January 13, 2005

Posner on the Two Misconceptions of Law Students

Judge Posner writes
I can't resist responding to the two commenters who asked me to identify the principal misconceptions of first-year law students. There are two, and they are closely related. The first is the idea that the law exists somewhere, in a book presumably (or, to be modern, in an electronic database), and that what you learn in law school is how to find the book, and that what law professors do, to justify making you sit in class for three years, is hide the book from you. The second misconception is that legal reasoning is something special , subtle, esoteric, which will enable you once you have learned it to answer a question in a way that would make no sense to a lay person. In other words--and this is what joins the misconceptions--law is a mystery.

Permalink: 03:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 01, 2005

Aquinas on Science; Intelligent Design, Religion, and Evolution; Geology

Over at Transterrestrial a comment-blog debate on Intelligent Design and What is Science has been going on. We have that debate at the Indiana Law and Econ Lunch every now and then. I just came across an interesting snippet from Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica which is relevant. In Question 32, Article 1 he is discussing his claim that existence of the Trinity, unlike that of God, cannot be proved philosophically:
Therefore, we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible. Hence it is said by Dionysius (Div. Nom. ii): "Whoever wholly resists the word, is far off from our philosophy; whereas if he regards the truth of the word"---i.e. "the sacred word, we too follow this rule."...

Reply to Objection 2: Reason may be employed in two ways to establish a point: firstly, for the purpose of furnishing sufficient proof of some principle, as in natural science, where sufficient proof can be brought to show that the movement of the heavens is always of uniform velocity. Reason is employed in another way, not as furnishing a sufficient proof of a principle, but as confirming an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results, as in astrology the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established, because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them. In the first way, we can prove that God is one; and the like. In the second way, reasons avail to prove the Trinity; as, when assumed to be true, such reasons confirm it. We must not, however, think that the trinity of persons is adequately proved by such reasons....

Aquinas seems to be distinguishing between proof of facts (that the stars move across the sky at constant velocity) and proof that a theory conforms to the facts and is self-consistent (that planetary movements can be explained by epicycles). The epicycle example is especially apt because it has now been discarded, in favor of a theory of elliptical orbits (and a central sun) that is simpler and expains more facts.

Applied to Intelligent Design: If you already believe in God based on other evidence, then Intelligent Design is an easy way to make the theory of evolution fit with facts such as extreme complexity and nondiscovery of intermediate species. If you do not believe in God already, then Intelligent Design still works to make evolution fit with the facts, but it is less satisfactory because it requires the introduction of a major new force, God.

The "Intelligent Design is not science" objections are (1) we cannot think of ways that the Intelligent Design could be disproved and (2) Intelligent Design theory is empty because it does not make any new predictions. Perhaps these are the same objection, really.

Intelligent Design could be disproved, in a sense, by the disappearance of the need for it. If it turns out that it is not so hard to create life from chemicals, evolve the Krebs Cycle, and so forth, and if we find intermediate species for most evolutionary ladders, then while Intelligent Design has not been shown to fail to explain the facts, it has been shown to be unnecessary. That is enough to kill a theory.

Note, by the way, that Standard Evolution is subject to the same criticism. Darwin predicted that although in his day there were lots of gaps in the fossil record, missing intermediate species, those gaps would be filled. That was a reasonable prediction. It has largely failed, though. This does not kill Evolution as a theory, because there is a good fallback: conditions have to be just right for fossils to be created, and also if evolution occurs in spurts during times of crisis (e.g., after a meteor wipes out most of life) fossils might not be created. Standard Evolution becomes a weaker theory the longer no intermediate species are discovered, but it can never be shown to be inconsistent with the facts.

I have not looked into it deeply, but I find Intelligent Design very appealing. Since I believe in God already, it adds no extra forces to complicate the world. In fact, since I believe in both God and evolution, it helps a lot. Intelligent Design supports Evolution, and Evolution supports Christianity.

Intelligent Design supports Evolution because it solves problems such as complexity and missing intermediate species. Adding divine intervention, the objections of the Fundamentalists can be answered easily.

Evolution supports Christianity because it solves the problems of the age of the Earth and the wastefulness of extinct species. Sound geological evidence tells us that the Universe is billions of years old and that many species went extinct well before Man appeared. Why would God create such a Universe, which wastes almost its entire history? Evolution says that if God wished to use natural processes, with just a touch of divine intervention, then the Universe must be very old and many species must go extinct.

I do not understand why Evolution has attracted such opposition from Fundamentalists, by the way. Even for someone who believes in the Inerrancy of the Bible, it is reasonable to take the story of the seven days of creation as a metaphor. Treating Adam and Eve as metaphorical is a bit more of a stretch, though not an unreasonable one, but someone could accept Evolution for most species and still reject it for Man. In any case, even if Evolution is refuted, Geology remains. The age of the Earth is a far bigger problem for Inerrancy than Evolution is.

Two of my earlier posts are connected to this. See the post on a Scientific American article on speciation in general and the post on sunflowers in particular.

Permalink: 11:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 10, 2004

The Ninth Day of Christmas: Duffer's Drift

Every year I send out with my Christmas cards a list of good things I have come across during the year. I'll post these one by one here.

9. The Defense of Duffer's Drift, by Captain E.D. Swinton, 1905. Six dreams of Boer War Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, left with 50 men to hold Duffer's Drift. In each dream, he makes plans to hold it, remembering in the next dream the lessons from his defeat in the previous one.

This is quite short, and you can print it out after you download it from the Net. It is a well-written, gripping story, and also nicely scientific, because it looks at the same situation over and over with different strategies. I don't think what I learn about how to wage war will be of practical use, but I do like seeing this format used, and it is good entertainment.

Permalink: 12:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 29, 2004

New Paradigm Introduction: Biology and Economics

I just heard a talk by Oliver Curry at the Workshop on evolutionary biologyand economics. Some of my notes might be worth putting up on my weblog.

What matters, I think, is what questions evolutionary biology helps answer that economists cannot answer well now. It's hard when you're calling for a start to work, but if you can find just one or two examples of where biology helps, that would be a good invitation.

Here's a way to approach it: Rather than say, "You need to learn a lot more complicated theory", say "Here are some exmaples where a simple addition to your theory explains something you couldn't explain before". "Why young men overestimate their ability" is one example. Most examples I can think of involve explaining tastes rather than thinking, but you could have examples both thinking and tastes. Economists *are* interested to some extent in explaining tastes.

Note, though, that even the "Young men overestimate" idea doesn't need the gene-- it just uses evolution and the simpler idea of "organisms try to maximize reproductive fitness".

The "invitation to learn a new tool" approach is why economics has been so successful in law. It has proven useful for explaining lots of things that didn't have good explanations before. Lawyers can bring it in for specific applications without having to use it for everything, though some then decided to learn it systematically and use it for everything.

As opposed to behavioral economics, evolution adds an explanation for behavior rules, and a suggestion that the rule would be the same for all humans, as oppposed to history-dependent (culture-dependent). Thus, we avoid having a big collection of entirely unrelated rules. We could have a research rule of saying that you should always try to find an evolutionary explanation for a behavioral rule.

Permalink: 12:56 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 28, 2004

Peculiar Peoples: Christians, Conservatives, Scholars

The sermon today at ECC mentioned 1 Peter 2:9:
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
I realize I am a member of three "peculiar peoples": Christians, conservatives, and scholars.

1 Peter 2:9 is about Christians, the continuation of the Jews, who consider themselves special and chosen by God, and are considered, when they are serious, "peculiar" by the other peoples of the world. Christians are like the freed prisoners of Plato's Cave, who see the reality that casts the shadows seen by the prisoners as their only reality, but who cannot be understood well by the prisoners. Christians constantly face the temptation to pretend to still be prisoners, seeing the same things as everyone else. It is an insidious temptation, because the main thing it requires is silence, which comes easily to us anyway.

Conservatives are another peculiar people, at least nowadays. The Left has largely won the Culture War. The preacher today said bravely that he was going to do something unusual and make a political statement in church: that he was against the state lottery. But that is not a political statement; it is a moral statement. He may be wrong, but the morality of gambling, and whether the state should promote it, is definitely a subject for discussion in the churches. But it is now framed as merely a political issue. On a number of topics, the conservative position, even if perhaps a majority position, has become marginalized, without outspoken support in the media or from politicians. But we wait, and remember the similar position of economic conservatives in 1960.

And then there are the scholars. Even in universities, not everyone thinks that the life of the mind is important, or even is really conscious of it as a possibility. In business schools, CEO's are as admired as professors, and it is my impression that in the liberal arts TV anchormen are seen as people worthy of admiration. Are the sciences different? I hope so. The way to progress is to see the 1st-year graduate student as a being superior to the corporate lawyer and the cardiac surgeon, and infinitely superior to the sports hero.

This is pride, of a sort, and hence for a Christian is dangerous ground, but I don't think it is pride of a bad sort. Anyone can, with God's grace, be a Christian, if he is willing to be despised by the world. Anyone can, even without God's grace, be a conservative. To be a successful scholar does require special talents, but mostly it requires an attitude, and even the aspirant is treated as more important than those who achieve success in mundane fields. So the pride is mostly that of being on the right side, a matter of personal choice, and not a choice you made for material gain or social acceptance.

Permalink: 09:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 14, 2004

Man's Moral Predicament: Pope's Essay on Man, Posner on Liberal Education

Continuing my series of quotes from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (here and here and here and there) is the first lines of Epistle 2:


Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

I certainly feel that way. The last two lines might be appropriate for my project on God concealing Himself. They also remind me of a conversation at Lily's First Birthday Party last night. We were discussing whether finding utilitarian reasons for ethical behavior was a worthwhile project, or whether it was better to take our gut moral feelings as reliable signs of what is moral and give up on explaining them more basically (all in the context of natural law rather than divine). One point I raised was a reason that someone-- I think Richard Posner-- gave for why we should not expect a liberal education to make people behave better. The uneducated person knows of no moral code expect what his parents taught him, and hence often faces a choice between behaving morally or behaving immorally. The educated person can pick and choose among moral theories, and has learned to rationalize and argue to himself very well, and so can always find a moral reason for whatever foul thing it is he wishes to do.

Permalink: 07:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Homogenization of Everything

My wife commented recently that everything is getting blended together. Men and women, children and grown-ups, are dressing alike. Good and evil are mixed, and their difference denied. Honor and respect, which are based on difference, are dwindling away. What is left is celebrity-- the mere fact of being known to many people, for it matters not what. We eat foreign foods, and foreigners watch American TV. Aesthetically, the world is becoming a boring place.

Permalink: 07:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 31, 2004

Nonreligious Immortality

Last night we had our neighbor the urologist over for a dinner party and he was telling us that the political skirmishing over stem cell research is just a fraud on ignorant enthusiasts and a cover for the abortion debate. There are plenty of stem cell lines available for research now, umbilical cord blood stem cells are as good as fetus ones, and we don't know how to "turn on" stem cells now anyway, so any medical use is still far away, though well worthy of research. Rather, proponents of the use of fetal stem cells are trying to show that abortion has a good side to it-- and to further their idea that a fetus is just like a blood sample, something to be bought, sold, or thrown away without qualms.

The topic of cell lines made me think about immortality and the odd lawsuit over Moore's Spleen, which I posted about this spring. (My last musing on this subject, in 2003, included an excerpt fromCaptain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven.) John Moore's doctor and UCLA took his spleen cells, created an immortal cell line, and made millions. The lawsuit was over the millions, but what I think of now is that Moore is immortal, physically-- at least, unless the researchers get tired of preserving his cell line. Yet, of course, it does Moore no good.

For that matter, we are all immortal in the sense that the atoms in our body do not disintegrate when we die. Isaac Newton's carbon atoms are still around somewhere, perhaps in a tree in Scotland and a hog in Surrey.

Nor, for most of us, does our DNA vanish. Many, though probably not all of our genes are still around, in different combinations, in our descendants.

Nor does our effect on the world necessarily disappear. For most of us, our direct impact on other people slowly dissipates, as they die themselves and do not tell of us to their descendants, but authors, builders, and inventors can have increasing impacts. Mothers can too.

So immortality, even putting aside our immortal souls, is a tricky thing to analyze. The soul is even harder, and must be, I think, one of those mysteries like the Trinity or the Creation that cannot be understood using available evidence and intellect.

Lines 253-262 of Canto 3 of Pope's Essay on Man has two important ideas:


Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally

The common interest, or endear the tie.

To these we owe true friendship, love sincere,

Each home-felt joy that life inherits here;

Yet from the same we learn, in its decline,

Those joys, those loves, those interests to resign;

Taught half by reason, half by mere decay,

To welcome death
, and calmly pass away.

Whate'er the passion, knowledge, fame, or pelf,

Not one will change his neighbour with himself.


Idea 1 is that reason and slow decline teach us to accept death. That is true for the reasonable man, though I'd also be interested to see how IQ and age correlate with fear of death. I'm afraid there might, in practice, be a positive correlation, with intellectuals and [other?] old women having the greatest fear for their health.

Idea 2 is that "Not one will change his neighbour with himself." How striking! Who would abandon his own identity for another's? I may think I am unhappy, but would I destroy myself, to be replaced in someone else. Some people do, of course, commit suicide, but not to be reborn as someone else. We humans are selfish enough for just the idea of Self to be valued above all else.

Permalink: 07:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 27, 2004

An Exercise for Learning Proofs

The main use of learning Euclidean geometry is to learn the idea of how to prove things-- how to go logically from assumptions to a proposition. That is especially useful because the assumptions are laid out as axioms, but doing any kind of proof can be a useful exercise. Below is an exercise that I think I heard about from Professor Aliprantis some years back:...

... Ask students to prove that adding some numbers together to equal 5, at least one number must be greater than 2.

Part of the task is to clarify the proposition. It takes some thought to come up with the following statement of the problem:

PROPOSITION 1: If x+y =5, where x and y are positive integers, either x or y is greater than 2.

Having proved that, have the students prove Proposition 2.

PROPOSITION 2: If x+y = 101, where x and y are positive integers, either x or y is greater than 50.

This is a good second step because Proposition 1 can be proved by exhaustion.

Permalink: 09:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 26, 2004

Children's Attention Watching TV

Should children multi-task? In a psychology study, one group of 5-year-olds watched Sesame Street with toys in the room, and another with no toys. The researc hers filmed them to record how much attention they paid (how much they looked at the TV), and then tested them on what they remembered about the program. The surprising discovery was that although they children with toys paid much less attention, they remembered just as much-- though not as much about what was going on during the specific times they were not paying attention.

The researchers' conclusion was that the children were paying attention to the most informative parts of the program, carefully enough that paying attention to the other parts didn't yield them much extra comprehension. Thus, comprehension causes attention rather than the reverse.

An implication is that the way to get children to understand something on TV is not to grab their attention with fast pacing and gimmicks, but to slow down the pace to make it understandable, which in turn will get their attention.

I suppose this has implications for adults too, and for my teaching. I should slow down and be understandable!

The study is reported in Daniel Anderson and Elizabeth Lorch "Looking at Television: Action or Reaction?", chapter 1 of Jennings Bryant and Daniel Anderson, eds. Children's Understanding of Television (New York: Academic Press, 1983)

Permalink: 10:54 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 22, 2004

Sowell's Memoir: The Mercator Speech

Thomas Sowell's memoir, A Personal Odyssey, is very good. It actually reminds me of the memoir of his advisor, George Stigler. Despite his fame, Stigler had very few students, probably because his wit and his blunt criticism intimidated people (I wouldn't be surprised if a blunt Stigler letter was one reason for my tenure difficulties at UCLA back around 1990). After reading this memoir, I can see that a willingness to get into fights is a theme in Sowell's life, as both his strength and his weakness.

I read the library's copy, but will be buying my own. I forgot to note down the page number before I returned it, but here is a story that gives the flavor of the book...

...

The delicious thing about this story is that in the end, the joke is on Sowell and the students, not on Mrs. Collins. Sowell *did* deliver a model speech, and for exactly the two reasons she told them.

First, he had complete command of his subject-- such complete command that he didn't even need to do special preparation. That's OK-- this speech wasn't supposed to be a research project. (It reminds me of another Sowell story, of how in the Marines he was so clever about handling his duties as a warehouse helper that he both got more commendations and did less work than the other workers, who complained about that.)

Second, he paused and let his audience understand what he was saying. He did not speak faster than in ordinary speech, as is so common (even for me!) but more slowly. To be sure, the reason was that he was trying to figure out what to say next, but what counts is results, not reasons.

I wonder what would happen if I used this as a teaching exercise for my class? I could put them up front with a slip of paper they would open to see the topic on which they would improvise. I've some recollection that speech classes actually do this-- and, of course, this is exactly the stuff of improv comedy.

At any rate, I'll use this weblog entry for G492 next semester, and for my graduate students.

Permalink: 12:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 10, 2004

"For this plain reason, man is not a fly"; Pope and Brains

I quoted Alexander Pope's Essay on Man back on August 8. Here's another nice passage.

The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)
Is not to act or think beyond mankind;
No powers of body or of soul to share,
But what his nature and his state can bear.
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

Say what the use, were finer optics given,
To inspect a mite, not comprehend the heaven?
Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o'er,
To smart and agonize at every pore?
Or quick effluvia darting through the brain,
Die of a rose in aromatic pain?

I don't ask for better senses, but I do wonder sometimes why God didn't make people smarter. I think I'd like to be average. But whether you believe in God or Evolution or Both, there must be a reason why people don't reason. Maybe high IQ leads to neurosis, or dangerous pride, or too much thinking when action would be more appropriate.

My Mazdaspeed car provides an analogy. Why don't all cars have turbochargers? For one thing, there's the expense. For another, my car needs Premium gasoline, and if I ever forget and put in Regular, bad things will happen to my engine. Fancy engines, like fancy minds, are more delicate, and we can get by without them in normal situations. Still, I like going fast around corners and saving that five minutes getting to work.

Permalink: 10:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 05, 2004

The Retreat to Scripture; Legalistic Antinomianism

This post by Pastor Bayly touches on a special problem for modern evangelicals, what I call "The Retreat to Scripture". By this, I mean a timid though firm defense of beliefs that seem peculiar to the world by saying, "Well, this is pretty weird,
and we won't try to defend it as rational, but Scripture forces us to believe
it." This is firm, because it does confront the world with unpopular beliefs,
but timid, because it hides ashamedly behind Scripture and, more importantly,
because it leads to extreme narrowing of our unpopular beliefs....

...
Why does it lead to narrowing? Because if you defend nothing that Scripture
does not absolutely force you to defend, you've lost a lot of what God wants
from us in daily life. You are stuck in an interesting sort of "Legalistic
Antinomianism": the principle that unless Scripture explictly prohibits
something, God permits it. This was one of the problems of the Pharisees, and a
big theme in the Sermon on the Mount. See Matthew 5:31-32:

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a
writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his
wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and
whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

The Pharisees were wrong to take their ethics directly from Scripture. They
were not supposed to contradict Scripture, but they were supposed to go beyond
it. We should not violate the letter of divine law, but we should not violate
its spirit either.

The form this takes nowadays is for evangelicals to shamefacedly say, for
example, that Scripture prevents us from ordaining women as elders, much as we'd
like to, but at least we can elect a woman as mayor, since Scripture doesn't
prohibit it.

I don't object to women as mayors-- I haven't thought it through, so I pretty
much accept the conventional wisdom-- but I object to the reasoning I just gave.
We should not say that the Christian position is obvious just because Scripture
is silent. It is something that needs thinking through, just as Christians need
to think through whether heroin use, unmentioned in the Bible, is morally
acceptable and prudent.

The Retreat to Scripture also closes down what would be the most useful
discussion of many issues: *why* God commands things. On the issue of women as
elders, for example, the discussion is diverted to the meaning of particular
Greek words and away from the actual effect of having women as elders. Not
ordaining women becomes like not eating pork--- a mysterious and arbitrary
divine command that looks stupid but that we trust is for our own good.

Note, too, that Legalistic Antinomianism has a tendency to be a one-way filter,
allowing practices of which the World approves but banning practices of which
the world disapproves. Thus, I think most churches would say that racism is bad,
even though the Bible says nothing on the subject. Here, rather than saying that
we must only condemn that which Scripture clearly condemns, I think people
would either (a) consider Scriptural support unnecessary or (b) search out
passages or principles from Scripture that while not directly on point do show
that God is displeased if we refuse to associate with somebody simply because
his skin is black. And method (b) is correct-- I just wish it were applied more
to beliefs at odds with the World's beliefs.

Permalink: 10:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2004

Parking: The Utopian Fallacy

The other day I drove to the B-School, intending to go quickly to my office and back. I have a choice between the Near Parking Lot, which is usually full, and the Far One, which is not. On this occasion, I felt a strong pull to try the Near Parking Lot because I was only going in for 10 minutes. Why? I knew that it was irrational. If I save 5 minutes by going to the Near Parking Lot, I save 5 minutes regardless of how long I stay in the building.

I think my urge was what might be called the Utopian Fallacy . In Utopia, people would only park in the Near Lot if they are going to stay in the building a short time. For every one person who is going to stay in the building for 8 hours (480 minutes), about 48 people who stay in for 10 minutes could park. The 8-hour person would save 5 minutes; the 48 10-minute people would save 48x5= 240 minutes. So it is massively inefficient not to have a short-time-limit parking spot close by. And if everyone would voluntarily park in the lot only if they were going to be there no more than 10 minutes, we would be better off.

That, however, is not the case. My premise was that most people are *not* following this policy, and so the Near Lot is probably full.

Note that if I were planning to stay for 8 hours, and I decided to go to the Far Lot, even though I thought I had a good chance of finding the last spot in the Near Lot, that would not be irrational-- just altruistic. I would be freeing up a spot for either another 8-hour parker (in which case society is no worse off) or for 48 10-minuters (in which case I have benefitted society a lot, not an irrational thing to do if I am so inclined). But that is quite different from being a 10-minuter and going to the Near Lot just because it *ought* to have a space.

Permalink: 12:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 29, 2004

Lewis on Friendship as Same Interests

In the "Friendship" chapter of (p. 63 of one edition I looked at) of Lewis's >The Four Loves he says,

"In this kind of love, as Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth?--- Or at least, "Do you care about the same truth?" The man who agrees with us that some question little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer.

This is one reason I feel akin to a certain Mongolian Expert with whom I can
argue about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation and whether the Ten
Commandments encompass the entire moral law or not. It is a little sad that I
do not find the niceties of Lutheranism vs. Calvinism on faith vs. works as
interesting as he does. To my mind, the difference is vanishingly small, even
though the difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants is hugely
important, but the Mongolian Expert has devoted considerable care to getting
this exactly right. Maybe he is correct, and I am not, on the importance of this
topics. But you who are reading this probably think we both are silly to be
caring about such things more than about who wins medals in the Olympics or
whether the marginal tax rate should be 39% instead of 35%.


Note, by the way, the very interesting formatting of the Lewis passage. It
works well, even though it is inconsistent, putting the first first two
questions in italics and the third in quotes (with italics used for emphasis).

Permalink: 04:01 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 25, 2004

What Do People Think is Fair?

I was just reading a good survey article on what people think is fair (as opposed to the usual article on this topic, which asks what *is* fair),

James Konow (2003) "Which Is the Fairest One of All? A Positive Analysis of
Justice Theories," Journal of Economic Literature, 41: 1188- 1239 (December (2003)

Alas, the general impression from this long and careful article is that people don't think very hard about what is fair, and so it all depends on how you phrase the questions. They like equality, sort of, but not if people have exerted different efforts, or if equality hurts general prosperity. Thus, the numerous careful attempts to find out what people think is fair come to grief, because people haven't thought it through,even if you set up the questions so self-interest does not cloud the answer.

This is just as we should expect. In daily life, distinguishing between equality as a goal in itself, as an approximation to the equating of marginal utilities of income, and as a way to avoid envy is not important. We are still working on the implementing the idea that just because somebody knows the mayor they shouldn't have their house assessed at a lower taxable value. Something like that is bad under pretty much any ethical theory, so everybody except the academically curious postpone figuring out the precisely correct ethical theory to the day when blatant injustice has been extirpated.

Here's one excerpt that does seem worth remembering, though:


Mikula and Thomas Schwinger (1973), for example, study allocation decisions among 36 pairs of soldiers in the same unit who perform a task that generates joint earnings. They find that many subjects who perform well relative to their partners act against their own interests and allocate earnings equally, an effect that is stronger when subjects are paired with partners they like. This result, which Mikula and his colleagues have identified elsewhere (see Mikula 1980), stands in stark contrast, however, to the "self-interest" bias that almost all other researchers find in allocation experiments (e.g., Robert Forsythe et al. 1994; Elizabeth Hoffman et al. 1994). The fact that each group in Mikula’s experiments favors a rule that is to its disadvantage, equality by high performers and proportionality by low performers, suggests that his experimental design is not capturing a distributive preference for equality, which should be shared by all, but rather something closer to a "generosity bias" on the part of both groups.

This shows how hard it is to use experiments to find out people's preferences.

Permalink: 03:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 02, 2004

Reaching out to people across the street around the world

The Evangelical Free Church I attended today had a nice slogan on a banner:
Reaching out to people across the street around the world.
What is nice is that this so succinctly combines two entirely different levels-- the local and global. In this, it is much like the classic slogan,
Think globally, act locally,
which is, however, not euphonious and actually doesn't make as much sense, since thinking globally hinders acting locally more than it helps. The Free Church slogan, on the other hand, nicely captures the idea of people acting locally-- and quite independently-- in many different places precisely *because* they don't have to think globally to do it.

Permalink: 11:07 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 31, 2004

Dealing with a Bad Back

I travelled to my parents' farm with a bad back and four children. The combination slows everything down immensely, but I've learned some things:

1. Children aged 2 to 5 are immensely useful for picking up things for people who can't bend over.


2. For my back, at least, heat works better than cold, despite what some experts say. I suspect that heat causes muscles to relax, and their tensing up is what causes my particular problem. For other people, inflammation would be the main problem, and for that, cold might well be better.

3. Canes are useful. My father has two canes, in particular, that I liked. One is an ordinary crooked cane, probably made of ash, which doubles as a yardstick. That one, he said, was too precious to lend-- you can only get them at Farm Progress shows. The other is a folding cane, made of metal, with a glossy wood handle and a rubber tip. It has what I think are called "shock cords" inside-- the elastic cords that are inside modern tent poles.

I note that the Day of the Jackal scheme would probably work very well for terrorism--- construct a multi=part gun from cane parts, to be assembled past the check point. Of course, there a million other ways to get edged weapons, good enough for hijacking purposes, onto an airplane (or the easy, if expensive, way to get anything at all on board-- bribe a guard with a million dollars or by threatening to kill his children). What the stupid security precautions stop is just thinks like penknives that solid citizens might use to thwart a hijacking. I wonder, by the way, if that successful downing of the hijacked plane on 9-11 would perhaps have been prevented if security had been tighter? Did they use such things as penknives and metal forks to fight the terrorists? I don't think there's evidence either way.

And yet I've heard very little criticism of the much-hated President Bush for his airline security policies, except perhaps for having *enough* useless precautions! (And, I should add for accuracy, from the Right, for not allowing *pilots* to carry weapons.) That is no doubt because useless, silly, policies make the Old Women of Both Sexes who comprise a majority of our voters feel safe if the policies are onerous, regardless of whether they are effective. If, however, the Libertarians want to go from 1% to 3% of the vote, they should make this their big issue.

4. A solid baby stroller makes a good walker, better than a cane. For someone like myself, it is no problem for the stroller to be heavy, either.

Permalink: 10:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 17, 2004

Logical Fallacies, Illustrated by Critics of IQ Tests

Via Instapundit, I found kimberly Swygert's list of logical fallacies using IQ testing as a running example, she having been inspired by Nizkor's list of logical fallacies, which uses Holocaust Denial for its examples. I've edited down her post to the version below, not bothering with ellipses.

Appeal to an Unnamed Authority.

This fallacy is committed when a person asserts that a claim is true because an expert or authority makes the claim and the person does not actually identify the expert. Since the expert is not named or identified, there is no way to tell if the person is actually an expert. Unless the person is identified and has his expertise established, there is no reason to accept the claim.

As in, "Critics say tests are biased toward minorities." Simple, to the point - and wrong.

* "Early psychometricians were white men, so they must have been racist." (Ad Hominem fallacy.)

* "Most teachers oppose standardized testing, so it must be wrong." (Appeal to Belief and Biased Sample fallacy.)

* "This standardized test upset an elementary school student, therefore it is wrong." (Appeal to Pity fallacy, at which Michael Winerip is an expert.)

* "I don't take tests well, so there's no way the SAT could predict my college grades." ( Relativist Fallacy.)

* "It was in the news this week that there was a scoring error on the PRAXIS; ETS must make a lot of those errors." (Spotlight fallacy.)

* "You're a psychometrician, so of course any argument you make in support of testing must be taken with a grain of salt." (Circumstantial Ad Hominem, not to mention surreal.)

* The "Live By the Statistics, Die By the Statistics" argument.

Evidence suggest X cannot be true, thus, Y must be true regardless of evidence.

This occurs when testing critics argue the inappropriateness of using a standardized test for predictive purposes, allegedly because the correlation of the test score with the dependent variable is "too low," but then suggest alternatives (such as interviews or essays) with no corresponding data to show that these alternatives are better predictors (as demonstrated here). This seems like a twisted alternative to the Burden of Proof fallacy; because testing critics have (they believe) provided proof that a test is not good enough, this relieves them of any obligation to provide proof that the alternatives they suggest are any good.

* The "Emotionally-charged Yet Undefined Word" fallacy.

X is true, even though no one knows what X is.

The obvious example here is bias, a word which is used in every article critical of standardized tests, yet is rarely properly defined.

* The "800-Pound Gorilla In the Room" fallacy.

The cause of A must be anything other than what is most awkward to admit is the cause of A.

This is related to the Confusing Cause and Effect fallacy, in which one assumes that because A and B regularly occur together, A is the cause of B, and the Post Hoc fallacy, in which A occurs before B, therefore A must be the cause of B. But in the testing critic version, even when A and B always occur together and A always predates B, it must be true that A cannot be the cause of B. This happens when someone observes that, for example, poor teaching based on ill-defined concepts and "progressive" ideas often predate poor test scores, yet testing critics will claim that home life, discipline issues - indeed, anything except the curriculum - must be the cause of the low scores. It hardly needs to be said that this is also related to the Wishful Thinking fallacy.

* The "Omniscient Observer" fallacy.

Item X was created for Person A. Person B cannot solve Item X; therefore, Item X is not appropriate for Person A.

I'm thinking here of the logical fallacy that led reporters and observers to assume that because Governor Bush (who hasn't taken geometry in 30 years and doesn't use the stuff in daily life) couldn't answer an FCAT geometry item on the spot, he has no right to insist that Florida's high-schoolers take the test.

Permalink: 05:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 09, 2004

Student Evaluations and Grade Inflation

From a Management study of professors that I saw recently:

75% of our faculty is recognized by teaching awards. This is very positive. It says we have a great many excellent teaching faculty. It also says we are not stingy in our reward system.

This reminds me of a self-congratulatory remark I heard at a recent faculty meeting, in which someone said that our business school had made great progress because the student evaluations of professors had increased so much. Nobody else commented, so I interjected that our students had done even better--- their grades had increased remarkably over the past 20 years, and it was just wonderful that they were so much smarter than earlier generations of college students.

Permalink: 11:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 08, 2004

Kerry, Langston Hughes, Communism, and the Rectification of Names

Although liberals often link President Bush to the Nazis, Bush never quotes Nazis admiringly. How about Kerry? Does he quote Marxists admiringly? Yes. As Timothy Noah noted in Slate and William Buckley in National Review, and Andrew Sullivan in his weblog, Kerry has more than once quoted the title of a Langton Hughes poem "Let America be America again," which is about the glories of a communist takeover of America:

In the June 1 New York Times, David M. Halbfinger reports that the Kerry campaign thinks it's found a winning slogan in "Let America be America again." They couldn't be more wrong.

...

Hughes never joined the Communist Party, but he published frequently in its house organs and served as president to the party's principal African-American front group. The same year "Let America Be America Again" was published, Hughes signed a letter supporting the Stalinist purges; he had witnessed, with approval, one of the show trials himself.

Here's a bit more from "Let America be America again".
 

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--  
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--

 
Quoting from a bad person is not bad in itself, perhaps. If President Bush quoted a line from some entirely non-political poem of Ezra Pound or from some non-political essay of Heidegger's or De Man's, that would not justify calling Bush a Nazi. It does look bad, I must admit. In his sermon at ECC last Sunday, Pastor Mangrum told about an experiment he heard of that a teacher used on his classes.

The teacher would invent a number of quotations, and distribute two versions to two groups of students. Each version would attribute quotes to people like Hitler, Luther, Lincoln, Stalin, and so forth, but the two versions would attribute different quotes to different people. The teacher would ask the students to say how much they agreed with each quotation. The teacher always found that attribution trumps substance.

I should try that in one of my classes. I'd predict the same thing. But of course that is not reason in itself to criticize Kerry. If the line was from a bad author, but the line and the poem to which it alludes are both correct, then the evil or stupidity of the author does not affect that. Note that I have to add "and the poem to which it alludes", because in quoting one line, you are quoting the poem, unless you make sure to repudiate its associations. "Work will make you free" is a nice line, okay by itself, but if I quote it, I am also linking myself with the Dachau prison gate unless I say I am not.

At any rate, lack of bad context is not an excuse that helps Kerry. He quoted the title from a Hughes poem whose entire thrust is that the America that has existed so far in history is evil and must be replaced by an idealized America that is entirely different.

One might think this is just an unintentional blunder on the part of Kerry-- that neither he nor anyone on his staff has ever actually read the entire poem or knows anything about Langston Hughes. If it was a Republican saying "Let America be America again" that would be plausible. But what is especially striking here is that the idea of this poem *does* capture the way the Left thinks of America.

Here is what I mean by that.

This notion is of course fallacious. Suppose you hate chocolate ice cream, but you want to pretend you favor it. The leftist strategy would be to say,

"I love chocolate ice cream. To be sure, I hate the chocolate ice cream we have now, but that is not real chocolate ice cream. Real chocolate ice cream is white, and tastes like vanilla, and we must all strive to change the false, dark ice cream we have now into true chocolate ice cream."

What would be more honest would be to say, "I hate chocolate ice cream." Or, in the case of America, to say,
"I hate America. It is an evil country, based on capitalism, flag-waving, and other bad things. But I think that it can be replaced by a better system. We must wipe out the old, and replace it with the new."
Confucius was a wise man. This, again is the Rectification of Names problem.

Let's return to Langston Hughes, though. One article to look at is Eric J. Sundquist, "Who Was Langston Hughes?" Commentary, December 1996, Vol. 102, Issue 6:

A characteristic poem of the period, composed for the eighth convention of the Communist party in the United States, begins: "Put one more S in the U.S. A. / To make it Soviet."

In the Soviet Union itself, where he stayed on for almost a year, Hughes ignored clear signs of corruption and repression. Welcoming the privileges of membership in the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, he dashed off "Goodbye, Christ," a poem in which the salvific power of the church gives way to a Leninist pantheon and which would later so haunt his career as to become the centerpiece of an FBI probe. A set of essays for Izvestia favorably compared the Soviet justice system to the American, and in poem after poem in this period Hughes replaced a previously favorite image, the North Star of African-American freedom, with the Red Star of Soviet liberation.

See also James Smethurst, who says,

That Hughes was, with the exception of Richard Wright, the black writer most identified with the Communist Left during the 1930s is undeniable. Hughes's frequent publication of "revolutionary" poetry in the journals and press of the CPUSA, his activity in Communist-initiated campaigns such as the drive to free the Scottsboro defendants and on behalf of the Spanish Republic, his willingness to lend his name to Communist-led or Communist-influenced organizations (e.g., the John Reed Clubs, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the National Negro Congress, the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, the League of American Writers), and his public support of the Soviet Union (including his signing of a statement in 1938 supporting the purges of the Old Bolsheviks and others by Stalin) all marked him as an open member of the Communist Left-- whether or not he formally joined the CPUSA.

A couple of other poems round out the picture. First, from Mensnewsdaily,
 


   Together,
    We can take anything:
    Factories, arsenals, buses, ships,     
    Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,
    Bus lines, telegraphs, radios,
    (Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)
    Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,
    All the tools of production.
    (Great day in the morning!)
    Everything--
    And turn ‘em over to the people who work.
    Rule and run ‘em for us people who work.

    Boy! Them Radios--
    Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR:
    Another member the International Soviets done come
    Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics
    Hey you rioting workers everywhere greetings.  
    And we’ll sign it: Germany
    Sign it: China
    Sign it: Africa
    Sign it: Poland
    Sign it: Italy
    Sign it: America
    Sign it with my own name: Worker
    On that day when no one will be hungry, cold, oppressed,
    Anywhere in the world again.

and one of Hughes's better-known poems:
 

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all --
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.


Is this the Democratic Party?-- "Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME" ? Remove the peasants and workers, and perhaps it is.

Permalink: 11:07 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack