I’m off on another hike this weekend. Here’s a hardy blend for your consumption while I’m away.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus:
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
I have no trouble admitting I’m a Sam Harris partisan. Everything he does I find I love. So it should be no surprise that I’m excited for his new book released today.
I previously covered some of the debate surrounding his thesis here.
Both The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post published excerpts from The Moral Landscape.
Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.
Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life. (from The Daily Beast)
Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.
As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment? (from The Huffington Post)
Kwame Anthony Appiah at The New York Times has a pretty tepid review.
Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.
Also, right as this book hits stores, Sam debates Mark Oppenheimer, NYT columnist, at The Economist over the motion: “This house believes that religion is a force for good.”
I’ll be purchasing my copy tomorrow and hope to share my thoughts with everyone soon. I’m also going to try to see Sam at Tufts and/or Harvard soon. In the meantime go out and buy the book. Harris is an incredibly clear and exciting writer; even if you end up disagreeing you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience.
Jonah Lehrer shares with us research that should make most of us happy to hear.
Well, the anomaly has just gotten more anomalous: A new study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 participants between the ages of 55 and 65. Once again, the researchers found that abstaining from alcohol increases the risk of dying, even when you exclude former alcoholics who have now quit. (The thinking is that ex-drinkers might distort the data, since they’ve already pickled their organs.) While 69 percent of the abstainers died during the 20-year time span of the study, only 41 percent of moderate drinkers passed away. (Moderate drinkers were also 23 percent less likely to die than light drinkers.) But here’s the really weird data point: Heavy drinkers also live longer than abstainers. (Only 61 percent of heavy drinkers died during the study.) In other words, consuming disturbingly large amounts of alcohol seems to be better than drinking none at all.
The takeaway lesson is that sex is both stressful and good for the brain. The “hedonic value” of the experience more than outweighs the temporary surge in corticosterone levels, at least in rats. Although sex appears to get less stressful the more we do it – we pump out fewer stress hormones during the act – such “chronic sex” still promotes all sorts of helpful neural habits, such as increased plasticity and new dendritic spines. (Of course, these findings probably only apply to pleasurable coitus. If you’re not enjoying the act, then don’t expect lots of neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus.) As I note in the article, these findings have led Gould to search for the additional molecules (let’s called them Molecules Y and Z) that modulate and mitigate the usually destructive chemistry of glucocorticoids, at least when we’re engaged in “naturally rewarding” activities. This data wouldn’t surprise Marvin Gaye, who sang so passionately about the benefits of “Sexual Healing”
Don’t worry both pieces are full of the requisite nuance. Of course the only lesson I’m going to take is get drunk and have sex… that’s the message, right?
I generally despise anything politically correct. Topics concerning race are particularly mushy puddles of P.C./B.S. They are at once overly talked about and under-analyzed. Same goes for gender. My last post on the topic of innate differences among groups highlighted the hysteria generated controversy of any academic foolish inquisitive enough to research any differences among genders. Well my friend and faithful reader, Dave, sent me a recent Slate article reporting on a study researching, gasp!, racial differences. For example, they argue that black men generally have higher centers of gravity which helps with the physics of locomotion (i.e. running) while whites’ general lower center of gravity helps in swimming.
To me these are rather trivial, mildly interesting, topics – the reason I’m covering this study is something else entirely. The authors don’t argue that the differences are racial but biological or hereditary. Before you think that they are just being P.C. or nitpicking, read this explanation. First the scientists in science-y language:
Our approach is to study phenotypic (somatotypic) differences … which we consider to have been historically misclassified as racial characteristics. These differences represent consequences of still not well-understood variable environmental stimuli for survival fitness in different parts of the globe during thousands of years of habitation. Our study does not advance the notion of race, now recognized as a social construct, as opposed to a biological construct. We acknowledge the wide phenotypic and genotypic diversity among the so-called racial types.
Now the Slate reporter helping translate:
This is a fascinating bit of finesse. There’s nothing unusual about dismissing race as social construct. Racism watchdogs do it all the time. But they do it precisely to deny hereditary differences between blacks and whites.
Taking “race” out of the equation makes a substantive difference: It focuses the conversation about heredity on populations, a more precise and scientifically accepted way of categorizing people.
The authors also help the conversation by pointing out that “environmental stimuli” caused differential evolution in different parts of the world. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about being West African or Eastern European. All of us are evolving all the time. As environmental conditions change in each part of the world, they change the course of natural selection. Ten thousand years from now, the average center of body mass might be higher in Europe than in Africa.
Simply put, it is not about being black or white that causes biological differences. Populations’ genetics blend and change all the time. We lump people into race groups because it’s visually easy, not because it’s a particularly accurate measure of anything. But that doesn’t mean different groups of people can’t have biological differences – but those differences aren’t static and aren’t inherently bad or good. In the future, populations that happen to have darker or lighter skin will have different sets of genes which produce different effects in those individuals. Accepting that genetic differences exist does not condemn anyone to prejudice or racism – it should eradicate it.
(image from here)
Science and religion approach humanity’s puzzles differently. Take the classic chicken or the egg dilemma. Science answers the egg; religion presupposes chicken.
Now PZ Myers blasts a science reporter at MSNBC (along with the scientist that is “partly responsible”) who claims science has discovered that the chicken came before the egg.
You simply can’t make the conclusion the reporter was making here. The species ancestral to laid eggs, the last common ancestor of all birds laid eggs, the reptiles that preceded the birds laid eggs…the appearance of egg laying was not coincident with the evolution of ovocleidin. The first chicken that acquired the protein we call ovocleidin now by mutation of a prior protein also hatched from an egg.
(photo from UC Davis)
Over at the Hannibal Blog an interesting discussion is going on over Nietzsche’s message on the nature of truth. Andreas Kluth sets the stage with a letter from 19 year old Fritz to his sister.
On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?
Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.
In others words, it is easy to take for granted accepted wisdom and propositions that don’t challenge one’s own opinions and bias. Nietzsche understands that it is not comfortable to have to follow truth wherever it leads, so to speak. I think Sam Harris explains this idea well in his debate with Nature writer Philip Ball.
A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” The fact that people occasionally do manage such contortions is what renders phrases like “self-deception,” “wishful thinking,” “experimenter bias,” etc., so important to keep on hand. Please notice that these phrases describe how it looks from the outside when people believe a proposition because “it makes them feel better.” Please also notice that this frame of mind represents a failure of cognition and reasoning that all sane people decry in every area of serious discourse but one.
A world in which people believe propositions merely because these propositions “make them feel better” is a world gone utterly mad. It is a world of private and irreconcilable epistemologies. It is a world where communication, even on the most important issues—perhaps especially on the most important issues—is guaranteed to fail. Of course, you have tried to arrest your slide into the abyss in your parenthetical remark about evolution and blood transfusions—but one can draw no such boundary unless one draws it based on some deeper principle. You cannot say that a person’s reason for believing in the virgin birth is “good” just so long as this belief has no negative consequences on his behavior. Whether a belief is well founded or not has nothing to do with its consequences.
In the EU the VAT was designed as a replacement for other transaction-based consumption taxes like the sales tax, whereas if one were to be introduced into the US it would be added to the existing sales taxes collected by states.
An appendix to this study illustrates, using a supply and demand framework that will be familiar to students of economics, that the welfare loss of a VAT placed on top of state sales taxes would result in a substantially higher excess burden of taxation than a VAT of the same rate in a tax system without state sales taxes. The analysis in the appendix arrives at two conclusions important when considering levying a VAT in the US, where states already use a sales tax to tax the same tax base. First, even if the initial VAT rate is modest, once imposed, both state governments, with their sales tax rates, and the federal government, with its VAT, will have the tendency to raise rates so that the combined sales tax plus VAT rate will be larger than would be optimal.
The second important conclusion is that a federal VAT would lower state sales tax collections in any event, so state revenues would suffer if a federal VAT were imposed. The reason for this is that all taxes reduce the economic activities they tax. Adding a VAT on top of state sales taxes would reduce the sales tax base states now rely on for a substantial amount of their revenues.
The important lesson I want to stress is that all systems have flaws and recognizing so isn’t a sign of a weak argument but of acknowledging reality. It won’t necessarily make my advocacy of a VAT easier or more comfortable but the will to inquire will ensure I’m a disciple of truth not dogma.
(photo: Nietzsche 1864)
Christopher Hitchens has cancer. His
Christopher Hitchens has cancer. Hisstatement released by his publisher reads:
Been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me.
Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.
To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.
I want to wish Olivia Judson well on her year off and on her book project. Science lovers everywhere will miss her. Enjoy her last column before her certain triumphant return. This resonated with me:
For me, ideas are capricious. They appear at unpredictable (and sometimes inconvenient) moments — when I’m in the bath, falling asleep, jumping rope, talking to friends. They are also like buses — it’s never clear when the next one will come, or how many will arrive at once.
But having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them.
(image from jla.co.ok)
Discussing potential differences in innate abilities between groups remains a controversial topic and research area. Famously, Larry Summers found himself at the center of a nationwide controversy after he upset many of the students and faculty at Harvard when he speculated on the reasons why women might be less represented in math and science fields. John Tierney in The New York Times has written two columns (here and here) that present some research along with his opinions which seem to vindicate Summers.
The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”
The researchers say it’s impossible to predict how long these math and science gender gaps will last. But given the gaps’ stability for two decades, the researchers conclude, “Thus, sex differences in abilities in the extreme right tail should not be dismissed as no longer part of the explanation for the dearth of women in math-intensive fields of science.”
Other studies have shown that these differences in extreme test scores correlate with later achievements in science and academia. Even when you consider only members of an elite group like the top percentile of the seventh graders on the SAT math test, someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university.
The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people. There’s ample evidence — most recently in an analysis of surveys of more than 500,000 people — that boys and men, on average, are more interested in inanimate objects and “inorganic” subjects like math and physics and engineering, while girls and women are more drawn to life sciences, social sciences and other “organic” careers that involve people and seem to have direct social usefulness.
You can argue how much of this difference is due to biology and how much to society, but could you really affect it by sending scientists and engineers off to the workshops mandated by the bill now in Congress?
PZ Myers isn’t too happy with Tierney.
Now here’s the problem: there is no clear marker or metric for success in science. It’s a complicated task, with lots of variables and lots of different strategies for doing well. It’s not like looking for the person who runs the 100 meter dash the fastest, in which we could just line up the applicants, fire a starting gun, and give the job to the first person who crosses the finishing line. So what do we do? We use proxy metrics.
The best proxies are measurements that most closely approximate performance in science. We look at publication records, grants awarded, recommendations of colleagues, the sort of thing we’d expect our new scientist to continue doing. It’s not perfect — maybe the applicant is a neurotic living on the edge who’s about to break down, or maybe they have an abrasive personality that will affect the performance of other faculty — but it’s a good start. It’s what most committees should evaluate most highly in the hiring process.
All of those things are still just proxies for the constellation of properties you want in a scientific colleague. We have to balance them to get an idea of the potential of an applicant: it would be insane to hire someone with no experience, no publications, and no grants just because they got straight As in high school and college. But for some reason, in this tedious argument about the suitability of women to do science, all that gets mentioned is a gender difference in performance on standardized tests.
He then goes on to point out that wealth is also a great predictor of success in test scores. He’s using this example to blow up Tierney’s connection between gender and test scores since obviously wealth isn’t innate. Myers makes some interesting points but this is a poor one. It’s entirely possible (and researchers have made the point before (e.g. Steven Pinker)) that intelligence and wealth are correlated because, unsurprisingly, intelligent people are more likely to be wealthy due to their intelligence helping them get higher paying jobs. In other words, intelligence is a cause of wealth rather than the reverse.
Real discrimination is a problem, but pretending that no differences exist makes it more difficult to establish when actual discrimination is taking place. At the very least we should be able to discuss the issue without being vilified. If not we might have to sue Mother Nature for age discrimination.
Here’s a short roundup of Venter’s amazing work.
J. Craig Venter Institute:
Now, this scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pairMycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.
Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor (see article). Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.