Tuesday, December 1, 2009

important lessons for looking at current events

"The magic moment of maturity in every voter's life comes when he or she accepts the fact that no candidate is right on every issue. At that moment, one becomes either a chooser or a loser....

I will not say here how I will vote, partly because it's against my newspaper's rules, but mainly because millions of undecideds would follow like lemmings and make me responsible for the result and unable to creatively backbite or pettily bicker."

-- William Safire, "The Clothespin Vote," The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2000
[To those who crown Sarah Palin, Barack Obama or anyone else as anything other than politicians with a heap of ambition and a tablespoon of slime. They key is to choose between whatever options there are, understanding the true quality of the options, and remain critical and skeptical. I voted for Obama because I'm more scared of Palin than of Obama, but I think he's done a horrible job thus far. Would we have been better off with McCain? Probably, as much from a maturity and experience standpoint as from any other. Would we have been better off with McCain with a non-zero probability of Palin? I don't know how to measure the apocalypse, so that expected value will remain a mystery]

"Good vs. evil thinking causes us to lower our value of a person's opinion, or dismiss it altogether, if we find out that person has behaved badly.  We no longer wish to affiliate with those people and furthermore we feel epistemically justified in dismissing them.

Sometimes this tendency will lead us to intellectual mistakes.

Take Climategate.  One response is: 1. "These people behaved dishonorably.  I will lower my trust in their opinions."

Another response, not entirely out of the ballpark, is: 2. "These people behaved dishonorably.  They must have thought this issue was really important, worth risking their scientific reputations for.  I will revise upward my estimate of the seriousness of the problem."

I am not saying that #2 is correct, I am only saying that #2 deserves more than p = 0.  Yet I have not seen anyone raise the possibility of #2.  It very much goes against the grain of good vs. evil thinking:  Who thinks in terms of: "They are evil, therefore they are more likely to be right."

(Which views or goals of yours would you behave dishonorably for?  Are they all your least correct views or least important goals?  With what probability?  Might it include the survival of your children?)

I do understand that this line of reasoning can be abused: "The Nazis went to a lot of trouble, etc."  The Bayesian point stands.

Another example of misleading good vs. evil thinking stems from the budget.  Many people believe:

3. "If the Republicans win, they will irresponsibly cut taxes and do nothing real to control spending."  You may have even seen this view in the blogosphere.

One response to this is 4. "We should ensure that the Republicans do not win and criticize them every chance possible."

An alternative response is 5. "Sooner or later the Republicans will in fact win and I cannot prevent that.  Right now the Democrats should spend less money, given the truth of #3.  In this regard the Republicans, although evil, are in fact correct in asking the Democrats to spend less money, if only to counterbalance their own depravity."

I do not see many people entertaining #5.  #5 implies that a group judged as dishonest should be granted some probability of speaking the truth on an important issue.  (Nor will pro-Republicans be attracted to a claim which portrays their group as dishonest.)  Note also that by accepting #5 you are admitting and partially accepting the ability of the Republicans to "out-game" the Democrats.  That makes #5 even harder to accept.

Again, I am not asking you to buy #2 and #5 outright.  I am simply suggesting they have a higher "p" than many people are willing to grant them.  And that is because we are accustomed to judging the truth of a claim by the moral status of the group making the claim." - Tyler Cowen. http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/12/the-limits-of-good-vs-evil-thinking.html


[Common sense says it's unlikely you can spew lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and not see negative effects. It also looked far more to me that the scientists were taking science that they believed in and trying to insulate it from the attacks of the ignorant. Were they stupid? yes. Were they dishonorable? yes. Does that mean global warming doesn't exist? Not to me. Anyone with a better understanding of the science want to comment?

and on the Republican vs Democrat snipe, if the next president is like Bush, then the statement is true. The Democrats are doing the same thing, however, so it's hard to see them as being any more honest.]


[and for something very, very different:]


The study: A single computer was placed in a monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo to monitor the literary output of six primates.

Who and when: Students at University of Plymouth, 2003, paid for from a £2,000 Arts Council grant

The aim: To test the "infinite monkey theory", which states that if a monkey hits keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time, it will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

What was learnt: The theory is flawed. After one month - admittedly not an "infinite" amount of time - the monkeys had partially destroyed the machine, used it as a lavatory, and mostly typed the letter "s".


-Eric Barker http://bakadesuyo.com/will-monkeys-really-type-shakespeare-if-given


[Math majors, it's been 7 years since I studied the different types of infinity. If you could actually get the monkeys to type, which type of infinity would the "infinite monkey theory" fall into? Would a particular type of infinity mean that the probability they write the complete works of William Shakespeare (which has a finite number of permutations, as opposed to writing "a coherent story", which has an infinite number of permutations) over time would not be 1?]

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