Science's Toughest Test, & Higgs Particle vs Piketty
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
Good science allows only shakeable faiths. Its toughest test comes when new evidence meets old certainties. By that test some economics seems more art (or math masked religion) than science.
Thomas Piketty’s new book reporting historical inequality data has been called a “masterly diagnosis” that’ll “change...the way we think about society.” But also “a bizarre ideological screed,” with its "main argument...based on two (false) claims."
That seems different from how sciences like physics handle new evidence. The documentary Particle Fever about discovering the Higgs particle shows physicists are ready to dump decades of ideas and work because of new data. The key is what’s considered sacred?
Science's pre-commitments are to rigorous processes, not to particular inputs or outputs. Its experts readily defer to reality as referee. But experts in economics can be “ideologically” pre-committed to sacred assumptions (or results), dominated by “identity protective cognition,” and driven to defend tribal positions.
One aspect of Tyler Cowen’s intertribal Piketty review illustrates. He calls Piketty’s redistributive recommendations “more ideological than analytic,” then complains about “distorting effects” of “intense government control,” asserting that growing the “economy would do more than wealth redistribution to combat...inequality.” But recent IMF research finds “no observed tradeoff between redistributive...institutions and...growth.” Instead “inequality reduces growth”. Are Cowen’s ideological priors encouraging him to discount contrary evidence?
Are disputes in economics doomed to be less decidable, by nature? Some lessons:
1. Dialogue of the deaf: Paul Krugman says economic “principles are by no means universally agreed upon.” Thus data becomes less decisive.
2. Constellation errors: Many plausible pictures can be drawn between economic datapoints.
3. Analytical asymmetries: Flaws are like foreheads—those of others are easier to see. So grant greater weight to the scrutiny of opponents (e.g. Cowen is more reliable critiquing Piketty than in promoting his own views).
4. Procedural props: Escaping our own biases requires assistance, using tools like heterospective or rigorous bias-balancing procedures.
5. Disposable darlings: Experts unwilling to kill their cherished ideas are less trustworthy.
6. Generalize cautiously: Especially with humans lab research isn’t always safely generalizable to all of life (which lacks controlled conditions). But over-extrapolation remains tempting. Here’s an Ezra Klein case. Clive Cook says Piketty’s main conclusions are a stretch.
7. History isn’t sacred: Evidence from the past can disprove universal “laws,” but for humans its rules aren’t always sacred. Innovation happens. Patterns change. Yesterday’s impossibilities become today’s driving forces. This constrains Piketty’s lessons.
8. Pattern fitting: Brimming with complex factors and multiple cascading, often indirect, effects economics is closer to history or ecology than physics. Context is king and the Darwin pattern likely fits better than the Newton pattern.
Economic-man is not the measure of all things. Blessed are they whose experts are humble. And adaptable to life’s messy flux.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.
- Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
- Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
- Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.
- Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
- Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
- Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.