Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Biased Samples in Scientific Journals

If you get positive results, then I have one major talent, and that is getting published in mainstream journals.
—Yudhijit Bhattacharjee quoting psychologist Daryl Bem.  March, 2012.  “Paranormal Psychologist.”  Discover magazine.  Bem was talking to Charles Honorton, who sought to verify the existence of ESP’s like telepathy.  Note: This illustrates why statistics reported in scientific journals are biased.  If 100 studies are conducted on the ability of people to exhibit telepathy and only two suggest telepathy exists, those are the only two studies that will be published because they are the only ones (out of the 100 studies) that are interesting.  In reality, the probability of telepathy existing is 2%, but according to the journals, it will be 100%.  

Perhaps this explains the following quote.

If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true, after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia.
—Tyler Cowen

Inspiring Quote for Researchers

Why do some people get caught by an idea that takes over your life?  I don’t know, but I do know that as long as it doesn’t drive you crazy, it is a blessing.
—Julian Barbour, a physicist, remarking on his forty year quest to discover a universal model of the cosmos.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A philosophical appeal to conservatism

It is rare to find a philosophical school promoting conservatism, but that is exactly what some Existentialism schools did.  The reference below shows how some philosophers before and during World War II began to connect what we call today Progressive politics to tyranny.  This might be related Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, but I haven't read it and thus can't say for sure.

The quote relates to a remark I often make: While I care for no religion, I wish for everyone around me to be deeply pious.  If they are not, I fear what they might be capable of.  I say this knowing that being religious does not prohibit one from cruelty, but believing that in today's world, it makes cruelty less likely.  I would not have made the same statement in the twelfth century.

[they asked] how in the world, at the height of European civilization, at the moment in the twentieth century, when it looks like we have the most sophisticated kind of society, many democracies in Western Europe—with its concern for individualism and individual rights—...can turn into the most regressive barbarism that's ever been seen.  What they mean is fascism in general, which was all over Europe…
So, the Frankfurt School is literally trying to say: how could it be that at the height of European civilization, at the height of what seems the most rational civilization in history…, could we see this most irrational barbarism develop?  The anti-Semitism.  The Holocaust.  The camps. How could this happen here…?  And they tried to find a deep answer.
 They argued that since the time of Homer, all through Western civilization, the differentiation between the ego of the aristocracy from body, women, and slaves, had been the way of enlightenment.  That is, progress, whatever good it brought, came at the price of the separation of the rational ego of those in power from the emotion from the body and from others.
What they have in mind is this: ... the notion of the self of the individual who seeks power (members of the aristocracy in the modern world, members of the capitalist bourgeois—whoever) must differentiate itself from the lower classes.  Those in power must say: I am not like them.
Now, how do they do that?  They have to repress in themselves...their own bodily impulses and those things they have in common with the lower classes...Between he or whoever is in power and those who are to be controlled, there has to be a differentiation of self-understanding.  The ruler must think: I alone am in control of myself...
The more you base social order on reason alone, the more you discover that reason has nothing substantive to say morally...The more the modern scientific consciousness becomes sophisticated the more it believes in nothing.  And when it believes in nothing, it is led to use other human beings as objects for any kind of pleasure.  
Now the unhappy conclusion to this, and it is very unhappy, is...the conclusion is the enlightened self—the whole notion of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century...the belief that we are entering a new age where, if we get rid of superstition and perhaps to some extent tradition and aristocracy...and if instead we are going to enter an era where scientific search for truth is going to join with enlightened leadership and individual liberty...—...that whole enlightenment notion (freedom and power coming together)...this enlightenment self turns into the fascist self, capable of any act of subjugation of others.  
The implication—and they say this explicitly, actually—is that while social freedom and the modern notion of the free society (individualism, democracy) is dependent on enlightened thought, enlightened thought must inevitably destroy itself in a new kind of barbarism. 
—Lawrence Cahoone.  Modern Intellectual Thought.  Lecture 24: Existentialism and the Frankfurt School.  The Teaching Company.  2010.

Choice and Kinetic Identity

Central to how economists measure preferences is the notion that a person's desires and constraints are best reflected in the actual choices they makein natural settings, using their own money, and having complete choice in how to spend that money.

Economists typically consider identity to be relatively fixed, and this identity to be manifested in the choices.  That is, we don't worry about where identity comes from, but assume this identity generates the preferences that generates the choices that economists observe.  Not always, but in empirical work, mostly.

Were we to become a bit philosophical, we might say the Frankfurt School of the Existentialism movement agrees, contending that action reveals the self.  Action is always the result of a choice.  It is from the situations the universe places you, and the opportunities for action it demands of you, that gives you the opportunity to form your own kinetic identity.  So long as we do not make our choices by mimicking others man is absolutely free, this Existentialism movement contends.

In light of these considerations, I wonder if economists should cease waxing theoretical about the "welfare" of man and instead concentrate on what economists do best: study the wealth of man.  Yes, "wealth" itself can be as intangible as welfare, as much of our wealth is bound within goods and services that are not traded in markets, and hence, not easily valued.  But still, we know that one's happiness and most rewarding moments come not when we have the most money and leisure, but wehen the universe tests us and we prove ourselves robust—those moments when Providence betrays us and we discover our identity in its most admirable form.  Like a Frenchman during the German occupation of World War II (see below).

We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, jews, or political prisoners, we were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept. And, because of all this, we were free. Because the nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles. Because we were hunted down, every one of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment. The circumstances, atrocious as they often were, finally made it possible for us to live, without pretense or false shame, the hectic and impossible existence that is known as the lot of man. Exile, captivity, and especially death (which we usually shrink from facing at all in happier times) became for us the habitual objects of our concern. We learned that they were neither inevitable accidents, nor even constant and exterior dangers, but that they must be considered as our lot itself, our destiny, the profound source of our reality as men. At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: “man is mortal!” And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: “rather death than…
—Jean-Paul Sartre in La Republique Du Silence (1944)

Lawrence Cahoone
Modern Intellectual Thought
Lecture 24: Existentialism and the Frankfurt School
The Teaching Company

Monday, February 27, 2012

If only I were in charge...

So what does ail Europe?  The truth is that the story is mostly monetary.  By introducing a single currency without the institutions needed to make that currency work, Europe effectively reinvented the defects of the gold standard—defects that played a major role in causing and perpetuating the Great Depression.

—Paul Krugman.  “What Ails Europe?”  February 26, 2012.  The New York Times.

When it comes to understanding financial crises and economic fluctuations one generally has a choice between two explanations.  One describes malaise as the result of bad decisions by consumers, firms, and/or government.  The other is a lament of how everything would have been better if I (the economist talking) were in charge of policy.

Quotations on Usury and Historic Christianity

Below are a collection of quotes I used in a lecture today about usury and Christianity in Late Antiquity and Middle Ages.  The one by Philip Daileader is the most interesting one.

…towns-people could assuage the guilt—purge the guilt—caused by their own greed and their own obsession with time.  Medieval moralists condemned towns-people for being so concerned with money and profit—and, odd as this might seem to us today, [for whom] planning doesn’t seem like much of a sin…—Medieval moralists considered it bad for individuals to plan about the future, to care about the future too much.  Because if you plan actively what you are going to be doing tomorrow or the next day and a year from now, you are showing insufficient trust in God…
Philip Daileader.  High Middle Ages.  Lecture 10: Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Movement.  The Teaching Company.

Many held that one simply could not be both a merchant and a Christian…
—David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest.
—Exodus 22:25 (New International Version)

Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live  on your holy hill?
…who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things will never be shaken.
—Psalm 15 (New International Version)

Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?  I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain.  But let the exacting of usury stop!  Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them…
—Nehemiah 5:9 (New International Version)

Who has withdrawn his hand from the poor And not received usury or increase, But has executed my judgments And walked in My statutes—He shall not die for the iniquity of his father; He shall surely live!
—Ezekiel 18:17 (New King James Bible)
“In you they take bribes to shed blood; you take usury and increase; you have made profit from your neighbors by extortion and have forgotten Me,” says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 18:13 (New King James Bible)

Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.  You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite…
—Deuteronomy 23:19 (New International Version)

What should the rich man do when receiving a visit from his troubled neighbor?  True, Jesus had said to give without expectation of return, but it seemed unrealistic to expect most Christians to do that.  And even if they did, what sort of ongoing relationships would that create?  St. Basil took the radical position.  God had given us all things in common, and he had specifically instructed the rich to give their possessions to the poor.  The communism of the Apostles—who pooled all their wealth, and took freely what they needed—was thus the only proper model for a truly Christian society.
—David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life.
   And why do you worry about clothes?...So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself…
—Matthew 6:14 (New International Version)

The Lord gave His own injunction quite plainly in the words, “from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
     But what of the money lover?  He sees before him a man under stress of necessity bent to the ground in supplication.  He sees him hesitating at no act, no words, of humiliation.  He sees him suffering undeserved misfortune, but he is merciless.  He does not reckon that he is a fellow-creature.  He does not give in to his entreaties.  He stands stiff and sour.  He is moved by no prayers; his resolution is broken by no tears….
With pretences of this kind and talk like this he fawns on the wretched victim, and induces him to swallow the bait.  Then he binds him with a written security, adds loss of liberty to the trouble of his pressing poverty, and is off.  The man who has made himself responsible for interest that he cannot pay has accepted voluntary slavery for life.
Saint Basil.  Sermon on usury given in 365 A.D.  This sermon set the standard for the morality of usury for centuries.

…fathers forced to sell their children, debtors who hanged themselves out of shame.  Usury, he observed, must be considered a form of violent robbery, even murder.
—David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Indifference Principle: Roman Style

When we are considering a happy life, you cannot answer me as though after a division of the House, “This view has most supporters,” because for that very reason it is the worse of the two.  Matters do not stand so well with mankind that the majority should prefer the better course: the more people do a thing the worse it is likely to be.
—Seneca in On a Happy Life

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Costs of Education

We seek no price, O king.  We ask only a fit place for teaching and quick minds to teach, and besides these food and clothing…
—Answer to Charlemagne’s question to two teachers regarding what price they require to take a teaching post.  From Richard Winston in Charlemagne (1960).

Contrast this with today.  I recently sent an email to university administrators volunteering to assemble a Task Force to find ways to manage the rise in tuition.  Of course, it may have been me that repelled them, but I got no reply to my email. This is not illogical.  Why would we care, when the money keeps rolling in no matter what we do?

Intellectuals in Time

Is it not obvious that our contemporary concern with schools of existentialism, say, or with the distinctions among capitalism, communism and socialism, will seem a thousand years hence as incomprehensible to historians of his temper as the eight century’s concern with adoptianism, iconoclasm or the filioque controversy?  The human mind has always worked with the materials it had at hand.  It is risk to judge and condemn the intellectual achievements of one age by the standards of another.  Aristotle was not a fool because he thought the universe consisted of fifty-five concentric hollow spheres—any more than Niels Bohr was a fool when he framed his “solar system” model of the atom…The slower pace of scientific development in the past does not mean that every thinker from Aristotle to Copernicus was an intellectual dwarf.  The modern schoolboy is not greater than Euclid because he knows far more about mathematics.
—Richard Winston in Charlemagne (1960).

Origin of Guilds

The first time the word "guild" was recorded was in 779 when Charlemagne's Frankish kingdom outlawed them, just as he outlawed excessive tolls.

—Richard Winston in Charlemagne (1960).

P.S.  Can you tell which book I have been reading?

Superstitious Farmers in the Early Middle Ages

These peasants were a superstitious lot who clung to many an ancient magic rite, in spite of the warnings of their priests and stewards.  They were filled with awe of the earth.  “They considered the field a living creature which had to be tamed, before cultivation was begun, by magic spells…At the first plowing an egg was laid before the plow; if it broke, the earth was willing to accept the sacrifice…Taboos were observed to guard the health of the earth.  Women who had just given birth and people with lung sicknesses were not permitted to approach the field.  When bodies were taken to the grave, the procession must not cross any cultivated field.”
Every peasant village had its magician who saw to it that the spells were properly observed.  These magicians provided portions and spells for healing sick cows, oxen, chickens and children, and were always obliging about concocting philters to help lovelorn peasant girls win the peasant Tristans. Pagan beliefs died hard; as has often been observed, the Church had to confer on innumerable saints the powers of heathen spirits before the simpler folk could be weaned entirely away from their ancient religion.
Among the more expensive of magic rites was the custom of burying deep in the ground a part of the seed for sowing, as a sacrificial offering to Erda, the goddess of earth, who might otherwise be offended when the peasant rudely drove his plow into her body.  Charles [read: Charlemagne] vainly called on his stewards to stamp out this practice for the eminently sensible reason that it was wasteful: less seed was sown and the harvest was diminished.
—Richard Winston in Charlemagne (1960).

How the pagan gods of Germany was cut down, literally

Germany in middle of the eighth century (722-732 AD) had a sundry of gods nearly identical to ancient Rome, though the gods went by different names.  The Christians of this era felt they were charged to convert the pagans, if not by persuasion, then by force.  Thor the Thunderer resembled Zeus and Jupiter, and Thor was symbolized chiefly by a big oak tree.  Not just any big oak tree: one tree in particular.

Thor was not so mighty though.  Thor was subdued by a simple Benedictine Monk.  Well, maybe not simple.  Boniface was an English missionary who traveled about Europe bringing pagans to Jesus, and he now entered the sacred grove of oak trees of Germany with an ax in his hand.  Walking right up to the enormous oak presumed to be the manifestation of Thor's essence, Boniface chopped it down.  To the pagans' surprise, Thor did not retaliate with his trademark bolt of lightning.

This was done in plain sight of Germans.  Why did they let him destroy their holy tree?  No one knows.  Perhaps they assumed Thor would defend itself?  Perhaps Boniface had soldiers with him?  If chroniclers were more reliable, perhaps we would know.  It is said that many conversions were made that day, marking a rare event when empirical observation swayed people's religious affiliation.

If Thor got his revenge, it was belated.  Boniface was eventually murdered by pagans, but not until 754, more than twenty years after he chopped down Thor.  Since Boniface had to die someday, it would be hard to claim he did so at the hand of Thor.  I would think Thor to have a short fuse, and would not wait long for revenge.

Was Boniface sainted?  Of course.  Killing a pagan god does not go unnoticed by the Pope.

Note: Boniface crowned Pepin King of the Franks.  Pepin was the son of Charles "the Hammer" Martel and father of Charlemagne (Charles the Great).  Pepin, Charles "The Hammer", and Charlemagne were the forefathers of the Carolingian Empire, from which, I assume, is where all names (state, people) containing "Carolina" is derived. 

Source: Charlemagne by Richard Winston

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

J. S. Mill: The father of liberty

Ask the average person today what freedom entails, and they will say it is the right to do whatever one wants so long as it does not interfere with the liberty of others.  I thought this definition reached far back in time, but it seems that this form of liberty was first described by John Stuart Mill.

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to pre- vent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.  These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.  To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.  The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.  In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body, the individual is sovereign.
—John Stuart Mill.  On Liberty.  Chapter 1.

The Definition of Scholasticism

...from whence the word "scholarship" and "scholar" derives...

Scholasticism originally meant someone in the high middle ages who mixed Aristotle with Christianity.  Clergy like the metaphysics of Aristotle because it conceived of a fixed universe where everything had a particular "telos" or meaning for existing, and Thomas Aquinas began a culture of using reason to defend one's religion.

Over time, scholarship tended to take a particular form of writing or speech.  What you would do is to take snippets of scripture and/or philosophy that seem to contradict each other, and use research and logic to prove that they really agree, thereby affirming the sensibility of one's world, mind, and religion.

Lawrence Cahoone.  Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  Lecture 2.  Scholasticism and the Scientific Revolution.
Philip Daileader.  High Middle Ages.  Lecture 14.  The Origins of Scholasticism.

Origin of the word "hobo"

After the American Civil War men would take to the road with a hoe in their hand, finding work along the way.  They were called "hoe boys", and later, "hobos."

Source:  The Great Depression.  Episode 1.  The History Channel.

I learned something about Rousseau (related to paternalism)

I recently listened to a lecture about Rousseau and have concluded he is a must read for people who write about paternalism.  Below is an excerpt of the lecture.  Pay attention to Rousseau's definition of freedom and willingness to employ coercion.  This seems to be consistent with progressive politics and an anathema to libertarians.  Whatever your politics, Rousseau seems an important person of study.

…for Rousseau, the first evil…historically…which began the loss of innocence within the human race, was ownership.  That was the beginning of inequality.  Rousseau is a precursor to Marx.  He believes that equality is the proper condition of society…he longs for a time government didn’t impose equality…[the second evil] was making individuals dependent on each other…people become, Rousseau believes, in the modern world, concerned with the status of what he called “the love of self as it is seen by others”, instead of manifesting simple healthy “love of self.”  That is to say, for Rousseau, all human animals rightly have “love of self”…so the primitive man and woman loves self and so feeds him and wants to go on living—that’s healthy, that’s natural— …but “love of self as it is seen by others” is different…[it] is the desire for me to get other people to think highly of me: that becomes more important than anything else.  This is what happens in modern, cosmopolitan, educated circles. ..
Rousseau added to his legacy with another book, which is politically the most important of his books: The Social Contract.  In that book…Rousseau claimed that if we cannot return to the state of nature (which we can’t) we can at least organize society into a self-ruling community of equality, and rule as democratic equals—all serving not their private interests, but the general will, or what’s good for society as a whole.  He imagined this as, in a somewhat romantic way, peasants under the oak tree, passing their laws with simple common sense…[he was saying] democratic equality can capture a lot of what was present in the ancient condition, the primitive condition…
Rousseau literally did believe…regarding peasants around the oak tree… “They’re not smart enough to be duped”…their wants are so simple you can’t bribe them and trick them into adopting policies that aren’t good for them.
Rousseau…helped to fuel the most radically progressive event of the century: The French Revolution of 1789.  This is a bit ironic.  The Social Contract inspired all younger political figures on the continent to make freedom their ideal…[Rousseau once wrote] “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”  So, Roussea’s plea for freedom and equality and democracy (and he did mean democracy in the direct sense)…this was taken to heart by everyone…
[as some people said]…There are two common notions of freedom in the West.  One is that liberty is simply the absence of coercion.  When am I free?  When I am not in jail.  When am I free?  When you get out of my way and let me do what I want.  The other [common notion] is that liberty and freedom is self-determination.  I’m free when my self determines my actions, rather than something else determining my actions. 
Now, these can certainly overlap…However, they can depart…It’s possible to follow one by not the other.  We can illuminate this difference by asking a simple question: Is a rich drug addict free?...Poor junkies are presumably not free.  They have a need for something that they don’t have and they have to commit crimes to get it.  My case: I’m a junkie, that’s all I want, and I have unlimited access to it…So I experience no obstacles to getting what I want.  Now, if freedom is simply the absence of coercion, we must say the rich junkie is free.  But we may not want to say the rich junkie is free.  Some of you may say, “That’s not really freedom, is it?”  The question is: if we think he’s not free, what idea of freedom must we be implicitly using?...
Now, if you don’t think the rich junkie is free you are probably saying something like, “He’s not because he’s not himself—he’s under control of the drug.”  But this implies that his openly expressed desire for the drug is not the real him, not his true self. 
And indeed, historically, those who accept self-determination as the definition of freedom, rather than absence of obstacle, have to distinguish between a true or higher self and a false or lower self, so they can on occasion, “It looks like Cahoone is acting freely, but it’s not real freedom.  His lower self is getting what it wants: that’s true…but his higher self has ceased to determine his actions, he’s acting out of his lower self.  For this tradition, freedom is not just the absence of coercion.  It’s whether the true or higher or good self acts, rather than the petty or vicious or immoral desires within me act. 
…Rousseau not only accepted liberty as self-determination, he then identified a person’s true self , which anyone who starts with self-determination has to distinguish the true or false self…Rousseau took the self of identifying the true self with the community.  My true self—my higher self—is identified with what’s best for the community.  My lower, false self is selfish, petty, and filled with commercial interests.  So the real me is the me that wants to do what is right for the whole community as well as myself.  Therefore true freedom is the determination of oneself by one’s higher self—the self which is in effect the citizen that is identified with the good of the community. 
What does this all lead to?  It leads to a rather remarkable claim.  It leads to Rousseau saying if a member—once they’ve engaged in a social contract and joined together to make a society with each other…—if they refuse to follow the general will that is what’s best for the community, then they must be he famously said, “Forced to be free.  It is legitimate to coerce the individual to obey.” 
But notice it’s more than that.  It is not merely the case that when I disobey the community it’s legitimate to force me to obey: while you are forcing me to obey…”you are actually making me free.”  So it’s not force.  It’s not obedience.  Because my true self is the community, all you have done is remind me what my true self is.
—Lawrence Cahoone.  The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  “The Enlightenment and Rousseau.”  Lecture Six.  The Teaching Company.