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Rhetoric and Dangerous Questions

January 13, 2017

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Adam Gurri

1. Question
Scientists usually begin their journeys with observations that seem strange to them, or questions they come up with following their curiosity. Rhetoric plays a substantial role in this step. What problems are important? What will other scientists be interested in? Once this question is answered, will the world improve? These questions can only be answered relative to other human beings.

Examples:
– Alexander Fleming say that bacteria didn’t grow around a fungus.
– Louis Pasteur notices that milkmaids didn’t get smallpox.
– Coase noticed that although firms were a central part of the economy, Economics didn’t have a good explanation for them.
– The Great Depression happened and a whole bunch of economists said to themselves “let’s not do that again”.

2. Theory
What is the scientists’ hypothesis of how the world works? These mental models don’t spring from nothingness, but arise as the result of conversations scientists have with one another and storytelling. You’re ultimately trying to convince other scientists that your explanation is better than the previous one, which is squarely within the realm of rhetoric.

3. Test/observation
The scientist does a test and writes down what happens. The rhetorical power of science stems from the verification and replicability of this step. Science doesn’t depend on one authority. It depends on a network of independent people running the same test and replicating the results. This is why psychology had such trouble is that they had fallen away from that model and thus lost their rhetorical power.

Yes, scientific testing is rhetoric, but it is important to note how this sort of rhetoric gets its power. It’s not like the persuasiveness of rhetoric is merely determined arbitrarily or by the artfulness of oratory. Replication is powerful rhetoric because it is independent of the perspective and voice of the scientist themself. Anyone can verify a test. Post-modernists might say “well you’re just saying that because you’re a rich white male and you have false consciousness”. The retort of the scientist can be, well have a poor minority woman run the same test, and they will get the same result. It’s not just like your opinion, man.

4. Reporting results/Teaching/disseminating
Once scientists have convinced themselves that something is true and important, they must go about convincing others. This is the majority of effort spent by scientists and it’s pure rhetoric. They go to conferences, teach classes, talk to other professors, etc. Disseminating knowledge is dangerous if that knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands. Scientists have passive defense mechanisms for this by making their writing boring and obscure to limit their audiences to other intelligent and careful scholars.

Rhetoric and Social Sciences
In my last post, I argued that talking to scientists about rhetoric makes their culture worse by undermining the ideal of truth seeking. The post-modernism that has overtaken the humanities might be more true than a more black and white view of the world, but if taken too seriously it undermines cohesion and enthusiasm for truth-seeking. If everything is mere opinion, people aren’t willing to go to the barricades for it. Science is worth fighting for. It’s worth it even if many mistakes are made, because so many profound advances have been made which allow people to live safer, longer, happier lives.

I agree with him that rhetoric is an inescapable part of what scientists do, whether they want to or not. Those who try to escape the burden of rhetoric wind up marginalized and ignored.

Gurri states that “All reasoning to a conclusion falls under rhetoric”, but I think that’s too broad. Rhetoric is usually used to denote communication with the intent to persuade. Referring to observing the world rhetoric is misleading. Calling reasoning about those observations without communication rhetoric is confusing to a modern audience, although perhaps Aristotle would have used it that way. I think that’s why Sam Wilson breaks it into two parts where Gurri only sees one.

There are countless examples of science being driven by practical problems – “we need to find a stronger/lighter material” “we need to do X Y or Z”. Knowledge is performative. How do we know we know things? Because we can do stuff with that knowledge. Social constructs can’t build airplanes – scientific knowledge can. Rhetoric doesn’t hold bridges aloft. Yes, social science is more touchy feely than physics, but at the end of the day, if a society adopts a certain institution and they become much richer, economists will be convinced it works. When monetarism stopped inflation, economists were convinced. When price controls cause shortages, people are convinced. The proof is still in the pudding, even for social science, it’s just harder to see.

Are there questions which are dangerous enough to justify putting ethical boundaries on science?
I don’t think there is a question – truthfully answered – that has a dangerous answer. There are sometimes horrible moral assumptions baked into questions, but it’s not the discovery of truth that makes the question dangerous.

“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”
The premise is how do you exterminate the Jews. The end is taken for granted. If you want to say that asking questions of the form “How do I perform some horrible crime against humanity” are dangerous, ok I concede that. But I don’t think that has anything to do with science or epistemology or limited inquiry in any meaningful way.

The Nazis would not have been stopped by someone saying “maybe we should limit inquiry into such and such”. The Mongols were perfectly capable of butchering millions of Arabs and Chinese hundreds of years earlier with nothing more than axes and bows. There’s nothing more scientific about the Holocaust than any other of the hundreds of genocides that humans have engaged in since the dawn of time.

Science does have the power to dissuade people that genocide is less necessary. We can discover new crops to feed even more people. We can cure new diseases. We can use social science to try to defuse racial and nationalistic tensions. I have faith that the more humans understand the world, the less they will feel the need to kill each other en mass. I believe that as humans become more prosperous, we will value human life more, as the trend has been in the past. As we communicate with each other more closely, we will learn to empathize. Knowledge is the savior of humanity, and limiting its discovery is the surest path to evil. As Voltaire said ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’ The worst evil of the last century was founded on absurd beliefs and an unwillingness to look for truth to correct them.

Truncated Distributions, Writing Quality, and Stories

January 7, 2017

A truncated distribution is a conditional distribution that results from restricting the domain of some other probability distribution.” That is, some data has been removed from the distribution based on some condition it meets. Much of the data we examine in the real world has been truncated to some degree, and this truncation can give rise to causeless correlations. You can remove data in a way that creates a correlation, even when there is no underlying casual relationship.

The first time I heard of this was with professional tennis players. Shorter tennis players tend to have better serves and hit the ball more accurately. At first you’d think the correlation would go the other way – tall players are stronger on average and thus hit harder, or that it would be uncorrelated. But the truncation was that short players had to become professionals to get into the distribution to begin with. Since they had shorter arm span, they better darn well have other traits that made up for that. The correlation goes away with the very best of the best, because any disadvantage kicks you out.

scatter1

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apparent-correlation-scatter1

So, what does all this have to do with writing quality? Experienced culture is a truncated distribution. Of the culture that is created, only a small percentage is shared and passed down the ages. We mostly only see the good stuff, where good is judged by others who are in turn relying on the judgments of those around themselves.

To this I say, of course Poe is a bad writer – his stories are so good! He joins a select elite of creative geniuses whose creation transcends their terrible writing – Lovecraft, Tolkien, Asimov, Rand, and Orwell. People love them for the worlds they create, for the imagined stories they give life to. Not for their raw skill at writing.

The best written novel I ever read was The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I loathed every second of the experience. I frequently stopped reading in awe at the way he could describe someone walking down stairs or eating breakfast in a sublime and perfect way. But the story he told was inane to the point of agony. The characters were uninteresting and petty. His world didn’t spark the imagination, or cause any hint of further reflection of what his writing entailed. It was mere outstanding writing – nothing more. There are just as many writers in this camp, and they are celebrated greatly by the elites of the writing world. I would put Hemingway, Dickens, Joyce, and Faulkner in this category as well.

It is entirely possible for someone to be both a great writer and to create wondrous worlds and tell interesting stories, but such writers are extremely rare. Huxley and Pratchett fall into this category, perhaps a couple more. Even though being a good writer does not cause being a bad storyteller, the correlation exists nonetheless. Any time you see an unusual correlation, ask yourself if there is some truncation that could be causing it.

Could the Soviet Union have Survived?

December 28, 2016

Betteridge’s Law applies.

A response to: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/5-ways-the-soviet-union-could-have-won-the-cold-war-or-least-18852?page=2

1.Stalin doesn’t kill all the smart Communists
Stalin is a bloodthirsty manic, but he realizes that the only way for him to hold on to power is to kill everyone who opposes him. The system Lenin creates was inherently cutthroat and Stalin mastered it. You don’t stay dictator in a cutthroat system by letting smart, highly motivated, ambitious people live.

The way the Leninist system works is that only a small percent of the population can belong to the Party. To get in, you must prove your loyalty, and anyone can be kicked out at any time for disloyalty, which can be even the subtlest hint of independent thinking. In return, they get decent houses, decent food, and maybe even some entertainment and a car. Being kicked out of the Party is horrible because the living conditions for non-Party members are atrocious and there is no possibility for advance.

A tiny percentage of the party rise to the Politburo, who form a committee that controls every aspect of life in the Soviet Union. What people eat, where they work, who they talk to, which books they read, everything. They are the royalty of Communism. The head of the Politburo is whoever can cow the rest into submission, but he effectively becomes Tsar.

The key difference between monarchy and Communism is the reason why Communism is so much more brutal and oppressive than monarchy – everyone is replaceable. In a monarchy, everyone is born into their station and cannot change. Thus, they have no reason to act a certain way to advance because there is no advance. Stability is the rule of the day, but that stability also provides a sort of freedom among its members. If several Barons don’t like the King, the King must compromise. The King can’t just remove swaths of the nobility haphazardly.

However, in Communism, if a Party member shows even the slightest hint of disloyalty, they can immediately be kicked out and replaced by a horde of willing applicants. If someone in the Politburo is getting uppity, they can be exiled to Siberia, killed, or simply shipped off to a obscure corner of the country and there are thousands of Party members completely willing to take their place. Loyalty and brutality become the ways people compete for ever greater power. Of course the winner of that contest is a paranoid psychopath like Stalin. Maybe it would have been some other paranoid psychopath, Lavrentiy Beria perhaps, but to say it would have been a nice guy or even a well minded technocrat like Bukharin is naiive to the point of absurdity.

2. 1947: Truman loses his nerve
Ok, even worst case scenario, the Red Army keeps on rolling after Germany and conquerors all of Continental Europe. That just means they have even more countries they have to keep under control. The larger the Soviet Union is, the more Russia has to spend keeping everyone else in line, and the further they have to stretch their army. Furthermore, unlike Belarus or Romania, western Europeans actually know what it’s like to have a functioning economy. If anything, the U.S. leaving Europe to the Soviets would have made the Cold War more intense, but shorter. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, Russia was actually losing money on their satellites, as happens in most colonial empires. Does anyone think the British Empire would still be around if they had just conquered a bit more of Africa? No? Then why would that apply to Russia?

3. 1976: Operation RED DAWN
It’s a good thing Communists are immune to radiation. Oh, what’s that? They aren’t?

Even best case scenario, you’re back to reason #2. The Soviet’s mighty military did not have the capacity for large offensive conventional operations in 1975. Western MBTs, aircraft, and other military hardware were far in advance of them. Russia’s population is smaller than Germany and France’s combined, let alone all of NATO. In the late Cold War, the Soviet Union was feared only because of their nuclear might.

4. 1979: Lenin stays out of the jungles
This one I agree with, but it stands in stark contrast to the previous possibilities. Empire is not profitable in the long run. Isolationism would have preserved Communism in Russia, maybe even until today. North Korea is a complete basket-case but since they don’t give a fig about anything outside their borders, they survive. This scenario would not threaten the West, nor would it lead to nuclear annihilation. Without a global Communist threat, perhaps the U.S. would have been less interventionist and the world would have had more democracy and less terrorism today, but that’s just speculation.

1988: The China Syndrome
The dictator’s dilemma is that if they cling tightly to power, they become unpopular and their economy goes to heck. But if they loosen their grip, they get deposed. In Russia’s case, collapse of the government did not turn out well for the Party leadership. China managed to do capitalist reforms while maintaining a totalitarian government, but it’s not easy at all. I don’t think Russia would have been able to pull it off. The Chinese are both more pragmatic and more entrepreneurial than Russians, and their economy is much less dependent on natural resources. Russia was industrialized under Communism, whereas China was not, and it seems to me that its easier to start an industrial revolution from scratch using capitalist principles than it is to reform an already Communist heavy industrial base. Either way, there are too few historical examples of a totalitarian regime reforming into a market economy to draw any sweeping conclusions.

Silver Linings

November 13, 2016

Trump’s drawbacks are extensive, and I was hoping he would not win the presidency. However, he has and America will have to live with the consequences, both good and bad. I am an optimist by nature, and amid the doom and gloom, I like to see the good things as well. This post is primarily targeted toward liberals, and to some degree progressives although they won’t agree with it.

Temperament
Trump has the best temperament. Yes, I know it was a laugh line when he said it but it’s true. He has the self control and determination of a sleep deprived two year old. He has the work ethic that only the silver-spooned lifestyle of someone born super rich can bring. This is a horrible temperament for someone on your side to have, but it’s a great temperament for your enemies to have. Trump will not work tirelessly for Republican goals. He’ll give up at the slightest setback and get caught up in petty feuds.

Climate Change
Trump has given a big F you to everyone hoping the government will solve global warming. Global warming activists will have to look elsewhere for a savoir, but they should have been all alone. The inconvenient truth is that the government isn’t good at fixing complex problems when different interest groups disagree on the fundamentals.

The scenario Democrats had put their hopes in was what, exactly? Pass a massive tax on gasoline, much higher CAFE, push out tight regulations on dozens of polluting industries all of whom are lobbying hard with an opposition party who doesn’t even believe the problem exists? Then once you’ve managed to get U.S. emissions down at least 75%, convince not only rich Europe, but also poor China and India to eviscerate their own growth to cut emissions too? Because it doesn’t work unless everyone, or darn near, does it together. All the while, each government is in a prisoner’s dilemma and is going to try to free ride off the efforts of the rest. Sorry, but governments aren’t up to such a challenge and they wouldn’t have been even had the Democrats won every election.

Instead, people will have to put their hopes in solutions that can be done without the government, which I believe was the better approach all along. Fund new solar panels, buy electric cars, come up with geoengineering technologies, etc. Technology has always been the only plausible way to solve global warming and now Trump has forced liberals to recognize that.

Russia
For all the “Trump will get us nuked” rhetoric, Trump has promised to get along much better with Russia. Sure, the Ukrainians are screwed. Sure, the Baltic States will have to put some serious thought into national defense. But the #1 threat to America getting nuked has always been Russia, ever since 1949. Clinton, not Trump was in the habit of poking the bear. A bear is a good symbol for Russia. You can’t be friends with a bear, but you sure as hell don’t want to be a bear’s enemy either. So it is with Russia. If Russia wants Crimea, ffs let them have it. Yes, it sucks for the Ukrainians, but it’s NOT worth risking the U.S. getting nuked. Yes, it sucks that Russia is bombing Islamic militias that the CIA was arming, but once again, it’s not worth the U.S. getting nuked over. Let them play empire. They let us play empire without interference. If they roll tanks into Germany, sure, maybe then we’ll get serious, but for countries that are no strategic value to the U.S., it’s simply not worth fighting Russia over. Trump will not mess with Russia unnecessarily. Clinton would have.

Civil Liberties
Democrats were against civil liberty abuses when George Bush did them, but as soon as Obama was in office, they were in favor. Republicans are always against them. So we libertarians are in a bit of a bind. When a Republican is in office, we have Democratic allies, so we want them to win, but as soon as they do, they switch sides and suddenly we’re alone. Having a Republican president, especially one as divisive as Trump means suddenly we’re not going to be the only ones against extrajudicial drone executions of American citizens, bombings of MSF hospitals, warrantless surveillance, etc. etc. Many of the things the media got its panties in a twist over Trump promising to do, either Bush or Obama have actually done. Obama did use drone strikes on the families of terrorists. Bush did use torture on prisoners of war. Both of them had the FBI spy on mosques without probable cause. Now at least we’ve got some allies.

Foreign Policy
Who knows what Trump will do. But we know what Clinton would do. Endless worthless pointless eternal war. Thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars thrown away year after year is a crusade that makes Americans less safe than we were before. The media attacked Trump for saying he was against the Iraq War before he was actually on record as against it, but at least he was against it at all.

Improve Parties
Both the Republican and Democratic parties got their butts kicked this election. Trump shows to Republicans that their voters don’t give a fudge about their platform. The Democrats will have to do some soul seaching, reconnect with voters, and find something they can sell that’s better that “we’re not racist”. There’s a good chance of a realignment. Hopefully libertarian ideas can find a home in the Democratic party now that the Republicans are the authoritarian party.

Ends idea that money buys elections
Perhaps the most pernicious misconception in all of political science. Money doesn’t win elections, but as long as politicians think it does, they will continue to throw the American people under the bus in favor of special interests so they can get money to buy campaign ads. It would be better for them to do a good job and have less campaign spending, and Trump perhaps is such a salient example that maybe they will on the margin.

Clinton
As much as I don’t like that Trump won, I’m pretty happy Clinton lost. She was an awful candidate in many ways. Just because Trump was worse does not in any way excuse her behavior. When she broke the law, her response was to send her husband over to the AG’s office and get them to drop the charges, then lie non-stop to Congress, the FBI, and the American people.

The Democrats used every dirty trick in the book to nominate her, even though she would likely have won the nomination without their machinations. This wound up sabotaging her because it’s ammo that Trump can use to undermine the legitimacy of her nomination as well as alienating the Democrats who were hoping for Sanders. If she has won fair and square, Sanders supporters would have supported her more enthusiastically. I also disagree with her on virtually every policy perspective out there. I could go on, but it would get tedious.

A few of Trump’s first batch of policies
Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress;
Response: A bad idea, but probably never going to happen.

A requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated;
Response: Gimmicky, but not a bad idea.

Renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205.
Response: Ahh that wonderful wiggle word “renegotiate”. As long as Trump can get a few good concessions, hopefully he’ll leave the substance intact.

Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Response: Inevitable. Anti-trade sentiment is ascendant and the deal itself was shrouded in corruption and secrecy.

Cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama
Response: lol, suck it blue!

Removing the more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants from the country.
Response: This is why his base elected him. He HAS to do something about illegal immigrants, and contrary to the Clinton camp, wanting people to follow immigration law is not racist.  Because of his credibility on the issue, Trump may be the best person to do a real reform of our immigration system.  Trump married an illegal immigrant.  He’s from New York.  He’s spoken about the need for more high skill immigration.  He might not be that bad.

Suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur. All vetting of people coming into our country will be considered extreme vetting.
Response: More weasel words. The vetting system is already quite robust, taking about 2 years. Trump could add maybe 10% to it and claim to his base that it’s much better.

Where do we go from here?
First of all, don’t panic. Cthulhu is still swimming left. More Americans than ever before support gay rights, marijuana legalization, and Millenials are far more left wing than the dying Baby Boomers. Demographics are also on the left’s side. Trump did not win a majority of votes, just a majority of electors. This is not the new dawn of racism or xenophobia. Keep a close eye on Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. The only way for the left to lose long term is for democracy itself to be undermined. I’m reassured by the outpouring of people saying we need to relearn empathy, understanding, moderation, compromise, and American values. We can get through the next 4 years. America has had worse.

Rhetoric and Science

October 7, 2016

John David Duke Jr. wrote an article saying that scientists are merely dispassionate fact miners:

Should it ever be discovered that a Scientist, especially a Social Scientist, has lost his dispassion, or has even willfully departed from the Scientific Method, anywhere along the process, beginning with descending into the Data mine, extracting Facts, examining the Facts, and then snapping the Facts to The Truth, then let the dispassionate peers of that Scientist immediately banish him from Science

Although Duke couches his argument in absolutes, I interpret his article as advocating a set of cultural norms that scientists should adhere to, rather than a description of how things are. What should grown up scientists tell baby scientists about their role in society? Should they waste time talking about rhetoric, or biases, or hermeneutics? Hell no. Those things will just confuse the poor dears and subvert their unadulterated pursuit of Truth.

The culture of Science is a fragile flower. Humans are not inherently scientifically minded. The beast within thrashes against the Chains of Reason. We always want to form groups of like minded individuals, defer to authority, play status games, tout our own importance and greatness. We are humans, but we are playing at being more, and in order to achieve it, we need to tell ourselves lies about what we are doing. The Noble Lie of Science is that there are no Noble Lies. That there is Truth and there is Ignorance and you’re either on one side or the other. That’s why the “banish him from Science” line is so important.  Ironically, positing the existence of dangerous questions is the most dangerous question of all.  As a wise man once said, blessed is the mind too small for doubt.

Assorted Links

September 12, 2016

1. How politics went insane

2. The freedom lover’s case for the welfare state

3. Mr. Rogers and Advice columns

4 New Opiod isn’t addictive. Hopefully it’s also safe and effective.

5. Post truth politics.

Assorted Links

August 29, 2016

1. Political ads don’t work

2. The post-truth era

3. Inconvenient questions

The answers, btw, are:
Upgrade McCarthy.
FDR and Trump are similar and both are bad
Democrats should address the concerns of Trump supporters but that might not be compromise per se.
American history would have taken a better course if none of our Presidents had had significant authoritarian tendencies.

4. To what degree is the system rigged?

5. The world will get weirder.