Monthly Archives: September 2007

The choice of facts

Robert Park’s article ‘The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science is a result of his attempt to help judges faced with expert witnesses making scientific arguments. He has attempted to come up with heuristics of bad science: ‘indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse’

Here they are:

  • 1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  • 2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  • 3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  • 4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  • 5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  • 6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  • 7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

It’s a good list. Sadly, however, telling the difference between sense and nonsense is never going to be easy. Even the best of us, when we get out of our field, can feel at a loss. It feels to me that your position on the classic controversial science debates (global warming, alternative medicine, creationism) is utterly removed from the facts either way, but instead depends on the pre-theoretical commitments you have made. So, for example, a preference for conventional vs alternative medicine, or creation science vs evolution, is in fact impossible to refute from within the frame of reference of the person with that preference (this will be obvious to any creationist who has tried talking to an evolutionist, or vice-versa). Rather than a choice which can be faulted on facts, it is really a case of choices about what kinds of information define facts. All views of the world have biases in them, the distinction between a scientist and a pseudoscientist is not about which each believes to be true, but rather about what set of systemmatic biases each has decided to place their faith in.

Links sept 07

Boycott Politics

Boycotts have the alure of radicalism, they give a false impression of action through inaction. Really they are a mode of political action which has been colonised by consummerism. The individual consumer choice is seen as the locus of political operation, and it becomes harder and harder to convieve of political action in any other form. It’s a seductive view in these times. If to be is to shop what could be more radical than to deny yourself something?

Boycotts allow us the pretence of taking a stand when really they are an abdication of responsibility. If something is wrong, then by all means avoid doing it yourself — but recognise that as long as the choice is there to be made, your own abstention is nothing more than a sitting on the sidelines while the tide of the battle goes to those offering the choice.

Contrary to this, to not boycott something whilst campaigning for its abolition is to assert your right and your obligation to demand change. I’ve little respect for medieval monks who believed that outside the monastry was a state of damnation and decay, with final judgement immenent, and whose response was to wall themselves into their monastries and pray for their own salvation. The boycott alone as a political act is just as selfish, just as mistakenly righteous, just as mislead.

I gave a speech once at a debate against the death penalty and the opposition speaker said that if i didn’t like it I could leave the country. I campaigned against an academic publishers involvement in the arms trade and was told that if i didn’t like the arms trade i should quit my job at the university. So here again we have the idea of politics as individual consumer choice, an idea which colonises the debating space. By keeping my job at the university, by engaging with the publishers both professionally – by publishing – and morally – by campaigning for them to drop their arms trade links, i asserted my engagement with them and the legitimacy of my claims on their behaviour.

I’ll repeat, if something is wrong then there is a moral need to avoid consuming it — i wouldn’t buy candles made from human fat, for example. But also i wouldn’t rest while candles made of human fat were available for sale, and i wouldn’t believe that merely refusing to purchase them myself was an adequate or appropriate response.

Comments off, tom off

Sorry folks, i’m turning off the comments on the site for a little while. There has been a massive increase in comment spam – a veritable whirling shitstorm and I’m going to batten down the hatches until the spam-catching software has caught up.

In other news, I’m in Bristol until sunday and the Oxford monday until wednesday, so drop me a line if you’re about or there’s anything you think I should see there.

Technical note WordPress plugin for turning off comments here

Update Comments back on now. Plugin appears to have fairly major flaw of preventing the user from accessing the blog at all, which was okay while I didn’t want to use it, and prevented me getting lots of comment spam, but isn’t a long-term solution

Quote #210


There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Charles Darwin, close of the first edition of The Origin of Species

Quote #209

Non-violent struggle offers weak people the strength which they otherwise would not have. The spirit becomes important and no gun can silence that. Whether the Ogoni people will be able to withstand the rigours of the struggle is yet to be seen. Again, their ability to do so will point the way of peaceful struggle to other peoples on the African continent. It is therefore not to be underrated.

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Quote #208

It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money, so long as you have got it.

Edwin Way Teale, quoted by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World

Questions for economists

Tim Harford wrote ‘The Undercover Economist’ and also writes the ‘Dear Economist’ column for the Financial Times. His book is excellent — a very readable introduction to economic theory and how it applies to various facets of everyday life. I was going to write him a letter, but then I found out that he’d sold half a million copies of his book and so, reckoning that he’d be too busy to write back to me, I am posting my thoughts here. This is partly for my own benefit as a note-to-self and partly because I’d be very happy to get answers from anyone or everyone on the questions I ask. Useful references are an acceptable substitute for wordy explanations.

Dear Undercover Economist,

On development — can everyone be rich? Won’t there always have to be someone to work the fields / clean the toilets / serve the coffee? Technologists answer: automatisation will remove much of life’s drudgery. Environmentalist retort: resources put limits on growth. Economists: imagine a world where every economy is ‘developed’. In that world we would expect to find people are wealthy according to their talents (because talents define scarcity). My question : in that world, what will the utterly talentless be paid to do with their time? Presumably we’ll still be forcing them to clean toilets, because the toilet-cleaning robots will be too expensive (they need to be in order to pay the wages of the very-expensive-to-hire toilet-cleaning-robot designers).

Information asymmetry: Akerlof (1970) has a description of how information asymmetry can prevent a viable market existing. Harford’s discussion credits to information asymmetry the reason why you can’t get a decent meal in tourist areas, but I am wondering if the effects are far more wide reaching that this. Big organisations will have an information advantage over individual consumers (on some things), as will anyone who devotes their entire economic energy to a single domain (eg selling avocados) over someone who is time poor (eg the typical avocado buyer). Coupled with a dynamic economic environment, couldn’t those with informational advantage effectively manipulate those with informational disadvantage? In other words, i’d be willing to bet that in a static market even an extremely informationally-deprived / cognitively challenged agent will work out the best deal, given enough time. But if the best deal keeps changing (and those with the information advantage keep changing it to suit their ends) the chances of the individual agent aren’t so good. File under benefits of collectivisation / market failure?

Efficiency of the market leads to loss of diversity (because all inefficient solutions are squeezed out). Diversity has it’s own value, both in system robustness (see ecosystems) and in terms of human experience (belonging to a specific place, variety being the spice of life, etc). So how do we incorporate the value of this diversity into market systems? I would submit that diversity is an example of something that exists above the single-agent view of things — is an example of an emergent phenomenon (see below). (Previously on idiolect Why is capitalism boring?)

Markets don’t have foresight. Do free marketeers admit that this is one of the functions of government? For example imagine agents who like to consume some finite resource. Presumably a ‘free market’ will be the most efficient way to organise their consumption. Efficient consumption of the resouce leads to its disappearence. Then what? In the Undercover Economist (p237) Harford says that in markets ‘mistakes cannot happen’ because any experiments with resources stay small scale. I would submit that while this is true at the micro level, with respect to efficiency — in other words, I agree that markets tend to efficiency — this is not true at the macro level, with respect to whole-system health.

An objection to this is that markets do have foresight because the individual agents have foresight – so they will incorporate into their cost function the anticipated future (so, eg, anticipated future resource availability). But what is agents do not have the information, or motivation to worry about the future? Does my concern just resolve down to the existence, or not, of the tragedy of the commons? Perhaps. I think key is the existence of a discontinuity between agent-level information and collective-level information; ie the issue is really about emergence, which is what the tragedy of the commons is really a specific example of.

Side note: if you are a market economist you are a de facto fan of emergence. Aggregate effects which emerge from mass individual action = emergence. Disconnection between individual goals (eg profit) and collective outcomes (efficiency). Etc. Economics is interesting precisely because their are non-obvious relations between agents and outcomes.

Side note the second: there is an essential similarity between economics and cognitive psychology – a focus on information processing. Further, market economics recognises the power of distributed information processing, as does the connectionist school of cognitive psychology. This is the reason I talk about agents, rather than consumers. I believe that the same principles will not just apply to the economic and social sciences, but also to the social sciences (remember Minksy’s “Society of Mind”). A question: can we usefully apply the idea of a distributed, free, ‘informational economy’ to undestanding neural coding? (Remember Glimcher’s “Neuroeconomics”)

DSEi 2007

This tit-bit from the Observer on sunday

n June, Reed agreed to sell the business. DSEI generates around £25m for the publishing giant and is thought to be worth double that. Four organisations have expressed strong interest in the business, though neither their identities nor nationalities are known.

DSEi starts tomorrow (tuesday)

Links for 5-Sept-07

Apply to climate change, mutatis mutandis

From a Crooked Timber discussion of WWII and British politicians’ view of the possible end of civilisation:

A possibly apocryphal moment, which the ungossipy Lukacs does not treat us to, has Attlee pointing out to Greenwood that if Churchill loses to the Tory grandees civilisation in Europe will be gone, Greenwood retorting that if so, “it won’t be our fault” and Attlee responding “I don’t want to go down in history as someone whose fault it wasn’t when civilisation was destroyed”

Judge not, for without them you would as bad, or worse

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, Last lines

Come and play

Who would like to come with me to any of the following events?

  • Told By An Idiot’s Casanova @ The West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. I can definitely make the 12th, 18th, 19th or 20th of September, and am open to offers on other days.
  • Jim White @ Social, Nottingham – 12 October
  • The Battle of Ideas @ Royal College of Art, London – 27th & 28th of October
  • New Model Army play Sheffield Corporation!! 18th of November
  • Mercy and Grand: The Tom Waits Project @ West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds – 28th of November