Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eating disorders as a class issue?

From The influence of school on whether girls develop eating disorders by Helen Bould, Bianca De Stavola, Cecilia Magnusson, Nadia Micali, Henrik Dal, Jonathan Evans, Christina Dalman and Glyn Lewis. Abstract
Background: Clinical anecdote suggests that rates of eating disorders (ED) vary between schools. Given their high prevalence and mortality, understanding risk factors is important. We hypothesised that rates of ED would vary between schools, and that school proportion of female students and proportion of parents with post-high school education would be associated with ED, after accounting for individual characteristics.

Method: Multilevel analysis of register-based, record-linkage data on 55 059 females born in Stockholm County, Sweden, from 1983, finishing high school in 2002-10. Outcome was clinical diagnosis of an ED, or attendance at a specialist ED clinic, aged 16-20 years.

Results: The 5-year cumulative incidence of ED diagnosis aged 16-20 years was 2.4%. Accounting for individual risk factors, with each 10% increase in the proportion of girls at a school, the odds ratio for ED was 1.07 (1.01 to 1.13), P = 0.018. With each 10% increase in the proportion of children with at least one parent with post-high school education, the odds ratio for ED was 1.14 (1.09 to 1.19), P < 0.0001. Predicted probability of an average girl developing an ED was 1.3% at a school with 25% girls where 25% of parents have post-high school education, and 3.3% at a school with 75% girls where 75% of parents have post-high school education. Conclusions: Rates of ED vary between schools; this is not explained by individual characteristics. Girls at schools with high proportions of female students, and students with highly educated parents, have higher odds of ED regardless of individual risk factors.
I wonder what role class plays in this, with education attainment often being a proxy for class. I also wonder whether/how this might be connected with female intrasexual competition.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Public honesty and institutional integrity

An interesting study which raises more questions than it answers. From Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies by Simon Gächter and Jonathan F. Schulz. The abstract.
Deception is common in nature and humans are no exception1. Modern societies have created institutions to control cheating, but many situations remain where only intrinsic honesty keeps people from cheating and violating rules. Psychological, sociological and economic theories suggest causal pathways to explain how the prevalence of rule violations in people’s social environment, such as corruption, tax evasion or political fraud, can compromise individual intrinsic honesty. Here we present cross-societal experiments from 23 countries around the world that demonstrate a robust link between the prevalence of rule violations and intrinsic honesty. We developed an index of the ‘prevalence of rule violations’ (PRV) based on country-level data from the year 2003 of corruption, tax evasion and fraudulent politics. We measured intrinsic honesty in an anonymous die-rolling experiment. We conducted the experiments with 2,568 young participants (students) who, due to their young age in 2003, could not have influenced PRV in 2003. We find individual intrinsic honesty is stronger in the subject pools of low PRV countries than those of high PRV countries. The details of lying patterns support psychological theories of honesty. The results are consistent with theories of the cultural co-evolution of institutions and values, and show that weak institutions and cultural legacies that generate rule violations not only have direct adverse economic consequences, but might also impair individual intrinsic honesty that is crucial for the smooth functioning of society.
One study, unrepresentative sample, all the usual caveats. The suggestion from the evidence seems to be that the individual behaviors manifested in a culture are at least correlated with the objective measures of corruption in the institutions of that culture. Honest citizens have honest institutions but that says nothing about causal mechanisms or direction of causal flow.

It does pose interesting questions about such public policy issues as immigration. The the extent that OECD countries permit immigration, those that do tend to focus on allowing in either those with a clear prospect of wealth creation (highly educated) or those granted access on humanitarian grounds.

The public fear of immigration in most countries is rarely an issue of xenophobia but a combination of two issues - the political elite being insulated from the will of the people, and the economic and social consequences of immigration being visited upon the lowest social quintiles in terms of crime, economic competition, etc.

If the above research ends up being robust, it suggests that perhaps immigrant selection ought, in part, be based on compatibility with host country norms of trust and honesty.

Friday, June 23, 2017

It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization

This is a mess of a column. From The End of the Left and the Right as We Knew Them by Thomas B. Edsall. I enjoy reading Edsall's work. He is among the strongest left leaning commenters, principally because he so often bases his arguments on logic applied to data rather than based on simple ideological emotion. Engaging with his arguments is almost always useful and a learning experience.

That's why this column is so surprising. The argument seems almost incoherent. No doubt we live in unsettled political times with electorates across the OECD turfing out the smug and comfortable vested elites, choosing unknown, incomprehensible, or even inconceivable alternatives.

Edsall looks at this pattern and wants to make it an issue of globalism versus populism which seems a pretty weak reed. Yes, globalism, among many other issues, is involved. And yes, the rejection of the vision of the self-anointed elites might be characterized as populism. But globalism and populism are words of clay, molded to mean whatever you want them to mean.

Edsall has a lot of OECD examples and data but he, as a voice of the American Left, seems compelled to make this consistent with the American postmodernist, critical theory assumptions. Race and xenophobia have to be a root cause. Those with whom we disagree must be racist. He ends his column with:
What we are seeing now is the replacement of class-based politics, a trend apparent in the United States and Europe. This gives us a more racialized and xenophobic politics, on one hand, and a politics capitalizing on increasing levels of education and open-mindedness in the electorate on the other. If the building of a viable left coalition is possible, it is likely to require some thoughtful and humane co-optation in the form of deference to our limits and boundaries.
These global changes aren't about race as we understand it in the US. Edsall tends to be much more sophisticated than this.

Scott Alexander, another intelligent writer of the left, has had a number of excellent thought pieces on the foolishness and profoundly immoral instinct to ascribe everything to an ad hominem slander of racism. Its not about racism and xenophobia. Its much simpler than that. If the self-anointed elite of both the left and right keep blinding themselves to the interests, challenges, and needs of the majority, then the electoral upsets will continue happening. From You are still crying wolf by Scott Alexander, November 16th, 2016.
Trump made gains among blacks. He made gains among Latinos. He made gains among Asians. The only major racial group where he didn’t get a gain of greater than 5% was white people. I want to repeat that: the group where Trump’s message resonated least over what we would predict from a generic Republican was the white population.

Nor was there some surge in white turnout. I don’t think we have official numbers yet, but by eyeballing what data we have it looks very much like whites turned out in equal or lesser numbers this year than in 2012, 2008, and so on. [EDIT: see counterpoint, countercounterpoint]

The media responded to all of this freely available data with articles like White Flight From Reality: Inside The Racist Panic That Fueled Donald Trump’s Victory and Make No Mistake: Donald Trump’s Win Represents A Racist “Whitelash”.

I stick to my thesis from October 2015. There is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s “the candidate of the KKK” and “the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement” is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.

I avoided pushing this point any more since last October because I didn’t want to look like I was supporting Trump, or accidentally convince anyone else to support Trump. I think Trump’s election is a disaster. He has no plan, he’s dangerously trigger-happy, and his unilateralism threatens aid to developing countries, one of the most effective ways we currently help other people. I thought and still think a Trump presidency will be a disaster.

But since we’re past the point where we can prevent it, I want to present my case.

I realize that all of this is going to make me sound like a crazy person and put me completely at odds with every respectable thinker in the media, but luckily, being a crazy person at odds with every respectable thinker in the media has been a pretty good ticket to predictive accuracy lately, so whatever.
And just this week Alexander has Against Murderism. Murderism being analogized to racism - a generic moral claim to the high ground without the hard work of actually comprehending the position of the other.
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

And I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”
Across the developed world, citizens are revolting against the regulated rich (bankers, lawyers, doctors and everyone else whose access to wealth is regulated by the government) and the protected powerful (the bureaucrats writing the regulations). This is an issue of vested interests, a structural deficit in democracy, and self-annointed elite dehumanizing their less fortunate fellow citizens in order to pursue policies beneficial to the regulated rich and the protected powerful.

This isn't about ignorance and racism, deplorables and bitter clingers. This is about empathy, understanding, and a capacity to comprehend the rational desires of one's fellow citizens.

The problem in the first half is the solution in the second half! You can't have it both ways.

From "Inkblot" is the wrong meme for the gerrymandering problem in the case the Supreme Court is looking at. by Ann Althouse. Althouse is a retired constitutional law professor who is accustomed to reading texts in a critical and detailed manner. Most of us vacuum up words like a baleen whale does krill. We don't distinguish the individual words but get a general sense.

Althouse looks at every word no matter what she is reading - a law, an article, a song, literature.

That detailed critical reading sometimes pays off. In this article she shines light on the incoherence of a NYT article, Gerrymandering Case Echoes in Inkblot-Like Districts Across the U.S. by Michael Cooper.

Gerrymandering is a favorite bugbear for reformers on both sides of the aisle, a position I long shared. And still do to an extent. What has changed for me is that I still think gerrymandering to be a vile effort at manipulating power but I am now more inclined to suspect that it is not strategically as consequential as I once believed.

There are three articles of faith in gerrymandering conversations. 1) Gerrymandering is real. 2) Gerrymandering is effective at changing the voting outcomes. 3) Gerrymandering is an evil exclusively perpetrated by the other party.

We know gerrymandering is real though its extensiveness is disputed.

We know that both parties gerrymander.

What has changed in the past twenty years are new questions arising as to whether it makes much of a difference. The gerrymandering forced by the Civil Rights Act has been effective at ensuring greater racial representation in Congress than might otherwise have been the case. However, since the African American vote is overwhelmingly a Democratic Party vote, the Civil Rights Act gerrymandering is simply constitutionally sanctioned political gerrymandering.

While all partisans believes gerrymandering works, there hasn't until recent years, been much of a capacity to test that assumption. However, with the increasing power of computers and access to voting data, researchers in recent years have been able to run simulations that allow us to answer the question about effectiveness.

Obviously any outcome makes a difference to an individual candidate and the voters for that position but that doesn't determine whether it makes a difference in the aggregate.

What researchers have done is used actual party affiliation and voting patterns at a polling station level and run those numbers against randomly generated districts and compared the results. What they have found is that when you compare actual party counts from gerrymandered districts against thousands of randomly generated districts, in aggregate the differences in outcome are minute: 1-5% in most of the research I have seen.

Again, I am not discounting that gerrymandering throws districts towards one party or another and that in particular circumstances a 1% difference can swing things one direction or another. However, the great bulk of the electorate live in largely homogenous areas and therefore only a few voting districts are routinely competitive between the parties and in only a few of those competitive districts does it appear that gerrymandering influences the outcome at all.

We are investing a lot of effort fighting over gerrymandering and yet the evidence seems to suggest that, while real, it simply doesn't influence the outcomes in a predictable or material way.

Which is all backdrop to the actual NYT article Althouse is dissecting.

The NYT is a solidly Democratic Party organization and so in their worldview, gerrymandering is done excessively by Republicans to the detriment of Democrats and they want it stopped. In this instance, Cooper has accidentally gotten himself tangled up. Most criticisms of gerrymandering hinge on the appearance of a district shape - is it an incomprehensible mutant (gerrymandered) or is it compact, following terrain and geography (not-gerrymandered). This is simplistic heuristic as gerrymandering is the manipulation of voter headcount to an predictable outcome. The fact that in order to get the headcount numbers to work the geographical map may look peculiar is incidental to the actual targeted event (headcount manipulation.)

Cooper mistakes the visual evidence of gerrymandering with the actuality of gerrymandering. He starts with an instance in Pennsylvania where there are all sorts of Republican gerrymandered districts with very odd shapes and extended forms.
A Rorschach-test inkblot of a district that has been likened to “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” this district meanders through five counties and is so narrow in parts that it is only the width of a restaurant in King of Prussia and of an endoscopy center in Coatesville
For Cooper, gerrymandering in Pennsylvania is bad because it is being done by Republicans and it leads to weirdly shaped districts.

In contrast, in Wisconsin, the gerrymandering is bad because it is done by Republicans and it leads to compactly shaped voting districts.
Indeed, one of the defenses made by Wisconsin officials is that their districts are compact.


“They don’t look bizarre,” William Whitford, one of the Democratic plaintiffs suing over the Wisconsin map, said Monday on a conference call with reporters. “But if you really know the Wisconsin political geography — and that’s a learning curve! — they are bizarre.”
As Althouse points out:
Did the NYT not notice that the article is insane? The problem in the first half is the solution in the second half! You can't have it both ways. Which is kind of why the Supreme Court hasn't figured out what to do with these cases (other than to allow the litigation to proceed, which is some sort of deterrent to the most aggressively partisan gerrymandering).
You could easily gloss over the self-contradicting argument Cooper makes. Althouse is much more attendant to the particulars of the argument which is presumably what makes her a good constitutional lawyer.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Postmodernism - its foul pestilential breath infected every youthful ambition.

The Satyricon by Petronius, translated by J.P. Sullivan. Sound like the lamentations about the corruption of academics and the decline in our magnificent universities? Universities forced into self-disrepute through their cultivation of postmodernist critical theory? This isn't so much a reminder that all is as it ever was. Rather, it is a reminder that across cultures and ages, youthful folly is outgrown.

The opening paragraph.
'Our professors of rhetoric are hag-ridden in the same way, surely, when they shout "I got these wounds fighting for your freedom! This eye I lost for you. Give me a hand to lead me to my children. I am hamstrung, my legs can't support me." We could put up even with this stuff if it were a royal road to eloquence. But the only result of these pompous subjects and this empty thunder of platitudes, is that when young speakers first enter public life they think they have been landed on another planet. I'm sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, oracles advising sacrifice of three or more virgins during a plague - a mass of cloying verbiage: every word, every move is just so much poppycock.

People fed on this kind of thing have as much chance of learning sense as dishwashers of smelling clean. If you'll pardon my saying so, you are mainly responsible for ruining good speaking. Your smooth and empty sound effects provided a few laughs, and as a result you took the guts out of real oratory, and that was the end of it. Young men were not tied down to the rhetorical exercises when it was Sophocles and Euripides who developed the proper language for them. Academic pendants had not addled their wits when Pindar and the nine lyric poets shrank away from the Homeric style. And apart from the poets I can cite, I certainly cannot see Plato or Demosthenes going in for this sort of training. The elevated, what one might call the pure style, is not full of purple patches and bombast: it is lifted up by its intrinsic beauty. It is not so long since the long-winded spouting of yours travelled from Asia to Athens and its foul pestilential breath infected every youthful ambition. Once the rules go, eloquence loses vigour and voice. In short, who since then has equalled Thucydides or Hyperides in their reputation. Why, not even poetry has shown a spark of life. All forms of literature have been faced with the same diet and lost their chance of a ripe old age. Even the great art of painting has met the same fate since the unscrupulous Egyptians invented short cuts for painters.

Agamemnon, after his own sweat in the classroom, did not allow me to hold forth in the colonnade for longer than himself.

'Young man,' he said, 'your opinion shows extraordinary good taste and you have that extremely rare quality - a love for intellectual merit. So I shall not baffle you with any expertise. Of course teachers are making immemorial concessions with these exercises - they have to humour the madmen. If the speeches they make do not win the approval of their young pupils, as Cicero says, "they will be the only ones in their schools".


"What's the answer? It's the parents you should blame. They won't allow their children to be properly controlled. In the first place they sacrifice everything, even their hopes, to their ambition. Then in their over-eagerness they direct these immature intellects into public life. They will tell you that there is no mightier power than oratory and they dress their boys up as orators while they are still drawing their first breath. If only parents would not rush them through their studies! Then young men who are prepared to work would cultivate their minds with solid reading, mould their characters with sensible advice, and prune their words with a stylish pen. They would wait and listen before they tried themselves and they would realize that an adolescent taste is quite worthless. Then the noble art of oratory would have it's true weight and dignity. Boys today are frivolous in school; young men are laughing-stocks in public life; and, the greatest shame of all, even when they are old they refuse to give up the mistakes they learnt earlier.
We've got it all in the Roman first century AD. Dunning-Kruger effect, youthful idiocy, public discourse polluted by the platitudinous, hack professors, debasement of values, decline of the humanities and even helicopter parents.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following poem which I love. It was later inscribed as an epitaph on his gravestone.
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
I have just discovered that A.E. Housman, another poet I greatly admire, has a similar poem. As best I can tell, Housman wrote this in admiration of, or as a tribute to Stevenson.

Strange that I should have read so much of both their poetry and never have made the connection.
Home Is the Sailor
by A.E. Housman

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Are media viewpoints skewed simply because it is more comfortable for them to interview people who are pretty much like themselves?

From Why Ossoff Lost by Molly Ball reporting on yesterday's defeat of Democrat Jon Ossoff in the Georgia District 6 special election, an event blown all out of proportion in terms of its actual significance. Given how much was spent on media advertising (tens of millions) for this very local race, you can't help but wonder whether there wasn't media collusion to make a mountain out of a mole hill. It certainly was financially remunerative to them.

All sorts of digital ink being spilled on this nothing burger.

The only reason to draw attention to Ball's reporting is as an example of how the internet allows a degree of fact checking on reporters which was not possible even ten years ago.

In this case, the checking capability relates to LinkedIn. Ball quotes three Ossoff supporters (Hazel Hunt, Jennifer Orlow, and Jessica Zeigler) and three Karen Handel (the Republican candidate) supporters (Debbie Moscato, Sandy Capparell, and Joe Webb). Given that all six are on LinkedIn, that allows us to do some very basic eye-balling - Are they representative of the electorate? Whether there is any significance to their conformance or divergence from the demographics is an open question. And obviously, six is a non-significant sample. Likely much of the variance might have to do with chance or unconscious bias on the part of the reporter.

The first thing that leaps out is that 83% of the quoted interviewees are women in an electorate that is 50% female. Is that random chance, deliberate bias, or simply an unconscious bias? Don't know, but it is striking.

Age is another striking element - No one is young among the six. Two retirees and four middle-aged.

Profession is another - four of the six are involved in the healthcare field (two each from Democrat and Republican). One is a teacher (Democrat) and only one is from the competitive private sector (a retired IBM executive.) Education and healthcare, two professions highly dependent on government subsidies or regulations. Again, 83% of those interviewed are professionally involved in fields dependent on the whim and largesse of government. That would certainly skew their views and opinions.

Education attainment is also striking - All six are college graduates versus only 30% amongst the electorate at large.

Country of origin is also out of whack - 15% of Americans are foreign born whereas 33% of those interviewed were foreign born. Presumably, given that they were voting in an election, they are now citizens. 66% of the Ossoff supporting interviewees were foreign born.

That's just a ten minute scan with no other searching. Ball's sample of voters is evenly balanced between Republican and Democrat. Other than that, the sample is markedly skewed. Oversampled on female, college education, foreign birth and in professions that are essentially extensions of the government.

I am not intending to bash Molly Ball. I am pretty certain I have read articles of hers before, and given that she writes for the Atlantic, almost certainly she is strongly partisan. But partisanship is not necessarily what comes through from the sampling of interviews. What manifests most strongly is class and identity insularity.

Where are all the high school graduates, the farmers, the blue collar workers, the minimum wage services people, the young, the STEM people, those in the 75% of the economy which is competitive rather than government regulated/influenced?

Ball interviewed people who are in many ways just like her: college educated, female, and in an industry that is tied to government.

Maybe the media is so skewed in their viewpoints because it is easiest to simply talk to people pretty much like themselves, even if they might be on the other side of the political aisle. That would be a pretty strong bubble shaping your view of the world.

AI is the administration of things

From The Administration of Things by Ben Kafka.
“If men never disagreed about the ends of life, if our ancestors had remained undisturbed in the Garden of Eden, the studies to which the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory is dedicated could scarcely have been conceived,” Isaiah Berlin told his audience at Oxford when he assumed that position in 1958. Philosophy was at its best when it was being contentious, especially when it was being contentious about the meaning and purpose of our common existence. Too much agreement was an abdication of its ethical responsibility:
Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political, but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. This is the meaning of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’, and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the state and the beginning of the true history of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless, a visitor from Mars to any British—or American—university today might perhaps be forgiven if he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and idyllic state, for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.
The task of philosophy was not to settle disputes, but to unsettle them, to encourage them, to keep them going. For it was only through disputation that we could resist the rule of experts and machines, the bureaucratic-technocratic society foretold by Saint-Simon and championed by Marx and Engels, a society in which we replace the “government of persons by the administration of things.”

Berlin was hardly alone in his concern about the implications of Saint-Simon’s formula. In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss argued that “in order to reach his highest stature, man must live in the best kind of society, in the kind of society that is most conducive to human excellence. The classics called the best society the best politeia. By this expression they indicated, first of all, that, in order to be good, society must be civil or political society, a society in which there exists government of men and not merely administration of things.” 3 He reiterated this criticism in a slightly more confused way in The City and Man: “On the basis of the break with Aristotle, one could come to believe in the possibility of a simply rational society, i.e., of a society each member of which would be of necessity perfectly rational so that all would be united by fraternal friendship, and government of men, as distinguished from administration of things, would wither away.” 4

Hannah Arendt was even blunter. After citing Lenin’s assertion that administration in the future would become so simple that even a cook could take charge of it, she remarked, “Obviously, under such circumstances the whole business of politics, Engels’s simplified ‘administration of things’, could be of interest only to a cook, or at best to those ‘mediocre minds’ whom Nietzsche thought best qualified for taking care of public affairs.” 5 Still other mid-century thinkers objected that the administration of things would lead to the thingification of people. Thus Raymond Aron argued that “the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century have shown that if there is one false notion it is that the administration of things can replace the government of people. It has emerged very clearly that if you want to administer all objects you must control all individuals at the same time.” 6 And in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell warned “the administration of things—the substitution of rational judgment for politics—is the hallmark of technocracy.” Or even more succinctly: “In the evolution of technocratic society, things ride men.”
This is from five years ago and echoes the terminology I occasionally use, the distinction between determinists and the tragedians. The determinists, of whom Marx, with all his Iron Laws was one, see man as a malleable input of the social process who can be perfected for purposes of the state. Tragedians view life as contingent on complex and often effectively incomprehensible human processes. Man must remain free to make their own decisions because complexity and uncertainty are universal.

These passages seem to echo some of the visceral fear that many are expressing of AI and the possible displacement of humans from the future integrated system where an increasing portion of decisions are made on our behalf by learning machines. That prospect is the ultimate realization of humans having been displaced by the administration of things.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A surprising find from the past

I am clearing out a lot of old research materials and papers that are now digitized. In that process, I came across an article from the Spring 1994 edition of American Scholar, Bourgeois Virtue by Donald McCloskey (now Dierdre McCloskey). McCloskey has written a series of books about the Bourgeois Virtue value system and how it underpins the success of the western world.

What caught my eye was this brief passage from 23 years ago. Of course we see his name everyday now, but he was no shrinking violet even back then.
Donald Trump offends. But for all the envy he has provoked, he is not a thief. He didn't get his millions from aristocratic cattle raids, acclaimed in bardic glory. He made, as he put it in his first book, deals. The deals were voluntary. He didn't use a .38 or a broadsword to get people to agree. He bought the Commodore Hotel low and sold it high because Penn Central, Hyatt Hotels, and the New York City Board of Estimate—and behind them the voters and hotel guests—put the old place at a low value and the new place, trumped up, at a high value. Trump earned a suitably fat profit for seeing that a hotel in a low-value use could be moved into a high-value use. An omniscient central planner would have ordered the same move. Mar-ket capitalism should be defended as the most altruistic of systems, each capitalist working, working, working to help a customer, for pay. Trump does good by doing well.
He was offensive back then, to the great and the good, because he was a real estate developer. McCloskey is pointing out that in that role, he was virtuous - providing people more of what they wanted, even if the elite might wrinkle their noses.

I have wondered, since his election, just how much the revulsion of the Acela Cabal is due to any policy position of Trump, how much is due to the fact that he pitches his deal to ordinary Americans rather than the self-avowed elite, and how much is just longstanding social stigma given that he was a businessman and a developer at that.

Funny to see this passage though given the changed times.

That is a big duck

Among the first headlines I come across this morning: Why Canadians are mad about this huge rubber duck by Andrea Romano. Two responses immediately leap to mind - "The world we live in . . . " and "First world problems."

Monday, June 19, 2017

France has probably produced the most reprehensible coterie of public intellectuals that any country has ever managed

From an in with Dr. Jordan Peterson. My transcription.
What happened in the 1960s, the later 1960s, as far as I can tell, this happened mostly in France, which has probably produced the most reprehensible coterie of public intellectuals that any country has ever managed, is that in the late 1960s when all the student activists had decided that the Marxist revolution wasn't going to occur in the Western world, and had also finally realized that apologizing for the Soviet system was just not going to fly anymore. Given the tens of millions of bodies that had stacked up, they performed a philosophical sleight of hand and transformed the class war into identity politics war. That became extraordinarily popular mostly transmitted through people like Jacque Derrida who became an absolute darling of the Yale English department and had his pernicious doctrines spread throughout North America partly as a consequence of his invasion of Yale. What happened with the postmodernists is that they kept on pedaling their murderous breed of political doctrine under a new guise. Resentful people all over the world fell for it.

Good habits, clear communication, core networks.

A useful case study of decision-making in complex, dynamic multi-causal systems. From A dog bite sent him to the ER. A cascade of missteps nearly killed him. by Sandra G. Boodman.

A dog bite leads to an uncommon infection which in turn leads to a near death outcome along with hearing loss and toe amputations.

The couple are just 50, they are educated professionals, he an industrial engineer and she a university STEM professor.

Other than lacking a spleen (from a car accident in his twenties), he was in good health until bitten by a dog. From that point, his health collapsed over a period of several days. Personal health and healthcare systems are both complex, dynamic multi-causal systems. This occurred in the UK where healthcare is nationalized with the pros (free) and cons (rationed and overburdened) attendant to such a system.

A straight-forward dog bite leading to near death. Here were the things that went wrong, and indeed, most had to go wrong for this multi-causal chain to lead to the outcome that it did. If only one or a few of these things had not happened, the catastrophic outcome would have been avoided.
Patient had no spleen (critical to the immune system and therefore making him especially susceptible to infection).

Patient and spouse were unaware of needing to take special health precautions owing to absence of a spleen.

Patient did not advise doctors that he did not have a spleen in the first few days.

Patient had no routine doctor.

Patient had not had a check-up in years.

Patient did not have any routine immunizations.

Patient was infected with a rare bacterium, not routinely experienced by healthcare practitioners.

Patient waited a day before visiting an urgent care clinic.

Patient declined antibiotic recommended by the clinic.

Clinic did not make clear that the probability of infection was 20% rather than 5% as communicated.

Patient returned to the clinic 24 hours later to be referred to a nearby hospital.

Patient and Clinic did not communicate clearly with one another as to which local hospital he was to go to.

Patient arrived at the emergency room which was overcrowded and had to wait. While waiting, patient's spouse left to take of their dogs. Important as it is often important to have a clear thinking advocate in a hospital environment.

Patient gave an incomplete description of condition to the triage nurse, omitting that he had no spleen, that he had been recently bitten by a dog or that he had been administered a tetanus shot.

Contextual circumstances masked some of the diagnostic clues. Specifically, patient mentioned he was a runner who often have low blood pressure, masking what would have otherwise been a diagnostically significant condition.

Emergency room was so over-crowded that the wait to see a doctor was several hours long without a clear time commitment.

Spouse called another hospital emergency room but their wait down was also several hours.

Patient and spouse did not know patients' normal blood pressure and ignored advice from a paramedic to stay in the emergency room because of the low blood pressure.

Patient and spouse left after several hours without having seen the doctor and without knowing the seriousness of patients' condition.

Patient and spouse waited several more hours before returning to the emergency room.

It was six-days after hospitalization before a specialist with the necessary experience (he had seen a case of the rare bacterium several years before) saw the patient.
By my count, at least 21 things had to go wrong for this outcome.

It is easy to fall into a legalistic or moralistic effort to adjudge whose fault this was. Was it the patient for failing to follow routine basic health maintenance actions (primary care doctor, routine check-ups, up-to-date vaccinations)? Was it poor communication between healthcare providers and patient? Was it disregard for the gravity of the situation by patient and spouse? Was it poor National Health Service administration for underfunding emergency room capacity? Was it poor emergency room diagnostic practices? Was it bad luck that contextual circumstances (running) masked the health conditions?

Yes, all these contributed and more. It is a dynamic, complex, multi-causal system.

The interesting question when dealing with a dynamic, complex, multi-causal system is not so much whose fault it is as what are the changes that could have been made to avoid the bad outcome. Whatever those changes, they might or might not be feasible or affordable in a resource constrained environment, but that is a choice.

It is, I think, important to acknowledge that the patient and spouse did at least one thing right, given the probabilities involved. There is no inherent reason to assume that a routine dog bite is a serious matter. They did exactly the right thing in terms of waiting an amount of time before they could see that there were complications, they were right to start at a clinic. They were right to attend the emergency room. The escalation protocol makes sense.

What is especially alarming about this case is that the patient and spouse, given their professions, are almost certainly from the upper quintile in terms of intelligence, competence, experience, capability, etc. If the system can fail this catastrophically for them, what does that bode for the other 80%?

Of course, this is an extreme example and says nothing about the overall healthcare system effectiveness (that's a different discussion.) But it is striking that at least 21 process failures not only had to occur but did occur. Nearly every one of the failures was not unreasonable in its context. It is nearly impossible to design a human system with zero quality defects.

There is not enough information in the article to do a detailed process analysis but the reality, I suspect, is that there are few improvements that are feasible, affordable and would make a material difference in aggregate. Perhaps it is not process improvements where we ought to focus but rather more strategic issues.

Three things stand out from this case to me. The first is that the couple might have avoided much of this complication had they followed basic routine health practices (primary-doctor, routine check-ups and up-to-date vaccinations). Had they done that, patient likely would have been more alert to the risk represented by not having a spleen and would have communicated that more clearly and earlier.

The second is the importance of clear, accurate, and timely communication. Had this occurred at various stages, again the outcome might have been circumvented.

The third is the importance of advocacy within an emergency room or hospital environment. Constrained, high tension, dynamic, complex, multi-causal systems are difficult to navigate at the best of times. If you are in ill-health, you really need someone else to manage that for you. Your social network (usually anchored in your family) needs to be robust enough that someone is there as your advocate when you need them.

Strategically that suggests that process deficiencies can be mitigated by good habits, clear communication, core networks.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Swirling and poising idly in golden light.

The Buzzards
by Martin Armstrong

When evening came and the warm glow grew deeper
And every tree that bordered the green meadows
And in the yellow cornfields every reaper
And every corn-shock stood above their shadows
Flung eastward from their feet in longer measure,
Serenely far there swam in the sunny height
A buzzard and his mate who took their pleasure
Swirling and poising idly in golden light.
On great pied motionless moth-wings borne along,
So effortless and so strong,
Cutting each other’s paths, together they glided,
Then wheeled asunder till they soared divided
Two valleys’ width (as though it were delight
To part like this, being sure they could unite
So swiftly in their empty, free dominion),
Curved headlong downward, towered up the sunny steep,
Then, with a sudden lift of the one great pinion,
Swung proudly to a curve and from its height
Took half a mile of sunlight in one long sweep.

And we, so small on the swift immense hillside,
Stood tranced, until our souls arose uplifted
On those far-sweeping, wide,
Strong curves of flight,–swayed up and hugely drifted,
Were washed, made strong and beautiful in the tide
Of sun-bathed air. But far beneath, beholden
Through shining deeps of air, the fields were golden
And rosy burned the heather where cornfields ended.

And still those buzzards wheeled, while light withdrew
Out of the vales and to surging slopes ascended,
Till the loftiest-flaming summit died to blue.

Stop moping and do something!

I empathize with their goal but they are on evidentiarily weak ground. None-the-less, I enjoyed this passage from The Dehumanities by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro.
A good sign something has gone astray is that a work is reduced to a simple message. Only mediocre literature can be read that way. Otherwise, why not just memorize messages: love your neighbor (A Tale of Two Cities). Help the unfortunate (Les MisĂ©rables). Child abuse is wrong (Jane Eyre and David Copperfield). Do not kill old ladies, even really mean ones (Crime and Punishment). First impressions can be misleading (Pride and Prejudice). Don’t give in to jealousy (Othello). Obsessions can be dangerous (Moby Dick). Stop moping and do something! (Hamlet). There’s no fool like an old fool (King Lear).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Inherently individual

Its a long way from fish to men but I suspect that the same would be true for man if ethics did not prevent the same experiment on humans. From Behavioural individuality in clonal fish arises despite near-identical rearing conditions by David Bierbach, Kate L. Laskowski & Max Wolf.
Behavioural individuality is thought to be caused by differences in genes and/or environmental conditions. Therefore, if these sources of variation are removed, individuals are predicted to develop similar phenotypes lacking repeatable individual variation. Moreover, even among genetically identical individuals, direct social interactions are predicted to be a powerful factor shaping the development of individuality. We use tightly controlled ontogenetic experiments with clonal fish, the Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa), to test whether near-identical rearing conditions and lack of social contact dampen individuality. In sharp contrast to our predictions, we find that (i) substantial individual variation in behaviour emerges among genetically identical individuals isolated directly after birth into highly standardized environments and (ii) increasing levels of social experience during ontogeny do not affect levels of individual behavioural variation. In contrast to the current research paradigm, which focuses on genes and/or environmental drivers, our findings suggest that individuality might be an inevitable and potentially unpredictable outcome of development.
Humans are a product of a complex, dynamic, multi-causal, chaotic system. Controlling for environment and controlling for genes is insufficient to produce identical outcomes. People will be differentiated individuals. The system is too complex for it to be otherwise.

It would be better if the privilege were limited to me alone

From What Is Man? and Other Essays by Mark Twain. From the last chapter, Is Shakespeare Dead? He is treating man's disputatious nature and tendency towards fanciful claims.
Scattered here and there through the stacks of unpublished manuscript which constitute this formidable Autobiography and Diary of mine, certain chapters will in some distant future be found which deal with “Claimants”—claimants historically notorious: Satan, Claimant; the Golden Calf, Claimant; the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, Claimant; Louis XVII., Claimant; William Shakespeare, Claimant; Arthur Orton, Claimant; Mary Baker G. Eddy, Claimant—and the rest of them. Eminent Claimants, successful Claimants, defeated Claimants, royal Claimants, pleb Claimants, showy Claimants, shabby Claimants, revered Claimants, despised Claimants, twinkle star-like here and there and yonder through the mists of history and legend and tradition—and, oh, all the darling tribe are clothed in mystery and romance, and we read about them with deep interest and discuss them with loving sympathy or with rancorous resentment, according to which side we hitch ourselves to. It has always been so with the human race. There was never a Claimant that couldn’t get a hearing, nor one that couldn’t accumulate a rapturous following, no matter how flimsy and apparently unauthentic his claim might be.
Towards the end of the essay, he foreshadows the postmodern critical theorists and their obsession with political correctness, triggering, etc. Also, some of the key elements in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

He opens mockingly of the type of moral certitude which is still in circulation today.
One of the most trying defects which I find in these—these—what shall I call them? for I will not apply injurious epithets to them, the way they do to us, such violations of courtesy being repugnant to my nature and my dignity. The farthest I can go in that direction is to call them by names of limited reverence—names merely descriptive, never unkind, never offensive, never tainted by harsh feeling. If THEY would do like this, they would feel better in their hearts. Very well, then—to proceed. One of the most trying defects which I find in these Stratfordolaters, these Shakesperiods, these thugs, these bangalores, these troglodytes, these herumfrodites, these blatherskites, these buccaneers, these bandoleers, is their spirit of irreverence. It is detectable in every utterance of theirs when they are talking about us. I am thankful that in me there is nothing of that spirit. When a thing is sacred to me it is impossible for me to be irreverent toward it. I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except towards the things which were sacred to other people. Am I in the right? I think so.
The hallmark of the postmodernist critical theorist is their desire to keep carving out special victim groups and then, in an authoritarian fashion, try and police what can and cannot be said. Twain presages this inclination as well.
Now then, what aggravates me is that these troglodytes and muscovites and bandoleers and buccaneers are ALSO trying to crowd in and share the benefit of the law, and compel everybody to revere their Shakespeare and hold him sacred. We can’t have that: there’s enough of us already. If you go on widening and spreading and inflating the privilege, it will presently come to be conceded that each man’s sacred things are the ONLY ones, and the rest of the human race will have to be humbly reverent toward them or suffer for it. That can surely happen, and when it happens, the word Irreverence will be regarded as the most meaningless, and foolish, and self-conceited, and insolent, and impudent, and dictatorial word in the language. And people will say, “Whose business is it what gods I worship and what things hold sacred? Who has the right to dictate to my conscience, and where did he get that right?”

We cannot afford to let that calamity come upon us. We must save the word from this destruction. There is but one way to do it, and that is to stop the spread of the privilege and strictly confine it to its present limits—that is, to all the Christian sects, to all the Hindu sects, and me. We do not need any more, the stock is watered enough, just as it is.

It would be better if the privilege were limited to me alone. I think so because I am the only sect that knows how to employ it gently, kindly, charitably, dispassionately. The other sects lack the quality of self-restraint.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Resembles ocean into tempest wrought, To waft a feather, or to drown a fly.

Night Thoughts
by Edward Young (1742)

Night Thoughts is a compilation of poems where each poem represents a different night. The poem provided below takes place on the first night. The reader is able to delve into Young’s mind while he searches for meaning in the philosophy of life. The melancholic tone of his work makes it more relatable while at the same time arouses the imagination of the reader.
This is the bud of being, the dim dawn,
The twilight of our day, the vestibule;
Life’s theatre as yet is shut, and death,
Strong death, alone can heave the massy bar,
This gross impediment of clay remove,
And make us embryos of existence free.
From real life, but little more remote
Is he, not yet a candidate for light,
The future embryo, slumbering in his sire.
Embryos we must be, till we burst the shell,
Yon ambient azure shell, and spring to life,
The life of gods, O transport! and of man.
Yet man, fool man! here buries all his thoughts;
Inters celestial hopes without one sigh.
Prisoner of earth, and pent beneath the moon,
Here pinions all his wishes; wing’d by heaven
To fly at infinite; and reach it there,
Where seraphs gather immortality,
On life’s fair tree, fast by the throne of God.
What golden joys ambrosial clustering glow
In His full beam, and ripen for the just,
Where momentary ages are no more!
Where time, and pain, and chance, and death, expire!
And is it in the flight of threescore years
To push eternity from human thought,
And smother souls immortal in the dust?
A soul immortal, spending all her fires,
Wasting her strength in strenuous idleness
Thrown into tumult, raptured, or alarm’d,
At aught this scene can threaten or indulge,
Resembles ocean into tempest wrought,
To waft a feather, or to drown a fly.
Where falls this censure? It o’erwhelms myself;
How was my heart encrusted by the world!
O how self-fetter’d was my grovelling soul!
How, like a worm, was I wrapt round and round
In silken thought, which reptile fancy spun,
Till darken’d reason lay quite clouded o’er
With soft conceit of endless comfort here,
Nor yet put forth her wings to reach the skies!

This baffling academic farrago

One of the frustrations of reading literary fiction is that book reviews are little more than insipid wafting of sensibilities and tired cliches.

This sort of review also occurs in nonfiction reviewing as well, though perhaps somewhat less often. Nonfiction has some structural and evidentiary bases which can be disputed and interpreted in a fashion not possible in fiction.

Arthur Waldron has delivered just such a robust, trenchant criticism in his There is no Thucydides Trap: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap. The target of his slicing and dicing is Destined for War by Graham Allison.

Allison posits that China's rise makes it probable that there will be conflict between the US and China, the Thucydides Trap. Waldron is impatient with such trite reasoning.
Let us start by observing that perhaps the two greatest classicists of the last century, Professor Donald Kagan of Yale and the late Professor Ernst Badian of Harvard, long ago proved that no such thing exists as the “Thucydides Trap,” certainly not in the actual Greek text of the great History of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps the greatest single work of history ever.

Astonishingly, even the names of these two towering academic giants are absent from the index of this baffling academic farrago. It was penned by Graham Allison, a Harvard professor — associated with the Kennedy School of Government — to whom questions along the lines of “How did you write about The Iliad without mentioning Homer?” should be addressed.

Allison’s argument draws on one sentence of Thucydides’s text: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” This lapidary summing up of an entire argument is justly celebrated. It introduced to historiography the idea that wars may have “deep causes,” that resident powers are tragically fated to attack rising powers. It is brilliant and important, no question, but is it correct?

Clearly not for the Peloponnesian War. Generations of scholars have chewed over Thucydides’s text. Every battlefield has been measured. The quantity of academic literature on the topic is overwhelming, dating as far back as 1629 when Thomas Hobbes produced the first English translation.

In the present day, Kagan wrote four volumes in which he modestly but decisively overturned the idea of the Thucydides Trap. Badian did the same.


Ignoring all this, Allison takes Thucydides literally: Wars (sometimes) begin when rising powers like Athens threaten established powers like Sparta. But do they really? The case is difficult to make. Japan was the rising power in 1904 while Russia was long established. Did Russia therefore seek to preempt Japan? No. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on Russia, scuttling the Czar’s fleet. In 1941, the Japanese were again the rising power. Did ever-vigilant America strike out to eliminate the Japanese threat? Wrong. Roosevelt considered it “infamy” when Japan surprised him by attacking Pearl Harbor at a time when the world was already in flames. Switch to Europe — in the 1930s, Germany was obviously the rising, menacing power. Did France, Russia, England, and the other threatened powers move against it? They could not even form an alliance, so the USSR eventually joined Hitler rather than fight him. Exceptions there are, and Allison makes a half-baked effort to find them, but these are not the mainstream. Is this some kind of immense academic lapse?

No. What has really happened is that Allison has caught China fever, not hard around Harvard, although knowing no Chinese language and little Chinese history.

As a result, Allison seems to have been impressed above all by Chinese numbers: population, army size, growth rate, steel production, etc. So if that sentence from Thucydides is correct, then China is clearly a rising power that will want her “place in the sun” — which will lead ineluctably to a collision between rising China (Athens) instigated by the presumably setting U.S. (Sparta), which will see military preemption as the only recourse to avert a loss of power and a Chinese-dominated world. To escape this trap, Allison demands that we must find a way to give China what she wants and forget the lessons of so many previous wars. Many of Allison’s colleagues at Harvard also believe this to be true.

The reality, however, is that Allison’s recipe is actually a recipe for war. Appeasement of aggressors is far more dangerous than measured confrontation. Did China become more aggressive in the South China Sea in the 2000s because the Obama administration got tougher or because it went AWOL on the issue? I’d say the latter is more likely. When it comes to China, we might want to be more mindful of the “Chamberlain Trap” after the peace-loving prime minister of England, one of the authors of the disastrous 1938 Munich agreement that sought to avoid war by concessions, which in fact taught Hitler that the British were easily fooled. That is the trap we are in urgent need of avoiding.


China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports a huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: In China, one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India, the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water, too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: Mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level, but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.

What’s more, Chinese are leaving China in unprecedented numbers. The late Richard Solomon, who worked on U.S.-China relations for decades, remarked to me a few weeks before his death that “one day last year all the Chinese who could decided to move away.” Why? The pollution might kill your infants; the hospitals are terrible, the food is adulterated, the system corrupt and unpredictable. Here in the Philadelphia suburbs and elsewhere, thousands of Chinese buyers are flocking to buy homes in cash. Even Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard. Does that imply a high-profile political career for her in China? Probably not. It rather implies a quiet retirement with Xi’s grandchildren over here. Our American private secondary schools are inundated by Chinese applicants. For the first time this year, my Chinese graduate students are marrying one another and buying houses here. This is a leading indicator. If it could be done, the coming tsunami would bring 10 million highly qualified Chinese families to the U.S. in 10 years — along with fleeing crooks, spies, and other flotsam and jetsam. Even Xi’s first wife fled China; she lives in England.

Allison, however, misses this; “immigration” is not in his index. Instead, he speculates about war, based on some superficial reading and sampling of the literature, coming to the question “What does Xi want?” — which I take as meaning that he thinks Xi’s opinion matters — which makes nonsense of the vast determining waves of economic development, not to mention his glance at Thucydides — with the opinion following that somehow we should try to find out what that is and cut a deal. This is geopolitics from a Harvard professor? This is the great wave of history?

How to conclude a look at so ill conceived and sloppily executed a book? Do not blame Allison. The problem is the pervasive lack of knowledge of China — a country which is, after all, run by the Communist Party, the police, and the army, and thus difficult to get to know. This black hole of information has perversely created an overabundance of fantasies, some very pessimistic, some as absurdly bright as a foreigner on the payroll can make them.
Poor Allison.

I am more of a mind with Waldron. I see five prevailing challenges for China in the future, none of which individually are simple and all of which are pressing.

The most obvious is the demographic challenge. Observers have long been asking whether China would get rich before it got old. The former one-child policy, combined with rapid urbanization and with rapid increase in consumerism have kept China's total fertility rate (1.56) way below replacement for more than a generation now. Sociologically and economically such rapid falls in TFR put stress on a nation. Who will man the army, the manufacturing plants, the farms, etc. Who will pay for the elderly? These are not insurmountable problems but China's economic rise is recent and its national consensus fragile. There is little margin for additional stresses.

Unmet expectations is a second challenge. For nearly forty years, China managed to pull off a blinding 10% growth a year as it transitioned to a market economy. In recent years, that pace has slowed to a still stellar 5%. But at 10% growth, you are doubling every 7 years and at 5% every fourteen years. If a third of your population has known nothing but becoming twice as rich every seven years, then five percent growth can seem disappointingly pedestrian.

The third challenge is loss of low hanging fruit. Committing to a relatively free market economy was philosophically difficult and hugely consequential in its implementation, but in the scheme of things, that was probably the easiest fruit for the picking. Your biggest lifts in income generation, health and education come at the bottom of the s-curve: getting everyone to full literacy and numeracy, building highways and sewer systems, basic infrastructure including hospitals, etc. But once you have done that, the rest of the fruit is higher, more out of reach. Returns on effort are lower. You have to work harder to get less. It happens with every economy. The low hanging fruit has all been picked in China.

This is related to the fourth challenge, Hayek's knowledge problem, especially true of such a large (population and geography) country as China. While China relaxed its market regulations, it has kept its political centralization. In the first flush of growth, you can generally afford some level of capital misallocation (ghost cities). But as your market matures, its continued growth depends to an increasing extent on the free flow of information. The free flow of information can be challenging to a highly centralized and authoritarian political system. The desire for economic growth requires more knowledge transparency than is easily accommodated.

The final challenge is very similar: Complexity requires freedom. Continued economic growth requires more information that is precise, accurate and timely. But as the economy continues to grow, it becomes more complex. That complexity is thwarted by knowledge obfuscation and by control. Complexity requires freedom. That increasing complexity is challenging even for countries with long and strong traditions of freedom. For a country where that tradition is not strong, the burden is even greater.

These five challenges are not insurmountable but they belie the easy expectations conjured by forty years of magical growth. They require a sophisticated touch, group cohesion, and a big dollop of luck.

Forecasting guidelines

Clearing out some old files, I came across this list. No identifying author, heading, url; just a sheet of printed paper. It is a quick reference list of statistics and forecasting. Rather than simply throw it out, here are the guidelines:
Comparison classes should inform your probability estimates

Hunt for the right information

Adjust and update your forecasts when appropriate

Mathematical and statistical models can help

Post-mortem analyses help you improve

Select the right questions to answer

Know the power players

Norms and protocols of domestic and international institutions matter

Other perspectives aside from power politics can also inform your forecasts

Wildcards, accidents and black swans can catch you off-guard if you don't consider the risk of irreducible uncertainty

Lunch or evidence

From the New Yorker, July 29, 2013.

Grudging consent

From Grudging Consent by Charles Tilly. A lengthy meditation on the State and the Citizen. Thoughtful, not strident. Here is one passage:
All systems of rule, whether democratic or undemocratic, survive by finding stable supplies of the basic resources it takes to run a government: means of coercion, administration and patronage. Of course, the mix of crucial resources changes over time. For millennia, kingdoms and empires sustained themselves mainly with soldiers, weapons, food, animals, labor power and strategic information. These days, powerful states necessarily add to that array a much richer supply of information, scientific-technical knowledge and communications media. But the principle remains the same: Effective rule depends on the continuous production of crucial resources. If the resources dry up, rulers lose the means of enforcing whatever decisions they make and state capacity collapses. This has happened often in history, as an anthropologist studying Central America or the Near East could readily show us.

The main difference between non- or predemocratic regimes and democratic ones is that the former tend to commandeer resources under threat of coercion, whereas democratic ones draw essential resources mainly from subject populations that have substantial power to accept or reject their demands — populations with what we call “voice.” This is grudging consent at work.
I think the prerequisites for grudging consent are transparency, clarity, accountability, and reliability. If you are missing one or more of these attributes, then the capacity of citizens to extend grudging consent is sharply limited. The weaker the consent, the more precarious the state system becomes.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

44% quotation error rate in scientific studies

Fascinating. From Bad Footnotes Can Be Deadly by Daniel Engber. Engber is using the opioid crisis (59,000 deaths from overdoses in the past year) as the context for a discussion of what I have referred to as cognitive pollution - things believed to be true which are not.
The New York Times reported last week that 59,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, in the latest sign that America’s prescription painkiller epidemic is only getting worse. Yet the more shocking news about the scourge of opioids came a few days earlier, in a note published in the New England Journal of Medicine by a team of researchers in Canada. That note shows how a tiny blurb that first appeared in the journal’s January 1980 issue helped reshape—and distort—conventional wisdom on pain management, tilting doctors in favor of giving out addictive drugs.

Back in 1979, Boston University Medical Center researchers Jane Porter and Hershel Jick found that just a handful of the patients who’d been treated with narcotics at a set of six hospitals went on to develop drug dependencies. Their single-paragraph summary of this result would be published as a letter to the editor in the NEJM under the heading, “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated With Narcotics.”

According to the recent correspondence in NEJM, this single paragraph was cited hundreds of times in the 1990s and 2000s to support the claim that prescription painkillers weren’t that addictive. It was during this period that doctors started treating pain much more aggressively than they had before and handing out potent drugs with little circumspection. (For a good history of the changing use of painkillers, see this piece in Vox.)

The original paragraph from Porter and Jick, just 101 words in all, read as follows:
Recently, we examined our current files to determine the incidence of narcotic addiction in 39,946 hospitalized medical patients who were monitored consecutively. Although there were 11,882 patients who received at least one narcotic preparation, there were only four cases of reasonably well documented addiction in patients who had no history of addiction. The addiction was considered major in only one instance. The drugs implicated were meperidine in two patients, Percodan in one, and hydromorphone in one. We conclude that despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction.
Most citations of this note seemed to overlook its narrow scope. The blurb gives a rate of drug addiction for patients with restricted access to the drugs in question and no stated definition of what it means to be “addicted.” Thirty-seven years ago, when Porter and Jick’s letter first appeared, opioids were carefully controlled; the patients they described may have taken painkillers while they were at the hospital, but they weren’t going home with them. That meant the addiction rate they found (four in 11,882) had little bearing on the more important question—now sadly resolved—of whether it’s safe to prescribe opioids to patients outside the hospital setting. Despite these limitations, the stature of this tiny research project seemed to only grow as time went on, like a scholarly fish tale. In 1990, Scientific American described Porter and Jick’s paragraph as a “an extensive study.” By 2001, Time had promoted it to the status of “a landmark study.”
I was in college around this time and recall how compelling this evidence seemed to be. "Did you see that recent study . . . "

Engber goes on to discuss many other instances where researchers start with only a partial understanding of the circumstances of a study, its provenance or its quality, assume into place the level of quality they would wish that the study had and then use it to buttress whatever point they are trying to make.
In academic publishing, references are meant to buttress arguments, establish facts, and dole out credit where it’s due. In practice, they often do the opposite, hiding more than they show. In a disturbing and delightful series of papers on this topic, Norwegian social anthropologist Ole Bjorn Rekdal has shown how easily and often citations are abused. When you try to trace the provenance of any given, referenced fact—on addiction rates, for example—you may well find yourself tangled in a nest of secondary sources, with each paper claiming to have pulled the fact from another. These daisy-chained citations make it very hard—and at times impossible—to locate original source material. They also lead to a game of research telephone, in which the context of a fact gets stripped away, and its meaning morphed as it gets transmitted from one citation to the next.
It is the same with quotations. Try finding an actual source for many quotations and verify that the person actually said that - it is astonishing how happily people share so many unsourced and inaccurate quotes.
“Most scientists probably have some awareness [of] quotation error and citation copying in the scientific literature,” Wetterer wrote, “but I believe few have much appreciation for how common or important these problems may be.” He goes on to summarize some broader surveys of the problem: One study compared more than 1,000 direct quotes in scholarly papers with their original sources and found that 44 percent contained at least one mistake; another looked at how mistakes like typos propagate through bibliographies and concluded that at least 70 percent of all scientific citations are copied from the bibliographies of other secondary sources.

Other researchers have found error rates as high as 67 percent in the journals of specific fields. Rekdal notes that entire books are routinely cited as the source for specific facts, without the help of page numbers. “At times, I get the feeling that references have been placed in quantities and with a degree of precision reminiscent of last minute oregano flakes being sprinkled over a pizza on the way to the oven,” he writes.
And technology, which should be a solution, is, so far, merely an amplifier of cognitive pollutuon.
Meanwhile, the same digital tools that might be used to clean up the literature also make it easier to rank scholars according to their “bibliometrics”—i.e., the number of times their papers have been cited in the literature. This, in turns incentivizes researchers to use (and abuse) their bibliographies as a way of advancing their careers. I mean, why not stuff your paper full of vacuous pointers to your own work or that of your colleagues?

The stuffing of journals with trash citations has clogged a vital channel of scientific communication, by overwhelming useful references with those that are trivial, inaccurate, or plagiarized. The recent flap over Porter and Jick’s paragraph from 1980 shows how this knowledge jamming can even, in some cases, be a matter of life or death.
Transparency, consequences and a market-place of ideas. It sounds so easy but we are a long ways from the ideal.

200,000 enemy soldiers on you rear flank

I recently finished Shadows in the Jungle by Larry Alexander. From the blurb:
Determined to retake the Philippines ever since his ignominious flight from the islands in 1942, General Douglas MacArthur needed a first-rate intelligence-gathering unit. Out of thousands, only 138 men were chosen. They were the best, toughest, and fittest men the Army had to offer. They were the Alamo Scouts.

Larry Alexander follows the footsteps of the men who made up the elite reconnaissance unit that served as General MacArthur’s eyes and ears in the Pacific War. Drawing from personal interviews and testimonies from Scout veterans, Alexander weaves together the tales of the individual Scouts, who often spent weeks behind enemy lines to complete their missions. Now, more than sixty years after the war, the story of the Alamo Scouts will finally be told.
Well paced and interesting.

I came away with a realization of how much my understanding of the Pacific War has been Navy (and Marines) biased. I have read a handful of books about the Burma Theater of War, and I have significantly more than a handful on the island hopping campaign, the carrier war, and the naval battles. On the land campaign, I have only read a couple of books on the New Guinea campaign and both those were from the Australian perspective, and one on the Bougainville campaign, also from an Australian perspective.

I knew elements of the American Army campaign in New Guinea and Philippines, but that is where I am weakest and what this book really highlighted.

I was struck by this reality which I had never particularly focused on:
Although operations in New Guinea were nearing an end, so far as MacArthur and the top brass were concerned, there were still some 200,000 Japanese stranded on the big island and on the smaller isles off-shore in bypassed pockets of resistance. In several of these pockets the enemy held hostages, mostly Dutch, Melanesian, and Australian, usually serving as laborers for the emperor.
200,000 - that is an amazing number of enemy to have remaining on your rear flank.

Just as in Burma, their fighting capacity was shattered and the 200,000 would have been starving and with little shelter, clothing or arms. Still, 200,000 is 200,000.

I was broadly familiar with the Philippines campaign as well but again, the magnitude of the numbers haven't ever really registered. 530,000 Japanese soldiers defending the archipelago, of whom 430,000 died, mostly from starvation.

I knew that the Pearl of the Orient, Manila, was devastated by fighting but did not know the context. General Tomoyuki Yamashita was the Japanese general in charge of the overall campaign in the Philippines.
Yamashita was a pragmatist. With the fall of Leyte, he knew he had no hope of stopping an American landing on Luzon and little chance of defeating them once they were ashore. He had lost half of his ship-ping and thousands of men trying to reinforce Leyte. His naval force now consisted of two submarine chasers, nineteen patrol boats, ten midget subs, and 180 one-man suicide boats, mostly in the Manila Bay area. Perhaps worse, all but about two hundred planes of his air force had been shot down or destroyed on the ground, and by the time the Americans actually came ashore, that number would be reduced to a few dozen.

Luzon is 340 miles long and 130 miles across at its widest. To defend it, Yamashita had six infantry and one armored division, or about 275,000 men, to draw on, but this number was deceptive. Many of his men were not frontline caliber, including convalescing sick and wounded, and most were poorly armed and equipped. There were also about 16,000 naval personnel around Manila, mostly sailors whose ships had been sunk in Leyte Gulf in October, under the command of Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi. But interservice rivalry meant Yamashita had little authority over him.

Unable to prevent a landing. Yamashita ordered that the beaches would not be defended. Instead, he would fight a battle in-depth, making the Americans pay in blood for every yard and to deny for as long as possible the Americans' use of Luzon as an air base to strike at the Japanese homeland. To accomplish this, he broke his defending force into three math elements. His main force of about 152,000 men, called the Shobu Group, were sent into the mountainous regions to the north with orders to tie down the Americans for as long as possible. This would also allow the Japanese to control one of the island's main food-producing areas in the Cagayan Valley. Yamashita remained in command of this unit, setting up his CP in the village of Baguio, a summer mountain resort five thousand feet above sea level.

Another eighty thousand men, called the Shimbu Group, under the command of Lt. Gen. Shizuo Yokoyama, were sent to the south to hold the high ground east of Manila and thus control the city's water sup-ply. The remaining thirty thousand troops, the Kembu Group, under Maj. Gen. Rikichi Tsukada, were to hold the Caraballo Mountains and the west side of the Agno-Pampanga Valley, where the former U.S. bases of Clark Field and Fort Stotsenburg were located, and stretch south to Bataan. They were to hold as long as possible, then retreat to the Zambales mountain range and fight a delaying action. Manila was indefensible, Yamashita decided, so he ordered his men out except for a small detachment to protect supply routes and blow the highway bridges leading from the city. Iwabuchi decided other-wise and commanded his sixteen thousand sailors to hold the city, which would soon be turned into a charnel house of death and destruction.


As January dragged into February, the battle for Luzon intensified. Fighting at Manila had been especially ferocious as Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi, in defiance of General Yamashita's wishes, ordered his sixteen thousand men to stand fast and defend the city. Fighting in and around Manila lasted from February 4 to March 4, and devastated large sections of the once-exotic city, especially in the Intramuros district, the Walled City, an old Spanish fortress near the port, where many government buildings stood.

When the fighting ended, nearly all of Iwabuchi's men were dead, and so were as many as 100,000 Filipino civilians,
caught in the murderous cross fire.
That is another thing Shadows in the Jungle does a good job of, restoring perspective. We, America, lost some 115,000 dead in the Pacific in World War II. But we weren't the only ones involved of course.

The Philippines Army lost some 57,000 killed. Civilian deaths during the occupation and reconquest were close to a million.

The Dutch East Indies had some 4,000,000 civilian deaths during the Japanese occupation. China, 18,000,000. Burma, 250,000. Horrendous.

Shadows in the Jungle covers only a very small aspect of that great conflict but it does give a broader perspective.

Ennui and enervation are a greater threat than fanaticism. . . perhaps

It is a frequent claim but I think this asks the wrong question. From Are Liberals Dying Out? by Hrishikesh Joshi and Jonny Anomaly. The claim is that Liberals in the modern American sense of Democrats are characterized by low rates of family formation and even when they do form, have low rates of fertility. Therefore, the argument proceeds, liberals will eventually be outproduced by conservatives.

Like all bad ideas, there is a core element that is true. Democrats indeed do have lower family formation rates and lower fertility rates.

Beyond that, there are all sorts of problems. The biggest is definitional. What is a liberal? I consider myself a classical liberal with libertarian tendencies: I take much inspiration from Locke, Smith, Hume, Hayek. That scarcely qualifies me as a liberal in terms of today's nomenclature. You can see this evolution of terminology in other countries such as Australia where the conservative party is the Liberal Party who contest elections against the Labour Party.

Today's British Conservative Party, in terms of policies, looks a lot like the American Democratic Party circa 1980.

So names don't really tell us much. The author's acknowledge the problem of definitions but try to skirt around it. They make a feint at trying to rescue their position by alluding to the psychological trait of Authoritarianism but they fail to tie that to either end of the spectrum in terms of evidence. Indeed, in the US right now, the groups with the most overt manifestation of authoritarianism by far are clustered at the liberal end of the spectrum - BLM, Antifa, Postmodern critical theorists on university campuses and in the media, etc.

So definitions is the biggest rock on which this founders. But it is not a single rock reef. Where are Democrats concentrated? In cities. Might that be the reason that Democrats have a somewhat lower fertility rate? Occam's Razor would suggest so.

I suspect the real question of interest is not whether Liberals are being outbred.

I think there are two behavioral attributes that are negative and it would be interesting to know whether we are seeing a decline in those behaviors.

My first question would be "Is self-destructive fanaticism dying out?" It is fanatics, not liberals, who are garnering all the negative headlines. BLM rioters, Antifa brawlers, postmodernist obstructionists, hecklers and authoritarians, ISIS, Taliban, Al Qaeda, etc.

It is easy to get lost in the headlines and the availability bias. Things do seem to be falling apart, the center does not appear as if it can hold. But The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker makes a solid case that in fact violence and fanaticism are declining. Sure, it pops up here and there. More to the point, elevated fanaticism is more prevalent in some regions than others. But overall it is declining.

My second question is more challenging. "Is existentially destructive ennui increasing?" A question to which I do not have a good answer.

You can have a falling population because of increasing violence but you can also have a falling population because of enervation and ennui. That is what we are seeing in western Europe and Japan. Populations no longer seem to have as great a commitment to the great chain of being, to a future beyond their own life span.

This could be due to an all pervasive consumerism where children take away your opportunity to consume. It could be owing to a loss of religious faith with its commitment to an ongoing future through children and a sense of intergenerational commitment. It could be due to some combination of any number of things.

I suspect that self-destructive fanaticism is indeed self-destructing and Darwin Award-like, removing itself from the future gene pool and therefore reducing the behavioral propensity towards fanaticism in the future.

Ennui and enervation is modern western classically liberal societies may actually be the more serious threat to existential destruction. I don't think it is inevitable but I think that is the issue to focus on.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Do not feel absolutely certain of anything

From The Best Answer to Fanaticism--Liberalism; Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity. by Bertrand Russell.
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.