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.

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

July 19, 2013 5 comments


After Rolling Stone put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, the Boston Strong community has suffered from an alarming lack of fainting couches. But I’m here to calm everyone down enough to unclutch their pearls and to explain a lesson we all should have learned in elementary school.

If you can uncover your eyes for a moment, let’s take a quick look at the infamous cover.


Once you get your CO2 levels regulated by breathing in and out of your paper bag, check out the part of the headline I’ve highlighted. Instead of “glamorizing” the subject of their article, they’ve defined him as “a monster.”

“Glamorize” is also a curious word choice for another reason. This image wasn’t staged; it’s a personal photo of Tsarnaev. It’s one the New York Times used on its front page. In other words, it’s an accurate portrayal of the alleged terrorist we’re interested in learning about.

There is some legitimacy in the criticism that Rolling Stone probably chose this picture to be deliberately provocative to sell more magazines. But unless you’re fundamentally opposed to any capitalist promotion in journalism your selective outrage carries little authority. As long as the image isn’t deceptive, selecting a picture that illustrates the nature of the story isn’t unethical.

So unless you deny the importance of studying the type of person willing to murder innocent civilians, you shouldn’t object to an accurate portrayal. And make no mistake, the article is about him and his transformation into a radical islamist bomber. So all those calls for putting a photo of police officer or a victim miss the point. The article is not about those subjects.

Mandating we only use photos of victims (even when not talking specifically about them) or only using scary images of criminals is a dangerous form a political correctness that prevents us from rationally understanding the threat. Using a “glamorous” photo isn’t unjustified once you recognize that seemingly normal people can become terrorists too. I wonder if the widespread knee-jerk reaction isn’t a subconscious defense mechanism against that frightening reality. When attractive people who look like us can be taken in and radicalized by such an unattractive ideology it scares us. Perception of the true face of the danger is essential to protecting us from the source of that fear.

We all should remember that looking at a cover-photo is only the beginning of how we consume the news. You are expected to judge the photograph, but it’s also understood you will read the content. If we censor ourselves from objectionable images and ignore the context, we’re ostriches blinding ourselves to threats. Everyone calling for a boycott or encouraging stores to not carry what you personally deem offensive forces others to submit to your information blackout. Just because it’s not illegal censorship does not make it benign censorship.

Just remember, don’t judge a book or a magazine by its cover.

(image: fainting couch)

Categories: Journalism

Does Free Will Exist in Heaven?

June 15, 2013 2 comments


A fairly common retort to why evil and suffering exist if God is omnipotent and all-loving is free will.

For example, in the back-and-forth I posted on “the problem of evil” a while back, one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers makes a representative version of this point:

Suffering, the existential consciousness of alienation, on which you are so eloquent, is an extension of human freedom. Those of us, like you, who stand in the faith and view the world (both physical and existential) from the perspective of faith, do not have words to understand why God created the world in the way can has, but we do understand that both the principle of entropy and human free will are gifts of the Creator and that God respects the integrity of Creation.

Most religious people assume that no one suffers in heaven. If they’re right, does that imply that we lack free will in heaven? If the formula for the perfect state of happiness contains a total deficiency of free will, why does an omnibenevolent Creator give us free will at all? It cannot be beneficial, by definition, if heaven is perfect and lacks it.

One alternative could be that we have free will, but God punishes any offense with banishment to hell – terrifying everyone into immaculate behavior. Yet that would seem to shatter the notion of a totally merciful Divine Being like stained glass.

(Robot Heaven)

Categories: Free Will, Theodicy

Abortion to Scale

June 10, 2013 8 comments


Most people seem to have some instinct toward moral utilitarianism – generally speaking, more suffering is worse than less. Well, at least the vast majority’s initial response to the trolley problem suggests that. With that in mind, I wanted to use a similar framework to help clarify the ethics of abortion.

Many of us are familiar with the concept that abortion equals murder. So let’s examine the math that leads anyone to believe that.

If you were faced with preventing the death of either

A) An 8 year old child with a mother that wants to kill him or:

B) You could stop the voluntary abortion of an unborn fetus

Which would you choose?

Or do you accept the standard that all life is morally equal and allow chance to determine from two evenly horrible choices?

If you grudging accept that the 8 year old child is more valuable for some reason, but still want to maintain that the unconscious fetus has significant moral weight than it follows that there must be some number of voluntary abortions that would tip the scale in your calculation forcing you to accept the death of the 8 year old innocent child to prevent the termination of some number of fetuses. What is that number for you? Would 100 abortions be the number that demanded you explain to an emotional and confused child that his or her life could be saved, but 100 fetuses is just too many let expire. Or is it 1000? Would 1 million justify it for you when explaining to the child’s friends and family why you made your choice?

Undoubtably there are some principled religious purists that will flip the coin and answer that the 8 year old child and the unborn fetus truly are morally equivalent and would allow the conscious child to die if that’s what chance dictates. It’s worth knowing who believes that. Who but the most extreme could maintain such a compassionless position? When confronted directly it becomes apparent very quickly that a living person is more valuable than a clump of cells. And once you start accounting for the reasons why those two entities deserve different moral values, the logical path toward consequentialism and the pro-choice view materializes.

I find a living sentient person so much more valuable that no number of voluntary abortions could persuade me allow an 8 year old to die in order to save them. Doesn’t that imply that I place zero moral weight on the unborn of mothers choosing abortions? Actually, yes. And you should value conscious life infinitely more as well.

(Ultrasound image from UPMC)

Categories: Reproductive Rights

Music Break

Everyone appreciates some 1980s nostalgia as my friend, Marcos, runs through an amazing set of ’80s movies after his love.

Categories: Music

The Femnesty Flood


I’ve unearthed a truly fascinating editorial from the late 1950s. I’m not sure if it can provide any insights on any of our modern political problems; I’ll leave that for readers to decide. Obviously there was no internet back then so I’ve gone ahead and hyperlinked some of this author’s references (where possible) so everyone can better understand what his contemporaries were saying and to provide greater context to his arguments.

If United States’ economy is going to survive it should stick to the principles that made it the envy of the world. There is a war on our workplaces as a continuing invasion of females empty out of our homes and lay siege to our traditions. For centuries, America has successfully increased the wealth of our homes and our nation. Now, for the sake of pseudo-fairness we’re going to undermine the best workforce in the world. As Alabama Senator Jeff Buzz accurately points out, “I believe the interest that needs to be protected is the national interest of the United States, and that includes existing workers today, workers whose wages have been pulled down, without doubt, by a large flow of these new workers.” For that reason it would be profoundly unfair to the millions of currently employed ladies to allow new women laborers to expand recklessly into the workforce.

To the rest of the members in Congress, who is supposed to look out for our existing workers today if not you?

Today, women in general are far less educated than the average male worker; permitting a flood of undereducated workers is destabilizing enough, but “the growing number of undereducated people crossing into the workforce have hurt less educated existing workers,” as the Center for Female Studies observes. Our social scientists have demonstrated that women on average have lower IQs than America’s male population. If any women are going to be working outside their homes -if we’re going to let them into our workplaces- we should be careful to only allow the high IQ groups. Distinguished researcher Jason Poorbeer put it best,

The average IQ of women in the United States is substantially lower than that of male workers, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ groups and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Selecting high-IQ women would ameliorate these problems.

No one is saying that no woman can get a job in the US, but we need to be careful about how many we are going to allow on a pathway out of the household. After all, any considerable increase in the number of workers will, by the laws of statistics, increase the number of workers’ compensation claims that companies and taxpayers will undoubtably pay. If we legalize the working status of all these women, they’ll be entitled to all the federal, state, and local benefits that come along with legally working here in the US such as the company’s health insurance benefits. As former Senator and Inheritance Foundation president, Jim DeCoin, notes “They pay some taxes, but what they take out of the tax system is much, much greater.”

Let’s take a look at the common under-the-table industry of baby-sitting – by the way, “under-the-table” is a cowardly euphemism for “illegal black market.” I won’t be frightened by the politically correct! Everyone knows these illegal girls pay no taxes and compete for measly wages. What makes so-called feminists believe that turning the whole economy into a baby-sitting ring writ large would be good for women? We have our test case: lots of undereducated girls all competing for jobs that “male workers just won’t do” produces a market-wage no one can live on.

It’s sophistry to think that importing this culture of lawlessness and feminity will be good for American business. Where are the successful woman-led businesses now? There is a reason why males have dominated our capitalist system so far. The culture of the home and the culture of business fundamentally differ. Famed economist Tom Wosell has it right. There is no inherent right to work in the US and bringing in a culture that has been far less successful in providing decent lives and decent livelihoods is dangerous and irreversible.

It’s clear the liberals in Congress are only doing this for politics. They clearly expect the women’s vote to be an electoral bonanza for them if they pander to the female crowd. But the existing workers of America aren’t going to hide in the shadows of the voting booth. Any congressman that supports reforming our workplace laws to encourage migration from the household needs to reconsider and put America’s existing workers first.

(photo from Heart&Soul Photography)

Categories: Immigration

Due Process and Indefinite Skepticism

April 25, 2013 Leave a comment


As more evidence mounts it has become increasing clear that the Boston Marathon bombers were influenced by their radical Islamic faith. Yet, some writers have acted as if noticing that is unjustified Islamophobia.

Glenn Greenwald:

But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of “terrorism” in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tuscon and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism).

Others like Kevin Drum and Conor Friedersdorf, agree, and take the position that we should just remain agnostics on whether the suspects’ interpretation of Islam played a role in their actions until more evidence proves it.

So I am grateful for reminders from cooler heads about how frequently what everyone “knows” to be true turns out to be false. At worst, those warnings delay the moment when an inevitable conclusion is reached, as I suspect will be true in this case. That delay is the worst thing that could happen. Is that so bad?

There should be no objection to waiting for evidence and displaying skepticism toward knee-jerk assumptions. Everyone is and ought to be legally entitled to due-process to prove any guilt. But the problem with writers such as Greenwald and others that are quick to label opponents as Islamophobes is that their skepticism never ends – in practice they remain permanent agnostics that religion could really motivate terrorists or other enemies of civil society.  Scott Atran, for all his valuable insights, argues that “the greatest predictor from going from support [of the Jihad] to violence has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with whether you belong to a soccer club or not.” This type of statement is representative of those who divorce statistics from a coherent casual theory.

Everyone agrees that politics, social alienation, nationalism, and brain structure are reasonable factors in the casual chain, but for some religious apologists their Pyrrhonian skepticism only kicks in when you point out that some doctrines of Islam contribute to violent acts. Even Greenwald is happy to cite politics as the suspects’ motivation in another post despite chastising everyone else with a reminder that “media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial” when they mention religion.

Given what we know, we can provisionally consider the Tsarnaev brothers terrorists that are more than likely partially motivated by religious ideology. Obviously it’s not impossible that’s wrong (which is why we have due process), but it’d be a strange scenario indeed for something so important to their lives to NOT have influenced their actions.

Tamerlan was apparently kicked out of his mosque for being too extreme in his religion. A foreign government noticed and alerted the US that he was potentially a dangerous religious extremist before the bombings. They had an interest in Jihadist videos. Tamerlan traveled to areas that are “hotbeds” of political and religious extremism. The two brothers committed an act seemingly designed to purposefully create public terror and, as Dzhokhar says, “he and his brother had learned to make the pressure-cooker bombs that they used at the marathon from Inspire, the online Al Qaeda magazine.” Neither brother has a known history of diagnosed mental health problems. At a certain point when data begins to fit into a coherent theory it verges into reasonable inference. I’m more than happy to concede nothing is “proven,” but again, I refuse to not notice out loud what is obviously the most likely scenario – religious ideology inspired these two alleged terrorists.

If it’s true that some people unfairly and prejudiciously assume any suspected terrorist is an Islamic fanatic -and that unfortunately happens- a converse is also true; some people overcompensate and go to unreasonable lengths to deny what is most parsimonious: those seemingly radical Islamic bombers of innocent civilians at a highly public event were actually radical Islamic terrorists.

(photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Categories: Religion
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