with it by selecting among the possibilities, already existent, which it offers. By contrast with this, in such a scheme of thought as my own the decision-maker's field of choice is created by himself so that he is faced not with a set of relationships all simultaneously, and so in a sense timelessly, but with a system which evolves from moment to moment in his own mind." -- quoted in G. L. S. Shackle, p. 159

Been Away at a Conference...

on spontaneous orders. In the meantime, I see many of you have spontaneously ordered me to respond to your comments. :-)

I will be getting to them ASAP.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

T. H. Green on evolution and consciousness

"That countless generations should have passed during which a transmitted organism was progressively modified by reaction on its surroundings, by struggle for existence, or otherwise, till its functions became such that an eternal consciousness could realise or reproduce itself through them -- this might add to the wonder with which the consideration of what we do and are must always fill us, but it could not alter the results of that consideration." -- Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 94

Libertarianism: Founded on Falsehood

Damon Linker has a good piece on how unconstrained choice makes us unhappy.

I happened upon this piece as I was contemplating the central lie upon which libertarianism is founded: that we are autonomous individuals. This central principle of libertarianism is false historically, in evolutionary terms, and most of all, metaphysically. Rather than autonomous we are, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, "dependent rational animals."

Being founded on a lie, libertarianism is destructive of human life, and it leads to other lies, such as the idea that our choices, just so long as we are not physically assaulting or robbing anyone else, are nobody's business but our own. And beginning one's reasoning with a lie cripples all of it, leaving libertarians flummoxed as to what could possibly be wrong with allowing a free market in human children.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Verbal thinkers are biased towards verbal thinking

Ed Feser tries to refute the idea that animals think, but all of his arguments rest on mistaking abstract thought for thought itself. But as idealists, beginning with Hegel and especially with the British Idealists, showed us, abstract thought is derivative and concrete thought is primary. We could not abstract anything from a world of "primary sensations" or "pure sense data" where such worlds are supposed to exclude thought and be an "I know not what." It is nonsense to suppose that we can start with something about which we have no idea what it is and "abstract" from that incomprehensibility to produce useful concepts! It is as though I told you, "Take a gwefr of qtywe, a cbshfd of qweet, and a tfbkdl of fqgksf, and tell me what they all have in common." (You might answer, "They are all nonsense," but this just shows you already understood each separate bit as nonsense.)

Feser offers some arguments from Donald Davidson that thought requires language, but each of them simply equates thought with verbalized thought, and of course verbalized thought does require language. Feser (summarizing Davidson) writes:

"Consider first that for the dog to have a thought in the sense of an internal state with conceptual content, there must be some specific content that the thought has. For example, it will be a thought with the content that the master is home -- as opposed, say, to a thought with the content that the man who is the father of the children who live in this house is home, or a thought with the content that the man who goes to work for eight hours every weekday is home."

But the thoughts Feser mentions are abstractions: what the dog has is a concrete thought, certainly with very specific content... well, I could only state the thought here in writing with another abstraction, but it should be clear that the dog knows who is home (if he mistook his master for the postman, he would be barking angrily, not pleasantly excited), and that knowing who is home is a judgment, and that all judgment is thought.

Feser continues: "Crucial to having the capacity for thought is having the capacity for believing something -- for taking it to be true that the world is this way rather than that."

Once again, this simply asserts, without justification, that all thought is propositional thought. I was once presented, by a colleague, with the question, "Could you write a one-line Perl statement that would return the day of the week from the integer number of the days since day X?" (For instance, UNIX systems often represent time as a number of seconds since January 1, 1970, a number from which one can extract a number of days since that date.)

I thought about my friend's question for a few minutes, and then I saw a seven-spoked wheel spinning through this integer sequence of dates. This was certainly a thought, and, in fact, the key thought I needed to write the line of Perl code for him, which I then did. But it was entirely non-verbal. I did not "believe" this wheel, nor have the idea in my head, "I think this wheel is true." I simply saw that it solved the problem that I had been set: as noted earlier, all perception is itself a judgment, and therefore all perception is thought.

Similarly, Albert Einstein reported that he typically understood his physical theories first kinesthetically, and only with great effort translated what he understood in his natural mode of thinking into mathematical form. And the great animal scientist Temple Grandin contends that she understands animals so well because she thinks visually, just like they do. The position Feser adopts would imply she doesn't think at all, but just "responds" to "stimuli" that lead her to be one of the top livestock-processing consultant in the world.

Feser continues:

"Now, if to be capable of thought entails having beliefs, and if having beliefs entails having the concept of believing something, then to be capable of thought entails having the concept of believing something. And if having the concept of believing something entails having language, then being capable of thought entails having language. In that case, Davidson concludes, any creature that lacks language also lacks the capacity for thought."

Consider a nature documentary I just watched, that showed chimpanzees using two stones to crack open nuts, a mortar stone and a pestle stone. The film showed a female chimp who had a mortar stone and some nuts, but lacked a pestle. She walked over to a male chimp who had both stones, but was done with his nut supply, and quite explicitly pointed at the pestle stone. At the same time she gave the male a "hopeful" look, and then watched him for a moment. When he seemed to acquiesce, she picked up his pestle stone and brought it back to her mortar to process her nuts.

It is rather obvious that she "believed" that she needed a pestle stone, and that she "believed" the male might lend it to her. But the Feser/Donaldson position simply begs the question here, assuming that if creature X believes Y, then creature X can state in propositional form her belief Y. But besides mere assertion, there is nothing at all behind this contention.

If any of my readers have ever played improvisational music, you know that to do so, one must be intently, thoughtfully focused on the musical ideas arising from the interaction of what you are playing and what your band mates are playing. But such ideas are certainly not verbal propositions, are neither true nor false, and do not "assert" anything at all about the world. Was Bach not thinking when he composed "Air on a G-String"? Was John Coltrane not thinking when he played "A Love Supreme"? Yet none of the notes they wrote or played were a proposition, nor did any of them assert "that the world is this way rather than that."
Or check out this video. Jeff Teague is able to describe verbally the choice he made... but if he was actually verbalizing all that while playing, he would have lost the ball. He was thinking, but not verbally, while he made that play.

Language use is a form of thought. The claim that it is thought itself simply turns on arbitrarily rejecting all non-lingual thought as non-thought. The entire Donaldson/Feser case that thought requires language turns out to be:

1) We will only accept as thought verbal propositions that can be judged as true or false.
2) All proposed non-verbal forms of thought are not verbal propositions that can be judged as true or false.
3) Therefore, all thought is verbal.

It is hard to imagine a more circular argument!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Augustine on Why Special Regard for Our Fellow Citizens Is Moral

"Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you." -- On Christian Doctrine

What would you do?

"For example, consider a case where a person is presented with the following three options

"(a) Receive $500,000 with certainty.
(b) A 95 percent probability of receiving $1 million dollars and a 5 per cent probability of receiving just $100.
(c) A 50 per cent probability of receiving $900,000 and a 50 per cent probability of receiving $100,000

"For both shackles model and Prospect Theory, option (a) becomes the referenced point and the rival strategies have to be reframed as follows for Prospect Theory:

"(b) A 95 per cent probability of gaining $500,000 and a 5 per cent chance of losing $499,900
(c) A 50 per cent probability of gaining $400,000 and a 50 per cent probability of losing $400,000

"In terms of prospect theory, loss aversion guarantees that (a) will be preferred over (c); option (b) may also be rejected in favour of (a) due to the downside risk being assigned a much bigger weight than 5 per cent, whereas in terms of traditional subjective expected utility theory (b) would normally be expected to be favoured." -- G. L. S. Shackle, pp. 173-174

The authors go on to note that Shackle could explain the possible choice of (a) over (b) better than Prospect Theory. For Shackle, a likely reason one might favor (a) over (b) is that (a) might be seen as a "life-changing event": "At last! Now I can open that Italian restaurant I've dreamed of running. The additional $500,000 upside is unnecessary to the dream, while the $499,900 downside is absolutely destructive of it.

Indeed, offered the choice of (a), (b) or (c) right now, I probably would take (a). How about you?

Is vapidity hard-wired into us as a species?

In G. L. S. Shackle, Earl and Littleboy write "there is clearly a good reason for [discounting everyday dangers] being a hard-wired tendency."

What does this sentence say that "People have a tendency to discount everyday dangers" doesn't? I say nothing at all. The authors are not claiming to have found the "wiring" creating the behavior in question, and anyway, if it was "hard-wired," one would think it might be a little more than a tendency, right?

The way I read the sentence is "there is clearly a good reason for [discounting everyday dangers] being a [LOOK! We know trendy neuro-babble!!] tendency."

Matt Bleg

Dear Commenter Matt,

I have a (paying) project I may need your help on: if you are interested, please send your email address as a comment, which I won't post (I have to approve all comments before they appear).

If you are not interested, it would be great if you said so in a comment anyway, so I can keep looking.

Thanks.

"Politics as the crow flies" and the Baltimore riots

Michael Oakeshott sometimes referred to the rationalist attitude to politics as "politics as the crow flies." As I understand his meaning here, he is criticizing the notion that, if in political life we detect some problem, we must immediately enact the first legislation that comes to mind that seems to correct the problem.

The flaw in this approach is that it ignores the complexity and inter-connectedness of social life.
The direct fix for problem A may easily create problems B and C, and they may be worse than problem A.

Police personnel being drawn from the neighborhood in which they are to serve can create problems, since they may tend to favor their friends or relatives from the neighborhood. And police may not want to live in a troubled city.

So states have moved to strike down residency laws, and some cities, like New York, forbid officers from serving in the precinct where they live.* But such moves may solve one problem at the expense of creating even worse ones, such as the police force viewing the citizens they are supposed to serve as an alien population they are tasked with subduing.

In Baltimore, it turns out, three-quarters of the police force live outside the city. And for white cops, the number is more like 90% living outside the city. (I am estimating that number from the graph in the linked article.) Is it likely that the Baltimore police would have treated Freddie Gray like they did if he had been their neighbor?

I believe a connection between police officers and the neighborhood in which they work is essential. At the very least, we could create community boards with some authority over how the police operate in their neighborhoods, for instance, by demanding transfers of cops who are especially unresponsive to local concerns.

* I believe this last claim is true, as I recall being informed about it by an NYC cop, but I have been researching it and am having trouble finding out if it is so. I may have an update soon.

UPDATE: I confirmed that my MYC claim is, indeed, true.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Foreign language instruction in the U.S.

I happen to be teaching French today. (Ou et pourquoi je ne dirai pas.)

When my first class entered this morning, I ask them a simple question or two in French. I was met almost entirely with blank stares.

On the teacher's desk, there is a magazine for French teachers. Written in English. So even the students' teacher is not expected to be fluent enough to comfortably read teaching tips in the language he or she teaches.

American foreign language instruction seems geared towards having students become capable of filling in verb endings on tests, not to actually communicating in another language.

Testing Shackle

Earl and Littleboy describe an empirical test of Shackle's (non-probabilistic) theory of choice under uncertainty done by Hey in the 1980s. The subjects were presented with three uncertain situations, asked to produce an exhaustive list of what might occur in each case, and then to rate each in terms of possibility, probability, and potential surprise.

The authors sum up the result of the experiment as follows: "Though Hey's findings were problematic for both Shackleian and probabilistic analyses of expectations, he felt on balance they were more damaging to Shackle's approach" (p. 134).

However, going by the description in the book, this does not seem like a very fair test of Shackle's theory. Shackle says that in typically situations, people do not try to make an exhaustive list of possibilities and then assign a probability weight to each: instead, they considered only certain attention-grabbing possibilities. To test this, Hey apparently told the subjects to make an exhaustive list of possibilities and assign probability weights to them! I suppose the results show that his subjects can follow directions, but they certainly do not demonstrate that in typical, unsupervised choices, people don't act as Shackle says they do. (I am not endorsing Shackle's theory here, merely stating that this does not seem like a good way to test it.)

It is as though Jones has claimed that New Yorkers, when stepping out in the morning, are typically not concerned with encountering a rampaging elephant outside their apartments. Smith, to test this claim, asks various New Yorkers to imagine that there might be a rampaging elephant outside their apartment in the morning, and then asks if this would worry them.

Euphemisms II

It's not just abortion where these euphemisms bug me either. I think it is sometimes OK to euthanize your pet, but... you did not "...