dezembro 10, 2016


Kayfabe   (by Eric Weinstein link)

The sophisticated "scientific concept" with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity's future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling's insiders as "Kayfabe". 

Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called "a promotion") sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which "breaks Kayfabe" is called "shooting" to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called "working". 

Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts. Perhaps confusing battles between "freshwater" Chicago macro economists and Ivy league "Saltwater" theorists could be best understood as happening within a single "orthodox promotion" given that both groups suffered no injury from failing (equally) to predict the recent financial crisis. The decades old battle in theoretical physics over bragging rights between the "string" and "loop" camps would seem to be an even more significant example within the hard sciences of a collaborative intra-promotion rivalry given the apparent failure of both groups to produce a quantum theory of gravity. 

What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery. While most modern sports enthusiasts are aware of wrestling's status as a pseudo sport, what few alive today remember is that it evolved out of a failed real sport (known as "catch" wrestling) which held its last honest title match early in the 20th century. Typical matches could last hours with no satisfying action, or end suddenly with crippling injuries to a promising athlete in whom much had been invested. This highlighted the close relationship between two paradoxical risks which define the category of activity which wrestling shares with other human spheres:
• A) Occasional but Extreme Peril for the participants.
• B) General: Monotony for both audience and participants.
Kayfabrication (the process of transition from reality towards Kayfabe) arises out of attempts to deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants. As such Kayfabrication is a dependable feature of many of our most important systems which share the above two characteristics such as war, finance, love, politics and science.

Importantly, Kayfabe also seems to have discovered the limits of how much disbelief the human mind is capable of successfully suspending before fantasy and reality become fully conflated. Wrestling's system of lies has recently become so intricate that wrestlers have occasionally found themselves engaging in real life adultery following exactly behind the introduction of a fictitious adulterous plot twist in a Kayfabe back-story. Eventually, even Kayfabe itself became a victim of its own success as it grew to a level of deceit that could not be maintained when the wrestling world collided with outside regulators exercising oversight over major sporting events.

At the point Kayfabe was forced to own up to the fact that professional wrestling contained no sport whatsoever, it did more than avoid being regulated and taxed into oblivion. Wrestling discovered the unthinkable: its audience did not seem to require even a thin veneer of realism. Professional wrestling had come full circle to its honest origins by at last moving the responsibility for deception off of the shoulders of the performers and into the willing minds of the audience.

Kayfabe, it appears, is a dish best served client-side.

julho 04, 2016

Scars are not easily removed

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. Aldo Leopold

junho 28, 2016

Speed fast towards the end

The truth is you can be orphaned again and again and again. The truth is, you will be. And the secret is, this will hurt less and less each time until you can't feel a thing. Trust me on this. Chuck Palahniuk

junho 23, 2016

And even more maps

It's like trying to find the treasure in the pirate's map.

junho 20, 2016

março 06, 2016


I often remind people of the word "orrery". An orrery is a model that works perfectly well, its use results in highly accurate predictions… within bounds of application. The difference between an orrery and a theory, is that a orrery is not causally supported by foundational understandings of the universe. An orrery is internally consistent, but externally disassociated. The classic orrery of course is the painted balls on bent wires articulating around a set of gears and cams on spindles that classical scholars produced to explain the motion the sun and moon and other celestial bodies. Obviously, such models predict the behavior of the system, but don't come near explaining the causal hierarchy that leads to behavior. planets and stars aren't hooked to huge rods. It is theoretically possible to concoct an infinite number of orreries, causally false models, to explain and model any one system or domain. Randall Lee Reetz

dezembro 29, 2015

A World Without Growth?

Arthur Miller wrote that "an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted". Economic growth, the central illusion of the age of capital, may be ending.

Growth underpins every aspect of modern society. Economic growth has become the universal solution for all political, social and economic problems, from improving living standards, reducing poverty to now solving the problems of over indebted individuals, businesses and nations.

All brands of politics and economics are deeply rooted in the idea of robust economic growth, combined with the belief that governments and central bankers can exert substantial control over the economy to bring this about. In his 1929 novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald identified this fatal attraction: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. 

[...] Over the last 30 years, a significant proportion of economic growth and the wealth created relied on financialisation. As traditional drivers of economic growth, such as population increases, new markets, innovation and increases in productivity waned, debt driven consumption became the tool of generating economic growth. But this process requires ever increasing levels of debt. By 2008, $4 to $5 of debt was required to create $1 of growth. China now needs $6 to $8 of credit to generate $1 of growth, an increase from around $1 to $2 of credit for every $1 of growth a decade ago.

Debt allows society to borrow from the future. It accelerates consumption, as debt is used to purchase something today against the promise of paying back the borrowing in the future. Growth is artificially increased by spending that would have taken place normally over a period of years being accelerated because of the availability of cheap money. With borrowing levels now unsustainable, debt engineered growth may be at an end.

Growth was also based on policies that led to the unsustainable degradation of the environment. It was based upon the uneconomic, profligate use of mispriced non-renewable natural resources, such as oil and water.

The problem is the economic model itself. As former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker observed on 11 December 2009: "We have another economic problem which is mixed up in this of too much consumption, too much spending relative to our capacity to invest and to export. It's involved with the financial crisis but in a way it's more difficult than the financial crisis because it reflects the basic structure of the economy." The simultaneous end of financially engineered growth, environmental issues and the scarcity of essential resources now threatens the end of an unprecedented period of growth and expansion.

Policy makers may not have the necessary tools to address deep-rooted problems in current models. Revitalized Keynesian economics may not be able to arrest long-term declines in growth as governments find themselves unable to finance themselves to maintain demand. It is not clear how if, at all, printing money or financial games can create real ongoing growth and wealth.

Low or no growth is not necessarily a problem. It may have positive effects, for example on the environment or conservation of scarce resources. But current economic, political and social systems are predicated on endless economic expansion and related improvements in living standards. Growth is needed to generate higher tax revenues, helping balance increased demand for public services and the funds needed to finance these. Growth is needed maintains social cohesion. The prospect of improvements in living standards, however remote, limits pressure for wealth redistribution. As Henry Wallick, a former Governor of the US Federal Reserve, accurately diagnosed: "So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differential tolerable."

The social and political compact within democratic societies requires economic growth and improvements in living standards. Economic stagnation increases the chance of social and political conflict. Writing in The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred, Niall Ferguson identified the risk: "Economic volatility matters because it tends to exacerbate social conflict…. periods of economic crisis create incentives for politically dominant groups to pass the burdens of adjustment on to others… social dislocation may also follow periods of rapid growth, since the benefits of growth are very seldom evenly distributed… it may be precisely the minority of winners in an upswing who are targeted for retribution in a subsequent downswing".

Politicians, policy makers and ordinary people do not want to confront the possibility of significantly lower economic growth in the future. Like Fitzgerald's tragic hero Gatsby, the incredulous battle cry everywhere is: "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" But as philosopher Michel de Montaigne asked: "How many things we regarded yesterday as articles of faith that seem to us only fables today?"

A recent book The World Without Us was based around a thought experiment–what would a world bereft of humans revert to. We should be worried about what a world without growth, or, at best, low and uneven rates of growth will look like. 

Satyajit Das

dezembro 22, 2015


We decide on the amount and on the quality of the information we possess. The easier case is when the problem outcome is already known (the coin flip was heads, now what?); this is a case where we do not need to predict anything, the event already occurred. The next case is when we do not know the outcomes but know their probabilities (this is a biased coin, with a chance of 55% heads). We know how to solve this type of problem, and call it risk management. The harder case is when not even the probabilities are known (oops, this coin might even have two equal faces...). Usually, the literature calls it uncertainty, which is a different, uglier, beast than risk. And humans do not like uncertainty. We try to solve them using what we know about risk, by simplifying our models -- and possibly forgetting about this fact -- so that we can analyse the problem and compute its solution with the tools (like statistics) and assumptions (like normality) we understand. Sometimes our assumptions are not that far away and our decisions are good approximations/predictions of what happens. Sometimes we miss the mark and the chosen action results in disaster. Black swans, an expression coined by Nassim Taleb, are examples of this. It is when we assume that extraordinary events are impossible and one of them occurs nonetheless. This is the price of recklessness or laziness or both; the hubris of assuming too much.

dezembro 18, 2015

Quantum Randomness

@Eamon: "I wonder what a *genuine* stochastic process *would* look like if not the ones I mentioned. In other words, what possible observational state of affairs would, for you, serve as evidence for genuine indeterminism?"

Good question. I think I would be willing to accept indeterminism despite my gut feeling that it is a mistake, if accepting indeterminism answered more questions than it raised. The prima facie reason for accepting indeterminism is the examples you cited (radioactive decay, etc.), but that interpretation has the following problem.

- Pretty much everybody accepts the reality of superposition, which is in effect Many-Worlds.
- Then, in order to explain the fact that our "thread of consciousness" sees only one discrete outcome, the Copenhagen interpretation posits a wavefunction collapse -essentially, all superpositions instantaneously "die," except the one containing my "thread of consciousness."
- But this collapse is the ONLY known phenomenon in physics that is inherently random/acausal, along with a bunch of other weird properties like non-locality, non-CPT-symmetry, faster-than-light influence...
- And then we get to the crux of the matter: what is this queer collapse theory trying to explain in the first place?
- Answer: why our "thread of consciousness" sees only one outcome, which outcome is apparently not predictable in principle.
- So the question becomes: what happens if we drop our intuitive idea of a single unique "thread of consciousness?"
- Answer: there is nothing left to explain. All branches of the wavefunction remember their own history, and to all of them it prima facie appears that their "thread" made it while the others didn't.

Summary: quantum randomness/collapse "explains" why our "thread of consciousness" sees only one outcome, but this is explained equally well by no collapse and no randomness. Quantum randomness does ZERO explanatory work (although at first intuitive glance, it seems to). -- Ian Pollock [link]

dezembro 15, 2015


"Mentir é um vício abominável. São as palavras que nos aproximam e nos tornam humanos. Se nos apercebessemos do horrível peso que representa a mentira, chegaríamos à conclusão que é mais digna do cadafalso do que muitos outros crimes. Uma vez adquirido o hábito da mentira, é impressionante constatar como é praticamente impossível desistir dele." Montaigne

dezembro 08, 2015


There is a critical aspect that every anarchist proposal should discuss: the secular education of every child. Modern democratic States have many flaws. They are inefficient and corrupt, they are ruled by oligarchies, hopelessly mixing corporation and government interests that have little to do with the needs of we the people. However they provide universal education. I wouldn't want any of us to have the sole word on the indoctrination of our children. It's a terrible danger to be brainwashed only by our parents. And yes, every person is a brainwashed human. What every one of us is, thinks and beliefs, depends on the society we are born into and the people we grow-up with. But diversity of views -- from our parents, our teachers, the mass media, the internet, our friends -- helps immunize us against radical pathologies of belief. Without a central organization to enforce universal education, which means structured education outside family or an inner-community domain, how this potential danger is dealt in an anarchic society?

dezembro 04, 2015

A Chinese Tale

Once upon a time, there was a man who was riding in a horse drawn carriage and traveling to go take care of some affairs; and in the carriage there was also a very big suitcase. He told the driver to of the carriage to drive non-stop and the horse ran extremely fast. 

Along the road, there was an old man who saw them and asked, “Sir, you seem anxious, where do you need to go?” 

The man in the carriage then replied in a loud voice, “I need to go to the state of Chu.” The old man heard and laughing he smiled and said, “You are going the wrong way. The state of Chu is in the south, how come you are going to to the north?” 

“That’s alright,” The man in the carriage then said, “Can you not see? My horse runs very fast.” 

“Your horse is great, but your path is incorrect.” 

“It’s no problem, my carriage is new, it was made just last month.” 

“Your carriage is brand new, but this is not the road one takes to get to Chu.” 

“Old Uncle, you don’t know,” and the man in the carriage pointed to the suitcase in the back and said, “In that suitcase there’s alot of money. No matter how long the road is, I am not afraid.” 

“You have lots of money, but do not forget, The direction which you are going is wrong. I can see, you should go back the direction which you came from.” 

The man in the carriage heard this and irritated said, “I have already been traveling for ten days, how can you tell me to go back from where I came?” He then pointed at the carriage driver and said, “Take a look, he is very young, and he drives very well, you needn’t worry. Goodbye!” 

And then he told the driver to drive forward, and the horse ran even faster.

-- Chinese Tale

novembro 30, 2015

Spending the Inheritance

It’s very hard for people to realize just how incredibly stupid civilization has been. Building a modern society on finite resources and then failing to accept it’s finality or shortsightedness, let alone do anything about it has been suicidal. We’re committing speciescide of our own race. Worse, we destroyed the ecological base along the way where we obtain our sustenance.

The world is presently overpopulated by the billions. We obtained this surplus through sheer folly and shortsightedness, a.k.a “greed”. There is a valid reason why overpopulation of this magnitude never appeared in human history before. No other civilization before ours exploited the oil reserves that were tens of thousands of years in existence, predating all human life and converted them into agriculture and global transportation system.

But we did, and we built a overpopulated world that polluted, raped, destroyed it’s natural carrying capacity to such a degree that human life itself is now threatened. We became so accustomed to this temporary ‘abundance’ that we fooled ourselves into believing it would last forever. We were dead wrong.

Surviving the collapse will mean we must first stop lying to ourselves. And we must stop listening to the lies being spouted off by others. Neither the media nor the government will be honest enough to tell the truth, yet are making their own secret preparations without telling you. Ignoring the hype, false promises, “vaporware” and empty platitudes that everything is going to be ok is important. Everything is NOT OK and its past time we started acting like it was true. [link]

novembro 25, 2015

Rabbit Hole

"At bottom there are no things, and hence not even protons, quarks or strings, there are only structures. These structures generate patterns, and science is in the business of describing such patterns. At one level, the pattern can best be captured by talk of protons and electrons; at another level (i.e., for material science, and of course for our everyday experience) they are captured by objects like tables. Tables, then, are not illusions at all, at least no more than protons and electrons are illusions; rather, they are the most appropriate way to describe a certain stable pattern." Massimo Pagliucci

novembro 20, 2015

Private Belief and Public Knowledge

To believe incorrectly is never a crime, but simply to believe is never to have knowledge.

In other words, liberal science does not restrict belief, but it does restrict knowledge. It absolutely protects freedom of belief and speech, but it absolutely denies freedom of knowledge: in liberal science, there is positively no right to have one's opinions, however heartfelt, taken seriously as knowledge. Just the contrary: liberal science is nothing other than a selection process whose mission is to test beliefs and reject the ones that fail. A liberal intellectual regime says that if you want to believe the moon is made of green cheese , fine. But if you want your belief recognized as knowledge, there are things you must do. You must run your belief through the science game for checking. And if your belief is a loser, it will not be included in the science texts. It probably won't even be taken seriously by most respectable intellectuals. In a liberal society, knowledge - not belief  - is the rolling critical consensus of a decentralized community of checkers, and it is nothing else. That is so, not by the power of law, but by the deeper power of a common liberal morality.

Of course, if your belief is rejected by the critical consensus, you are free to reject the consensus and keep believing. That's freedom of belief. But you are not entitled to expect that your belief will be taught to schoolchildren or accepted by the intellectual establishment as knowledge. Any school curriculum is necessarily restrictive. It cannot not be restrictive. My point is that the right way to set a curriculum is to insist that it teach knowledge, and that this knowledge should consist only of claims which have been thoroughly checked by no person (or group) in particular. We should never teach anything as knowledge because it serves someone's political needs. We should teach only what has checked out.[...] academic freedom consists in freedom to doubt, to inquire, to check, and to believe as you like. It does not consist in the freedom of one party or another to reset the rules for inquiry or checking. Someone who wants to insist that the theory of relativity is false and that some other theory is true is, of course, entitled to do so; but passing laws or using intimidation to make teachers (or anyone else) take him seriously has nothing to do with the freedom to inquire. It has to do with the centralized regulation of knowledge. If the consensus of critical checkers holds that evolution checks out but creationism does not, and clearly it does hold this, then that is our knowledge on the subject.

And who decides what the critical consensus actually is? The critical society does, arguing about itself. That is why scholars spend so much time and energy "surveying the literature" (i.e., assessing the consensus so far). Then they argue about their assessments. The process is long and arduous, but there you are. Academic freedom would be trampled instead of advanced by, say, requiring that state financed universities put creationists on their biology faculties or give Afrocentrists rebuttal space in their journals. Wh n a state legislature or a curriculum committee or any other political body decrees that anything in particular is, or has equal claim to be, our knowledge, it wrests control over truth from the liberal community of checkers and places it in the hands of central political authorities. 

And that is illiberal. If the principle is ever established that political bodies can say what our knowledge is or is not, or which ideas are worth taking seriously, then watch out. Everyone with an opinion would be busy lobbying legislatures for equal-time laws, demanding that biology books describe prayer as an alternative treatment for cancer, picketing universities for astrology departments, suing journals for rebuttal space, demonstrating for proportionate representation in footnote citations. We would find ourselves in a world where knowledge was made by voting and agitating. Then we really would find ourselves living Bertrand Russell's nightmare, where "the lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in the minority." In that case, those of us who believe in science had better hope that we can persuade a majority and round up a quorum-and whether we can do so is not at all clear on issues like astrology.

One cannot overemphasize: intellectual liberalism is not intellectual majoritarianism or egalitarianism. You do not have a claim to knowledge either because 51 percent of the public agrees with you or because your "group" was historically left out; you have a claim to knowledge only to the extent that your opinion still stands up after prolonged exposure to withering public testing. Now, it is true that when we talk about knowledge's being a scientific consensus we are talking about a majority of scientists. But we are not talking about a mere majority. For a theory to go into a textbook as knowledge, it does not need the unanimity of checkers' assent, but it does need far more than a bare majority's. It should be generally recognized as having stood up better than any competitor to most of the tests that various critical debunkers have tried. [...] Because space and time in textbooks and classrooms are limited, each of those groups will make demands at the expense of others. And that is how creed wars begin. 

[...] only after an idea has survived checking is it deserving of respect. Not long ago, I heard an activist say at a public meeting that her opinion deserved at least respect. The audience gave her a big round of applause. But she and they had it backwards. Respect was the most, not the least, that she could have demanded for her opinion. Except insofar as an opinion earns its stripes in the science game, it is entitled to no respect whatever. This point matters, because respectability is the coin in which liberal science rewards ideas that are duly put up for checking and pass the test. You may not get rich by being shown to be right, you may not even become famous, and you almost certainly will not be loved; but you will be paid in the species of respectability. That is why it is so important that creationists and alien-watchers and radical Afrocentrists and white supremacists be granted every entitlement to speak but no entitlement to have their opinions respected. They should expect, if they scoff at the rules by which the game of science is played, to have their beliefs scoffed at; they should expect, if for any reason (in eluding minority status) they refuse to submit their ideas for checking by public criticism, that their opinions will be ignored or ridiculed - and rightly so. Respect is no opinion's birthright. People, yes, are entitled to a certain degree of basic respect by dint of being human. But to grant any such claim to ideas is to raid the treasury of science and throw its capital to the winds.

Let us remember, then, that the proposition "We must all respect others' beliefs" is nowhere near as innocent as it sounds. If it is enshrined in policies or practices giving "rights" to minority opinions, the damage it causes is immediate and severe. Liberal science cannot exert discipline if it cannot use its tool of marginalization to drive unsupported or bogus beliefs from the agenda. When you pass laws requiring equal time for somebody's excluded belief, you effectively make marginalization illegal. You say, "In our society, a belief is respectable - and will be taught and treated respectfully - if the politically powerful say it is." Once you have said that, you face a very stark choice. You can open the textbooks only to those "oppressed" beliefs whose proponents have political pull. Or you can take the principled egalitarian position, and open the books and the schools to all sincere beliefs. If you do the former, then you have replaced science with power politics. If you do the latter, then you have no principled choice but to teach, for example, "Holocaust revisionism" (the claim that the Holocaust didn't happen) as an "alternative theory" held by an "excluded minority"-which means, in practice, not teaching twentieth-century history at all. Either way, you have taken in hand silly and even execrable opinions and ushered them from the fringes of debate to the very center. At a single stroke, you have disabled liberal society's mechanism for marginalizing foolish ideas, and you have sent those ideas straight to the top of the social agenda with a safe-conduct.

Is the liberal standard for respectability fair? That, really, is the big question today. If you believe that a society is just only when it delivers more or less equal outcomes, you will think liberalism is unfair. You will insist on admitting everyone's belief into respectability as knowledge. Or at least you will insist on admitting the beliefs of people whom you regard as oppressed-affirmative action for knowledge. Personally, I cannot think of anything good about that kind of standard for knowledge. It is bound to lead to fights over who gets what. Groups will appoint leaders, and leaders will negotiate, and when negotiations break down schism or intellectual warfare will ensue; or if negotiations are successful, then certain beliefs will be locked in place by delicate compromise, and a knowledge-making system whose greatest virtue is its adaptiveness will turn sclerotic.

Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch

novembro 18, 2015

novembro 17, 2015

Allocation Practice

Democracy is an efficient method to allocate assent to available power holders. Capitalism is an efficient method to allocate resources to available uses. And Science is an efficient method to allocate truth to available hypothesis. They all have plenty of defects and need vigilance. But alternatives, like autocracy, communism, or mythical explanations have proven themselves to be much worse.

agosto 28, 2015

agosto 07, 2015

Bullshit is everywhere

 "Bullshit is everywhere.

There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been in some way infused with bullshit.

Not all of it bad; your general, day-to-day, organic free-range bullshit is often necessary, or at the very least innocuous. "Oh, what a beautiful baby! I'm sure it'll grow into that... head." That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social contract fertilizer, and keeps people from making each other cry all day. But then there's the more pernicious bullshit: your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshitocracy. It comes in three basic flavors.

One, making bad things sound like good things. "Organic, all-natural cupcakes." Because "factory-made sugar-oatmeal balls" doesn't sell. "PATRIOT Act." Because "are you scared enough to let me look at all your phone records act" doesn't sell. So whenever something's been titled "Freedom-Family-Fairness-Health-America," take a good long sniff. Chances are, it's been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit.

Number two: hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit. Complexity. "You know, I would love to download Drizzy's latest Meek Mill diss," (everyone promised me that made sense) "but I'm not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy's iTunes agreement. So I'll just click 'Agree.' Even if it grants Apple prima noctae with my spouse." Here's another one: simply put, banks shouldn't be able to bet your pension money on red. Bullshitly put: it's -- hey! this! Dodd-Frank. Hey, a handful of billionaires can't buy our elections, right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited anonymous cash into a 501(c)(4) if 50% is devoted to issue education. Otherwise, they'd have to 501(c)(6) it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign-coordinating SuperPAC, with a coordinating.... [stage whisper: I think they're asleep now. We can sneak out.]

And finally, it's the Bullshit of Infinite Possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the cover of unending inquiry. "We can't do anything, because we don't yet know everything! We cannot yet take action on climate change, until everyone in the world agrees gay marriage vaccines won't cause our children to marry goats who are gonna come for our guns. Until then, I say, teach the controversy!"

Now, the good news is this: Bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time. Like an I Spy of Bullshit. So I say to you, friends: The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something." John Stewart @ Daily Show

junho 18, 2015

Its from Bits

A distinction is often made between theories based upon explicit mechanisms of causation versus theories based upon statistical or other seemingly non-mechanistic assumptions. Evolution is a mechanistic theory in which the mechanism is selection and hereditability of traits acting in concert. In a nutshell, stressful forces upon organisms that differ genetically select those individuals possessing genes that confer on the individual and its offspring the greatest capacity to reproduce under those stresses. 

Consider next a statistical explanation of the observation that the heights of a large group of children in an age cohort are well described by a Gaussian (aka normal) distribution. Invocation of the central limit theorem (CLT) provides a statistical explanation; but the question remains as to why that theorem applies to this particular situation. The applicability of the theorem hinges on the assumption that each child’s height is an outcome of a sum of random influences on growth. So are we not also dealing here with a mechanistic explanation, with the mechanism being the collection of additive influences on growth that allow the applicability of the CLT? If the influences on growth were multiplicative rather than additive, we might witness a lognormal distribution. Is it possible that all scientific explanation is ultimately mechanistic? Let us look more carefully at the concept of mechanism in scientific explanation, for it is not straightforward.

In everyday usage, we say that phenomenon A is explained by a mechanism when we have identified some other phenomenon, B, that causes, and therefore explains, A. The causal influence of B upon A is a mechanism. However, what is accepted by one investigator as an explanatory mechanism might not be accepted as such by another. [...] Does the search for mechanism inevitably propel us into an infinite regress of explanations? Or can mechanism be a solid foundation for the ultimate goal of scientific theory-building? Consider two of the best established theories in science: quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics. Surprisingly, and despite their names, these theories are not actually based on mechanisms in the usual sense of that term. Physicists have attempted over past decades to find a mechanism that explains the quantum nature of things. This attempt has taken bizarre forms, such as assuming there is a background “aether” comprised of tiny things that bump into the electrons and other particles of matter, jostling them and creating indeterminancy. While an aether can be rigged in such a way as to simulate in matter the behavior predicted by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and some other features of the quantum world, all of these efforts have ultimately failed to produce a consistent mechanistic foundation for quantum mechanics. Similarly, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics are mechanism-less. Statistical arguments readily explain why the second law of thermodynamics works so well. In fact, it has been shown that information theory in the form of Maximum Entropy provides a fundamental theoretical foundation for thermodynamics.

If we pull the rug of mechanism out from under the feet of theory, what are we left with? The physicist John Archibald Wheeler posited the radical answer “its from bits,” by which he meant that information (bits)—and not conventional mechanisms in the form of interacting things moving around in space and time—is the foundation of the physical world (its). There is a strong form of “its from bits,” which in effect states that only bits exist, not its. More reasonable is a weaker form, which asserts that our knowledge of “its” derives from a theory of “bits.”

[...] Mechanistic explanations either lead to an infinite regress of mechanism within mechanism, or to mechanism-less theory, or perhaps to Wheeler’s world with its information-theoretic foundation. What is evident is that as we plunge deeply into the physical sciences, we see mechanism disappear. Yet equally problematic issues arise with statistical theories; we cannot avoid asking about the nature of the processes governing the system that allow a particular statistical theory to be applicable. In fact, when a statistical theory does reliably predict observed patterns, it is natural to seek an underlying set of mechanisms that made the theory work. And when the predictions fail, it is equally natural to examine the pattern of failure and ask whether some mechanism can be invoked to explain the failure. -- John Harte, Maximum Entropy and Ecology, pp.8--11

abril 22, 2015

Don't think of an elephant (2004)

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change. [...] Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense. Because language acti­vates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently. Pg .1

When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: Don't think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I've never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. [...]  This gives us a basic principle of framing, for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame-and it won't be the frame you want. Pg .3

Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary -- and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas. Pg.4

The myths began with the Enlightenment, and the first one goes like this: The truth will set us fee. If we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they'll all reach the right conclusions. But we know from cognitive science that people do not think like that. People think in frames. The strict father and nurturing parent frames each force a certain logic. To be accepted, the truth must fit people's frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce of. [...] Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid. That's what happens when progressives just "confront conservatives with the facts." It has little or no effect, unless the conservatives have a frame that makes sense of the facts. Pg.16,17

There is another myth that also comes from the Enlightenment, and it goes like this. It is irrational to go against your self-interest, and therefore a normal person, who is rational, reasons on the basis of self-interest. Modem economic theory and foreign policy are set up on the basis of that assumption. [...] This view of rationality comes into Democratic politics in a very important way. It is assumed that voters will vote their self­ interest. Democrats are shocked or puzzled when voters do not vote their self-interest. [...] People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with. They may identify with their self-interest. That can happen. It is not that people never care about their self-interest. But they vote their identity. And if their identity fits their self­ interest, they will vote for that. It is important to understand this point. It is a serious mistake to assume that people are simply always voting in their self-interest. Pg.18,19

Orwellian language points to weakness -- Orwellian weakness. When you hear Orwellian language, note where it is, because it is a guide to where they are vulnerable. They do not use it every where. It is very important to notice this, and use their weakness to your advantage.
A very good example relates to the environment. The right's language man is Frank Luntz, who puts out big books of language guidelines for conservatives only, which are used as training manuals for all conservative candidates, as well as lawyers, judges, and other public speakers -- even high school students who want to be conservative public figures. In these books, Luntz tells you what language to use. For example, in last year's edition, the section on global warming says that science seems increasingly to be going against the conservative position. However, conservatives can counter the science using right language. People who support environmentalist positions like certain words. They like the words healthy, clean, and safe because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, Luntz says, use the words healthy, clean, and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal plants or nuclear power plants. It is this kind of Orwellian weakness that causes a piece of legislation that actually increases pollution to be called the Clear Skies Act. Pg.22,23

But Luntz is about much more than language. He recognizes that the right use of language starts with ideas -- with the right framing of the issues, a framing that reflects a consistent conservative moral perspective, what we have called strict father morality. Luntz's book is not just about language. For each issue, he explains what the conservative reasoning is, what the progressive reasoning is, and how the progressive arguments can be best attacked from a conservative perspective. He is clear: Ideas come first. 
One of the major mistakes liberals make is that they think they have all the ideas they need. They think that all they lack is media access. Or maybe some magic bullet phrases, like partial­ birth abortion.
When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily. There's a way you can tell when you lack the right frames. There's a phenomenon you have probably noticed. A conservative on TV uses two words, like tax relief. And the progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion of his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase tax relief. But there is no established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there.
In cognitive science there is a name for this phenomenon. It's called hypocognition -- the lack of the ideas you need, the lack of a relatively simple fixed frame that can be evoked by a word or two. Pg.23,24

It is a general finding about frames that if a strongly held frame doesn't fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept. Pg.37

When conservatives speak of the "defense of marriage," liberals are baffled. After all, no individual's marriage is being threatened. It's just that more marriages are being allowed. But conservatives see the strict father family, and with it their political values, is under attack. They are right. This is a serious matter for their politics and moral values as a whole. Even civil unions are threatening, since they create families that cannot be traditional strict father families. Pg.48

We all have to put our ideas out there so that candidates can readily refer to them. For example, when there is a discussion in your office, church, or other group, there is a simple response for someone who says, "I don't think gays should be able to marry. Do you?" The response is: "I believe in equal rights, period. I don't think the state should be in the business of telling people who they can or can't marry. Marriage is about love and commitment, and denying lovers the right to marry is a violation of human dignity."  The media does not have to accept the right wing's frames. What can a reporter ask besides "Do you support gay marriage?" Try this: "Do you think the government should tell people who they can and can't marry?" Or "Do you think the freedom to marry who you want to is a matter of equal rights under the law?" Or "Do you see marriage as the realization of love in a lifetime commitment?" Or "Does it benefit society when two people who are in love want to make a public lifetime commitment to each other?" Reframing is everybody's job. Especially reporters'. [...] It is a duty of reporters not to accept this situation and simply use those rightwing frames that have come to seem natural. And it is the special duty of reporters to study framing and to learn to see through politically motivated frames, even if they have come to be accepted as everyday and commonplace. Pg.50,51

Most Islamic would-be martyrs not only share these beliefs but have also grown up in a culture of despair; they have nothing to lose, Eliminate such poverty and you eliminate the breeding ground for most terrorists -- though the September 11 terrorists were relatively well-to-do. When the Bush administration speaks of eliminating terror, it does not appear to be talking about eliminating cultures of despair and the social conditions that lead one to want to give up his life to martyrdom. Princeton Lyman of the Aspen Institute has made an important proposal -- that the worldwide antiterrorist coalition being formed should also address the causal real-world conditions. Country by country, the conditions (both material and political) leading to despair need to be addressed, with a worldwide commitment to ending them. It should be done because it is a necessary part of addressing the causes of terrorism-and because it is right! The coalition being formed should be made into a long-term global institution for this purpose. Pg.60

The idealistic claim of the Bush administration is they intend to wipe out all terrorism. What is not mentioned is that the United States has systematically promoted a terrorism of its own and has trained terrorists, from the contras to the mujahideen, the Honduran death squads, and the Indonesian military. Will the U.S. government stop training terrorists? Of course not. It will deny that it does so. Is this duplicity? Not in terms of conservative morality and its view of good versus evil and "lesser evils." If the administration's discourse offends us, we have a moral obligation to change public discourse! [Ghandi:] Be the change you want! If the United States wants terror to end, the United States must end its own contribution to terror. And we must also end terror sponsored not against the West but against others.  Pg.66

One of the central metaphors in our foreign policy is that a nation is a person. It is used hundreds of times a day, every time the nation of Iraq is conceptualized in terms of a single person, Saddam Hussein. The war, we are told, is not being waged against the Iraqi people, but only against this one person. Ordinary American citizens are using this metaphor when they say things like "Saddam is a tyrant. He must be stopped." What the metaphor hides, of course, is that the three thousand bombs to be dropped in the first two days will not be dropped on that one person. They will kill many thousands of people hidden by the metaphor, people that we are, according to the metaphor, not going to war against.  
The nation as a person metaphor is pervasive, powerful, and part of an elaborate metaphor system. It is part of an international community metaphor, in which there are friendly nations, hostile nations, rogue states, and so on. This metaphor comes with a notion of the national interest: Just as it is in the interest of a person to be healthy and strong, so it is in the interest of a nation-person to be economically healthy and militarily strong. That is what is meant by the "national interest." Pg.69

One of the most frequent uses of the nation as a person metaphor comes in the almost daily attempts to justify the war metaphorically as a "just war." The basic idea of a just war uses the nation as a person metaphor, plus two narratives that have the structure of classical fairy tales: the self-defense story and the rescue story.
In each story there is a hero, a crime, a victim, and a villain. In the self-defense story the hero and the victim are the same. In both stories the villain is inherently evil and irrational: The hero can't reason with the villain; he has to fight him and defeat or kill him. In both, the victim must be innocent and beyond reproach. In both, there is an initial crime by the villain, and the hero balances the moral books by defeating him. If all the parties are nation-persons, then self-defense and rescue stories become forms of a just war for the hero-nation. Pg.71

Framing is normal. Every sentence we say is framed in some way. When we say what we believe, we are using frames that we think are relatively accurate. When a conservative uses the "tax relief' frame, chances are that he or she really believes that taxation is an
affliction. However, frames can also be used manipulatively. The use, for example, of "Clear Skies Act" to name an act that increases air pollution is a manipulative frame. And it's used to cover up a weakness that conservatives have, namely that the public doesn't like legislation that increases air pollution, and so they give it a name that conveys the opposite frame. That's pure manipulation.
Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it's an attempt to put an innocent frame on it-that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good. 
Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control. Pg.100

If you remember nothing else about framing, remember this: Once your frame is accepted into the discourse, everything you say is just common sense. Why? Because that's what common sense is: reasoning within a commonplace, accepted frame. Pg.115

Never answer a question framed from your opponent's point of view. Always reframe the question to fit your values and your frames. This may make you uncomfortable, since normal discourse styles require you to directly answer questions posed. That is a trap. Practice changing frames. Pg.116

George Lakoff - Don't think of an elephant

abril 16, 2015


Não confio em ninguém, não me consigo prender a ninguém, tenho medo de voltar a sofrer. É um mal moderno desde que Flaubert escreveu a Bovary. Confundimos a relação com a situação. Gostarias que os deuses te passassem uma declaração abonatória, mas eles não vão nisso. A escolha é entre a alegria antes da decepção (por morte ou abandono) e a certeza do calendário.
Filipe Nunes Vicente link

fevereiro 14, 2015

Franklin -- The Science of Conjecture

[About witch trials] I have my ears battered with a thousand such flim-flams as these: "Three persons saw him such a day in the east; three, the next day in the west; at such a hour, in such a place, in such habit"; in earnest, I should not believe myself. How much more natural and likely do I find it that two men should lie, than that one man in twelve hours' time should fly with the wind from east to west? How much more natural that our understanding should be carried from its place by the volubility of our disordered minds, than that one of us should be carried by a strange spirit upon a broomstick, flesh and bones that we are, up the shaft of a chimney? Let us not seek illusions from without and unknown, we who are perpetually agitated with illusions domestic and our own. Methinks one is pardonable in disbelieving a miracle, at least, at all events where one can allude its verification as such, by means not miraculous; and I am of St. Augustine's opinion, that "tis better to lean towards doubt than assurance, in things hard to prove and dangerous to believe." ... It is true, indeed, that the proofs and reasons that are founded upon experience and fact, I do not go to untie, neither have they any end; I often cut them, as Alexander did the Gordian knot. After all, 'tis setting a man's conjectures at a very high price, upon them to cause a man to be roasted alive. -- Montaigne, Essays 3 chp.11.

The story of the decline of Science in the West and its survival in the East is a familiar one. The twelfth century saw the reappearance in Western Europe of the scientific point of view on the world and the recovery, translation, and assimilation of all the main ancient scientific texts. What the later Middle Ages made of their scientific legacy is, by common consent, less impressive than their achievements in such files as philosophy, theology, and law. The long debate of why the scientific revolution did not take place before it did is not subject to conclusive resolution, but there is a wide support for the view that the Scholastic method, relying too much on conceptual and textual analysis, failed to devote enough attention to experiment and measurement and their relation to theory. Nevertheless, there are areas of science in which purely conceptual work is entirely appropriate, namely the more mathematical sciences, and it is there that medieval science is strongest. Optics and astronomy, in particular, were regarded as actually part of mathematics and were central to both teaching and research. (p.140)

It is in [Nicole] Oresme's mathematical works that we must look for a full treatment of his ideas on probability [...] a passage connects relative frequency ideas with symmetric notions of insufficient reason. He divides the possible into three. "Either it is equally possible, or it is improbable, or it is probable. An example of the first way: The number of stars is even; the number of stars is odd. One is necessary, the other impossible. However, we have doubts as to which is necessary, so that we say of each that it is possible... sometimes in such cases we have no reason for one part; and sometimes we do have a reason, and then it is called a 'problem'... An example of the second way: The number of stars is a cube. Now indeed, we say that it is possible but not, however, probable or credible or likely (probabile aut opinabile aut verisimile), since such numbers are much fewer than others." (pg.141-2)

The frequently repeated tale that the fragments of the True Cross would have added up to a whole forest appears to be a modern myth. Indeed, it is only one of a cluster of widely credited myths about the Middle Ages (in the Middle Ages it was believed the earth is flat; lords enjoyed droit de seigneur over peasant women; the Scholastic debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin), raising questions about which age is really the more credulous. (p.181)

Since the time of Democritus, one of the chief irritants producing the pearl of philosophy has been the challenge of skepticism, the worry that false sense impressions are sometimes indistinguishable from true ones. The experience of illusions of perception is familiar -- the oar that appears bent in water, the tower that appears round from a distance but square nearby. As Aristotle explains, "Which, then, of these impressions are true and which are false are not obvious, for the one set is no more true than the other, but both are alike." [...] This symmetry argument is the driving force behind skepticism. (p.196)

[About the book On Signs by the Epicurean Philodemus] The work describes the debate between Stoics and Epicureans over, essentially, the problem of induction, or the inference to general facts from observations. To infer "All men are mortal" from "All observed men are mortal" requires, according to the Stoics, following Aristotle, rational insight into the nature of man. The Epicureans maintain that there are no such rational insights into natures and that one can only make the inference from suitable repeated and suitably checked experiences. The debate is in principle the same as the modern one about whether inductive argument needs laws of nature and a uniformity of nature principle, or whether it is a purely statistical procedure like arguing from sample to population. (p.201)

Earlier Scholastic thought made some attempt to grapple with the problem of why a astronomical theory's agreeing with the observations should be a reason for believing it and whether the belief should amount to certainty or not. Kepler tried to find something in common between the Copernican and Ptolemaic theories, which would account for the appearances and thus explain why they made the same predictions, although one was right and one was wrong about the underlying causes. But Descartes is asserting something over and above a simple recommendation of inference to the best explanation. He asserts that there is no need to find the true underlying model to make the correct prediction. It is the first clear statement of the dream of modern statistical inference: to make true predictions independently of difficult inquiry into inner causes. The modern economic modeling that attempts to forecast unemployment, interest rates, and so on without any commitment to grand economic theories is a continuation of Descartes' project. (p.221)

Ockham is now best known for the principle of economy in reasoning known as Ockham's Razor. This is a misnomer for two reasons. First he did not originate it; there is the inevitable origin in Aristotle. The phrase "We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible" is in Ptolemy. Formulations like "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer" and "A plurality is not to be posited without necessity" are Scholastic commonplaces from the early thirteenth century. Second, though he does repeat these ideas frequently, Ockham's contribution is more to restrict the operation of the principle, in the interests of God's absolute power: "God does many things by means of more which He could have done by means of fewer, simply because He wishes it, and no other cause is to be sought. From the very fact that Ge wishes it, it is done suitably, and not in vain." In the Eucharist, especially, Ockham holds that a plurality of miracles is to be postulated, simply because that pleases God. (p.241)

Serious mathematical thought on the subject [dice], however, needs a sufficiently numerical culture. Such a culture became established in fourteenth-century Italy, which was responsible for a number of the crucial steps in creating a tradition of skill in applied numerical calculation. It was the scene of many of the first mechanical public clocks, for example, of the invention of double-entry bookkeeping and, as we saw, of insurance. Especially notable is the discovery of the correct means of predicting the future numerically, tables of compound interest. As experience was gain with numbers, it was realized that calculation was not an intellectual feat reserved for thinkers of genius but (using Arabic numerals with a zero) could be reduced to simple rules and taught to children. These rules - modern-day primary school arithmetics - were taught (in Italy) to merchant's sons in the commercial arithmetic schools of the Italian city-states. The better teachers in these schools went further, developing much of the modern high school mathematics, in particular algebra, in the sense of problem solving using the manipulation of unknown numbers represented by letters. As with modern textbook authors on algebra, the Italian writers had the custom of illustrating their techniques in a number of unrealistic 'real life' examples to which the techniques 'apply'. Simple number problems arising from dice occasionally make an appearance. (p.292ff)

That the vast majority of probabilistic inferences are unconscious is obvious from observing animals, for it is not just the human environment that is uncertain but the animal one in general. To find a mechanism capable of performing probabilistic inference (as distinct from talking about it), one need look no further than the brain of the rat, which generates behavior acutely sensitive to small changes in the probability of the results of that behavior. Naturally so, since the life on animals is a constant balance between coping adequately with risk or dying. [...] Some further light on what the brain does is cast by simple artificial neural nets, whose behavior after training on noisy data can be interpreted as implicit estimates of probabilities. These animals and machines studies confirm in the most direct way that, to behave probabilistically, it is not necessary to have anything like explicit estimates of probabilities or ways of talking about them. (p.324)

The influence of Aristotle on the development of thought, though widely recognized, is underrated. We are all in his orbit. ("Aristotle's works are full of platitudes in much the same way as Shakespeare's Hamlet is full of quotations") Everything is in Aristotle's somewhere - at least in potency but often in actuality. And the reason we underrate his contributions is, of course, precisely that it has become platitudinous: we forget about it, for the same reason that we forget the air we breathe. Anything that has become background, or context, or tradition is no longer salient, sometimes no longer represented symbolically at all. The Meno theory really is true of what we have learn from Aristotle: we have forgotten that we learned it, but it is still there, waiting to surprise us when we are induced to remember it. But there is another reason that we do not notice our Aristotelianism. Aristotle is a philosopher with more respect than most for 'what seems so to all, or to most, or to the wise'. His philosophy has none of the paradoxes repugnant to common sense that render the thought of other 'great philosophers' so memorable. (p.344)

From around 1770, English law adopted the phrase 'proof beyond reasonable doubt' (originally defined as equivalent to 'moral certainty') for the standard of proof required in a criminal case. But the status of the rule caused confusion. Even when the rule was believed to be understood, no number became attached to it. Instead, attempts to explain it have been purely linguistic, as in the 1947 case of Miller v. Minister for Pensions, in which Lord Denning declared that in a criminal charge, "that degree is well settled. It need not reach a certainty, but it must carry a high degree of probability. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond the shadow of a doubt. The law would fail to protect the community if it admitted fanciful possibilities to deflect the course of justice. If the evidence is so strong against a man as to leave only a remote possibility in his favor, which can be dismissed with the sentence, 'of course it is possible but not in the least probable', the case is proved beyond reasonable doubt, but nothing short of that will suffice." (p.366)

dezembro 30, 2014

"setting a man's conjectures at a very high price"

[About witch trials] I have my ears battered with a thousand such flim-flams as these: "Three persons saw him such a day in the east; three, the next day in the west; at such a hour, in such a place, in such habit"; in earnest, I should not believe myself. How much more natural and likely do I find it that two men should lie, than that one man in twelve hours' time should fly with the wind from east to west? How much more natural that our understanding should be carried from its place by the volubility of our disordered minds, than that one of us should be carried by a strange spirit upon a broomstick, flesh and bones that we are, up the shaft of a chimney? Let us not seek illusions from without and unknown, we who are perpetually agitated with illusions domestic and our own. Methinks one is pardonable in disbelieving a miracle, at least, at all events where one can allude its verification as such, by means not miraculous; and I am of St. Augustine's opinion, that "tis better to lean towards doubt than assurance, in things hard to prove and dangerous to believe." ... It is true, indeed, that the proofs and reasons that are founded upon experience and fact, I do not go to untie, neither have they any end; I often cut them, as Alexander did the Gordian knot. After all, 'tis setting a man's conjectures at a very high price, upon them to cause a man to be roasted alive. -- Montaigne, Essays 3 chp.11.

dezembro 21, 2014

Georgescu-Roegen - The Entropy Law & the Economic Process (1973)

[M]y point is not that arithmetization of science is undesirable. 'Whenever arithmetization can be worked out, its merits are above all words of praise. My polnt is that wholesale arithmetization is impossible, that there is valid knowledge even without arithmetization, and that mock arithmetization is dangerous if peddled as genuine. Let us also note that arithmetization alone does not warrant that a theoretical edifice is apt and suitable. As evidenced by chemistry -- a science in which most attributes are quantifiable, hence, arithmomorphic -- novelty by combination constitutes an even greater blow to the creed "no science without theory." (p.15)

The verdict is indisputable: no social science can subserve the art of government as efficaciously as physics does the art of space travel, for example. Nevertheless, some social scientists simply refuse to reconcile themselves to this verdict and, apparently in despair, have come out with a curious proposal: to devise means which will compel people to behave the way "we" want, so that "our" predictions will always come true. The project, in which we recognize the continual striving for a ''rational" society beginning with Plato's, cannot succeed (not even under physical coercion, for a long time) simply because of its blatant petitio principii: the first prerequisite of any plan is that the behavior of the material involved should be completely predictable, at least for some appreciable period. But aggressive scholarship will never run out of new plans for the "betterment of mankind." Since the difficulties of making an old society behave as we want it can no longer be concealed, why not produce a new society according to our own "rational" plans? (p.16)

It is fashionable nowadays to indulge in estimating how large a population our earth can support. Some estimates are as low as five billions, others as high as forty-five billions. However, given the entropic nature of the economic process by which the human species maintains itself, this is not the proper way to look at the problem of population. Perhaps the earth can support even forty-five billion people, but certainly not ad infinitum. We should therefore ask "how long can the earth maintain a population of forty-five billion people?'' And if the answer is, say, one thousand years, we still have to ask "what will happen thereafter?" All this shows that even the concept of optimum population conceived as an ecologically determined coordinate has only an artificial value. [...] Man's natural dowry, as we all know, consists of two essentially distinct elements: (1) the stock of low entropy on or within the globe, and (2) the flow of solar energy, which slowly but steadily diminishes in intensity with the entropic degradation of the sun. But the crucial point for the population problem as well as for any reasonable speculations about the future exosomatic evolution of mankind is the relative importance of these two elements, For, as surprising as it may seem, the entire stock of natural resources is not worth more than a few days of sunlight! [...] In a different way than in the past, man will have to return to the idea that his existence is a free gift of the sun. (p.20ff)

Anatomically, theoretical science is logically ordered knowledge. A mere catalog of facts, as we say nowadays, is no more science than the materials in a lumber yard are a house. Physiologically, it is a continuous secretion of experimental suggestions which are tested and organically integrated into the science's anatomy. In other words, theoretical science continuously creates new facts from old facts, but its growth is organic, not accretionary. Its anabolism is an extremely complex process which at times may even alter the anatomic structure. We call this process "explanation" even when we cry out "science does not explain anything." Teleologically, theoretical science is an organism in search of new knowledge. (p.37)

There can be no doubt that the decumulation of a machine is not a mechanical spreading in time of the machine as is the case with the stock of provisions of an explorer, for instance. When we "decumulate" a machine we do not separate it into pieces and use the pieces one after another as inputs until all parts are consumed. Instead, the machine is used over and over again in a temporal sequence of tasks until it becomes waste and has to be thrown away. A machine is a material stock, to be sure, but not in the sense the word has in "a stock of coal." If we insist on retaining the word, we may say that a machine is a stock of services (uses). But a more discriminating (and hence safer) way of describing a machine is to say that it is a fund of services

The difference between the concept of stock and that of fund should be carefully marked, lest the hard facts of economic life be distorted at everyone's expense. If the count shows that a box contains twenty candies, we can make twenty youngsters happy now or tomorrow, or some today and others tomorrow, and so on. But if an engineer tells us that one hotel room will probably last one thousand days more, we cannot make one thousand roomless tourists happy now. We can only make one happy today, a second tomorrow, and so on, until the room collapses. [...] The use of a fund (i.e., its "decumulation") requires a duration. Moreover, this duration is determined within very narrow limits by the physical structure of the fund. We can vary it only little, if at all. If one wishes to "decumulate" a pair of shoes, there is only one way open to him: to walk until they become waste (of course, one may sell the shoes. But this would mean decumulation of the shoes as a stock not decumulation of the shoes as a fund of services.) In contrast with this, the decumulation of a stock may, conceivably take place in one single instant, if we wish so. And to put the dots on all significant i's, let us also observe that the "accumulation" of a fund too, differs from the accumulation of a stock. A machine does not come into existence by the accumulation of the services it provides as a fund: it is not obtained by storing these services one after another as one stores winter provisions in the cellar. Services cannot be accumulated as the dollars in a saving account or the stamps in a collection can. They can only be used or wasted.

Nothing more need be said to prove that also the use of the term "flow" in connection with the services of a fund is improper if "flow" is defined as a stock spread over time. In fact, the generally used expression "the flow of services" tends to blur -- at times, it has blurred -- the important differences between two mechanisms, that by which the prices of services and that by which the prices of material objects are determined. The inevitable trap of this ambiguous use of "flow" is that, because a flow can be stored up, we find it perfectly normal to reason that services are "embodied" in the product. Only the materials that flow into a production process can be embodied in the product. The services of the tailor's needle, for example, cannot possibly be embodied in the coat -- and if one finds the needle itself embodied there it is certainly a regrettable accident. The fact that in certain circumstances the value of services passes into the value of the product is to be explained otherwise than by simply regarding a machine as a stock of services that are shifted one after another into the product. 

The difference between flow and service is so fundamental that it separates even the dimensionalities of the two concepts. For this reason alone, physicists would not have tolerated the confusion for long. The amount of a flow is expressed in units appropriate to substances (in the broad sense) -- say pounds, quarts, feet, etc. The rate of flow, on the other hand, has a mixed dimensionality, (substance)/(time). The situation is entirely reversed in the case of services. The amount of services has a mixed dimensionality in which time enters as a factor, (substance) x (time). If a plant uses one hundred workers during a working day (eight hours), the total of the services employed is eight hundred man x hour. If by analogy with the rate of flow we would like to determine the ratio of service for the same situation, by simple algebra the answer is that this rate is one hundred men, period. The rate of service is simply the size of the fund that provides the service and consequently is expressed in elemental units in which the time factor does not intervene. (p.226ff)

A leading symptom is that purists maintain that thermodynamics is not a legitimate chapter of physics. Pure science, they say, must abide to the dogma that natural laws are independent of man's own nature, whereas thermodynamics smacks of anthropomorphism. And that it does so smack is beyond question. But the idea that man can think of nature in wholly nonanthropomorphic terms is a patent contradiction in terms. Actually, force, attraction, waves, particles, and, especially, interpreted equations, all are man-made notions. Nevertheless, in the case of thermodynamics the purist viewpoint is not entirely baseless: of all physical concepts only those of thermodynamics have their roots in economic value and, hence, could make absolutely no sense to a nonanthropomorphic intellect.

A nonanthropomorphic mind could not possibly understand the concept of order-entropy which, as we have seen, cannot be divorced from the intuitive grasping of human purposes. For the same reason such a mind could not conceive why we distinguish between free and latent energy, should it see the difference at all. All it could perceive is that energy shifts around without increasing or decreasing. It may object that even we, the humans, cannot distinguish between free and latent energy at the level of a single particle where normally all concepts ought to be initially elucidated.

No doubt, the only reason why thermodynamics initially differentiated between the heat contained in the ocean waters and that inside a ship's furnace is that we can use the latter but not the former. But the kinship between economics and thermodynamics is more intimate than that. Apt though we are to lose sight of the fact, the primary objective of economic activity is the self-preservation of the human species. Self-preservation in turn requires the satisfaction of some basic needs-which are nevertheless subject to evolution. The almost fabulous comfort, let alone the extravagant luxury, attained by many past and present societies has caused us to forget the most elementary fact of economic life, namely, that of all necessaries for life only the purely biological ones are absolutely indispensable for survival. The poor have had no reason to forget it. And since biological life feeds on low entropy, we come across the first important indication of the connection between low entropy and economic value. For I see no reason why one root of economic value existing at the time when mankind was able to satisfy hardly any non biological need should have dried out later on.

Casual observation suffices now to prove that our whole economic life feeds on low entropy, to wit, cloth, lumber, china, copper, etc., all of which are highly ordered structures. But this discovery should not surprise us. It is the natural consequence of the fact that thermodynamics developed from an economic problem and consequently could not avoid defining order so as to distinguish between, say, a piece of electrolytic copper -- which is useful to us -- and the same copper molecules when diffused so as to be of no use to us. We may then take it as a brute fact that low entropy is a necessary condition for a thing to be useful. (p.277ff)

The corresponding symptoms in analytical studies are even more definite. First, there is the general practice of representing the material side of the economic process by a closed system, that is, by a mathematical model in which the continuous inflow of low entropy from the environment is completely ignored. But even this symptom of modern econometrics was preceded by a more common one: the notion that the economic process is wholly circular. Special terms such as roundabout process or circular flow have been coined in order to adapt the economic jargon to this view. One need only thumb through an ordinary textbook to come across the typical diagram by which its author seeks to impress upon the mind of the student the circularity of the economic process.

The mechanistic epistemology, to which analytical economics has clung ever since its birth, is solely responsible for the conception of the economic process as a closed system or circular flow. As I hope to have shown by the argument developed in this essay, no other conception could be further from a correct interpretation of facts. Even if only the physical facet of the economic process is taken into consideration, this process is not circular, but unidirectional. As far as this facet alone is concerned, the economic process consists of a continuous transformation of low entropy into high entropy, that is, into irrevocable waste or, with a topical term, into pollution. The identity of this formula with that proposed by Schrödinger for the biological process of a living cell or organism vindicates those economists who, like Marshall, have been fond of biological analogies and have even contended that economics "is a branch of biology broadly interpreted.". The conclusion is that, from the purely physical viewpoint, the economic process is entropic: it neither creates nor consumes matter or energy, but only transforms low into high entropy. (p.281)

Low entropy is a necessary condition for a thing to have value. This condition, however, is not also sufficient. The relation between economic value and low entropy is of the same type as that between price and economic value. Although nothing could have a price without having an economic value, things may have an economic value and yet no price. For the parallelism, it suffices to mention the case of poisonous mushrooms which, although they contain low entropy, have no economic value. (p.282)

we cannot mine the stock of solar energy at a rate to suit our desires of the moment. We can use only that part of the sun's energy that reaches the globe at the rate determined by its position in the solar system. With the stocks of low entropy in the earth's crust we may be impatient and, as a result, we may be impatient-as indeed we are with their transformation into commodities that satisfy some of the most extravagant human wants. But not so with the stock of sun's energy. Agriculture teaches, nay, obliges man to be patient-a reason why peasants have a philosophical attitude in life pronouncedly different from that of industrial communities. (p.297)

In a broad perspective we may say that mankind disposes of two sources of wealth: first, the finite stock of mineral resources in the earth's crust which within certain limits we can decumulate into a flow almost at will, and second, a flow of solar radiation the rate of which is not subject to our control. In terms of low entropy, the stock of mineral resources is only a very small fraction of the solar energy received by the globe within a single year. More precisely, the highest estimate of terrestrial energy resources does not exceed the amount of free energy received from the sun during four days! [...] because the low entropy received from the sun cannot be converted into matter in bulk, it is not the sun's finite stock of energy that sets a limit to how long the human species may survive. Instead, it is the meager stock of the earth's resources that constitutes the crucial scarcity. Let S be this stock and r the average rate at which it may be decumulated. Clearly, S = r x t, where t stands for the corresponding duration of the human species. This elementary formula shows that the quicker we decide to decumulate S, the shorter is t. Now, r may increase for two reasons. First, the population may increase. Second, for the same size of population we may speed up the decumulation of the natural resources for satisfying man-made wants, usually extravagant wants.

The conclusion is straightforward. If we stampede over details, we can say that every baby born now means one human life less in the future. But also every Cadillac produced at any time means fewer lives in the future. Up to this day, the price of technological progress has meant a shift from the more abundant source of low entropy-the solar radiation to the less abundant one--the earth's mineral resources. True, without this progress some of these resources would not have come to have any economic value. But this point does not make the balance outlined here less pertinent. Population pressure and technological progress bring ceteris paribus the career of the human species nearer to its end only because both factors cause a speedier decumulation of its dowry. The sun will continue to shine on the earth, perhaps, almost as bright as today even after the extinction of mankind and will feed with low entropy other species, those with no ambition whatsoever. For we must not doubt that, man's nature being what it is, the destiny of the human species is to choose a truly great but brief, not a long and dull, career.

"Civilization is the economy of power [low entropy]," as Justus von Liebig said long ago, but the word economy must be understood as applying rather to the problems of the moment, not to the entire life span of mankind. Confronted, in the distant future, with the impending exhaustion of mineral resources (which caused Jevons to become alarmed about the coal reserves), mankind -- one might try to reassure us -- will retrace its steps. The thought ignores that, evolution being irrevocable, steps cannot be retraced in history. (p.303ff)

[T]he usual denunciation of standard economics on the sole ground that it treats of "imaginary individuals coming to imaginary markets with ready-made scales of bid and offer prices" is patently inept. Abstraction, even if it ignores Change, is "no exclusive privilegium odiosum" of the economic science, for abstraction is the most valuable ladder of any science. In social sciences, as Marx forcefully argued, it is all the more indispensable since there "the force of abstraction" must compensate for the impossibility of using microscopes or chemical reactions. However, the task of science is not to climb up the easiest ladder and remain there forever distilling and redistilling the same pure stuff. Standard economics, by opposing any suggestion that the economic process may consist of something more than a jigsaw puzzle with all its elements given, has identified itself with dogmatism. And this is a privilegium odiosum that has dwarfed the understanding of the economic process wherever it has been exercised. (p.319)

The question is why a science interested in economic means, ends, and distribution should dogmatically refuse to study also the process by which new economic means, new economic ends, and new economic relations are created. (p.320)

[T]he immense satisfaction which Understanding derives from arithmomorphic models should not mislead us into believing that their other roles too are the same in both social and natural sciences. In physics a model is also "a calculating device, from which we may compute the answer to any question regarding the physical behavior of the corresponding physical system." [Bridgman, The Nature of Physical Theory] The same is true for the models of engineering economics. The specific role of a physical model is better described by remarking that such a model represents an accurate blueprint of a particular sector of physical reality. But [...] an economic model is not an accurate blueprint but an analytical simile. Economists are fond of arguing that since no model, whether in physics or economics, is accurate in an absolute sense we can only choose between a more and a less accurate model. Some point out also that after all how accurate we need to be depends on our immediate purpose: at times the less accurate model may be the more rational one to use. All this is perfectly true, but it does not support the further contention -- explicitly stated by Pareto -- that it is irrelevant to point out the inaccuracy of economic models. Such a position ignores an important detail, namely, that in physics a model must be accurate in relation to the sharpest measuring instrument existing at the time. If it is not, the model is discarded. Hence, there is an objective sense in which we can say that a physical model is accurate, and this is the sense in which the word is used in" accurate blueprint." In social sciences, however, there is no such objective standard of accuracy. Consequently, there is no acid test for the validity of an economic model. And it is of no avail to echo Aristotle, who taught that a model is "adequate if it achieves that degree of accuracy which belongs to its subject matter." One may always proclaim that his model has the proper degree of accuracy. Besides, the factors responsible for the absence of an objective standard of accuracy also render the comparison of accuracy a thorny problem. (pg.332ff)

From the deterministic viewpoint, the notion of "rational behavior" is completely idle. Given his tastes, his inclinations, and his temperament, the person who smokes in spite of the warning that "smoking may be hazardous to your health" acts from a definite ground and, hence, cannot be taxed as irrational. And if we accept the conclusions biologists have derived from the study of identical twins, that every man's behavior is largely determined by his genotype, then criminals and warmongers are just as "rational" as the loving and peaceful people. But for a determinist even nurture (whether ecological, biotic, or cultural) cannot be otherwise than what it is: together with nature, nurture holds the individual in a predetermined and unrelenting grip. This is probably why, when a social scientist speaks of irrational behavior, he generally refers to a normative criterion. Take the villagers in some parts of the world who for the annual festival kill practically all the pigs in the village. They are irrational-we say-not only because they kill more pigs than they could eat at one feast but also because they have to starve for twelve months thereafter. My contention is that it is well-nigh impossible to name a behavior (of man or any other living creature) that would not be irrational according to some normative criterion. This is precisely why to an American farmer the behavior of a Filipino peasant seems irrational. But so does the behavior of the former appear to the latter. The two live in different ecological niches and each has a different Weltanschauung. The student of man should know better than to side with one behavior or another. The most he can do is to admit that the two behaviors are different, search for the reasons that may account for the differences, and assess the consequences. (p.345ff)

Like the social insects, man lives in society, produces socially and distributes the social product among his fellows. But, unlike the social insects, man is not born with an endosomatic code capable of regulating both his biological life and his social activity. And since he needs a code for guiding his complex social activity in a tolerable manner, man has had to produce it himself. This product is what we call tradition. By tradition man compensates for his "birth defect," for his deficiency of innate social instincts. So, man is born with an endosomatic (biological) code but within an exosomatic (social) one. It is because of the endosomatic code that a Chinese, for example, has slanted eyes and straight hair. It is because of the exosomatic code that a Filipino peasant cultivates his fields in the manner all Filipino peasants do, participates in the extravagant festivals held by his village at definite calendar dates, and so on. A biological process sees to it that the pool of genes is transmitted from one generation to another. Tradition does the same for what we call "values" or, more appropriately, "institutions," i.e., the modes by which every man acts inside his own community. (p.359)