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Misunderstanding Luddites

March 19, 2011 1 comment

I’ve been known to hurl the Luddite insult every now and again (pretty boorish, I know) so this piece by Richard Conniff at the Smithsonian caught my eye. In it he explains some of the real history of the protests:

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

This was generally my understanding of the movement, but it’s clear they were less hostile to technology generally than I appreciated. So it turns out they weren’t really eccentrically principled anti-techonological utopians, but were pretty much just regular protectionists with a little flair. Fittingly, those Luddite arguments about “standard labor practices” and “high-quality goods” are the same antique arguments workers use today to justify tariffs and other protections. And when used to extremes, they’re also just as obsolete.

One technology the Luddites commonly attacked was the stocking frame, a knitting machine first developed more than 200 years earlier by an Englishman named William Lee. Right from the start, concern that it would displace traditional hand-knitters had led Queen Elizabeth I to deny Lee a patent. Lee’s invention, with gradual improvements, helped the textile industry grow—and created many new jobs.

That’s not to deny that new technology can’t disrupt actual human beings’ livelihoods and the state has an important role to help displaced workers transition more easily, but public policy can’t hem in (ahem…) technological progress that improves efficiency and creates “many new jobs.” Anti-trade arguments are arguably even less compelling given the moral component of directly denying developing world workers the opportunity to escape extreme poverty.

For the record, I’m still using “Luddite” as an anti-techological progress catchall – some things we just shouldn’t move on from.

(via The Daily Dish)

Categories: Protectionism

200 Years Later: Luddites Still Wrong

New research further damages the arguments of our modern bioLuddites who worry about Frankenfoods and all things genetically modified. James McWilliams writing in The Atlantic summarizes the National Research Council’s findings:

1. Farmers globally have applied less insecticide per acre as they’ve increased their use of Bt seed (seed engineered for insect resistance). Beyond the obvious health benefits, reduction in insecticide application has saved substantial aviation fuel, water (to make insecticides), and plastic containers.  

2. Farmers and their families have been safer from chemical exposure as a result of less harsh pesticides and less time spent out in the fields spraying. The authors of the report hypothesize that farmers pay more for GE seeds in part to protect their families and employees from exposure to harsh chemicals.  

3. The greatest environmental benefit of adopting GE crops may turn out to be the rate at which water is retained as a result of conservation tillage, which herbicide tolerant (HT) crops directly foster. No-till methods also improve soil health, something conventional farming is often accused of ignoring. 

4. Economically, the savings gained from GE adoption generally outweighed the expense, and the economic benefits gained by adopting farmers also extend to non-adopters as well. In controlling so effectively for the corn borer, for example, Bt corn indirectly protects neighboring crops. (A very similar thing happened in Hawaii when GE papaya was introduced to save the crop from a devastating outbreak of ringspot in the 1990s.)

5. The drift of pollen from GE to non-GE plants—a phenomenon that anti-GE advocates often highlight as a chronic problem—turns out to be relatively rare, or at least “not a concern for most non-GE crops.” This is not to say that it doesn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter, but only that drift is hardly a first-order concern when it comes to GE pollen.

Genetic Engineering opponents continue to commit the naturalistic fallacy. GE is really just a more advanced practice of what we’ve been doing to nature since the beginning of agriculture. Guess what? Modern oranges and bananas (even the non-GM ones) aren’t original to nature. Through cross-breeding we’ve changed their genetics and created new fruits. Of course it is important to be careful and continue to monitor the changes we make to nature. This study also pointed out potential problems that can now be better addressed. Everyone should agree that we should continue performing scientific studies like the NRC’s most recent, but to salt the field of Genetic Engineering would destroy one of the potentially great revolutions in human history. 

[update 5/7]: Foreign Policy features an excellent piece on why modern farming is the key to helping the world’s poorest and hungriest.  

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished. 

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

The Reduction of Science

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”

We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.

Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science.  Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”

If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.

Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives.  But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.

Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.

Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.

Pyrrho’s Birth Certificate

May 3, 2011 2 comments

[note: I started writing this post right before the Osama bin Laden news hit, but my arguments apply to all the new conspiracies surrounding Osama’s body and death.]

It’s been an eventful few days and they provide an opportunity to discuss a topic dear to my heart: skepticism. You’ve all learned by now that President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Whenever I debate someone on 9/11 conspiracies, alien visitation, or vaccines I’m continuously astounded by their lack of skeptical inquiry. Yet, inevitably, the credulous advocate questions why I’m not skeptical of the official story. Fair enough. They deserve an answer.

During classical antiquity a group of philosophers traveled to India with Alexander the Great. One of them, Pyrrho, became known as the first skeptic and the tradition that grew from his namesake demanded a suspension of judgement due to the impossibility of knowledge.

If the real nature of things is indeterminable by us, as the epistemological interpretation would have it, then to attempt to determine the nature of things, and to provide cogent grounds for the superiority of one’s own theories, is to attempt the impossible; such matters are simply beyond our grasp.

A conspiracy theorist my appeal to this radical skepticism but it doesn’t provide any shelter for his own beliefs. Yet, the question remains of how to determine the baseline or default for practical skepticism.

Context Matters

The Case of Obama’s Birthplace

Early in the campaign Barack Obama’s birthplace became called into question. Since we have a constitutional requirement (however absurd in our modern context) that our presidents be natural born citizens I don’t mind that he was asked to produce evidence of his birthplace. Putting aside the ugly racial undertones, I’m comfortable with subjecting public officials to increased levels of scrutiny. But once he produced a legally acceptable certificate of live birth (along with Hawaiian birth announcements, etc) it should have been put to rest. He produced a standard of evidence that satisfied the accepted legal benchmark of the country. So how is one supposed to know what level of evidence should satisfy a rational skeptic? Since the context for inquiring about Obama’s birthplace is constitutional, the bar seems to be what is legally accepted in the United States.

Expertise Matters

The Science of Vaccination

You’ve all heard some variation of the saying that even if everyone believes something except one person that one person might still be right. Even expert consensus can be wrong – Einstein overthrew the consensus at the time. To take a specific case, if consensus can be discredited, could scientific studies that claim vaccines safe be wrong?

Many parents remain fearful that vaccines cause the developmental disorder despite multiple studies invalidating any casual link. Yes, it is possible. Possible, doesn’t mean likely. More fundamentally for justified skepticism, skeptics need reasons to doubt. The autism-vaccine link isn’t proven false because experts say so – it is demonstrated by the evidence or more accurately: the “link” has no evidence. Vaccine controversy was justified until the claims of the concerned were tested and disconfirmed. Now strong doubts reveal a closed-mind.

In contrast, Einstein’s theories withstood falsification. It’s also important to recognize that expert consensus is only likely to be overturned by another expert. In order to challenge any prevailing theory, one must understand what one is overturning. For example, it’s telling that those who doubt evolution can’t ever seem to properly explain evolution.

Experience Matters

The Assumption of Naturalism

Skeptics are probably best known for questioning ghosts, telepaths, and gods. Believers must wonder why skeptics are biased against supernatural explanations. There is no reason in principle that supernatural explanations are wrong. Reasonable skepticism only favors natural explanations because no confirmation of the supernatural has ever occurred. Every suspected supernatural mystery in history has either been explained by natural causes or lacks conclusive evidence. Our collective experience suggests that we should wear out all potential material explanations and have unfalsifiable evidence of the magic before we relinquish our doubts. Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist and blogger, tries to dispute Carl Sagan’s famous remark that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The required level of evidentiary standards cannot depend on the conclusion or the contents of the claims, especially, on how politically correct or popular they are.  Until or unless we can derive an absolutely objective definition of what counts as an extraordinary claim, science will fare better if we all forget about Sagan’s dictum and hold all scientific claims to identically high standards of evidence.

He’s right that all scientific claims should be held to the same rigorous standards, but I think he’s missing Sagan’s point (or at least mine). I think any claim in science that doesn’t already fit with our understanding of the world needs to overcome the burden of falsifying the current understanding. New claims that accord with our current models -ordinary ones- don’t need to re-prove their foundational science. For example, when Neil Shubin predicted and discovered the existence of tiktaalik, he didn’t need to go to the extraordinary lengths of proving the underlying science of natural selection. His new detail easily worked within the existing theory. But a study that claims ESP exists seem to contradict our current understanding of biology and physics. If one phenomena negates entire theories, it is extraordinary and we should doubt it until we’re sure the claims and results are valid.

We don’t have a principled bias against the supernatural, only a pragmatic assumption for natural explanations.

Matters of Risk

The Confusion of Natural Food

It’s fashionable to favor organic farming over more modern methods. “Natural” food seems normal for humans, while more modern farming such as genetic modification are by definition out-of-the-ordinary. Our historical experience and scientific expertise clash. Yet, remember that experience was only a factor when evidence didn’t exist. In a sense, experience was our only evidence. The skeptic shouldn’t favor traditional methods because they are more natural. Don’t confuse natural with naturalism.

We must be weary of the naturalistic fallacy. Naturalism wasn’t a baseline because of some special significance of being natural, but because we only had experience with non-supernatural pheonomma. Neither organic nor “artificial” farming methods are supernatural. Before we had any evidence of the safety of genetic modifacation (theoretical or actual) we should have been very skeptical. As more evidence comes in we’re free to evaluate it continuously. Given the importance of our food supply, we’re right to be skeptical of anything that could have a major effect, but it’s important to recognize that traditional agriculture isn’t free from downsides. We’re right to be skeptical of every new advancement in food technology given our lack of experience with it, but every new bit of evidence should temper our doubts. The default shouldn’t be organic or modern agriculture – it’s whatever the present evidence deems acceptable. To know that we may have to refer back to the consensus of dispassionate experts. Risks of danger must be weighed against the potential for wide benefits.

Knowing Why Matters

Skepticism is an Approach

Skeptics shouldn’t expect to always be right. Skepticism isn’t about answers – it’s about doubt. There aren’t any good reasons to believe that a race of shy but super-advanced extraterrestrials mastered interstellar spaceflight beyond even our theoretical understanding of physics who simultaneously lack the ability to prevent crashes. It’s also possible that all world governments have been able to successfully restrict the public and scientific community from learning of or reporting on any conclusive evidence of these inconsistent visitors, but it’s more rational to doubt the conspiracies until further substantiation.

A Modern Pyrrho?

Modern skeptics reject the notion that the world is unknowable. Evidence and logic provide reasons to believe; even Pyrrho should accept that the President was born in Hawaii. Doubt does not excuse ignorance. In order to locate the baseline of justified doubt, we continue to seek out the ground of reason. If it turns out our default is incorrect, the skeptic should feel no shame in adapting to the new understanding of the world.

If we don’t know why holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, and 9/11 truthers are wrong we’ll be forced to treat every crazy claim as equally likely to be true. You might as well cast your vote for Donald Trump.

Categories: Skepticism

The March of the Machines

March 7, 2011 2 comments

Every morning that I wake up worried that I might end up in too positive a frame of mind to properly mope through my day, I make sure to read a Paul Krugman column. Today he further crushes my optimism for the future by explaining why increased innovation is reducing the demand for educated workers.

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.


[T]he notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

As computers and other technologies get better at preforming more complex tasks the more our labor markets will dramatically change. From reading this you might come away awash in despair at the prospect of the inevitable march of robots taking your good jobs away. But hold on a nanosecond. (I was so tempted I was to write an updated Candlemakers’ petition.) This march isn’t inevitable; we could become luddites and stop innovating – problem solved, right? Framing it that way concentrates the mind a bit: I’m not saying better technology and innovation don’t pose any problems for us, but those problems come linked to massive gains in productivity and material wealth. That we don’t need “armies of lawyers” to analyze legal documents is a good thing. When was the last time you thought, “man, getting good legal help was just too damn inexpensive!”? Yes, many jobs in the medical field may soon be obsolete; but, if our country’s finances face any problem right now it’s not cheaper medical costs.

These same “problems” also come with free trade and immigration. Policymakers need to help transition workers displaced by trade, technology, and immigration, but we can’t forget that these things bring enormous benefits. We could all go back to hiring lamplighters, typists, and switchboard operators yet somehow I think most people realize we’re better off because we don’t have to.

Categories: Paul Krugman Tags:

I.T. is so passe

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Lawrence Krauss gets excited about biotechnology and the prospect of creating new life.

Semiconductor nanotechnology has been heralded for more than a decade, but I believe it will pale beside the ability of biotechnology to transform life and society. Imagine the impact of piggybacking on nature’s majesty and designing living systems that can perform tasks not found in nature, from microbes that make gasoline or eat carbon dioxide to create nonbiodegradable plastic building materials to organisms designed to surgically and strategically operate on cancer cells. I expect that within 50 years the world’s economy will be driven not by computer-generated information but by biologically generated software.

To predict the future you always set yourself up for embarrassment. I won’t go as far as Krauss, but it’s hard to argue that biotech doesn’t hold some amazing promise. He’s right to rebuff luddite style fears of humanity’s destruction. Keep up the good work Craig Venter!
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