November 21st, 2017

[Y]ou can’t prove whether discrimination is going on in an organization—or a society—by statistics. You often read about “glass ceilings” for women in a given field or about disproportionate school suspensions of boys or minorities. The intimation—often the direct accusation—is that discrimination is at work. But numbers alone won’t tell the story. We don’t know that as many women as men have the qualifications or desire to be partners in law firms or high-level executives in corporations. And we have some pretty good reasons to believe that girls and boys are not equally likely to engage in behavior warranting suspension from school.

Not so long ago, it was common to attribute women’s lower representation in graduate school and faculty rosters to discrimination. And there certainly was discrimination. I know; I was there. I was privy to the conversations the men had about admitting women to grad school or hiring them onto faculties. “Go after the guy; women are too likely to drop out.” Bugged conversations would have proved what raw statistics, comparing percentage of men and women hired, could not.

But nowadays 60 percent of college graduates are women, and they constitute a majority of law and medical students as well as graduate students in the humanities, social sciences, and biological sciences. And the University of Michigan, where I teach, two-thirds of the assistant professors hired are women (and they get tenure at the same rate as men).

Do these statistics prove discrimination against men? They do not. And I can assure you that bugged conversations—at least at my school—would not support the discrimination idea either. On the contrary, we are so frequently confronted with the prospect of admitting huge majorities of women into our graduate program that we contemplate relaxing admission standards for men, though we’ve never carried it out in a conscious way, of that I’m sure.

The statistics on postgraduate education have not stopped some people from claiming there is still discrimination against women in the physical sciences. One book I read recently claimed that women were “locked out” of physics. In the absence of evidence other than the purely statistical kind, there can be no justification for that assertion.

Richard Nisbett, Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, p. 188

November 20th, 2017

Another simple search cost, which we might regard as something of a fixed cost, is the cost of learning about smart contracts and how to use them. As the length of this report may help to demonstrate, this cost should be regarded as non-trivial.

Ben Garfinkel, ‘Recent Developments in Cryptography and Potential Long-Term Consequences’, sect. 4.5

November 9th, 2017

Measurement, declared so distinguished an authority as Goethe, could be employed in strictly physical science, but biologic, psychologic and social phenomena necessarily eluded the profane hands of those who would reduce them to quantitative abstractions. Here one detects the feeling that measurement somehow robs human phenomena of all mystery or beauty, and denies to investigators the satisfactions of age-old sense impressions and of intuitive understanding. Such feeling unusually appears within any discipline when it is first threatened, as it were, by quantification. Dr. Stevens terms it, in relation to current psychology, “the nostalgic pain of a romantic yearning to remain securely inscrutable.”

Richard Shryock, ‘The History of Quantification in Medical Science’, in Harry Woolf (ed.) Quantification: A History of the Meaning of Measurement in the Natural and Social Sciences, New York, 1961, p. 93

November 9th, 2017

I was planning to move to Florida, write philosophy in a library, while it was open, sleep outside in the warm weather at night, and hopefully find some soup kitchen or something. […] Living in the city slums wasn’t that enjoyable a feeling, especially since being robbed and shot at tended to disrupt my concentration on the theory I was working on.

Quentin Smith, ‘An interview with Quentin Smith’

November 7th, 2017

Personally I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like a good ghost story, but I know a lot of people who think there are a lot of people who don’t like a good ghost story.

Orson Welles, ‘The Hitch Hiker’, in Joseph Liss (ed.), Radio’s Best Plays, New York, 1947, p. 325

October 27th, 2017

In judging people and bodies of work, one can use stylistic consistency as a rule of thumb, and start by checking the statements in one’s field. The mere presence of correct material means little: it proves only that the author can read and paraphrase standard works. In contrast, a pattern of clearcut, major errors is important evidence: it shows a sloppy thinking style which may well flow through the author’s work in many fields, from physics, to biology, to computation, to policy. A body of surprising but sound results may mean something, but in a new field lacking standard journals, it could merely represent plagiarism. More generally, one can watch for signs of intellectual care, such as the qualification of conclusions, the noting of open questions, the dear demarcation of speculation, and the presence of prior review. In judging wild-sounding theoretical work standards should be strict, not loose: to develop a discipline, we need discipline.

Eric Drexler, ‘Abrupt Change, Nonsense, Nobels, and Other Topics’, Foresight Institute, 1987

October 26th, 2017

The motto of the Royal Society – Hooke, Boyle, Newton, some of the people who arguably invented modern science – was nullus in verba, “take no one’s word”.

This was a proper battle cry for seventeenth century scientists. Think about the (admittedly kind of mythologized) history of Science. The scholastics saying that matter was this, or that, and justifying themselves by long treatises about how based on A, B, C, the word of the Bible, Aristotle, self-evident first principles, and the Great Chain of Being all clearly proved their point. Then other scholastics would write different long treatises on how D, E, and F, Plato, St. Augustine, and the proper ordering of angels all indicated that clearly matter was something different. Both groups were pretty sure that the other had make a subtle error of reasoning somewhere, and both groups were perfectly happy to spend centuries debating exactly which one of them it was.

And then Galileo said “Wait a second, instead of debating exactly how objects fall, let’s just drop objects off of something really tall and see what happens”, and after that, Science.

Yes, it’s kind of mythologized. But like all myths, it contains a core of truth. People are terrible. If you let people debate things, they will do it forever, come up with horrible ideas, get them entrenched, play politics with them, and finally reach the point where they’re coming up with theories why people who disagree with them are probably secretly in the pay of the Devil.

Imagine having to conduct the global warming debate, except that you couldn’t appeal to scientific consensus and statistics because scientific consensus and statistics hadn’t been invented yet. In a world without science, everything would be like that.

Heck, just look at philosophy.

Scott Alexander, ‘The Control Group Is Out Of Control’, Slate Star Codex, April 28, 2014

October 25th, 2017

In macro, it’s important for people like me to always search for the truth, and reach conclusions about economic models in a way that is independent of the consensus model. In that way, I play my “worker ant” role of nudging the profession towards a greater truth. But at the same time we need to recognize that there is nothing special about our view. If we are made dictator, we should implement the consensus view of optimal policy, not our own. People have trouble with this, as it implies two levels of belief about what is true. The view from inside our mind, and the view from 20,000 miles out in space, where I see there is no objective reason to favor my view over Krugman’s.

Scott Sumner, ‘Why Bryan Caplan Almost Always Wins His Bets’, EconLog, May 26, 2016

October 24th, 2017

Il y a deux sortes de metteurs en scène : ceux qui tiennent compte du public en concenvant puis en réalisant leurs films et ceux qui n’en tiennent pas compte. Pour les premiers, le cinéma est un art du spectacle, pour les seconds, une aventure individuelle. Il n’a pas à préférer ceux-ci ou ceux-là, c’est ainsi. Pour Hitchcock comme pour Renoir, comme d’ailleurs pour presque tous les metteurs en scène américains, un film n’est pas réussi s’il n’a pas de succès, c’est-à-dire s’il ne touche pas le public à qui l’on a constamment pensé depuis le moment où l’on a choisi le sujet jusq’au terme de la réalisation. Alors que Bresson, Tati, Rossellini, Nicholas Ray, tournent les films à leur manière et demandent ensuite au public de vouloir bien entrer « dans leur jeu », Renoir, Clouzot, Hitchcock, Hawks font leus films pour le public, en se posant continuellement des questions afin d’être certains d’eintéresser les futurs spectateurs.

François Truffaut, Les films de ma vie, Paris, 1975, p. 104

October 18th, 2017

Wherefore in all great works are Clerkes so much desired? Wherefore are Auditors so richly fed? What causeth Geometricians so highly to be enhaunsed? Why are Astronomers so greatly advanced? Because that by number such things they finde, which else would farre excell mans minde.

Robert Recorde, Arithmetic: or, The Ground of Arts, London, 1543, p. 34

October 16th, 2017

A blog like this one probably should promote the opinions and advice most likely to be underrepresented in the blog-reading populace (which is totally different from the populace at large). But this might convince “thought leaders”, who then use it to inspire change in the populace at large, which will probably be in the wrong direction. I think most of my friends are too leftist but society as a whole is too rightist—should I spread leftist or rightist memes among my friends?

Scott Alexander, ‘All Debates Are Bravery Debates’, Slate Star Codex, June 9, 2013

October 13th, 2017

There always seems something stunted about the intellect of those who have no humour, however earnest and enthusiastic, and however highly cultivated, they often are.

John Stuart Mill, ‘Diary’ (January 16, 1854), in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1988, vol. 27, p. 643

October 3rd, 2017

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London, 1776, bk. 3, ch. 4

October 2nd, 2017

Se moquer de la philosophie c’est vraiment philosopher.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Paris, 1670

October 2nd, 2017

Formel meines Glücks: Ein Ja, ein Nein, eine gerade Linie, ein Ziel.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung, oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert, Leipzig, 1889

October 2nd, 2017

From many points of view we live in a glorious time. I have little sympathy with those who wish they had been born at any, even the most brilliant epoch, in the past of the human race. The Many have now opportunities of study, opportunities of travel, opportunities of healthy enjoyment, which of old were denied to all but the Few. Human activity is expanding in all directions. Life is infinitely fuller, more varied, more interesting than it ever was. But on the other hand it requires more judgment, more balance of mind, more strength of character to make the best of it. Where one can do so many things there is a real danger of trying to do too many, and the end of that is that one does nothing well. Every age has its own special difficulties and dangers. The disease which specially threatens this generation is restlessness, distraction, dissipation of intellectual and moral power. […]

Success will rest with those who can preserve a calm judgement, who will not be bewildered by the multitude of things offered to them, but select with tremendous rigour, and who finally, having selected, will give themselves time to enjoy what they have chosen, and not let themselves be flurried out of the enjoyment and the benefit of it by the thought of all that they have been obliged to pass by.

Alfred Milner, Bustle, Oxford, 1897

September 30th, 2017

While it is common for academics to dig up prior research, this practice seems to be vastly underutilized by management. When managers think about measuring productivity, performance, quality, risk, or customer satisfaction, it strikes me as surprisingly rare that the first place they start is looking for existing research on the topic. Even with tools like Google and Google Scholar that make this simpler than ever before, there is a tendency with many managers to start each problem from scratch.

Douglas Hubbard, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business, Hoboken, 2014, 3rd ed., p. 59

September 30th, 2017

[T]here is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, “one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.”

G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology, Cambridge, 1940, sect. 28

September 27th, 2017

[I]t appears evidently from experience that a man is of all sorts of luggage the most difficult to be transported.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London, 1776, bk. 1, ch. 8

September 26th, 2017

[P]erhaps, to be true philosophers, we mortals should not be conscious of so living or so striving. So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have “broken his digester.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, New York, 1851, ch. 10

September 22nd, 2017

Identity politics […] is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.

Mark Lilla, ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’, The New York Times, November 18, 2016, p. SR1

September 19th, 2017

[N]ot the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage, and wisdom is supposed to consist not in seeing further than other people, but in not seeing so far.

John Stuart Mill, ‘Perfectibility’, in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1988, vol. 26, p. 429

September 18th, 2017

In Rome in 357 A.D., Emperor Constantino issued an edict forbidding anyone “to consult a soothsayer, a mathematician, or a forecaster… May curiosity to foretell the future be silenced forever.” In recent years, however, forecasting has become more acceptable.

Scott Armstrong, Principles of Forecasting: A Handbook for Researchers and Practitioners, New York, 2002, p. 2

September 17th, 2017

Writer’s block is a good example of a dispositional fallacy: A description of behavior can’t also explain the described behavior. Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing. Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Washington, DC, 2007, pp. 45-46

September 17th, 2017

The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” And the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

G. K. Chesterton, What Is Wrong with the World, London, 1910, ch. 1

September 15th, 2017

Technologists like Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Bill Gates, and physicists like Stephen Hawking have warned that artificial intelligence could one day pose an existential security threat. Musk has called it “the greatest risk we face as a civilization.” Think about it: Have you ever seen a movie where the machines start thinking for themselves that ends well? Every time I went out to Silicon Valley during the campaign, I came home more alarmed about this. My staff lived in fear that I’d start talking about “the rise of the robots” in some Iowa town hall. Maybe I should have. In any case, policy makers need to keep up with technology as it races ahead, instead of always playing catch-up.

Hillary Clinton, What Happened, New York, 2017, p. 241

September 12th, 2017

Schizophrenia, hypnosis, amnesia, narcosis, and anesthesia suggest that anything as complicated as the human brain, especially if designed with redundancy for good measure and most assuredly if not designed at all but arising out of a continuous process that began before we were reptiles, should be capable of representing more than one “person.” In fact, it must occasionally wire in a bit of memory that doesn’t belong or signal for a change in the body’s hormonal chemistry that makes us, at least momentarily, “somebody else.” I am reminded of the tantalizing distinction that someone made when my wife had our first child after two hours on sodium pentathol: It doesn’t make it hurt less, it just keeps you from remembering afterward. Strange that the prospect of pain can’t scare me once I’ve seen that, when I become conscious, I won’t remember!

Thomas Schelling, ‘The Intimate Contest for Self-command’, The Public Interest, vol. 60 (Summer, 1980), pp. 97-98

September 12th, 2017

Suppose you have been with a lover for a while, but that he or she decides to break off the relationship. Because of the contrast effect, there is an initial reaction of grief. You may then observe your mind play the following trick on you: To reduce the pain of separation, you redescribe your lover to yourself so that he or she appears much less attractive. This, obviously, is a case of sour grapes, or adaptive preference formation. You then notice, however, that the endowment effect is also affected. By degrading the other, you can no longer enjoy the memory of the good times you had together. In fact, you will feel like a fool thinking back on the relationship you had with an unworthy person. To restore the good memories you have to upvalue the other, but then of course the grief hits you again.

Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 32-33

September 11th, 2017

Mr. Buffon, from our disregard of the possibility of death within the four-and-twenty hours, concludes that a chance which falls below or rises above ten thousand to one will never affect the hopes or fears of a reasonable man. The fact is true, but our courage is the effect of thoughtlessness, rather than of reflection. If a public lottery were drawn for the choice of an immediate victim, and if our name were inscribed on one of the ten thousand tickets, should we be perfectly easy?

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, London, 1796

September 5th, 2017

All told, the Darwinian notion of the unconscious is more radical than the Freudian one. The sources of self-deception are more numerous, diverse, and deeply rooted, and the line between conscious and unconscious is less clear.

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, New York, 1994, p. 324