Experts in any field seem very unwilling to speculate, or even endorse speculation, about long-term developments in their field.

Whether it’s physics, or AI, or medicine, or politics, experts don’t want to talk about their ideas on long-term developments. In those rare cases where they do, they often use pseudonyms (many professional scientists have published science fiction, but only rarely under their real name).

I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve been collecting possible reasons:

1 – They have a lot to lose as experts if the speculations turn out wrong, and by their nature speculations are…speculative.

2 – They are very focused on immediate problems and progress. This is what they’re paid to to do, and where they get their professional prestige.

3 – They are more keenly aware than non-experts of the many difficulties there will be in the actual implementation of speculative ideas. While they may know intellectually that these difficulties are not insurmountable in principle, as an expert they’re overwhelmed by the amount of work yet to be done, and tend to assume it’ll never happen.

4 – Even if they think the speculations are reasonable and will turn out correct in the long run, because of #3 they fear losing professional respect within their field – other experts may be discouraged by the amount of work yet to be done, and so consider as “crazy” anyone who takes a longer-term view.

Supporting these ideas is the observation that those few experts who are willing to engage in speculation tend to be from the very top (Nobel laureates, etc.) or very bottom of their field.

Those, in other words, who are either so respected they don’t fear a loss of status, or who have no status to lose in the first place.

In a recent post on his blog Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson notes:

we often have academics who visit for lunch and take the common academic stance of reluctance to state opinions which they can’t back up with academic evidence

Which doesn’t directly explain why they don’t want to, while providing an excuse. Hanson suggests:

One does not express serious opinions on topics not yet authorized by the proper prestigious people.

Or, as Stephen Diamond has suggested,

Long-term speculation is hard to falsify until its propounders are safely dead. I suspect this is the reason for reluctance: it may seem a cheap way to get acclaim without empirical responsibility or consequences.

I think that’s a charitable interpretation – I suspect Hanson is closer to the truth.

Free speech and the left

May 29th, 2016

What is going on with the left and free speech?

Decades ago self-described liberals were consistently in the forefront of defending the right to free speech and the first amendment.

Lenny Bruce was the poster boy/martyr for this cause. Liberals defended pornography and communists. They consistently said “the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech” – not controls on speech.

The ACLU became famous for defending unpopular speech, even to the extent of defending the right of neo-Nazis to march though the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie.

From George Orwell’s 1984 to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to denunciations of Joe McCarthy, much of the left seemed to define itself as defending freedom of expression.

Mario Savio and FSM - Sather Gate, UC Berkeley, November 20, 1964

Mario Savio and FSM – UC Berkeley Sather Gate, 20 November 1964

But in recent years it seems the situation has turned 180 degrees. The #1 cause célèbre among all my liberal friends is reversing Citizens United. Campus protests demand censorship and “safe spaces”, and aim to drum professors advocating politically incorrect views out of the academy.

And then we have:

Arrest Climate-Change Deniers – Gawker

New Inquisition: Punish climate-change ‘deniers’ –

Al Gore at SXSW: We Need to ‘Punish Climate-Change Deniers’ and ..

Climate “Deniers” Must Be Jailed or Killed | – Acting Man

This all seems a very long way from the impassioned defense of free speech the left (in the US) used to stand for.

What happened? Why?

I asked an insightful slightly left-of-center friend, who said,

“Liberals will care about free speech if and as it fights harm and oppression and advances equality. There are a handful of people who care about free speech as an end in itself, but not many.”

I’m not sure if that’s correct. But if it is, what does that say about the contemporary left?

If the left of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s thought that free speech would advance its goals, helping to undermine the status quo, does it now oppose free speech because it sees itself in a position of power, able to dictate what are and aren’t acceptable ideas?

When and how did that change? Did the fall of the Soviet empire strengthen the left in the west, instead of discrediting it?

I’m confused. But as someone who really does care about free speech, it’s terribly disappointing.

For a shock, read Francis Wayland’s The Elements of Moral Science (1835; try also here), “one of the most widely used and influential American textbooks of the nineteenth century“.

As Wayland explained, prior to Darwin’s theory of evolution, conventional mainstream Christian morals were based on the idea that Man was made by God, and so had special moral responsibilities.

Darwin knocked that bucket over, and in the process broke the long-accepted rationales for all kinds of legal, moral, and ethical rules. The reverberations from that were still being felt at least into the 1970s, and included socialism, progressivism, communism, the sexual revolution (of the 1920s, not the 1960s one), fascism, bad art, ugly buildings, environmentalism, hippies, flower power, and more. Some of it was good, more of it was bad. Things didn’t really start to settle down until the 1980s in the US, the 1990s in Europe, and still aren’t settled in the Islamic world.

And there are plenty of people – all over the world – who still haven’t made peace with it.

In Asia there wasn’t as much commotion about Darwin because Asian societies tended to take their social rules from non-theistic sources (as the West does now, mostly); Darwin’s revelations didn’t invalidate them.

It is telling, I think, that East and West had more-or-less similar rules (and still do, post-Darwin), despite supposedly getting them from independent sources.

I think that shows the rules really came from social evolution, a la Friedrich Hayek (certain rules tend to make societies dominant). Ironic, no?

Thank you, Lee Kuan Yew

March 23rd, 2015


Lee Kuan Yew passed away yesterday.

Much to my regret, I never met him. I did not agree with him about many things.

But he was the greatest single benefactor of mankind in history.

As a direct result of the actions of Harry Lee and his “socialist” People’s Action Party, billions of people were lifted out of abject poverty, through reforms first in Singapore, then copied in China and in much of Asia.

Billions of people.

Today Reuters quotes Lee as saying in 1986 “We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins”.

He outlawed long hair on men in the 1970s. Banned the sale of chewing gum. And, of course, many drugs.

Those things don’t fit with my politics. But look at the result. Singapore, once almost a synonym for filth and poverty, today is arguably both the freest and wealthiest country in the world. And – billions of people.

Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s rise through market economics, based directly on emulation of Lee Kuan Yew’s policies in Singapore, famously said “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat”.

Lee’s cats caught mice.

And so, despite everything, I mourn Lee Kuan Yew.

And, about our political disagreements? Maybe I’m wrong.

sm lee press conference

Modern times

March 13th, 2015

God said, “I am the Lord thy God, King of the Universe. You shall do as I command, or suffer the consequences.”

Man was unhappy, but resigned.

Darwin said “There is no God.”

Man said “I am free! I may do as I please. I want utopia without effort. I want socialism, and fascism, and communism. There shall be no need for greed or hunger. All children shall be above average. I so command!”

God said nothing, since He did not exist.

Reality said “here are the consequences”.

Man was unhappy. But then, he had always been so.

Murphy’s law

November 17th, 2014

Murphy’s law anticipated the Everett-Wheeler conjecture (viz., “all permutations will be explored”).

Which I find ironic, considering that neither Everett nor Wheeler wrote about keyed connectors at all.

Or, Why I Have No Use for Philosophers

This is my grandfather’s axe. My father replaced the handle, I replaced the head. This is my grandfather’s axe.

Every time I try to discuss anything of substance with a professional philosopher, and often even with someone trained in philosophy, I find myself in an argument over semantics – the meaning of words.

I think this is why philosophy is generally held in such low regard.

The Ship of Theseus is a more elaborate version of the Grandfather’s Axe story that has supposedly been the subject of much debate by classical and modern philosophers (the ship is maintained by replacing planks as they age, until none of the original planks are left – is it still the same ship?).

The thing I find incredibly frustrating is that these philosophers argue about nothing. There is no dispute whatsoever regarding what has actually happened – are any of the parts original? (No.) Is it the same design? (Yes.) We can answer any factual question about the ship unambiguously.

Yet the philosophers keep arguing about it – for millennia.

These people are far worse than useless – they are actively creating confusion and argument where none exist.


August 4th, 2014

Be nice. Work hard.

Be tolerant.

Correlation is not causation.

Internalize externalities.

It’s a democracy; compromise.

Life is only fair on average.

Spend less than you earn. (Other people do; you can too.)

Subsidy is the root of all evil. (Separate post coming on this…someday.)

In One Time Pads We Trust. (All others pay cash.)

Keep Right Except To Pass.

Abstraction is good, magic is not. Remove magic.

Be polite to armed people.

Don’t buy consumer goods on credit.

…but capitalism doesn’t have to.

The poor popular reputation of free markets may be connected to the prevalence of deceptive advertising, especially for consumer goods and services.

Spend just an hour watching TV after midnight, and you’ll be bombarded with ads for penny auctionsinfant life insurance, sports betting (you’ll win thousands), anti-impotence drugs (or is it penis-lengthening? They’re never clear.), etc.

As Michael Caldara said in the first link above, “we don’t hear calls to regulate infomercials, get-rich-quick seminars, and fad diets”, but – perhaps we should?

I’d prefer vigorous enforcement against common-law fraud, but (in my humble opinion; don’t sue me,) these ads intentionally mislead the ignorant and incompetent. That’s why they air when most successful people are asleep.

To many people this gives the impression that capitalism is little more than legalized theft and deceit. A crackdown on these obvious (to me, anyway) cases of fraudulent advertising might go a long way toward improving the reputation of both government and business. Markets only work to society’s benefit, not to enrich those with the least scruples, when the basic rules of honest dealing are enforced.

If that’s too hard, another path would be an organization of ethical businesses that observe a code of honesty (complete with a membership seal).

This is not 100% cranberry juice. It's 100% Juice Cranberry. Which of course is entirely different. :-(

This is not 100% cranberry juice.
It’s “100% Juice Cranberry”.
Which of course is entirely different.

Modern tech makes looking up owners from plate numbers trivial – you don’t need a plate scanner, you just need a camera and Internet connection.

When introduced 100 years ago, plates could have had the owner’s name on them – but that was considered an unreasonable invasion of privacy. Quasi-random plate numbers made looking up owners possible, but intentionally difficult and slow.

Technology has changed that. We accept plates now only because we’re used to them. Unless you think it’s also a good idea to require pedestrians to wear a giant sign with their name on it, it’s time to get rid of license plates.

Cars already have VIN numbers stamped all over them – that is enough. The VIN is printed small and isn’t readable by every passing person.

If you get pulled over for a traffic violation, then the cop can ask for your vehicle paperwork.