Archive for September, 2011

When experts make predictions about economics, science or politics

| September 30, 2011 | 1 Reply
When experts make predictions about economics, science or politics

It’s bad enough that we often have to listen to blowhards while we’re out and about–I’m referring to people whose are rendering long strings of opinions even though they have no credentials, expertise or curiosity about the facts. Now what do you think when you hear those many experts pontificating about the future?   I’m talking about those many experts the media provides to us, people talking with great confidence about upcoming catastrophes, including the prices of houses or stocks, or the consequences of social unrest (and, what the hell, let’s add sports “experts” to the mix).

Dan Gardner wondered about this, and he wrote a book titled: “Future Babble:  Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless and You Can Do Better.   I learned about Gardner in a well-written article by Ronald Bailey in Reason, “It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future“:

In Future Babble, Gardner acknowledges his debt to political scientist Phililp Tetlock, who set up a 20-year experiment in which he enrolled nearly 300 experts in politics. Tetlock then solicited thousands of predictions about the fates of scores of countries and later checked how well they did. Not so well. Tetlock concluded that most of his experts would have been beaten by “a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” Tetlock found that the experts wearing rose-tinted glasses “assigned probabilities of 65 percent to rosy scenarios that materialized only 15 percent of the time.” Doomsters did even worse: “They assigned probabilities of 70 percent to bleak scenarios that materialized only 12 percent of the time.”

The problem with experts was also discussed in a March 2011 issue of Scientific American, “Financial Flimflam:  “Why Economic Experts’ Predictions Fail,” which offers this finesse to Tetlock’s findings:

There was one significant factor in greater prediction success, however, and that was cognitive style: “foxes” who know a little about many things do better than “hedgehogs” who know a lot about one area of expertise. Low scorers, Tetlock wrote, were “thinkers who ‘know one big thing,’ aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who ‘do not get it,’ and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters.” High scorers in the study were “thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible ‘ad hocery’ that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.”

I suppose the bottom line advice is that you need a psychological profile of an expert before determining whether to believe him or her.   But maybe a nice long impressive track record would be a reasonable substitute.

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Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

| September 29, 2011 | Reply
Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

At Edge Video, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has given a briskly presented 30-minute lecture on what the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century. He opened his talk by indicating that we are now in a period of a new synthesis in ethics, meaning that in order to do meaningful work in the field of moral psychology, one has to draw from numerous other fields, including biology, computer science, mathematics, neuroscience, primatology and many other fields. The bottom line is that one needs to be careful to not attempt to reduce moral psychology to a single principle, as is often done by those who advocate that morality is a code word for a single test, such as welfare-maximization or justice-fairness.

I have followed Jonathan Haidt’s work for several years now, and I am highly impressed with his breadth of knowledge, his many original ideas, and the way he (in keeping with his idea of what moral psychology should be like) synthesizes the work of numerous disparate fields of study. In this post, I am sharing my own notes from my viewing of heights two-part video lecture.

In Haidt’s approach, the sense of taste serves as a good metaphor for morality. There are only a few dominant bases for moral taste (akin to the four types of taste receptors), taste can be generally categorized as “good” or “bad,” and despite the fact that there are a limited number of foundations for moral and sensory taste, there is plenty of room for cultural variation–every culture has its own approach to making good moral decisions (and making good tasting food).

Haidt warns that those studying moral psychology should be careful to avoid two common errors that are well illustrated by two recent journal articles. The first article, titled “The Weirdest People in the World,” indicates that most of the psychology research done in the entire world is done in the United States, and the subjects tend to be Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD”). Not that one cannot do psychology with this homogenous group of subjects (typically college students), but one needs be careful to avoid generalizing to the entire world based upon a WEIRD set of subjects. In fact, WEIRD people tend to see the world much differently than people in many other cultures. They tend to see separate objects (versus relationships), and they tend to rely on analytical thinking (categories and laws, reason and logic) versus holistic thinking (patterns and context). Does this make us WEIRD people more accurate since we think in these analytical terms? Not necessarily, but before generalizing, we need to take it to heart that we live in an unusual culture. Haidt warns that this problem is exacerbated because our psychologists tend to surround themselves with similar-thinking others, and when this happens, the confirmation bias kicks in and they will inevitably find lots of evidence to condemn those who think differently.

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Peter Singer discusses robots and the future of war

| September 29, 2011 | 3 Replies
Peter Singer discusses robots and the future of war

At this TED talk, Peter Singer explains how robots are increasingly replacing soldiers, but they are turning war into entertainment akin to video games, encouraging “war porn” videos, creating “cubicle warriors,” and painting us as cold-hearted aggressors to the rest of the world. And it’s about to get a lot worse, when armed autonomous systems come online. Singer argues that many ethics issues are lagging far behind the dangers of widely implementing these robot technologies. He also suggests that the problem is not in the machines themselves, but in the fact that we appear to be “wired for war.”

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Atheist hymn

| September 29, 2011 | Reply
Atheist hymn

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers performed this atheist hymn at Merlefest 2010:

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Misplaced loyalty toward corrupt political parties rather than issues

| September 28, 2011 | 2 Replies
Misplaced loyalty toward corrupt political parties rather than issues

Glenn Greenwald is a consistent source of hard hitting well-documented articles that cross-cut the American political scene. He lets the chips fall, which is more than you can say for many (maybe most) Americans who call themselves Democrats or Republicans. You see, many of those folks become totally caught up in the personalities to which they feel allegiance that they lose the capacity to be self-critical. They become stupidly tribal. Here’s how Greenwald puts it:

A siginificant aspect of this progressive disdain is grounded in the belief that the only valid form of political activism is support for Democratic Party candidates, and a corresponding desire to undermine anything that distracts from that goal. Indeed, the loyalists of both parties have an interest in marginalizing anything that might serve as a vehicle for activism outside of fealty to one of the two parties.

How does this work in the real world? Consider the closely intertwined relationship involving Democrats and Wall Street Banks:

The very idea that one can effectively battle Wall Street’s corruption and control by working for the Democratic Party is absurd on its face: Wall Street’s favorite candidate in 2008 was Barack Obama, whose administration — led by a Wall Street White House Chief of Staff and Wall-Street-subservient Treasury Secretary and filled to the brim with Goldman Sachs officials — is now working hard to protect bankers from meaningful accountability (and though he’s behind Wall Street’s own Mitt Romney in the Wall Street cash sweepstakes this year, Obama is still doing well); one of Wall Street’s most faithful servants is Chuck Schumer, the money man of the Democratic Party; and the second-ranking Senate Democrat acknowledged — when Democrats controlled the Congress — that the owners of Congress are bankers. There are individuals who impressively rail against the crony capitalism and corporatism that sustains Wall Street’s power, but they’re no match for the party apparatus that remains fully owned and controlled by it.

[Go to Greenwald's site at Salon.com for loads of excellent links].

Therefore, voting Democrat means voting for big Wall Street banks, but the most vocal supporters pretend to be oblivious (or, perhaps the confirmation bias is working overtime and they are oblivious) to this massive sell-out by their cherished party.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but all of the above leads me to believe that the time for trusting sweet-talking politicians is long over.  I’m completely finished doing that sort of thing, and I’m now embarrassed that I got so caught up in Obama fever 3 years ago.  I have increasingly seen that Obama is 90% sell-out to big corporate money and 10% throw the progressives a few crumbs.  And lest anyone think that I’m leaning rightward, I’m utterly convinced that the conservatives are even worse.

In order to have any meaningful discussion with our political leaders on any political topic, we need to first rid our election process of all private money. We need to tell our leaders that until we fix this money issue, there is no use talking about anything else. Really and truly.  If we take our eye off this issue, our country will continue on its long and accelerating downward spiral.  What makes it all horrendous is that what’s happening to the working class was totally unnecessary.  It happened because our leaders were bought by big money and thus sold out the overall public good. Here’s one recently-announced approach for fixing the problem, courtesy of Dylan Ratigan.

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Justice Scalia discusses gays and the law

| September 28, 2011 | 1 Reply
Justice Scalia discusses gays and the law

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently gave a speech at the historically Catholic Duquesne University School of Law.  According to this article at Think Progress Justice, “Justice Antonin Scalia urged the university not to stray from a religious identity hostile to gay and lesbian students.”   That fact that Justice Scalia was recently irked by the the topic of gays reminded me of a talk he gave in St. Louis about three years ago (to the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis) where he displayed a condescending tone while mentioning gays and the law on several occasions during a single speech.

Back when I heard his St. Louis speech, it seemed to me that Justice Scalia merely had an ax to grind based on his belief that gays don’t have a protected place in the law under his pet theory of “originalism.”  This Think Progress article reminded me of his tone at the St. Louis lecture three years ago.   The comments to the Think Progress article repeatedly returned to the topic of reaction formations.  Perhaps that is unfair, because I’m sure he discusses other topics at his many lectures. There is also a fascinating literature suggesting that conservatives are susceptible to inviting disgust into their moral arsenal (and see here).  On the other hand, Scalia is one of many conservatives out there who burn considerable frustrated energy on this topic, tempting me to do some arm chair psychoanalysis. And I must say that his tone at the St. Louis lecture was permeated with condescension, arguably disgust. I would normally think armchair psychology to be inappropriate except that it seems so utterly invited in this case. Further, Scalia’s long slow burn on this topic might well be invading his analysis of the law. And he is a very powerful man, apparently with many years yet to serve on the Supreme Court bench.

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Constitutional Amendment proposed for getting money out of politics

| September 27, 2011 | 9 Replies
Constitutional Amendment proposed for getting money out of politics

How can it be that most of our politicians believe the following:

- That Wall Street so-called banks deserved a federal bailout when they were largely responsible for causing the economic collapse of the United States, and despite the fact that after bank “reform” the Wall Street banks are bigger than ever.

- That the United States needs to keep spending more on its war machine than all of the other countries on earth combined, and that we somehow need to be in a state of perpetual unfunded war?

- That Congress passed “health care reform” that forces Americans to purchase coverage from monopolistic for-profit corporations, instead of passing some form of single payer coverage, which is overwhelmingly preferred by Americans.

- That private money political campaigns and an over-consolidated for-profit media pre-choosing candidates is a good thing.

- That they shouldn’t repeal the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The answer is lots of money. When it is handed to politicians in large wads, it makes them vote in ways that keeps the money coming, regardless of what they claim. Here’s the inner logic from a politician’s viewpoint: “How would I keep my job if I didn’t keep the money rolling in by voting for corporate interests even when those votes conflict with the interests of ordinary citizens.”

I agree with Dylan Ratigan that our politicians can’t have any meaningful conversations, and can’t make rational decisions, given the amount of private money in politics. The money they receive turns virtually all of them into psychopaths. Getting private money out of politics has become the most important issue of them all, because it keeps us from rationally discussing every other issue. How could we possibly get private money out of politics? The politicians won’t do it, because it is like crack cocaine to them.

Dylan Ratigan has proposed the following as an Amendment to the United States Constitution to get money out of politics, effectively reversing Citizen’s United in the process:

No person, corporation or business entity of any type, domestic or foreign, shall be allowed to contribute money, directly or indirectly, to any candidate for Federal office or to contribute money on behalf of or opposed to any type of campaign for Federal office. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, campaign contributions to candidates for Federal office shall not constitute speech of any kind as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or any amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Congress shall set forth a federal holiday for the purposes of voting for candidates for Federal office.

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On resolving conflict in the Middle East

| September 27, 2011 | Reply
On resolving conflict in the Middle East

Sanctions without teeth? That’s what the Turkish Prime Minister sees when it comes to Israel:

The Turkish PM indicated in the Time interview that the reason the international community had stood by without sanctioning Israel was that the Quartet – which includes Russia, the United States, the European Union, and the UN – was not genuinely interested in resolving the Mideast conflict.

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How to not create jobs

| September 26, 2011 | Reply
How to not create jobs

There are much better ways to create jobs than handing money to the military, according to an article by Alternet: “When we spend $1 billion on the military rather than green investments, health care or education we forfeit between 5,000 and 17,000 jobs.”

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