Could Obamacare have lead to lower fertility?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/06/2018 - 10:53pm in

[just a thought]

US total fertility rates were bobbing along very placidly around 2.05 live births per woman from 1990 to 2010, when suddenly there was a clear drop to 1.8 in 2010-2017. That drop has even continued to 1.76 births per woman in 2017. When I asked myself what could possibly explain this, the only real candidate I come up with is Obamacare, which became active in 2010 and was successful at insuring more than 20 million people. Fertility rates peaked in 2010 at 2.1 and then steadily came down in 2011 (1.9) to 1.76 now.

Its an uncomfortable hypothesis, but it has to be the front runner because there is no other obvious culprit. The 2008-2010 recession had no effect on fertility, and the subsequent recovery after 2010 didn’t push employment levels above those of the early 00s. So its unlikely to be the economy. Its also unlikely related to the huge incarceration levels in the US (around 2.1 million in prison and jail in 2017), simply because those levels peaked just before 2010 and have actually gone down since then, without leading to a glut in new babies.

There is also a possible mechanism, which is that ‘the package known as Obamacare’ included increased availability of contraception and a lower barrier to entering the health system, both of which should be expected to increase use of contraceptives and more knowledge of reproductive health. This would have particularly mattered for those amongst whom pregnancy is a bit of an unwanted accident, ie teenagers. Interestingly, recorded abortions actually dropped 25% since 2008, so its not more abortions but simply less pregnancies that are causing the drop in fertility.

Surely not, I hear you scream! How could you think such a thing!

Well, there are actually papers which say pretty much the same thing. One is a 2016 paper looking at the effect of school-based health centers, finding a big drop in teenage fertility amongst the poor. There is also evidence that the cost of contraceptives reduced a lot. And you indeed see record lows in teenage pregnancies in the US.

It is difficult to convincingly show this train of thought though, because these effects are not likely to materialise immediately but will slowly emerge, which makes them impossible to detect with the methodology social scientists now prefer to identify these things: we like to see immediate jumps to a new equilibrium if a large change has occurred.

Still, the deep tradeoffs involved between average happiness and population numbers if this hypothesis were true are painful. Let us not forget that France lost its pre-eminence in Europe in the 19th century because it was out-bred by Germany! If a welfare system indeed prevents many teenage girls from becoming professional mothers, and instead leads them to more productive lives with less children, then that would mean there is a long-run effect of Obamacare on the level of the US population, which in turn will affect its clout in this world.

No more than a thought though. Happy to be proven wrong!


Inequality breeds stress and anxiety. No wonder so many Britons are suffering | Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/06/2018 - 12:56am in

In equal societies, citizens trust each other and contribute to their community. This goes into reverse in countries like ours

The gap between image and reality yawns ever wider. Our rich society is full of people presenting happy smiling faces both in person and online, but when the Mental Health Foundation commissioned a large survey last year, it found that 74% of adults were so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost a third had had suicidal thoughts and 16% had self-harmed at some time in their lives. The figures were higher for women than men, and substantially higher for young adults than for older age groups. And rather than getting better, the long-term trends in anxiety and mental illness are upwards.

For a society that believes happiness is a product of high incomes and consumption, these figures are baffling. However, studies of people who are most into our consumerist culture have found that they are the least happy, the most insecure and often suffer poor mental health.

Related: The psychological effects of inequality – Science Weekly podcast

Related: Rising inequality linked to drop in union membership

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Radio 4 Programme Tonight Wondering What Happened to Star Trek’s Optimistic Vision of the Future

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 09/06/2018 - 6:07pm in

This is one for the Trekkers. On Radio 4 tonight at 8.00 pm, 9th June 2018, Dr. Kevin Fong will be presenting a programme on the Archive hour discussing what happened to the optimistic vision of the future in Star Trek. The blurb for it on page 189 of the Radio Times runs

8.00 Archive on 4: Star Trek – The Undiscovered Future

The first episode of Star Trek aired in 1966. Space medic and broadcaster Kevin Fog asks what happened to the progressive and optimistic vision of the future that the iconic television series promised him.

Mars as Communist Utopia in Pre-Revolutionary Russian SF

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 08/06/2018 - 3:39am in

I thought this might interest all the SF fans out there. One of the books I’ve started reading is Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mark Ashley (London: The British Library 2018). It’s a collection of SF stories written about the Red Planet from the 19th century to just before the Mariner and then Viking probes in the ’60s and ’70s showed that rather than being a living planet with canals, vegetation and civilised beings, it was a dead world more like the Moon. It’s a companion volume to another book of early SF stories from about the same period, Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, also edited by Mike Ashley. The Martian book contains stories by H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury – from The Martian Chronicles, natch – Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller, and the great novelist of dystopias and bug-eyed psychopaths, J.G. Ballard. It also contains pieces by now all but forgotten Victorian and early Twentieth writers of Scientific Romances, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George C. Wallis, P. Schuyler Miller and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Both books are also interesting, not just for the short stories collected in them, but also for Ashley’s introduction, where he traces the literary history of stories about these worlds. In the case of the Moon, this goes all the way back to the Roman satirist, Lucian of Samosata, and his Vera Historia. This is a fantasy about a group of Roman sailors, whose ship is flung into space by a massive waterspout, to find themselves captured by a squadron of Vulturemen soldiers from the Moon, who are planning an invasion of the Sun.

The history of literary speculation about Mars and Martian civilisation, is no less interesting, but somewhat shorter. It really only begins in the late 19th century, when telescopes had been developed capable of showing some details of the Martian surface, and in particular the canali, which the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed he had seen. The Italian word can mean ‘channels’ as well as ‘canal’, and Schiaparelli himself did not describe them as artificial. Nevertheless, other astronomers, like Percival Lowell of Flagstaff, Arizona, believed they were. Other astronomers were far more sceptical, but this set off the wave of novels and short stories set on an inhabited Mars, like Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous John Carter stories. I remember the Marvel adaptation of some these, or at least using the same character, which appeared as backing stories in Star Wars comic way back in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting, and to contemporary readers somewhat strange, that before H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the vast majority of these stories about Mars assumed that the Martians would not only be far more scientifically and technologically advanced, but they would also be more socially and spiritually as well. Just like the Aetherius Society, a UFO new religious movement founded by George King in the 1950s, claims that Jesus was really as Venusian, and now lives on that world along with Aetherius, the being from whom they believe they receive telepathic messages, so there were a couple of short stories in which Christ was a Martian. These were Charles Cole’s Visitors From Mars, of 1901, and Wallace Dowding’s The Man From Mars of 1910.

Other utopias set on the Red Planet were more secular. In Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, of 1893, the Martians are handsome and intelligent, and their women totally liberated. Another feminist utopia was also depicted by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley in her A Woman of Mars of 1901.

And in Russia, the writer Alexander Bogdanov made Mars a Communist utopia. Ashley writes

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvesda (‘Red Star’, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (‘Engineer Menni’, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bodganov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language. (Pp. 11-12).

So five years before the Revolution, Mars really was the ‘Red Planet’ in Russian literature. I’m not surprised it wasn’t translated into English until the 1980s. British publishers and censors probably disliked it as a piece of Communist propaganda, quite apart from Anglophone western Puritanism and the whole issue of free love. No naughtiness allowed on the side of the Iron Curtain, not even when it’s set on Mars. Russian cinema also produced one of the first SF films, also set on Mars. This was Aelita (1922), in which Russian cosmonauts travel to the Red Planet to start a revolution, though at the end it’s revealed that it’s all been a dream.

Meanwhile, Mars as a planet of mystery continues in the French SF series, Missions, shown at 10.00 Thursdays on BBC 4. This has French spationauts and their American rivals landing on the Red Planet, only to find a mysterious altar constructed from lost Atlantean materials described by the Romans, and Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, who has been turned into something more than human with three strands of DNA. In reality, Komarov died when the parachutes on his spacecraft failed to open when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Tragically, Komarov knew it was a deathtrap, but went anyway because Khrushchev wanted another Russian space achievement to show up the Americans, and Komarov did not want his friend, and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin to go. It’s a tragic, shameful waste of human life on what was a purely political stunt, and Komarov is, because of his desire to save his friend, one of the great heroes of the space age.

But Missions shows not only how much people really want us to travel to Mars – to explore and colonise – it also shows how the Red Planet still remains the source of wonder and speculation about alien civilisations, civilisations that may not be hostile monsters intent on invading the Earth ‘for no very good reason’, as Douglas Adams described the motives of those aliens, who wanted to take over the universie in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the French spationauts, Jeanne, has dreamed of going to Mars since being shown it through a telescope by her father when she was a little girl. Electromagnetic scans of the area, when developed, give a picture of her face, and ‘Komarov’ tells her he has been waiting millions of years for her, and she is the true link between Mars and Earth.

Yes, it’s weird. But different. And it shows that Mars is continuing to inspire other forms of SF, where the Martians aren’t invaders – or at least, not so far-but benevolent guides waiting for us to come to them and make the next leap in our development. Just like Bogdanov in 1912 imagined that they would be ahead of us, and so have created a true Communist utopia.

The March of Science, #12

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/06/2018 - 10:06pm in



It's not Kant, it's norms/incentives/institutions on Kuhn & Politics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/06/2018 - 5:00am in

But while Einstein won—and would continue to win—all the logical battles, Bohr was decisively winning the propaganda war. The Copenhagen doctrine of the completeness of quantum theory and the inescapability of fundamental chance spread, enforced by Bohr and Heisenberg and the rest of the Copenhagen school. Behind the scenes, the Copenhagenists did not agree with each other, but to the world they presented a unified front. Meanwhile, Einstein and Schrödinger both rejected Bohr, but they also bickered with each other.

Here is Einstein’s own description of Copenhagen: “The theory reminds me a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoiac.” Philosopher Imre Lakatos gave this later assessment:

In the new, post-1925 quantum theory the ‘anarchist’ position became dominant and modern quantum physics, in its ‘Copenhagen interpretation’, became one of the main standard bearers of philosophical obscurantism. In the new theory Bohr’s notorious ‘complementarity principle’ enthroned [weak] inconsistency as a basic ultimate feature of nature, and merged subjectivist positivism and antilogical dialectic and even ordinary language philosophy into one unholy alliance. After 1925 Bohr and his associates introduced a new and unprecedented lowering of critical standards for scientific theories. This led to a defeat of reason within modern physics and to an anarchist cult of incomprehensible chaos.

Strong words. It is Becker’s burden, and Becker’s triumph, to show that every word is true.

The story has twists and turns: John von Neumann’s purported mathematical proof (1932) that quantum mechanics is complete and one could not add anything more to it and retain its successful predictions; the philosopher Grete Hermann’s detection in 1935 of the fatal flaw in von Neumann’s proof—and the complete disregard of her work; the elaboration of Einstein’s reasoning into the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) argument; Bohr’s incomprehensible response to EPR; Schrödinger’s reaction, including his eponymous cat. Surely, one thinks, this mess must have been cleaned up eventually! But it never was. It persists to this day. And we are only through the first third of the book.

Robert Oppenheimer is reported to have said, ‘If we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him.’

The middle third of Becker’s book adopts a somber tone in the stories of three renegades who bucked the system in the 1950s and ’60s, after the Copenhagen mysticism had congealed into an icy command: shut up and calculate! Work on the foundations of quantum theory was effectively forbidden, with one’s career and future at peril. The first renegade was David Bohm, a bright and dutiful Copenhagenist until he met the aging Einstein and recanted. Bohm rediscovered the pilot wave theory that Louis de Broglie had presented at Solvay in 1927. The theory slices through the enigma—wave or particle?—like Alexander’s sword through the Gordian knot: the answer is wave and particle. The wavefunction becomes a pilot wave that guides the particles along their paths. The theory is completely deterministic—no playing dice—and recovers all the predictions of standard quantum mechanics. One would think Einstein would love the theory, but he did not. The dreaded nonlocality had not been exorcized. Indeed, it was even more striking.

Bohm’s theory put the lie to von Neumann’s impossibility proof by direct counterexample. Contra Bohr, the particles are visualizable even at microscopic scale. In short, the theory demonstrates beyond all doubt that the Copenhagen interpretation is nonsense. But Bohm’s work was ignored and effectively suppressed.

A political leftist, Bohm had refused to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was dismissed from his job at Princeton and went into exile in Brazil. His U.S. passport was revoked. He eventually found his way to Birkbeck College in London, but never received the recognition that was his due. In a notorious episode, Robert Oppenheimer is reported to have said, “If we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him.”

The second renegade was a graduate student at Princeton not long after Bohm left in 1952. Also rejecting Copenhagen, Hugh Everett took Schrödinger’s evolving wavefunction and removed the collapse. He argued that rather than an incomprehensible smear resulting, as Schrödinger’s neither-alive-nor-dead cat suggested, a multiplication of worlds results. Schrödinger’s cat ends up both dead and alive, as two cats in two equally real physical worlds. Today this approach is called the many-worlds interpretation.

Everett’s thesis advisor, John Wheeler, had great enthusiasm for Everett’s innovation. But he insisted that Everett get the nod of approval from Bohr. Bohr refused, and Wheeler required Everett to bowdlerize his thesis. Everett left academia and did not look back. His work lay in obscurity.

The last and greatest renegade was John Stewart Bell. Spurred by Bohm’s papers, Bell queried whether Einstein’s dreaded spooky action at a distance could be avoided. Copenhagen and the pilot wave theory had both failed this test. Bell proved that the nonlocality is unavoidable. No local theory—the type Einstein had sought—could recover the predictions of quantum mechanics. The predictions of all possible local theories must satisfy the condition called Bell’s inequality. Quantum theory predicts that Bell’s inequality can be violated. All that was left was to ask nature herself. In a series of sophisticated experiments, the answer has been established: Bell’s inequality is violated. The world is not local. No future innovation in physics can make it local again. The spookiness that Einstein spent decades deriding is here to stay.

How did the physics community react to this epochal discovery? With a shrug of incomprehension. For decades, discussion of the foundations of quantum theory had been suppressed. Physicists were unaware of the problems and unaware of the solutions. To this day, they commonly claim that Bell’s result proves Bohm’s theory to be impossible and indeterminism to be inevitable, while Bell himself was the staunchest advocate of Bohm’s deterministic theory. Even now, the average physicist has no understanding of what Einstein argued in the EPR paper and what Bell proved.

The last third of What Is Real? could hopefully be titled “Slow Convalescence.” Gradually the worst excesses of Bohr’s influence are mitigated as Bell’s work inspires a new generation to look into foundational issues. We meet a new cast of characters, and the overall atmosphere is mildly optimistic. But there is a long way to go, and this very book could prove to be a watershed moment for the physics community if it faces up to its own past and its present. Or, following the fate of Einstein, Bohm, and Everett, Becker could just be ignored. But if you have any interest in the implications of quantum theory, or in the suppression of scientific curiosity, What is Real? is required reading. There is no more reliable, careful, and readable account of the whole history of quantum theory in all its scandalous detail.--Tim Maudlin reviewing What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker in Boston Review. [HT: Liam Kofi Bright]

In his review, Maudlin (recall) makes clear that he thinks that in the history of quantum mechanics epistemic considerations have been thwarted by political machinations in the physics community. I want to make an impure three-fold distinction: 1. Some of the political machinations are connected to external politics--e.g., the reception of Bohm's theory really suffered due to his leftism. 2. Some of the political machinations are internal to science--including debates over resources and, let's say, conceptual hegemony (which often creates better access to resources). For example, Bohr and his students/admirers turn out to be very good at turning conceptual hegemony into resources. 3. And some of the political machinations are connected to underlying philosophical commitments (about nature of explanation, about what counts as intelligible, action at a distance, etc.)

The problem is that 2-3 also often involve debates over what counts as proper epistemic considerations.  (Let's stipulate that 1 is really unconnected to epistemic considerations.) But Maudlin, a word class philosopher of physics, is unabashed in taking sides here and suggesting that the scientific community has not merely made mistakes about philosophy (as philosophy arises in research), but also failed to make all possible epistemic progress in some sense.

It's worth noting that Maudlin here does not consider the possibility that the conceptual and theoretical confusions in the physics community (which are response of politics in all three senses) may have  been fruitful to the epistemic progress physics has made. This is not my own view in this case, but that's because I don't consider myself an expert on the history and philosophy of quantum mechanics. Even so, the older I get, the more receptive I am to the idea (I associate it with Bill Wimsatt) that too much conceptual clarity can sometimes hinder progress (for example, ambiguity can be useful). 

One important implication of Maudlin's analysis is that even in a field that is central to much of science, attracts widespread interest, and which is broadly international in scope, one cannot assume an efficient market in ideas in science. Regular readers know I think (recall for example) too much philosophy and science, decision-theory, and epistemology tacitly relies on such a free market in ideas in its image of science (but that's changing among students of Kevin Zolman and folks with a Ghent connection).

It is notable that Maudlin aims to end (the review of Becker) on an optimistic note about the future of quantum mechanics (and cosmology). But it is notable that he offers no ground for this optimism. For, he (Maudlin--I have not yet read Becker) never confronts what norms and institutions are responsible for the thwarting of epistemic considerations. (We do get mention of some big personalities --  Bohr, Feynman --, but that is not sufficient explanation.) I mention this because in some way the epistemic grounds of contemporary particle physics have narrowed considerably: there are a few big and very expensive particle accelerators and a few very very expensive instruments  that probe space (and so back in time); access to these machines is a political (in the second sense) affair; they are controlled by committees funded by big grant agencies. And their publications are committee work (sometimes huge  number of 'authors'). This is big science, big data, big statistics,* big software and big committees. It would be a miracle if politics became less under these circumstances.

Maudlin himself holds Kant and Kantian philosophy responsible for the mess in physics (and Kuhn). Really: "The hand of Kant lies behind both Bohr and Kuhn." I think it is undeniable that neo-Kantianism is important for understanding both the early debates in the reception of quantum mechanics and (mediated via Max Weber) as background to Kuhn's philosophy. Much as I like holding philosophers responsible for mucking things up in the world, but I really doubt that Kantianism is responsible for the state of affairs diagnosed by Maudlin/Becker. I do suspect that the decline of philosophical education and wider cultural literacy in the larger culture of science education impacted the decline of conceptual clarity and philosophical discussion within physics. I suspect this because we see something similar in the development of twentieth century economics (often recruited  from physicists), who also show such a decline. But that's just a hypothesis.

I close with a final reflection. The peculiarity of Maudlin's larger review is that the first half of the review really vindicates let's call it the empirical basis of Kuhn's philosophy of science. (I leave aside here incommensurability.) The internal life of science is, in part, governed by politics in various senses. That was part of the scandal Kuhn caused. It does not follow it is wholly so governed, and so I am not suggesting Kuhn's whole philosophy is thereby vindicated.




*The statistics used in collecting the big data is also quite esoteric now.

CBS Series on Jack Parsons, Rocket Scientist and Occultist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/05/2018 - 2:04am in

I found this trailer the other day on YouTube for a forthcoming TV series on CBS about one of the weirder figures in the history of American rocketry, Jack Parsons. The series is called Strange Angel, which was the title of a biography of Parsons that came out way back in the 1990s or thereabouts.

Parsons was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was little more than a piece of waste ground in the Californian desert. He was one of the pioneers at the very beginning of American rocket research, when it was still very much the province of the early rocket societies, like the American Rocket Society over the other side of the Atlantic, and the British Interplanetary Society here in Britain. As the trailer shows, this was the period when the early visionaries launched very small, experimental rockets, all the while dreaming of the day when larger machines would carry people to the Moon, the planets and beyond. Parsons also had a very practical approach to experimenting. Instead of worrying very much about complex theories of chemical reactions, he simply mixed various types of explosives together and then tested them to see which worked best.

And as the trailer also shows, Parsons was deeply into the occult. He was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s ritual magic. I think he also ran a boarding house, which only accepted guests, who were atheists or otherwise rebels against American religion and society. And one the people, who stayed there was the future head of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. According to the very definitely unauthorised biography of Hubbard, Barefaced Messiah, Hubbard took Parsons in completely. Parsons believed that Hubbard was a man of extreme occult talent, and the two started performing rituals together out in the desert. One of these was to bring about the birth of the Antichrist. Or something. And just as Hubbard was performing these weird rituals with Parsons, he was also sleeping with his girlfriend. In the end, he ran off with her and several thousands of dollars of Parsons’ money, which he’d promised Parsons he’d use to buy a fleet of three yachts. Parsons managed to get some of his money back, but told Hubbard he could his girlfriend. Hubbard himself produced his own version of the story, claiming that he had rescued the girl from a group of Nazi Communists. Or Communist Nazis. Hubbard died a few years later, when he dropped some of the explosives he was experimenting with on the floor of his garage and blew himself up.

I don’t condone the occult, but Parsons is very definitely one of the most fascinating figures of that period of rocket research, and it’s easy to see why he was chosen to be the subject of this drama series. Quite how faithful it’ll be to real life is going to be an interesting question. And it will be very interesting to see if it mentions anything about his relationship with Hubbard, as I’ve no doubt that the Church of Scientology would be very sensitive about that.

However, as it’s on CBS, there’s going to be little chance that those of us on this side of the Pond will be able to see it. Oh well, perhaps it’ll come out on DVD.

John Burnheim on theory and practice in understanding the world

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/05/2018 - 1:13am in



In an exchange, John Burnheim sent me an email which seemed to me to be the effective condensation of a lot of good thinking. It certainly chimed with my own thoughts. So I suggested he clean it up and I’d reproduce it here, which I reproduce below. Because it is the conclusion of three emails, the first from him, followed by my response, I reproduce those two previous emails immediately below his final email – which is immediately below:

Don’t despair. Just face the problem that the more we know the more difficult it is to handle our problems. Give up looking for a kit of tools each of which has a specific use and collectively can do anything you need to do. Even in physics the variety of models that turn out to be relevant to some apparently simple problems tend to keep on multiplying. complications.

For much of my life I have been a devotee of sailing as “the poetry of motion” and a fascinating set of problems of design involving a host of diverse considerations, ranging from structural and accommodation problems, the capabilities of various materials, through hydrodynamics of flow, the interactions of hull with waves, to the aerodynamics of sails, each of which involves a different sort of theorisation, but also the impossibility of getting exact measurements such as might enable the relevance of variations of design to performance to be calculated from the theory, which itself is often an approximation. What theory does is to enable us to design ways of testing a particular way of dealing with a problem that identify its weaknesses.

Nobody who knows anything about such design problems imagines that progress will take us towards a single model that incorporates and integrates all those factors, or even that some of the apparently well establishes theories of such things as laminar flow are as simple as we have supposed. An old friend of mine, Tom Fink, was at one time prof of aeronautics engineering at Sydney University. He was very critical of the reliance of his Cambridge teachers on empirical generalisation in aerodynamics and set out to get the theory right. He once announced to me with pride that he had solved the problem of supersonic flow in TWO dimensions. I said “Surely it’s at least a three-dimensional problem. He replied that even though that was true, the development was a big step forward, and not without its practical use in circumstances where you could treat the third dimension as given, assign values to it and see what happens.

The trouble with economics is that the matters it deals with are much more complicated than the problem of sailing, but people want it to at least supply them with the sort of second-order considerations that they hope will enable them to make good decisions about particular matters even where there are no clear answers available to many of the questions that arise in the particular case. Philosophers are even worse addicted to simplification. Religions worse still. Emotionally for each personally, there is a strong hankering for clear direction, while collectively we seem to need agreed principles if there is ever to be unforced collective action on any other basis than arbitrary power. I think the agreement we need does not need consensus but compromise, based on awareness of the limitations of our knowledge and willingness to experiment honestly and prudently.

What is particularly dangerous is that people constantly fall for oversimple “truths” to rule out certain things as impossible. My favourite example of such an assumption is that heavier gases fall, displacing lighter. So clouds consisting of colder and heavier vapour should never be able to form, but the molecules of H2O should immediately fall to the ground. Why they do not do so is a complicated story involving quite different forces that do not evade the law of gravity but succeed in countering that force in certain circumstances. Economists habitually assume that certain sorts of motivation cannot be countered by other motivations in certain circumstances. The paradox is that many people embrace such simplifications precisely because they recognise that human motivations are so various and complex that no realistic analysis of them is possible. In fact, there is a strong case for saying that motivations are irrelevant to economics, which should concern itself with the consequences of acing in a certain way in certain hypothetical circumstances, including the actions of others.

One important advantage of such an approach to economic questions is that it facilitates constructive compromise. In assuring certain consistency and impersonality it should arrive at a representation of various outcomes that can, prescinding from other factors, be rated clearly in relation to the real problem. People may alter their prior subjective preferences in negotiation with each other in view of the possibility of achieving agreement to at least make a start at tackling the problem seriously. Moreover, enabling better negotiation between people who need to reach a compromise can, by exploring how much of the likes and dislikes of each party, accommodated them in relation to that particular proposal and its context. But that assumes that the models particular proposal is comprehensive and precise enough to minimise the danger of omitting seriously important factors. In practical situations what is needed very often is frank discussion of the likelihood of deceptive omissions and of insufficient weight to be attached to risks. Very often the risks involved in doing nothing turn out to be much less acceptable than those of some positive action. This is normally the case in business and in administrative decisions in most kinds of institutions that are forced to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed, this sort of decision seems to me to be the central paradigm of practical rationality for people with diverse desires but a loosely defined important common interest in a very complex world acting on sound but limited knowledge to experiment with due meet the threats and opportunities the changing situation offers. Seriously considered action at least has some chance of improving a deteriorating situation.

Its obvious downside is that it is not emotionally satisfying, offering no prospect of a decisive triumph of some collective identity, no simple second-order rule or objective, and no assurance of salvation from fatal dangers. All of these satisfactions have their place in other contexts. Not many people find analysing and negotiating solutions to our problems a congenial occupation. What I hope for is that we will evolve and reward institutions that undertake those tasks, that the recommendations ar which they arrive will have a strong influence on public opinion, and that legislators and administrators will be constrained to follow those opinions.


On 7 May 2018, at 12:53 am, Nicholas <> wrote:

I doubt you’re out of touch, but economics is. It doesn’t really take this kind of thing very seriously. It didn’t in the Cambridge Capital Controversies where the Cambridge (England) guys won the intellectual battles, but it had no impact on the neoclassical model building – because (I think) model building and pressing on with the discipline is an academic imperative. Even if you know it’s wrong.

No good in physics or hard sciences of course because you’ll be shown up. But in economics refutation is the least of your worries – no-one’s ‘theories’ are very securely supported by the evidence over others. I expect there’s some good thinking on the subject – or good-ish – but I don’t know of it as I doubt it’s much use to my own endeavours and I’m very confident that it will end up in some academic cul-de-sac – professionally speaking.

That’s just not the way modern social sciences – or at least economics – develops any more, which is why I’m not that interested in a lot of contemporary academic economics. I don’t find it very insightful about anything other than the technicalities of its sub-field.

Cheers, NG

On 30/4/18, 6:15 pm, “John Burnheim” <> wrote:

Hi Nicholas,

A brief word about something that has troubled me for years. The classic Smith-Ricardo theory of markets seems to me to have been concerned almost exclusively with commodities, things that can be produced for consumption, and the role of markets in establishing the choices open to those involved in production and exchange of commodities in that sense.

The value of assets like land, natural resources and works of art obeys a different social dynamic from commodities because they cannot be produced. And so does money in so far as it canvey produced freely as credit.

Although each of the three categories depend on relative scarcity and relative desirability to motivate exchanges, it seems obvious to me that it is a mistake to treat money as the metric of scarcity and desirability. The crucial reason as I see it is that many needs for commodities are very inflexible on both the production and the supply sides, while both assets and money are instantly transferable.

This has numerous effects, most of which are occluded by such measures of economic well-being as GDP, basically because they do not take account of the diverse dynamics of the markets for different forms of exchange. The power of physics is that it has continually found more precise understanding of the dynamics of the very different forces, having long since abandoned the attempt to reduce those forces to a single vague category, even though the result of force is always measured ultimately in the same terms. I think that for economics to be successful, the way to go is not the present path of more sophisticated psychology, but more analysis of the dynamics fo markets.

Or am I a bit of touch?



Experimental Philosophy and the Replication Crisis

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/05/2018 - 2:40am in

The replication crisis in psychology and other fields, in which researchers have found it difficult or impossible to replicate the results of many earlier experiments (see the Reproducibility Project) is now being addressed by those working in experimental philosophy (x-phi), a subfield of philosophy that borrows surveying and experimental methods from psychology, whose work may suffer from similar problems.

The X-Phi Replicability Project enlisted 20 teams across 8 countries—over 40 researchers—to conduct replications of a “representative sample” of 40 x-phi studies, and has recently released its results. They found that x-phi studies “successfully replicated about 70% of the time.”

By way of comparison, the Reproducibility Project was able to replicate findings in only around 35% of a representative sample of psychology studies.

What explains the relatively high replication rate? The authors consider a number of explanations:

  • the effect sizes in x-phi, especially early on, were large, and it has been found that effect sizes are a good predictor of a study’s replicability
  • because x-phi studies are less costly to run and re-run, there is less of a downside to getting results that are not interesting enough  to publish, and so there is less motivation to engage in “questionable research practices”
  • the effects studied in x-phi are generally “less subtle” than those studied in psychology and more likely to be affected by factors under the control of the researchers
  • the academic culture of philosophy encourages researchers to be “more sensitive to certain methodological questions, such as what counts as strong evidence for a given claim,” or have “a greater tolerance for negative or null results.” More generally, for a few reasons, philosophers may be less susceptible than psychologists to the pressure of “publish or perish” when it comes to empirical studies.

You can read more about the results here.

(via Florian Cova)

Vivian Maier, “Infinite Reflection”


The post Experimental Philosophy and the Replication Crisis appeared first on Daily Nous.

SF Short Film: Robots of Brixton

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/05/2018 - 7:19pm in

This is an interesting piece of what Beyoncé would call ‘Afrofuturism’ from the Dust channel on YouTube. Dust specialise in putting up short SF films, like the one above. This film, directed by Kibwe Tavares, imagines a kind of future Brixton, where all, or nearly all the people living there are robots. The film’s hero, a robot with Afro-Caribbean features, walks through the area, before relaxing with a robot friend, by toking what appears to be the robotic version of a bong.

A riot then breaks out, and robot riot police appear to crush it. This is intercut with scenes from the 1981 riots in Brixton, over which is dubbed a voice talking or reciting a piece about ending oppression. The film ends with shots of bodies on the ground, then and in this robotic present. And the quotation from Marx on a black screen: ‘History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce’.

People of all races like and produce SF, and there are a number of very well respected Black SF writers, most notably Samuel R. Delaney, who’s been going since the 1960s and ’70s, and Olivia Butler, the author of Clay’s Ark and the Parable of the Sower. A few years ago a volume of SF by Black authors was published with the title Dark Matter, the title also referring to the all the invisible cosmic stuff that’s adding missing mass to the universe. Also in the 1990s over this side of the pond there appeared a book, written by a Black author, about an all-Black mission to save a space colony by turning them Black. This was to save them from a plague which affected only Whites. I can’t say I was impression by this piece, as it seemed to me to be as imperialistic as the White ideologies of civilising Blacks by giving them European civilisation. This seems to be less controversial, though still dealing with a sensitive subject. It is also part of the character of much SF since it first appeared in the 19th century as ‘the literature of warning’.