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The Matthew effect: Is inequality just a fact of the universe?
The Matthew effect or Price's law shows us how inequality can be a fact of nature. What does this mean for our debate on inequality in our society?
There is an old saying: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. You might suppose that such a pessimistic adage would be attributable to a great robber baron or tyrant of ancient Greece. The genesis of the idea, however, belongs to Jesus Christ as depicted in the gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew—even if he didn’t phrase it exactly as above.
It might be bad news for the people who want to reduce inequality if even a prophet who flogged bankers and preached on the nobility of the poor thinks inequality is inevitable.
However, the phrase is relevant to more fields than just economics.
The Matthew effect, or Price’s law as it is sometimes called in science, is the principle that states that inequality is both the rule and tendency in many systems. Examples abound in human-made systems and can even be found in nature.
It is an often referenced, and accurate, notion that the lion's share of our communication uses less than a thousand different words, giving those few terms a massive weight in our discourse. In classical music, where one would suppose that the occasional one-hit wonder would be able to break out, we find that only four composers are responsible for most of the music you are likely to hear played by an orchestra in this day and age.
In the world of science, we find that a small number of scientists produce most of the papers you read or hear about. There is also Stigler's law, which posits that naming rights will often go to the second, often more famous, person to discover something, which is named for Stephen Stigler despite the tendency being described first by a man named Merton.
In the natural world, the effect can also be seen as the direct result of the laws of nature. For example, when you weigh the masses of heavenly bodies, a small number of them contain most of the mass. Since more mass is tied to a stronger gravitational pull, massive objects are also better able to pull other objects into them, increasing their mass further.
In the wild world of lobster social hierarchies, lobsters that lose fights are statistically more likely to lose their next fight than you would expect based on their previous history alone. Meaning that the losers will fail more often for no other reason than that they already lost once.
A massive amount of interstellar material. Since gravity is tied to mass, the most massive objects in the universe are best able to draw more mass to them, making them even larger and better able to grow. The perpetuation of inequality on a cosmic scale.
So, is trying to fight inequality a fool’s errand?
Is massive inequality just the way of nature? Should it exist because it does exist? To say that inequality is okay because it is natural is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. As was explained by David Hume in 1739, we cannot derive morality or how the world should be from how it is. In his own words:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”
What this means is that we cannot obtain a moral ought from facts about the world alone, we need something else to help us complete the jump. For example, if we try to say that eating meat is natural and therefore we ought to eat meat, we don’t have a full argument. We would have to add the idea that doing what is natural is good or another idea which can bridge the Is-Ought gap.
Now, this isn’t to say that we can’t look to facts about the world to help guide us in deciding what we ought to do or how the world ought to be. But it does mean that we can’t just say: “X is the way of the world. Therefore X is good,” or "X is the way of the world. Therefore we ought to do Y." So before you run off and say that inequality is natural, know that this doesn’t mean it is good or that we shouldn’t try to prevent it.
After all, getting cancer is natural too.
David Hume (1711- 1776) the Scottish philosopher and historian. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
So, what can we take away from this?
The existence of the Matthew effect in our social systems, the natural world, and even our languages, does provide a real and challenging obstacle for those who wish to promote equality. It also, however, provides them with a potential tool to use in the promotion of their goals.
In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker describes how the Matthew effect can be understood as part of a virtuous cycle of progress or a vicious cycle of violence.
He cites research examining large cities where it was found that:
“the shorter the expected lifespan (from all causes other than violence), the higher the rate of violent crime. The correlation supports the hypothesis that, holding age constant, people are more reckless when they have fewer years of unlived life at risk. A rational adjustment of one’s discounting rate in response to the uncertainty of the environment could create a vicious cycle, since your own recklessness then figures into the discounting rate of everyone else. The Matthew effect, in which everything seems to go right in some societies and wrong in others, could be a consequence of environmental uncertainty and psychological recklessness feeding on each other.”
While he notes that this often means that wealthier societies will make progress on domestic issues that poorer nations are unable to tackle, it also provides a roadmap to closing those inequalities if it is genuinely the case that it only takes a few institutions in place to start a virtuous cycle.
Similarly, in his book Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty argues that ever-increasing inequality is not a bug but a feature of modern capitalism. He suggests that we try to understand this tendency and act on it directly rather than pretending that these inequalities are flukes that can be treated on a case by case basis.
Is inequality natural? In many ways it is, but that is no reason that our society should have massive inequalities. What is natural is not always good and what is good is not always natural. In any case, to understand how the world functions and often tends to inequality is a vital part of any discussion on the subject. Should we take steps to reduce economic and political inequality? Or are we going to let nature take its course?
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Can only disasters change inequality?
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
You suffer from tab overload
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.