Saturday, June 30, 2018

There is a premium on expertise, but not much of one.

We at least respect, and sometimes idolize the expert. They know more about a topic than we do because they have spent more time on it.

Philip Tetlock has done some very good work documenting how prone experts are to mistaken forecasts. Indeed, individual experts tend to have a higher forecast failure rate than small teams of informed non-experts.

This article is examining a slightly different issue. Not forecasting ability but quality of the knowledge base of experts. All the standard caveats - small sample size, self-selected participants.

From Oh dear, even people with neuroscience training believe an awful lot of brain myths by Christian Jarrett.
Three years ago, the film Lucy came out starring Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous heroine who is implanted with drugs that allow her to use the full capacity of her brain rather than the mere 10 per cent that the rest of us supposedly use. In response I wrote an article for WIRED “All you need to know about the 10 per cent brain myth in 60 seconds“. Soon afterwards I received an angry, acerbic 1,200-word email from a reader: “I am obviously not going to insist you take your article down since that isn’t my place,” she wrote, “but you should certainly not feel proud to be spreading such misinformed information to the public”.

What particularly shocked me was not just the tone of the correspondence, but the fact this email, endorsing the 10 per cent brain myth, came from a Masters student in neuroscience at Yale. But perhaps this wasn’t such an odd occurrence. A new US survey published in Frontiers in Psychology finds that belief in brain myths remains widespread, and moreover, that extensive education in neuroscience seems to provide little protection from such beliefs.

Kelly Macdonald at the University of Houston and her colleagues, including Lauren McGrath at the University of Denver, recruited a total of 3,877 people to take a survey of brain myths hosted on the Testmybrain.org website. This included 3,045 members of the general public, 598 teachers, and 234 people with “high neuroscience exposure” (defined as having completed many college/university courses related to the brain or neuroscience). The researchers had sent messages to neuroscience email lists and social networks to attract people with neuroscience training to take the survey.

The survey featured 32 statements about the brain, 14 of which were true (e.g. we use our brains 24 hours a day) and 18 of which were false (e.g. we only use 10 per cent of our brain). Many of the items were the same or similar to those used in earlier surveys of belief in neuromyths among teachers in the UK and The Netherlands. The participants’ task was simply to indicate which statements were true and which were false.
OK, how did the experts perform compared to the general public. One would hope that they confirmed all 14 true statements and denied all 18 false statements. Ah. Experts.
The good news is that teachers endorsed fewer brain myths than the general public, and those participants with neuroscience training endorsed fewer brain myths than teachers. And yet, all three groups still displayed high levels of brain myth endorsement, especially for what Macdonald and her colleagues identify as the classic brain myths, including:
Learning styles myth (endorsed by 93 per cent of the public, 76 per cent of teachers, and 78 per cent of those with neuroscience education)

A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards (endorsed by 76 per cent of the public, 59 per cent of teachers, and 50 per cent of those with neuroscience education)

Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability (endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 55 per cent of teachers, and 43 per cent of the neuroscience group) [more on music-related neuromyths]

Children are less attentive after consuming sugar (endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 50 per cent of teachers and 39 per cent of the neuroscience group)

The left-brain right-brain myth (endorsed by 64 per cent of the public, 49 per cent of teachers and 32 per cent of the neuroscience group)

The 10 per cent myth (endorsed by 36 per cent of the public, 33 per cent of teachers, and 14 per cent of those with neuroscience education – my unfriendly correspondent is not alone).
Yes, experts did better than teachers and teachers better than the general public, but in general, not much better.
Overall, the participants with extensive exposure to neuroscience (most of whom said they had at a minimum a science or health-related university degree) endorsed just under half of the neuromyths (specifically 46 per cent, compared with 68 per cent average endorsement among the public and 56 per cent among teachers). Another clear pattern in the findings was that participants who believed one of the above myths were more likely than average to also endorse one or more of the others.
There is a premium on expertise, but not much of one.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
33

The conditions optimal for cultural creativeness seem to be a marked degree of individual autonomy; a modicum of economic well-being; absence of mass fervor whether religious, patriotic, revolutionary, business or war; a paucity of opportunities for action; a milieu which recognizes and awards merit; and a degree of communal discipline.

The last point needs elucidation.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. Originality is deliberate and forced, and partakes of the nature of a protest. A society which gives unlimited freedom to the individual, more often than not attains a disconcerting sameness. On the other hand, where communal discipline is strict but not ruthless — "an annoyance which irritates, but not a heavy yoke which crushes" — originality is likely to thrive. It is true that when imitation runs its course in a wholly free society it results in a uniformity which is not unlike a mild tyranny. Thus the fully standardized free society has perhaps enough compulsion to challenge originality.

A cool day with patchy rain and some bright spells, 2004 by Ben Mclaughlin

A cool day with patchy rain and some bright spells, 2004 by Ben Mclaughlin

Click to enlarge.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Running out of options

From Don't Move Poor Families Out. Improve Their Neighborhoods. by Robert Cherry. This is a disheartening synopsis of evidence. Not wrong, just disappointing.
There is a renewed legislative effort to improve federal fair housing regulations by removing barriers that limit the ability of low-income families to move to better neighborhoods. A supportive New York Times editorial claimed that a “2015 Harvard study inspired the legislation.”

That study reevaluated the Move to Opportunity (MTO) program, a research demonstration that was conducted in five cities: Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. MTO provided housing vouchers to randomly selected participant families, enabling them to move to better neighborhoods. It then measured the effects of subsidies that enabled families living in high-poverty neighborhoods to move to low-poverty neighborhoods. Initial evaluations a decade ago found little in the way of lasting effects.

The more recent Harvard study reached different conclusions. These researchers extended the observations out a few years and analyzing the effects on younger and older children separately. The Times editorial on the study concluded, “these moves increased the adult earnings of children in all five cities … and this was true for whites, blacks and Hispanics, for girls as well as boys.”
The ideas is that we could improve the lives of poor people by moving them to live alongside those who are functioning well in society. This has long been disputed and there are all sorts of associated burdens placed on the receiving communities (costs and crime.) But the Harvard study received a lot of attention because it claimed there were strong benefits to go with the costs.

However:
It may be quite warranted to support fair housing laws. But a closer look at the Harvard study’s findings indicate that there was no overall positive impact on the future earnings of children — and likely adverse impacts on black boys with nonresidential biological fathers.

The problem is that the positive finding is solely for children younger than 13 years old. However, 30 percent of the children were 13 to 18 years old. For them, the impact was decidedly negative. As a result, whereas for the younger children the average increased earning for 2008–2012 was an impressive $1,624, for all children it was a statistically insignificant $302.

The editorial also highlighted that the benefits for younger children were found in all cities and for all demographic groups. Once again, however, a closer look, finds substantial disparities. Earnings increased by $4,020 for younger white and Asian children and by $3,306 for younger Hispanic children. By contrast, the benefits were only $627 for younger black children. In Chicago and Baltimore, where the study comprised only black families, the benefits to younger children equaled $500. In Boston and Los Angeles, where half of the families were non-black, the benefits equaled $2,700.

For older children, earnings declined for all groups. This was especially true for boys. Whereas the decline was only $204 for girls, it was $1,832 for boys. For black families, the average decline for older children was greater than the meager gains for young children. This was most striking for Chicago. There, the gains for younger children equaled $681 but the losses for older children were $2,336. In a separate study, the research team found that black children benefit from voluntary, unsubsidized, permanent moves to higher income neighborhoods. However, their MTO findings suggest that subsidized, non-permanent moves to better neighborhoods, on balance, were harmful to black boys.

The deleterious impact these programs have on black children is consistent with earlier observations by Robert Sampson in his seminal study of Chicago. He noted that the new neighborhoods that black families moved to had less poverty but otherwise similar schools and community infrastructure, and that their housing was in pockets of poverty. Sampson also pointed out that within six years, half of the families had moved back to high-poverty neighborhoods. Black boys had much more adverse consequences than black girls. As Sampson noted, unlike white low-poverty neighborhoods, these so-called “better” black neighborhoods were surrounded by high-poverty areas. As a result, many children would invariably have social ties similar to those in their old neighborhoods. Sampson contended that this interaction across neighborhood lines helps explain why low-poverty black neighborhoods have higher crime rates than similar low-poverty white neighborhoods.

Adding to the adverse consequences for black boys are the familial strains created by moves. Due to sequential partnering, the majority of black mothers with more than one child have more than one father. For the children from previous relationships, interactions with their biological fathers are often tenuous. On the one hand, as Berger, Cancian, and Meyers document, mothers in new relationships are often reluctant to have their children from previous relationships maintain substantial interaction with their biological fathers. On the other hand, fathers are often in new relationships with new children and leave behind their children from previous relationships.

The increased travel time to visit children in their new neighborhoods is just one more factor that weakens interactions; and studies consistently find that this has particularly adverse effects on boys. Besides the family chaos and emotional problems, the lack of father involvement consistently lowers the educational development of young children. One study reported that “fathers’ engagement with children in learning activities predicted children’s 5th grade academic performance after controlling for early and later father residency and children’s report of the quality of their relationship with fathers or father figures.”
Change of environment and relocation help some few children but they harm others. The net effect is marginal, and this is done at great cost. That is not a compelling value proposition.

The fellow who reanalyzed the data to reveal this disappointing news wants us to refocus on improving existing neighborhoods, a strategy with its own long history of failure and inadvertent damage to those whom the strategies were intended to benefit.

Youth itself is a talent — a perishable talent

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
32

A social order is stable so long as it can give scope to talent and youth. Youth itself is a talent — a perishable talent.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 by Gustav Klimt(1862-1918)

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 by Gustav Klimt(1862-1918)

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Spartan Creed

The Spartan Creed
by Tyrtaeus
translated by Richmond Lattimore

I would not say anything for a man nor take account of him
for any speed of his feet or wrestling skill he might have,
not if he had the size of a Cyclops and strength to go with it,
not if he could outrun Bóreas, the North Wind of Thrace,
not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than Tithónos,
or had more riches than Midas had, or Kínyras too,
not if he were more of a king than Tantalid Pelops,
or had the power of speech and persuasion Adrastos had,
not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit.
For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.
Here is courage, mankind’s finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.
Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war.
With a sudden rush he turns to flight the rugged battalions
of the enemy, and sustains the beating waves of assault.
And he who so falls among the champions and loses his sweet life,
so blessing with honor his city, his father, and all his people,
with wounds in his chest, where the spear that he was facing has
transfixed
that massive guard of his shield, and gone through his breastplate as
well,
why, such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders,
and all his city goes into mourning and grieves for his loss.
His tomb is pointed to with pride, and so are his children,
and his children’s children, and afterward all the race that is his.
His shining glory is never forgotten, his name is remembered,
and he becomes an immortal, though he lies under the ground,
when one who was a brave man has been killed by the furious War
God
standing his ground and fighting hard for his children and land.
But if he escapes the doom of death, the destroyer of bodies,
and wins his battle, and bright renown for the work of his spear,
all men give place to him alike, the youth and the elders,
and much joy comes his way before he goes down to the dead.
Aging, he has reputation among his citizens. No one
tries to interfere with his honors or all he deserves;
all men withdraw before his presence, and yield their seats to him,
the youth, and the men his age, and even those older than he.
Thus a man should endeavor to reach this high place of courage
with all his heart, and, so trying, never be backward in war.

Speech does not cause harm or violence

From The Ecology of Schools: Fostering a Culture of Human Flourishing & Developing Character by Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D.

It has been a longstanding article of faith among enemies of freedom and, in particular, freedom of speech, that speech can cause actual measurable harm. This is manifested in speech codes, in legislation against hate speech, in ratings systems, in educational circles where books are deemed dangerous because of their content, concern about micro-aggressions, etc. It is a pernicious evergreen that blossoms in authoritarian soil.

It is an interesting empirical question. Do people who read violent books consequently behave more violently? Do people who hear facts or opinions with which they disagree suffer measurable harm? Does watching a violent movie make you more violent? There is also the corresponding claim - does watching pacific, pastoral or pablum make you more amiable and inoffensive?

Ideas have always frightened those vested in an establishment. They are especially frightening to those in authoritarian states where the claimed reality is distant from obvious reality. Hence the restrictions on speech in authoritarian states (and among those of an authoritarian stripe such as college administrators and postmodernist advocates.)

Since at least the nineteen fifties there has been efforts to mount credible research to answer those questions. Efforts, but not so much results. You have to take into account the direction of causal flow (what happens if violent content has no causal effect but violent people like watching violent content?), predispositions, define verbal or visual violence, define what constitutes measurable effect, etc.

While there have been many efforts, the results have been muddied. Advocates for controlling speech tend to conduct flawed studies which support their positions, and unbiased researchers have a hard time measuring hard-to-measure phenomenon and to control the confounding variables. As the efforts have continued and as study controls become more robust, it appears that, as suspected by many, there is no systemically and reliably measurable association between violence, seen in movies or heard in songs or read in books, and actually manifested violent behavior. From the above summary of the research:
Several things do appear to be clear from meta-analyses:
1. Effects range somewhere between very small to nonexistent.

2. Study results are influenced by systematic methodological flaws, such as used of poorly validated aggression measures, researcher expectancy effects and publication bias. These flaws tend to result in outcomes that are biased toward exaggerating effects.

3. The closer outcome measures approximate actual violence, the closer effects come to zero.

4. Controlling for theoretically relevant third variables (e.g. gender, personality, family environment, genetics) brings effect sizes close to zero. This suggests that violent media has little unique risk for negative outcomes.

5. Research evidence for effects has been getting weaker, not stronger, particularly over the prior 10 years. This is likely due to increased rigor in the field.

A man's soul is pierced as it were with holes

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
31

Man's longings are the raw material of his creativeness, his dreams, his excesses, his self-sacrifice, his urge to build and to destroy. A man's soul is pierced as it were with holes, and as his longings flow through each they are transmuted into something specific. The flow through one outlet affects the flow through all the others. Creativeness is a leak, so are dissipation, self-sacrifice, acquisition, the fever of building and the frenzy of destruction; the love of women, of God and of humanity.

Right of Way by Linden Frederick

Right of Way by Linden Frederick

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Reveille by A. E. Housman

Reveille
by A. E. Housman

Wake: the silver dusk returning
Up the beach of darkness brims,
And the ship of sunrise burning
Strands upon the eastern rims.

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Up, lad, up, 'tis late for lying:
Hear the drums of morning play;
Hark, the empty highways crying
"Who'll beyond the hills away?"

Towns and countries woo together,
Forelands beacon, belfries call;
Never lad that trod on leather
Lived to feast his heart with all.

Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

The galling illusory truth effect

The Illusory Truth Effect from Wikipedia.
The effect was first named and defined following the results in a study from 1977 at Villanova University and Temple University where participants were asked to rate a series of trivia statements as true or false. On three occasions, Lynn Hasher, David Goldstein, and Thomas Toppino presented the same group of college students with lists of sixty plausible statements, some of them true and some of them false. The second list was distributed two weeks after the first, and the third two weeks after that. Twenty statements appeared on all three lists; the other forty items on each list were unique to that list. Participants were asked how confident they were of the truth or falsity of the statements, which concerned matters about which they were unlikely to know anything. (For example, "The first air force base was launched in New Mexico." Or "Basketball became an Olympic discipline in 1925.") Specifically, the participants were asked to grade their belief in the truth of each statement on a scale of one to seven. While the participants' confidence in the truth of the non-repeated statements remained steady, their confidence in the truth of the repeated statements increased from the first to the second and second to third sessions, with an average score for those items rising from 4.2 to 4.6 to 4.7. The conclusion made by the researchers, who were from Villanova and Temple universities, was that repeating a statement makes it more likely to appear factual.
In a field noted for its failure replicate findings, this one has been replicated several times. It appears real.

There is new research out exploring some of its aspects. From Is the Illusory Truth Effect Robust to Individual Differences in Cognitive Ability, Need for Cognitive Closure, and Cognitive Style? by Jonas De Keersmaecker, Arne Roets, Gordon Pennycook, and David G. Rand.

Basically, the researchers want to know whether smart attentive people are as prone to the illusory truth effect as everyone else? Obviously, the cognitive elite would prefer to believe that they are not as prone to being tricked into confident belief by simplistic repetition. From the Abstract:
People are more inclined to believe that information is true if they have encountered it before. Although this illusory truth effect is firmly established, little is known about whether it is influenced by inter-individual differences in high-level cognition. Here we focus on three factors that have been shown to play a critical role in a wide variety of epistemic processes: cognitive ability, need for cognitive closure, and cognitive styles. In a first lab study (N = 207), there was no evidence for the moderating role of cognitive ability, need for cognitive closure, or preference for analytic thinking, but individual differences in experiential thinking increased the illusory truth effect. A second, preregistered study (N = 336), however, did not replicate the moderating role of experiential thinking, and also found no evidence for moderation by preference for analytic thinking and cognitive reflection. Finally, in a third study (N = 940), the illusory truth effect was examined using a highly involving set of stimuli, i.e. politically charged news headlines. Again, individual differences in cognitive reflection did not moderate the effect. These results demonstrate that the illusory truth effect is robust to individual differences in cognitive ability, need for cognitive closure and cognitive style.
So yes, no matter how smart and attentive you are, you appear equally prone to the illusory truth effect as everyone else. Must be galling.

The path of self-realization is the most difficult.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
30

We acquire a sense of worth either by realizing our talents, or by keeping busy, or by identifying ourselves with something apart from us — be it a cause, a leader, a group, possessions and the like. Of the three, the path of self-realization is the most difficult. It is taken only when other avenues to a sense of worth are more or less blocked. Men of talent have to be encouraged and goaded to engage in creative work. Their groans and laments echo through the ages.

Action is a highroad to self-confidence and esteem. Where it is open, all energies flow toward it. It comes readily to most people, and its rewards are tangible. The cultivation of the spirit is elusive and difficult, and the tendency toward it is rarely spontaneous. Where the opportunities for action are many, cultural creativeness is likely to be neglected. The cultural flowering of New England came to an almost abrupt end with the opening of the West. The relative cultural sterility of the Romans might perhaps be explained by their empire rather than by an innate lack of genius. The best talents were attracted by the rewards of administrative posts just as the best talents in America are attracted by the rewards of a business career.

Muelle Marzana by Pablo Gallo

Muelle Marzana by Pablo Gallo

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Non-linear systems and Pareto distributions

This essay struggles to maintain its logical coherence but the core of its argument is a relatively clear articulation of a frequently unacknowledged truth - human systems are complex systems; complex systems inherently incorporate non-linear elements; non-linear systems produce Pareto distributions.

For those whose normative desires dictate that all human systems should deliver equal outcomes (as opposed to Pareto distribution outcomes), the task becomes how to engineer the system so that it does not incorporate any non-linear elements. But to engineer out all the non-linear elements makes the system fragile and prone to rapid terminal failure.

You can have coercively imposed deterministic systems that create equal poverty or you can have non-linear systems that deliver increasing wealth that is also increasingly disproportionately distributed. No one has yet discovered a third way, middle road, or cultural revolution that delivers rising wealth and rising equality. And the failure is not due to human malevolence, evil or ignorance. The failure is due to complex systems being inherently non-linear and therefore with a Pareto distribution of outcomes.

From Why Socialism Is Doomed To Fail by David Solway.
To strive, for example, to build an ideal society in which “equality of results” or “outcomes” -- what is called “social justice” -- is guaranteed can only produce a levelled-down caricature of human struggle and accomplishment. We have seen it happen time and again, and the consequences are never pretty.

The infatuation with “outcomes” in the sense of compelled equality persists wherever we may look, significantly in education, where equality of result is enforced under the tired mantra of “diversity and inclusion” -- standards are lowered, everyone is admitted, everyone graduates, everyone gets a trophy or a degree regardless of input, so that no one gets left behind. Mastering the curriculum, however, is a highly competitive venture, meant to sieve winners from losers; we recall the word derives from the Latin for “race course.” The “equality” compulsion is especially paramount in “social justice” legislation which ensures that unmotivated non-contributors to civil order, prosperity and disciplined excellence in any field of endeavor are treated as at least equal to and often favored over successful practitioners and genuine achievers.

There is another, perhaps more clinical, way of regarding the issue, known as the Pareto Principle, deriving from the work of Italian econo-sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923.) The “equality” or “outcomes” obsession, as Jordan Peterson has pointed out with reference to Pareto, is a noxious delusion. The Pareto Principle specifies a scalene relationship between causes and effects in human endeavor. Also known as the 80/20 Rule, the principle postulates, as a matter of discernible fact, that 80% of a nation’s wealth is typically controlled by 20% of the population. It has almost always been so. (The Pareto calculus, it should be mentioned, has nothing to do with the urban legend of the greedy “one percent.” The wealthy already contribute disproportionately in terms of employment and taxes to the social leviathan.)

In an interesting aside, Peterson acknowledges that Marx was correct in observing that capital tends to accumulate in the hands of the few. But Marx erred in considering this imbalance a flaw in the capitalist system. For such asymmetry, as Pareto and others have shown, “is a feature of every single system of production that we know of.” Disproportion is intrinsic to human life, whether we like it or not. Moreover, the Rule applies not only to economic factors but to distributions inherent in almost all productive human efforts and enterprises. The potential for human achievement is never evenly distributed. True success in any creative endeavor is invariably a function of that small band of individuals who, as Peterson says, exemplify power, competence, authority and direction in their lives. Briefly, IQ and conscientiousness are the biggest predictors of success.

Although the Rule does not enjoy the status of a Law, it is for the most part reliable. In other words, no matter how we may tamper with distributive sequences, life is simply not fair. People are born with different aptitudes and are exposed to a variant range of formative experiences, giving rise to personal “outcomes” that cannot be preordained. At the same time, the sum of such particulars group into predictable aggregates which are statistically definitive.

Distributions of wealth, as Richard Koch explains in The 80/20 Principle, are “predictably unbalanced,” but the “data relating to things other than wealth or income” can be generalized, as noted, over the broad spectrum of human activities, pursuits and behavior: time-management, distance relations, crime distributions, artistic masterpieces and innumerable other phenomena. One-hundred percent of most things amenable to statistical calculation tend to happen, speaking metaphorically, within a 20% radius, including that which we consider best in life. Out of every 100 books published, to take one instance of how the Rule tends to operate, approximately 20 will have marketable success. It is thus to our advantage, Koch continues, to determine and isolate the 20% of time and effort which are most productive; the remaining 80% turns out to be dispensable.

Elaborating on the Rule with a view to furthering proficiency, engineer Joseph Moses Juran, the father of TQM (Total Quality Management), which revolutionized habits of thought in business, manufacturing and engineering, posited his “Rule of the Vital Few” in accounting for the disparity between inputs and outputs. As Koch puts it in his summary of Juran’s thesis: “For everyone and every institution, it is possible to obtain much that is of value and avoid what is of negative value” by understanding that evolving systems are nonlinear, that “equilibrium is illusory and fleeting,” that minorities are responsible for majority payoffs, and that focusing on the 80% at the expense of the 20% in any sphere of human activity will inevitably yield negative consequences. (Needless to say, the term “minorities” in the expository context alludes not to racial or gender minorities, but to a creative minimum.)

We are clearly indebted, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb stresses, Pareto-like, in his new book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, to those who really do have skin in the game, who are “imbued with a sense of pride and honor,” who are “endowed with the spirit of risk taking,” and who “put their soul into something [without] leaving that stuff to someone else.” Taleb’s version of the “minority rule” is even more drastic than Pareto’s, reducing the 20% to “3 or 4 percent of the total population.” They are the “heroes” on whom the good of society depends.
Missing from the discussion is an examination of whether the 80% lower productive are a necessary predicate to the 20% who dominate the outcomes. I suspect that that is the case.

If you take the 20% most productive from a system, will you find a Pareto distribution among them? Yes. On ad infinitum. It is turtles all the way down.

So on the one hand, you can argue that the system has to be treated as a whole such that, while 20% produce 80% of the results, the 20% of producers necessarily require the other 80% in order for that additive value to occur.

On the other hand, it also seems demonstrably true that when you remove the conditions of freedom and choice, i.e. when you use coercive means to redistribute the outcomes, you also destroy the prerequisites for the exceptional differential performance in the first place.

The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual's powers and inner resources.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
29

A fateful process is set in motion when the individual is released "to the freedom of his own impotence" and left to justify his existence by his own efforts. The autonomous individual, striving to realize himself and prove his worth, has created all that is great in literature, art, music, science and technology. The autonomous individual, also, when he can neither realize himself nor justify his existence by his own efforts, is a breeding call of frustration, and the seed of the convulsions which shake our world to its foundations.

The individual on his own is stable only so long as he is possessed of self-esteem. The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual's powers and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day. When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride — the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of individual self- esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride.

Morning Light by Jeanne Amato

Morning Light by Jeanne Amato

Click to enlarge.

When maths was taken seriously

From Wikipedia, Hippasus of Metapontum.
Hippasus of Metapontum (/ˈhɪpəsəs/; Greek: Ἵππασος ὁ Μεταποντῖνος, Híppasos; fl. 5th century BC), was a Pythagorean philosopher. Little is known about his life or his beliefs, but he is sometimes credited with the discovery of the existence of irrational numbers. The discovery of irrational numbers is said to have been shocking to the Pythagoreans, and Hippasus is supposed to have drowned at sea, apparently as a punishment from the gods for divulging this.
A slight elaboration. Pythagoreans argued that all numbers could be expressed as the ratio of integers. The mathematical discoveries of the Pythagorean were part of a tightly woven mesh of science, philosophy and religion. The discovery of irrational numbers was, therefore not just a mathematical shock but a philosophical one as well and bordered on blasphemy.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Compulsive Reader by Pablo Gallo

Compulsive Reader by Pablo Gallo

Click to enlarge.

The tradition of critical discussion

From A Pocket Popper by Karl Popper, edited by David Miller.
The early history of Greek philosophy, especially the history from Thales to Plato, is a splendid story. It is almost too good to be true. In every generation we find at least one new philosophy, one new cosmology of staggering originality and depth. How was this possible? Of course one cannot explain originality and genius. But one can try to throw some light on them. What was the secret of the ancients? I suggest that it was a tradition - the tradition of critical discussion.

I will try to put the problem more sharply. In all or almost all civilizations we find something like religious and cosmological teaching, and in many societies we find schools. Now schools, especially primitive schools, all have, it appears, a characteristic structure and function. Far from being places of critical discussion they make it their task to impart a definite doctrine, and to preserve it, pure and unchanged. It is the task of a school to hand on the tradition, the doctrine of its founder, its first master, to the next generation, and to this end the most important thing is to keep the doctrine inviolate. A school of this kind never admits a new idea. New ideas are heresies, and lead to schisms; should a member of the school try to change the doctrine, then he is expelled as a heretic. But the heretic claims, as a rule, that his is the true doctrine of the founder. Thus not even the inventor admits that he has introduced an invention; he believes, rather, that he is returning to the true orthodoxy which has somehow been perverted.

In this way all changes of doctrine - if any - are surreptitious changes. They are all presented as restatements of the true sayings of the master, of his own words, his own meaning, his own intentions.

It is clear that in a school of this kind we cannot expect to find a history of ideas, or even the material for such a history. For new ideas are not admitted to be new. Everything is ascribed to the master. All we might reconstruct is a history of schisms, and perhaps a history of the defence of certain doctrines against the heretics.

There cannot, of course, be any rational discussion in a school of this kind. There may be arguments against dissenters and heretics, or against some competing schools. But in the main it is with assertion and dogma and condemnation rather than argument that the doctrine is defended.

The great example of a school of this kind among the Greek philosophical schools is the Italian school founded by Pythagoras. Compared with the Ionian school, or with that of Elea, it had the character of a religious order, with a characteristic way of life and a secret doctrine. The story that a member, Hippasus of Metapontum, was drowned at sea because he revealed the secret of the irrationality of certain square roots, is characteristic of the atmosphere surrounding the Pythagorean school, whether or not there is any truth in this story.

But among Greek philosophic schools the early Pythagoreans were an exception. Leaving them aside, we could say that the character of Greek philosophy, and of the philosophical schools, is strikingly different from the dogmatic type of school here described. I show this by an example: the story of the problem of change is the story of a critical debate, of a rational discussion. New ideas are propounded as such, and arise as the result of open criticism. There are few, if any, surreptitious changes. Instead of anonymity we find a history of ideas and of their originators.

Here is a unique phenomenon, and it is closely connected with the astonishing freedom and creativeness of Greek philosophy. How can we explain this phenomenon? What we have to explain is the rise of a tradition. It is a tradition that allows or encourages critical discussions between various schools and, more surprisingly still, within one and the same school. For nowhere outside the Pythagorean school do we find a school devoted to the preservation of a doctrine. Instead we find changes, new ideas, modifications, and outright criticism of the master.

(In Parmenides we even find, at an early date, a most remarkable phenomenon - that of a philosopher who propounds two doctrines, one which he says is true, and one which he himself describes as false. Yet he makes the false doctrine not simply an object of condemnation or of criticism; rather he presents it as the best possible account of the delusive opinion of mortal men, and of the world of mere appearance - the best account which a mortal man can give.)

How and where was this critical tradition founded? This is a problem deserving serious thought. This much is certain: Xenophanes who brought the Ionian tradition to Elea was fully conscious of the fact that his own teaching was purely conjectural, and that others might come who would know better. I shall come back to this point in section hi below.

If we look for the first signs of this new critical attitude, this new freedom of thought, we are led to Anaximander’s criticism of Thales. Here is a most striking fact: Anaximander criticizes his master and kinsman, one of the Seven Sages, the founder of the Ionian school. He was, according to tradition, only about fourteen years younger than Thales, and he must have developed his criticism and his new ideas while his master was alive. (They seem to have died within a few years of each other.) But there is no trace in the sources of a story of dissent, of any quarrel, or of any schism.

This suggests, I think, that it was Thales who founded the new tradition of freedom - based upon a new relation between master and pupil - and who thus created a new type of school, utterly different from the Pythagorean school. He seems to have been able to tolerate criticism. And what is more, he seems to have created the tradition that one ought to tolerate criticism.

Yet I like to think that he did even more than this. I can hardly imagine a relationship between master and pupil in which the master merely tolerates criticism without actively encouraging it. It does not seem to me possible that a pupil who is being trained in the dogmatic attitude would ever dare to criticize the dogma (least of all that of a famous sage) and to voice his criticism. And it seems to me an easier and simpler explanation to assume that the master encouraged a critical attitude - possibly not from the outset, but only after he was struck by the pertinence of some questions asked, without any critical intention, by the pupil.

However this may be, the conjecture that Thales actively encouraged criticism in his pupils would explain the fact that the critical attitude towards the master’s doctrine became part of the Ionian school tradition. I like to think that Thales was the first teacher who said to his pupils: ‘This is how I see things - how I believe that things are. Try to improve upon my teaching.’ (Those who believe that it is ‘unhistoricaP to attribute this undogmatic attitude to Thales may again be reminded of the fact that only two generations later we find a similar attitude consciously and clearly formulated in the fragments of Xenophanes.) At any rate, there is the historical fact that the Ionian school was the first in which pupils criticized their masters, in one generation after the other. There can be little doubt that the Greek tradition of philosophical criticism had its main source in Ionia.

It was a momentous innovation. It meant a break with the dogmatic tradition which permits only one school doctrine, and the introduction in its place of a tradition that admits a plurality of doctrines which all try to approach the truth by means of critical discussion.
"But in the main it is with assertion and dogma and condemnation rather than argument that the doctrine is defended" - Sure sounds familiar.

At first blush, Popper's point seems related to linguistic (and computational) recursion which allows for extraordinary power and innovation.

On reflection, there is more to the idea. It is the philosophical equivalent of the evolution of a gene that drives rapid selection to the environment. Basically a mechanism of self-correction. A biological being which was able to self-heal would, appropriately, be viewed as miraculous.

I think Popper's point is similar. That a philosophy which had the capacity for self-generation and correction is indeed a miraculous thing.


The autonomous individual who has to justify his existence by his own efforts is in eternal bondage to himself.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
28

There is a large measure of totalitarianism even in the freest of free societies. But in a free society totalitarianism is not imposed from without but is implanted within the individual. There is a totalitarian regime inside every one of us. We are ruled by a ruthless politburo which sets our norms and drives us from one five-year plan to another. The autonomous individual who has to justify his existence by his own efforts is in eternal bondage to himself.

When humans regularly drink alcohol, only 15 percent or so become dependent on the stuff

From A Landmark Study on the Origins of Alcoholism by Ed Yong. The article primarily focuses on the prospect of genetic treatment of alcoholism. I empathize and hope that the new insights do indeed lend themselves towards treatment of this longstanding scourge.

What I find interesting is the illustration of how blind we often are when considering whether we are examining something on a like-to-like basis. Most of our sociological findings to which we initially react with outrage, later end up failing to replicate and very frequently they fail to replicate because they were failing to compare like-to-like. The classic example is the refuted claim that men and women are paid differently for the same work. If you start with a postmodernist belief set in group identity and patriarchy, then this claim is self-evidently true.

And yet when researchers began to test it thirty or forty years ago, that is not what they found in the data. Sure, for any given individual there might be instances of +/- 5 or 10% deviance from the market but that was true for men and women, whites and blacks, whatever group identity you were interested in. That was the path dependency/circumstantial noise in the system and it applied to everyone. It was not bias at play but circumstance. Some men were underpaid; some women were overpaid. But more pertinently, at the system level, when you control for all the relevant factors that drive variance such as years of experience, field of endeavor, education attainment level, hours worked per week, years worked continuously, etc., men and women are paid exactly the same. Which is what you would expect in a competitive labor market and what economic theory predicts.

The original postmodernist claim was facially plausible but was untrue and it took a long time to reveal the untruth because it took a long time to eventually compare like-to-like.

Which is exactly what happened here, as explained in the article, in an area of consequential research but without the ideological/political overtones.

Many researchers, independent of one another, and without bias, over a long duration, failed to examine rats under the same circumstances as they examined humans. When they finally did so, they found an avenue of research which might actually lead to some positive results. By comparing like-to-like for the first time, they obtained new insights for the first time.

Emphasis added.
For Markus Heilig, the years of dead ends were starting to grate.

A seasoned psychiatrist, Heilig joined the National Institutes of Health in 2004 with grand ambitions of finding new ways to treat addiction and alcoholism. “It was the age of the neuroscience revolution, and all this new tech gave us many ways of manipulating animal brains,” he recalls. By studying addictive behavior in laboratory rats and mice, he would pinpoint crucial genes, molecules, and brain regions that could be targeted to curtail the equivalent behaviors in people.

It wasn’t to be. The insights from rodent studies repeatedly proved to be irrelevant. Many researchers and pharmaceutical companies became disillusioned. “We cured alcoholism in every rat we ever tried,” says Heilig, who is now at Linköping University in Sweden. “And at the end of every paper, we wrote: This will lead to an exciting treatment. But everything we took from these animal models to the clinic failed. We needed to go back to the drawing board.”

Heilig doesn’t buy that mice and rats have nothing to teach us about addiction. It’s more that researchers have been studying them in the wrong way. Typically, they’ll let the animals self-administer drugs by pressing a lever, which they almost always learn to do. That should have been a red flag. When humans regularly drink alcohol, only 15 percent or so become dependent on the stuff. Why them and not the other 85 percent? That’s the crucial question, and you won’t answer it with an experiment in which every rodent becomes addicted.

Eric Augier, who recently joined Heilig’s team, tried a different approach—one pioneered in his former laboratory to study cocaine addiction. After training rats to self-administer alcohol, he offered them some sugary water, too. This better mimics real life, in which drugs exist simultaneously with other pleasurable substances. Given a choice between booze and nectar, most rats chose the latter. But not all of them: Of the 32 rats that Augier first tested, four ignored the sugar and kept on shooting themselves up with alcohol.

“Four rats is laughable,” says Heilig, referring to the study’s small size, “but 620 rats later, no one’s laughing.” Augier repeated the experiment with more rats of various breeds, and always got the same results. Consistently, 15 percent of them choose alcohol over sugar—the same number as the proportion of human drinkers who progress to alcoholism.

Those alcohol-preferring rats showed other hallmarks of human addiction, too. They spend more effort to get a sip of alcohol than their sugar-preferring peers, and they kept on drinking even when their booze supply was spiked with an intensely bitter chemical or paired with an electric shock. “That was striking to me, as a clinician,” says Heilig. “Embedded in the criteria for diagnosing alcoholism is that people continue to take drugs despite good knowledge of the fact that it will harm or kill them.”

Many lab studies treat animals as if they were identical, and any variation in their behavior is just unhelpful noise. But in Augier’s work, the variation is the important bit. It’s what points to the interesting underlying biology. “This is a really good study,” says Michael Taffe, a neuroscientist at the Scripps Research Institute who studies drug addiction. “Since only a minority of humans experience a transition to addiction, [an approach] such as this is most likely to identify the specific genetic variants that convey risk.”

That is exactly what the team did next. They compared the alcohol-preferring and sugar-preferring rats and looked for differences in the genes that were active in their brains. They focused on six regions that are thought to be involved in addiction, and found no differences in five. “But in the sixth, we did,” says Heilig. “And it made me smile because I started out doing my Ph.D. on the amygdala.”

The amygdala is an almond-shaped region that sits deep within the brain, and is heavily involved in processing emotions. When Augier looked at the amygdala of alcoholic rats, he found signs of unusually low activity in several genes, all of which are linked to a chemical called GABA.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Proud to be privileged by the Enlightenment

From Western Self-Loathing: The Disease by Thales. Perhaps an overwrought declamation but not necessarily wrong.
Our problems are often laughable. Listen to any conversation where people are complaining about this and that. The complaints are small-minded. Perhaps someone is having trouble with love or sex, another complains that his car has broken down, or perhaps his toilet will not work. Another complains of crushing debt from his state-of-the-art smartphone, sitting in his brand-new vehicle. The Internet is slow today, or the air-conditioning unit has broken down again.

With the exception of love and sex, perpetual problems for the race of man, these are not problems in any historical sense of the word, not even for many of the poorest among us. Such things are small, and deep down most of us know that. Problems we face are preferable to the problems of our ancestors, for whom food was difficult to obtain, work was brutal, and life short and filled with pain.

For a time, the West prided itself in having banished many of the ills of our forebears. Indeed, we even traveled to the moon! Some wished, perhaps, to spread our plenty to the rest of the world. We could export our ways, our culture, and our way of thinking to others, so that they might enjoy the same rich rewards.

That did not last long. Before long, Marxist subversion had wormed its way into media, entertainment, and education. Fabian Socialism was the method of subverting the West, for revolutionary Socialism had already failed. For a time, this was probably a deliberate instrument of the Soviets. We won the Cold War in an economic sense, and probably in a military sense as well, though nuclear weapons assured that this was never put to the final test. In a sociological sense, both sides lost, though for us the loss was worse. If the Soviet Union was the head of the Marxist animal, it was lopped off effectively. Like the Hydra, however, the body did not die, and new heads eventually sprang from the seeming-corpse.

Many theories exist for where the weapon was first forged, and by whom. Saul Alinsky is frequently cited, as is the Frankfurt school. The Gramscian Long March may also have contributed. On this matter, let smarter men than I speculate and theorize. The weapon exists, and its effectiveness cannot be denied.

Concepts of Socialism go at least as far back as Aristophanes, yet the method of civilizational guilt as a means of forcing it upon the citizenry is unique and relatively new. Further, it exists only in the West. Chinese do not worry about colonizing Africa, nor do Mohammedans moralize about the Christians and Jews they have subjugated and enslaved. Conquest is rarely regretted on a moral level by anyone but a Westerner. For most, it is a matter of some pride.

When reading the works of Western ancients, this sort of civilizational self-loathing is conspicuously absent. Guilt, where it exists, tends to be personal, or spun as a vendetta of sorts. It is difficult to imagine the Romans, for instance, worrying overmuch about the opinions of the Gauls. So even in the West, this is new.

Why do Westerners hate themselves so? There is no other explanation that fits. The West, at a meta level, feels that it does not deserve what it has, and now questions whether or not it should even continue to exist at all. Survival, most powerful of all human instincts, has been completely subverted, and now inverted.

They dwarf themselves by refusing to stand on the shoulders of giants

From Civilizing the Barbarians by Alma T. C. Boykin.
Why did the Franks, Saxons, and others work so hard to copy Rome and to adopt chunks of Roman culture (as transmitted through the Christian church?) At first, they didn’t. The Franks of Charlemagne and the Franks that ran the last Romans out of what is now northern Germany and the Netherlands were 350 years apart and very different in some ways. In others, well, it took a great deal of unceasing, patient (and not so patient) work by people who still believed that the old ways were good, and that they had a mission to save the souls of the pagans, which also meant teaching them to read and write. And the pagans came to believe that the old ways could give them power and authority.

[snip]

So what was the key? What lured the new arrivals into conversion? Dogged persistence, for one thing. The western church kept sending out missionaries, and sending out missionaries, the Irish kept coming and coming, and eventually some of the Franks et al quit killing the missionaries and started leaving them alone, or listening to them, and coming around to their way of thinking. Sort of, because not all of Christian theology as espoused by Rome and Tour got adopted. Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, converter of the Saxons, scourge of the Avars, had multiple wives because he was a Frankish warlord as well as a Christian. His bishops must have ground their teeth, but compared to the greater threats, well, bigamy wasn’t that serious of a problem. You wonder how many people converted just to get the priests and monks to be quiet and leave them alone.
Fair enough. It is an age-old claim and has at least some merit to it. Other forces were at work. Other circumstances. Other causes. But the role of the Church is well documented as in part a mission of cultural, epistemic and religious transmission. The Church did facilitate the transmission of religion, and indirectly of culture and civilization over time and under widely varied cirmcumstances.

Going beyond the above claim, Boykin is actually addressing a different question:
So my question is: how do you convert the modern barbarians to civilization? Because the modern barbarians – peoples who do not value the individual, who have no regard for the past and no respect for anything not based on power, peoples who consider tradition at best cute and at worst something to be actively rooted out and eliminated – are once more moving across the land. How do we convert them? How do we preserve what is vital and sacred and persuade the barbarians to see things from our point of view? We can’t wait for a Charlemagne or Holger Dansk or Prinz Eugen or Otto the Great.
Presumably she is classifying among barbarians, those who come from a non-western cultural tradition but as well, avid atheists in the West, totalitarian ideologues, postmodernists and others of that ilk.

I am inclined to be less concerned about a particular form of religion. I would tackle this somewhat differently.

I suspect that in order to sustain an advanced, humanist, Enlightenment Civilization, we do need religion as a mechanism for transmitting foundational culture as much as transmitting specific doctrine.

I suspect that one of the great risks we face in a rapidly secularizing age is that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In our exploration of personal exploration and personal realization, we are ditching the whole framework that allows for a steady progression of knowledge and faith accumulation and sorting.

Without a pre-formed structure we have to learn everything the first time and effectively randomly. With a structure, you can start with knowledge taken on faith and then refine it based on learning and experience. Very few people have the capacity to build a framework and populate it with knowledge and build it from scratch. They attempt to do so but they miss critical elements that they never considered and end up dramatically less well off.

They dwarf themselves by refusing to stand on the shoulders of giants.

As Thomas Sowell has observed:
Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.
A Church out of a western cultural tradition provides a foundation and platform for rapidly and consistently transmitting accumulated knowledge and wisdom in a fashion not performed in any other way. Omit that institution and you end where we are today, with snowflakes of great conviction declaiming on issues about they have little knowledge or experience and willing to tear everything down in order to indulge their passionate peeves.

What am I missing?

A flurry of posts related to the mechanisms for transmitting knowledge and culture from one generation to the next. Not to make a grand point but because I came several items related to that theme all at the same time from different sources.

First up - a report that is almost beyond comprehension. From Mary McAleese: Baptised children ‘infant conscripts’ by Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times.

Mary McAleese was a popular president of the Republic of Ireland for fourteen years. She is a practicing Roman Catholic. Indeed, from the article, she is a Lay Canon of the church.

In other times, this would be a rather breathtaking set of claims. Either from disinterest or ignorance, it seems not to have created much of a stir.
Babies baptised into the Catholic Church are “infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience”, according to former president Mary McAleese.

Saying that early Baptism breaches fundamental human rights, she said: “You can’t impose, really, obligations on people who are only two weeks old and you can’t say to them at seven or eight or 14 or 19 ‘here is what you contracted, here is what you signed up to’ because the truth is they didn’t.”

The current model of Baptism “worked for many centuries because people didn’t understand that they had the right to say no, the right to walk away”, she declared.

“But you and I know, we live now in times where we have the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion and freedom to change religion. The Catholic Church yet has to fully embrace that thinking,” she told The Irish Times.
This is essentially the position of most branches of Protestantism. Baptism is a communal event in which a new communicant is received into the congregation but who will later have to choose as an adult to continue that commitment either through confirmation, typically as a young adult, or later through adult baptism. The details vary widely by tradition of Protestantism but that is the basic construct and has been one of the fundamental differences with the Roman Catholic tradition.

In most Protestant traditions, baptism is as much a communal taking in of the community as it is an obligation of the child to any definite outcome. We join together to raise the child in a tradition which in itself is predicated on the assumption that the personal commitment of baptism has to be renewed as an adult who chooses rather than a child who is obligated.

So why is the former president of one of the most traditional Roman Catholic churches and who is a Lay Canon herself speaking against church doctrine and like a Southern Baptist?

Perhaps I am missing something, or ignorant of some aspect of doctrine, but I don't think so. And if I am correct, why is this not noteworthy?

This feels like someone trying to remake a long tradition into the form of her own beliefs.

An achievement today is but a challenge for tomorrow.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
27

The independent individual constitutes a chronically unbalanced entity. The confidence and self-esteem which alone can keep him on an even keel are extremely perishable, and must be generated anew each day. An achievement today is but a challenge for tomorrow. When standing at a stay however high he is a prey to nagging fears.

The soul of the autonomous individual has the aspect of a volcanic landscape. There is a seismic line running through it —the line of separation from the self. All our enthusiasms, passionate pursuits, dreams, aspirations and outstanding achievements have their origin along this line of cleavage. The strivings of such a soul are either to heal over the cleavage by a reconciliation with the self through achievement, or camouflage it by self-forgetting, or eliminate it by self-rejection.

Stopping by Woods by Angela Harding

Stopping by Woods by Angela Harding

Click to enlarge.

Kabuki theater of group identity or real commitment to improving the lives of individuals - a choice

I have not seen this before. It pulls together a lot of the evidence and strands of argument around the academic mismatch thesis. From A 'Dubious Expediency': How Race-Preferential Admissions Policies on Campus Hurt Minority Students by Gail L. Heriot.

Whether you believe in affirmative action, reincarnated as diversity, as an appropriate public policy or not, a critical predicate question is whether it is effective.

I am deeply concerned about the undermining of equal citizens and the implied state-sanctioned racism of affirmative action while recognizing its supporters are well intended.

But evidence is increasing, despite powerful interests to suppress it, that affirmative action, as implemented, is in fact not just philosophically incoherent but is also individually and in aggregate detrimental to its supposed beneficiaries. The sooner we see the back of this postmodernist social justice monstrosity and start treating all citizens as individuals and treating them equally, the better.

From the Abstract:
Mounting empirical research shows that race-preferential admissions policies are doing more harm than good. Instead of increasing the numbers of African Americans entering high-status careers, these policies reduce those numbers relative to what we would have had if colleges and universities had followed race-neutral policies. We have fewer African-American scientists, physicians, and engineers and likely fewer lawyers and college professors. If, as the evidence indicates, the effects of race-preferential admissions policies are exactly the opposite of what was originally intended, it is difficult to understand why anyone would wish to support them.
Just because sanctioned racial discrimination is not effective in achieving its stated objectives doesn't mean that we throw up our hands.

Most competitive universities desperately want to show that they have a diverse student body, admitting preferred groups under less rigorous standards. But if you look at the graduating class rather than the matriculating class, they are much less diverse. The university has admitted students who could not compete, took their money, and failed them out with nothing to show for their efforts. The university gets to feel good. The student suffers. Nothing changes.

When you shift the focus from an appearance of commitment to diversity to an actual commitment to individual students, it can do wonders. Georgia State University is an open admissions university. They take everyone as they present themselves. They then work with those students with all sorts of counseling and wrap-around services, but no relaxation of standards, seeking to ensure that everyone who is willing to do the work and learn, regardless of their originating circumstances, can graduate. They are working hard to ensure that students benefit and become more productive rather than conducting the kabuki theater of diversity admissions.

Not only is that morally more respectable but it makes a real world difference to both the individual student and to our society. You'd think that would be the more desirable aapproach.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Whatever else we cure by eliminating greed we do not cure life of its triviality

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
26

Men will try to assert and prove themselves by whatever means and under every sort of condition. A successful social technique consists perhaps in finding unobjectionable means for individual self-assertion.

It is permissible to wonder what other means for the demonstration of individual worth are likely to develop in a nonacquisitive society. Vying in creativity is not a likely substitute for vying in acquisition — not only because creativity is accessible only to the few, but because creative work is without automatic recognition. The nonacquisitive society is likely to develop into a combination of army and school. People will prove themselves by winning citations, degrees, medals and rank. Whatever else we cure by eliminating greed we do not cure life of its triviality.

Demasiada calma en la ciudad. La Tasca by Pablo Gallo (Too quiet in the city by Pablo Gallo)

Click to enlarge.

Not the technology but human nature

From The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Page 44.

Written circa 524, Boethius illustrates that often what we attribute to technology is simply human nature. Tell me this doesn't sound like a description of Twitter.
But you mortals—you do not know how to act honorably except in response to flitting vulgar favors and empty gossip; you have abandoned the excellence of your conscience and your virtue and demand your rewards from the idle chatter of outsiders. Hear now how wittily someone mocked the shallowness of this sort of presumption. Once one man upbraided and insulted another because the latter had clothed himself in the name of philosopher falsely: not because of his practice of true virtue but because of vainglory and pride. The one added, “Now I will know whether or not you are a philosopher if you endure the injustice I’ve done you mildly and with forbearance.” The other played at forbearance for a time, took the insult, then said with a taunt, “Now do you know that I am a philosopher?” The first snapped viciously and said, “I would have known it, had you kept your silence.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

A social calamity of epic proportions

Well here is an inequality issue that most guys can get behind.

Social justice advocates love to fixate on inequality, also known worldwide as the Pareto Distribution, when it comes to wealth or income, ignoring that the only economic systems with low income inequality are also the poorest and most traumatized (war, plague, etc.).

In a tongue-in-cheek study, Worst Online Dater has deployed his nerd skills to determine the dating odds against the bright but aesthetically challenged, a distressingly marginalized victim group. Granted the sample size is small and the research protocols lax but the findings are sufficiently alarming to warrant additional research.
This study was conducted to quantify the Tinder socio-economic prospects for males based on the percentage of females that will “like” them. Female Tinder usage data was collected and statistically analyzed to determine the inequality in the Tinder economy. It was determined that the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men. The Gini coefficient for the Tinder economy based on “like” percentages was calculated to be 0.58. This means that the Tinder economy has more inequality than 95.1% of all the world’s national economies. In addition, it was determined that a man of average attractiveness would be “liked” by approximately 0.87% (1 in 115) of women on Tinder.
This is a tragic inequality that has been hiding in plain sight for decades.

Worst Onlne Dater elaborates:
As I stated previously the average female “likes” 12% of men on Tinder. This doesn't mean though that most males will get “liked” back by 12% of all the women they “like” on Tinder. This would only be the case if “likes” were equally distributed. In reality, the bottom 80% of men are fighting over the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are fighting over the top 20% of men. We can see this trend in Figure 1. The area in blue represents the situations where women are more likely to “like” the men. The area in pink represents the situations where men are more likely to “like” women. The curve doesn’t go down linearly, but instead drops quickly after the top 20% of men. Comparing the blue area and the pink area we can see that for a random female/male Tinder interaction the male is likely to “like” the female 6.2 times more often than the female “likes” the male.
He then shows the problem in all its graphical horror.
Click to enlarge.

We can also see that the wealth distribution for males in the Tinder economy is quite large. Most females only “like” the most attractive guys. So how can we compare the Tinder economy to other economies? Economists use two main metrics to compare the wealth distribution of economies: The Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient.

The Lorenz curve (Wikipedia link) is a graph showing the proportion of overall income or wealth assumed by the bottom x% of the people. If the wealth was equally distributed the graph would show a 45 degree line. The amount the curve bends below the 45 degree line shows the extent of wealth inequality. Figure 2 shows the Lorenz curve for the Tinder economy compared to the curve for the U.S. income distribution from a few years ago.

Click to enlarge.

The Lorenz curve for the Tinder economy is lower than the curve for the US economy. This means that the inequality in Tinder wealth distribution is larger than the inequality of income in the US economy. One way economists quantify this difference is by comparing the Gini coefficient for different economies.

The Gini coefficient (Wikipedia link) is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds with perfect equality where everyone has the same income (damn commies) and 1 corresponds with perfect inequality where one person has all the income and everyone else has zero income (let them eat cake). The United States currently has one of the higher Gini coefficients (most income inequality) of all of the world’s biggest economies at a value of 0.41. The Tinder Gini coefficient is even higher at 0.58. This may not seem like a big difference but it is actually huge. Figure 3 compares the income Gini coefficient distribution for 162 nations and adds the Tinder economy to the list. The United States Gini coefficient is higher than 62% of the world’s countries. The Tinder economy has a higher Gini coefficient than 95.1% of the countries in the world. The only countries that have a higher Gini coefficient than Tinder are Angola, Haiti, Botswana, Namibia, Comoros, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, and Seychelles (which I had never heard of before).

There you have it. A social calamity of epic proportions.


Intellectual hubris and measured reality

From Thirty Years On, How Well Do Global Warming Predictions Stand Up? by Pat Michaels and Ryan Maue.

In a republican democracy with built in checks and balances, it is difficult to obtain social mass behind issues which lack demonstrable impact on most people. The standard mechanism to try and build momentum is to stoke fear. The anthropogenic global climate warming (AGW) argument of the past forty years follows that model. The changes are too small and the time frames too long, the counterfactuals too many and the confounding variables are too numerous to make it easy to get people be concerned about AGW. And indeed, while statists, select environmentalists (but by no means all), particular financial interests, and others have worked hard and long, the public across the developed world remains substantially unconcerned about AGW if not outright doubtful.

While Michales and Maue are somewhat selective in their presentation, it is a useful corrective to the bulk of breathless AGW reporting which is almost always slanted, uninformed and often incorrect. As an environmentalist and a committed empiricist, I am conflicted. I believe we have grave environmental problems which need addressing but AGW is not high on that list. It sucks oxygen from environmental discussions which I think would be useful to have.

In addition, the whole AGW debate is riddled with intellectual/academic hubris. Our data records are meager, brief, sometimes suspect and our comprehension of the complex system which is climate is only a step or two away from superficial.

One of the gifts of the Enlightenment was a new discipline of looking at things empirically and as described by Popper, one of the tests of a science is the testability of its forecasts. So where do we stand with the original AGW forecasts?
James E. Hansen wiped sweat from his brow. Outside it was a record-high 98 degrees on June 23, 1988, as the NASA scientist testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during a prolonged heat wave, which he decided to cast as a climate event of cosmic significance. He expressed to the senators his “high degree of confidence” in “a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming.”

With that testimony and an accompanying paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mr. Hansen lit the bonfire of the greenhouse vanities, igniting a world-wide debate that continues today about the energy structure of the entire planet. President Obama’s environmental policies were predicated on similar models of rapid, high-cost warming. But the 30th anniversary of Mr. Hansen’s predictions affords an opportunity to see how well his forecasts have done—and to reconsider environmental policy accordingly.

Mr. Hansen’s testimony described three possible scenarios for the future of carbon dioxide emissions. He called Scenario A “business as usual,” as it maintained the accelerating emissions growth typical of the 1970s and ’80s. This scenario predicted the earth would warm 1 degree Celsius by 2018. Scenario B set emissions lower, rising at the same rate today as in 1988. Mr. Hansen called this outcome the “most plausible,” and predicted it would lead to about 0.7 degree of warming by this year. He added a final projection, Scenario C, which he deemed highly unlikely: constant emissions beginning in 2000. In that forecast, temperatures would rise a few tenths of a degree before flatlining after 2000.

Thirty years of data have been collected since Mr. Hansen outlined his scenarios—enough to determine which was closest to reality. And the winner is Scenario C. Global surface temperature has not increased significantly since 2000, discounting the larger-than-usual El Niño of 2015-16. Assessed by Mr. Hansen’s model, surface temperatures are behaving as if we had capped 18 years ago the carbon-dioxide emissions responsible for the enhanced greenhouse effect. But we didn’t. And it isn’t just Mr. Hansen who got it wrong. Models devised by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have, on average, predicted about twice as much warming as has been observed since global satellite temperature monitoring began 40 years ago.

What about Mr. Hansen’s other claims? Outside the warming models, his only explicit claim in the testimony was that the late ’80s and ’90s would see “greater than average warming in the southeast U.S. and the Midwest.” No such spike has been measured in these regions.

As observed temperatures diverged over the years from his predictions, Mr. Hansen doubled down. In a 2007 case on auto emissions, he stated in his deposition that most of Greenland’s ice would soon melt, raising sea levels 23 feet over the course of 100 years. Subsequent research published in Nature magazine on the history of Greenland’s ice cap demonstrated this to be impossible. Much of Greenland’s surface melts every summer, meaning rapid melting might reasonably be expected to occur in a dramatically warming world. But not in the one we live in. The Nature study found only modest ice loss after 6,000 years of much warmer temperatures than human activity could ever sustain.

Several more of Mr. Hansen’s predictions can now be judged by history. Have hurricanes gotten stronger, as Mr. Hansen predicted in a 2016 study? No. Satellite data from 1970 onward shows no evidence of this in relation to global surface temperature. Have storms caused increasing amounts of damage in the U.S.? Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show no such increase in damage, measured as a percentage of gross domestic product. How about stronger tornadoes? The opposite may be true, as NOAA data offers some evidence of a decline. The list of what didn’t happen is long and tedious.
AGW should not be dismissed out of hand but the true test of a hypothesis is not whether it is plausible or reasonable or how much it might appeal to our normative concerns. The test is whether the forecasts match the realities.

For AGW, so far, not yet.

To be balanced is to be more or less at rest.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
25

The propensity to action is symptomatic of an inner unbalance. To be balanced is to be more or less at rest. Action is at bottom a swinging and flailing of the arms to regain one's balance and keep afloat. And if it be true, as Napoleon wrote to Carnot, that "the art of government is not to let men grow stale," then it is an art of unbalancing. The crucial difference between a totalitarian regime and a free social order is perhaps in the methods of unbalancing by which their people are kept active and striving.

Saturday at Burnham Market by Marc Delassio

Saturday at Burnham Market by Marc Delassio

Click to enlarge.

Asymmetric comparisons

From The Consolation of Philosophy by by Ancius Boethius. Page 44.
Compare the pause of a single moment to ten thousand years: Since each of them is a limited duration, even though it is very small the one does nevertheless have a certain ratio to the other. But even this number of years, or any multiple of it, cannot even be set next to an extent of time that has no end. For while there would be some comparison among themselves one to the other for finite terms, there could never be any comparison of the finite to the infinite.
An interesting observation. This is an aspect of category errors, as well as the logical fallacies of division and composition.

In the article in which I saw this referenced, they had an intriguing description which is slightly different still, and usefully different. The author referred to Boethius's point as an asymmetric comparison.

I like that gradation. It captures the condition of hyperbolic comparisons. If some teenager makes the claim that "My parents are like Hitler" you can certainly counter that that is a category error, confusing a modicum of discipline with arbitrary totalitarian authority. But then some pedant comes along and wants to debate shades of grey and explore where on the continuum normal parent authority evolves into arbitrary totalitarian authority.

You will probably win your point but the clarity and concision of communication is lost.

Instead, to counter that the teenager's claim is an asymmetric comparison is much harder to refute. There will always be pedantic takers but at least they will have to work much harder to handicap your point. And there is a good chance that any effort to counter "asymmetric comparison" probably has a pretty good chance of actually making the point for you.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The feeling that it has a mission and a destiny

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
24

It is the awareness of unfulfilled desires which gives a nation the feeling that it has a mission and a destiny.

The Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt

The Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A nation is "tired" when it ceases to want things fervently.

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
23

There is a deprecating attitude toward desire among moralists and idealists. They see it as a rushing into "nonentity, absurdity, valuelessness and childishness." Still, the triviality of desire need not impair its value as a motive of human activity. There is no reason why humanity cannot be served equally by weighty and trivial motives. It is indeed doubtful whether it is well for a nation that its people should be so reasonable and earnest that they refuse to set their hearts on toys. The pressure of desire in a population manifests itself in a sort of vigor. There is restlessness, recklessness, sanguineness and aggressiveness. A nation is "tired" when it ceases to want things fervently. It makes no difference whether this blunting of desire is due to satiety, reasonableness or disillusion. To a tired nation the future seems barren, offering nothing which would surpass that which is or has been. The main effect of a real revolution is perhaps that it sweeps away those who do not know how to wish, and brings to the front men with insatiable appetites for action, power and all that the world has to offer.

Avenue Cherrier by Jeremy Price

Avenue Cherrier by Jeremy Price

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Colonization as a catalyst for modernization

While their conclusion is likely true, the findings are way outside the Overton Window of the academy. From The European Origins of Economic Development by William Easterly and Ross Levine.
Although a large literature argues that European settlement outside of Europe shaped institutional, educational, technological, cultural, and economic outcomes, researchers have been unable to directly assess these predictions because of an absence of data on colonial European settlement. In this paper, we construct a new database on the European share of the population during colonization and examine its association with the level of economic development today. We find: (1) a strong and uniformly positive relationship between colonial European settlement and development, (2) a stronger relationship between colonial European settlement and economic development today than between development today and the proportion of the population of European descent today; and (3) no evidence that the positive relationship between colonial European settlement and economic development diminishes or becomes negative at very low levels of colonial European settlement, contradicting a large literature that focuses on the enduring adverse effects of small European settlements creating extractive institutions. The most plausible explanation of our findings is that any adverse effect of extractive institutions associated with minority European settlement was more than offset by other things the European settlers brought with them, such as human capital and technology.

Doctrinaires of discontent

From The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer.
22

"More!" is as effective a revolutionary slogan as was ever invented by doctrinaires of discontent. The American, who cannot learn to want what he has, is a permanent revolutionary. He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it.