Tag Archives: Social Science

Financing Starships

A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said:

Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (more)

Even the science fiction that tries hardest for realism usually sacrifices it for a better story. It isn’t just that authors make accidental mistakes due to a lack of attention. Quite often, realism gets in the way of the story, because realism conflicts with our tastes in stories. That is, many features we want in stories (like good beating evil) are intrinsically unrealistic.

This is why I think it important to highlight story unrealism, especially the unrealism intrinsic to the stories said to be most realistic. Its not just gotchas to show off how much you know, or teach in the process. Its also to counter the popular illusion that stories are how-to manuals, there to teach us about reality in a fast and fun way.

Many have praised Charlie Stross’s novel Neptune’s Brood, released in July. I also enjoyed it. But economists such as Krugman and Tabarrok have praised its econ realism, and I haven’t found anyone criticizing that. So I guess such criticism is up to me (again). (I have thought about related issues before; see here, here.)

The following quotes give the setting of Neptune’s Brood. (Worry not; I give no spoilers.)
Continue reading "Financing Starships" »

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Graeber’s Debt book

About a year ago I finished David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years. Since he’s an Occupy Wall Street anthropologist, you might expect me to dislike the book. But I enjoyed it, and learned a lot, even though it does ramble, and his economics is weak.

Graeber’s overall mood is anti-debt:

For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors – of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destructions of the debt records – tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.” (p.8)

That is sure a dramatic image, and makes one’s opinion on debt seem pretty fundamental. Oddly, Graeber never actually comes out directly against debt. He doesn’t seem to want to forbid it. Instead he seems to just want to set a low bar for forgiving the debts of the poor, mainly because helping the poor is a good thing. The closest thing to an argument I found:

The remarkable thing about the statement “one has to pay one’s debts” is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn’t true. A lender is supposed to accept a certain degree of risk. If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable – if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance – the results would be disastrous. What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan? (p.3)

Actually standard economic theory doesn’t say that the results without bankruptcy laws would be disastrous. Yes, the more stuff people can promise as collateral to support loans, or promise to suffer if they fail to pay, the more loans will be made, and the more people there will end up poorer or suffering because they can’t pay loans. But economists can’t say this is bad without adding assumptions about why such poverty is inefficient.

You might say that poverty is economically inefficient because it makes other people feel bad to know it exists, or because it keeps investments from being made in poor folks’ human capital. It could make sense to support general redistribution to deal with such problems. But debt forgiveness is not general redistribution. A policy of forgiving the debts of the especially poor mainly keeps the nearly poor from taking out loans from which they expect to gain overall, and raises the loan interest rates they pay.

Standard economic theory says that such debt forgiveness redistributes to the very poor, but not by taxing the rich. Anticipated future debt forgiveness instead taxes the nearly poor who take out loans and then do well, by raising the interest rates at which they repay their loans.

Yes debts are one of the ways by which people take chances with their wealth level, sometimes rising and sometimes falling. And yes if we stopped the nearly poor from taking such chances we might reduce the numbers of the very poor. But why pick only on loans? There are lots of other ways in which the nearly poor take chances with their wealth level, such as by trying new careers, jobs, neighborhoods, and social groups. Should we try to stop these risky behaviors as well?

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Value Explosions Are Rare

Bryan Caplan:

I’m surprised that Robin is so willing to grant the plausibility of superintelligence in the first place. Yes, we can imagine someone so smart that he can make himself smarter, which in turn allows him to make himself smarter still, until he becomes so smart we lesser intelligences can’t even understand him anymore. But there are two obvious reasons to yawn. 1. … Even high-IQ people who specifically devote their lives to the study of intelligence don’t seem to get smarter over time. If they can’t do it, who can? 2. In the real-world, self-reinforcing processes eventually asymptote. (more)

Bryan expresses a very standard economic intuition, one with which I largely agree. But since many of my readers aren’t economists, perhaps I should elaborate.

Along most dimensions, having more of a good thing leads to less and less more of other good things. In economics we call this “diminishing returns,” and it is a very basic and important principle. Of course it isn’t always true. Sometimes having a bit more of one good thing makes it even easier to get a bit more of other good things. But not only is this rare, it almost always happens within a limited range.

For example, you might hope that if you add one more feature to your product, more customers will buy it, which will give you more money and info to add another feature, and so on in an vast profit explosion. This could make the indirect value of that first new feature much bigger than it might seem. Or you might hope that that if achieve your next personal goal, e.g., to win a race, then you will have more confidence and attract more allies, which will make it easier for you to win more and better contests, which lead to an huge explosion of popularity and achievement. This might make it very important to win this next race.

Yes, such things happen, but rarely, and they soon “run out of steam.” So the value of a small gain is only rarely much more than it seems. If someone ask you to pay extra for a product because it will start you one of these explosions, you should question them skeptically. Don’t let them do a Pascal’s wager on you, saying even if the chance is tiny, a big enough explosion would justify it. Ask instead for concrete indicators that this particular case is an exception to the usual rule. Don’t invest in a startup just because, hey, their hockey-stick revenue projections could happen.

So what are some notable exceptions to this usual rule? One big class of exceptions is when you get value out of destroying the value of others. Explosions that destroy value are much more common that those that create value. If you break just one little part in a car, then the whole car might crash. Start one little part of a house burning and the whole house may burn down. Say just one bad thing about a person to the right audience and their whole career may be ruined. And so on. Which is why there are a lot of explosions, both literal and metaphorical, in war, both literal and metaphorical.

Another key exception is at the largest scale of aggregation — the net effect of on average improving all the little things in the world is usually to make it easier for the world as a whole to improve all those little things. For humans this effect seems to have been remarkably robust. I wish I had a better model to understand these exceptions to the usual rule of rare value explosions.

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The Why-Policy-Wiki

“Normative as positive” (NAP) — explaining that the [education] policies actually chosen were chosen because they maximize an individualized social welfare function — fails as a useful general positive model of schooling. While NAP can perhaps accommodate the fact of some direct production of schooling by some governments, the reality is that (nearly) all governments produce education and that, by and large, this is their only support to education. Moreover, NAP fails not just in the large but also the small: there are six additional common facts about educational policies inconsistent with NAP. (more; HT Bryan Caplan)

That is Lant Pritchett, and I share his frustration. People usually explain their government’s policies via scenarios wherein such policies would help the world, or at least their local region. But when you point out details at odds with such simple stories, such people are usually uninterested in the subject. They switch to suggesting other scenarios or problems where policy might help, also with little interest in the details.

This evasive style, i.e., the habit of pointing to a diffuse space of possible scenarios and problems instead of particular ones, is a huge obstacle to critics. If you put a lot of time in critiquing one story, people just note that there are lots of other possible stories you didn’t critique.

This style helps people maintain idealist attitudes toward institutions they like. In contrast, people do the opposite for institutions they dislike, such as rival foreign governments or profit-making firms. In those cases, people prefer cynical explanations. For example, people say that firms advertise mainly to fool folks into buying products they don’t need. But the evasion remains; if you critique one cynical explanation they switch to others, avoiding discussing details about any one.

To solve this evasion problem, I propose we create a new kind of wiki that surveys opinions on policy explanations. In this new wiki readers could find items like ” 68% (162/238) of college graduates say the best explanation of government running schools, instead of subsidizing them, is because educated citizens can pay more taxes to benefit other citizens. 54% (7/13) of economics PhDs surveyed say it is to push propaganda.”

Here is how it would work. There would be three category hierarchies: of policies, of policy explanations, and of people with opinions on policy explanations. Each hierarchy would include a few very general categories near the top, and lots of much more specific categories toward the bottom.

Anyone could come to the wiki to contribute opinions on policy explanations. They would first give some demographic info on themselves, and that info would put them somewhere in the category hierarchy of people. They could then browse the category hierarchy of policies, picking a policy to explain. Finally, they could browse the category hierarchy of explanations, picking their favored explanation of that policy.

Users could start by being shown the most common explanation offered so far for similar policies by similar people, and then browsing away from that. Users could also expand the category hierarchies, to add more specific policies and explanations. For particular policy explanation pairs, users might add links to relevant theory, evidence, and arguments. Users might also upvote links added by others. This would help later readers search for well-voted evidence and theory close in the hierarchies to any given policy explanation.

By using category hierarchies, a wide range of people could express a wide range of opinions. Experts could dive into details while those who can barely understand the most basic categories could gesture crudely in their favored directions. Given such a wiki, a critic could focus their efforts on the most popular explanations for a policy by their target audience, and avoid the usual quick evasion to other explanations. Prediction markets tied to this wiki could let people bet that particular explanations won’t hold up well to criticism, or that popular opinion on a topic will drift toward a certain sort of expert opinion.

Of course this wiki could and should also be used to explain common policies of firms, clubs, families, and even individuals. I expect some editorial work to be needed, to organize sensible category hierarchies. But if good editors start the system with good starting hierarchies, the continuing editorial work probably wouldn’t be prohibitive.

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Teaching Ignorance

It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so. Josh Billings

Economics is important. So the world could use more of it. In the same sense, ignorance of economics is even more important. That is, the world could even more use a better understanding of how ignorant it is about economics. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve had a chance to see how folks like computer scientists, philosophers, futurists, and novelists think (in separate situations) when their work overlaps with areas where economists have great expertise. And what usually happens is that such folks just apply their ordinary intuitions on social behavior, without even noticing that they could ask or read economists to get more expert views. Which often leads them to make big avoidable mistakes, as these intuitions are often badly mistaken.

Yes, even folks who do realize that economists know more may not have the time to ask about or learn economics. But it seems that usually most people don’t even notice that they don’t know. Their subconscious quickly and naturally supplies them with subtly varying expectations on a wide range of social behaviors, and they don’t even notice that these intuitions might be wrong or incomplete. Which leads me to wonder: how do people ever realize that they don’t know physics, or accounting, or medicine?

Most people throw and move objects often, and have strong intuitions about such things. And if physics was only about such mechanics, I’d guess most people also wouldn’t realize that they don’t know physics. So it seems that a key is that “physics” is also associated with a bunch of big words and strange complex objects with which people don’t feel familiar. People hear words like “voltage” or “momentum”, or see inside cars or refrigerators, and they realize they don’t know what these words mean, or what how those devices work.

Similarly for accounting and medicine, I’d guess that it is a wide use and awareness of strange and complex accounting terms and calculations, and strange and complex medical devices and treatments, that suggest to people that there must be experts in those fields. And even in economics, when people realize that they don’t know where money comes from, or which of many possible auction designs is better, they do turn to economists to learn more.

Kids often learn early on of the existence of specialized knowledge, from the existence of specialized language and complex devices. Kids like to show off by finding excuses to use specialized words, and showing that they can do unusual things with complex devices. And then other kids learn to see the related areas as those with specialized expertise.

So I’d guess that what the world most needs on economics is to get more kids to show off by using specialized concepts like “diminishing returns” and complex devices like auctions. And then they need to hear that this same “economics” can be used to work out good way to do lots of social things, from buying and selling to voting to law to marriage. It is not so much that the world actually needs more kids using these concepts and devices. The important thing is to create a general impression that there are specialists for these topics.

The biggest obstacle to this plan, I’d guess, is that naive social science infuses too much of the rest of what kids are taught. Various history and “social studies” classes use naive social intuitions to explain major world events, and novels are read and discussed as if the naive social science they use is reasonable. Those who like using these things to push social agendas would object strongly to teaching instead that, e.g., you usually can’t figure out who are the bad guys in key historical events without complex economic analysis.

So the bottom line is that people don’t use enough econ because econ tends to conflict with the things people want to believe about the social world. Even teaching people that they are ignorant of econ conflicts, alas.

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Math: Useful & Over-Used

Paul Krugman:

Noah Smith … on the role of math in economics … suggests that it’s mainly about doing hard stuff to prove that you’re smart. I share much of his cynicism about the profession, but I think he’s missing the main way (in my experience) that mathematical models are useful in economics: used properly, they help you think clearly, in a way that unaided words can’t. Take the centerpiece of my early career, the work on increasing returns and trade. The models … involved a fair bit of work to arrive at what sounds in retrospect like a fairly obvious point. … But this point was only obvious in retrospect. … I … went through a number of seminar experiences in which I had to bring an uncomprehending audience through until they saw the light.

Bryan Caplan:

I am convinced that most economath badly fails the cost-benefit test. … Out of the people interested in economics, 95% clearly have a comparative advantage in economic intuition, because they can’t understand mathematical economics at all. …. Even the 5% gain most of their economic understanding via intuition. .. Show a typical economist a theory article, and watch how he “reads” it: … If math is so enlightening, why do even the mathematically able routinely skip the math? .. When mathematical economics contradicts common sense, there’s almost always mathematical sleight of hand at work – a sneaky assumption, a stilted formalization, or bad back-translation from economath to English. … Paul[‘s] … seminar audiences needed the economath because their economic intuition was atrophied from disuse. I can explain Paul’s models to intelligent laymen in a matter of minutes.

Krugman replies:

Yes, there’s a lot of excessive and/or misused math in economics; plus the habit of thinking only in terms of what you can model creates blind spots. … So yes, let’s critique the excessive math, and fight the tendency to equate hard math with quality. But in the course of various projects, I’ve seen quite a lot of what economics without math and models looks like — and it’s not good.

For most questions, the right answer has a simple intuitive explanation. The problem is: so do many wrong answers. Yes we also have intuitions for resolving conflicting intuitions, but we find it relatively easy to self-deceive about such things. Intuitions help people who do not think or argue in good faith to hold to conclusions that fit their ideology, and to not admit they were wrong.

People who instead argue using math are more often forced to admit when they were wrong, or that the best arguments they can muster only support weaker claims than those they made. Similarly, students who enter a field with mistaken intuitions often just do not learn better intuitions unless they are forced to learn to express related views in math. Yes, this typically comes at a huge cost, but it does often work.

We wouldn’t need as much to pay this cost if we were part of communities who argued in good faith. And students (like maybe Bryan) who enter a field with good intuitions may not need as much math to learn more good intuitions from teachers who have them. So for the purpose of drawing accurate and useful conclusions on economics, we could use less math if academics had better incentives for accuracy, such as via prediction markets. Similarly, we could use less math in teaching economics if we better selected students and teachers for good intuitions.

But  in fact academia research and teaching put a low priority on accurate useful conclusions, relative to showing off, and math is very helpful for that purpose. So the math stays. In fact, I find it plausible, though hardly obvious, that moving to less math would increase useful accuracy even without better academic incentives or student selection. But groups who do this are likely to lose out in the contest to seem impressive.

A corollary is that if you personally just want to better understand some particular area of economics where you think your intuitions are roughly trustworthy, you are probably better off mostly skipping the math and instead reasoning intuitively. And that is exactly what I’ve found myself doing in my latest project to foresee the rough outlines of the social implications of brain emulations. But once you find your conclusions, then if you want to seem impressive, or to convince those with poor intuitions to accept your conclusions, you may need to put in more math.

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That Old SF Prejudice

Back when I was a physics student in the late 1970s, my physics teachers were pretty unified in and explicit about their dislike for so-called social “sciences.” Not only is there no science there, they said, there is no useful knowledge of any sort – it was all “pseudo” science as useless as astrology. Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today, but since our world is so much more politically sensitive, they also know to avoid saying so directly.

Old school science fiction authors were taught pretty much the same thing and sometimes they say so pretty directly. Case in point, Arthur C. Clarke [ACC]:

TM: Why has science fiction seemed so prescient?

ACC: Well, we mustn’t overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we’re bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn’t matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says, “What if?” not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we’d probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that. …

To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. …

TM: What’s a precondition for being a science fiction writer other than an interest in the future?

ACC: Well, an interest — at least an understanding of science, not necessarily a science degree but you must have a feeling for the science and its possibilities and its impossibilities, otherwise you’re writing fantasy. …

TM: Is it fair to call some science fiction writers prophets in a way?

ACC: Yes, but accidental prophets, because very few attempt to predict the future as they expect it will be. They may in some cases, and I’ve done this myself, write about — try to write about — futures as they hope they will be, but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever said this is the way the future will be. …. I don’t think there is such a thing as as a real prophet. You can never predict the future. We know why now, of course; chaos theory, which I got very interested in, shows you can never predict the future. (more)

You see? The reason to be interested in science fiction is an interest what will actually happen in the future, and the reason fantasy isn’t science fiction is that gets the future wrong because it doesn’t appreciate scientific possibilities like flying, space travel, and computers. But chaos theory says you can’t predict anything about politics or economics because that’s all just random. Sigh.

Of course folks like Doug Englebart were in fact predicting things about the social implications of computers back when Clarke made his famous movie 2001, but Clarke apparently figures that if the physics and sf folks he talked to didn’t know something, no one knew. Today’s science fiction authors also know better than to say such things directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science exists and social science does not.

Added 10a: Note how it is easy to entice commenters to say they agree with the claim that there is no social science, but it is much harder to get a prominent physics or sf blogger to say so in a post. Lots of them think similarly, but know not to say so publicly.

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Impressive Power

Monday I attended a conference session on the metrics academics use to rate and rank people, journals, departments, etc.:

Eugene Garfield developed the journal impact factor a half-century ago based on a two-year window of citations. And more recently, Jorge Hirsch invented the h-index to quantify an individual’s productivity based on the distribution of citations over one’s publications. There are also several competing “world university ranking” systems in wide circulation. Most traditional bibliometrics seek to build upon the citation structure of scholarship in the same manner that PageRank uses the link structure of the web as a signal of importance, but new approaches are now seeking to harness usage patterns and social media to assess impact. (agenda; video)

Session speakers discussed such metrics in an engineering mode, listing good features metrics should have, and searching for metrics with many good features. But it occurred to me that we can also discuss metrics in social science mode, i.e., as data to help us distinguish social theories. You see, many different conflicting theories have been offered about the main functions of academia, and about the preferences of academics and their customers, such as students, readers, and funders. And the metrics that various people prefer might help us to distinguish between such theories.

For example, one class of theories posits that academia mainly functions to increase innovation and intellectual progress valued by the larger world, and that academics are well organized and incentivized to serve this function. (Yes such theories may also predict individuals favoring metrics that rate themselves highly, but such effects should wash out as we average widely.) This theory predicts that academics and their customers prefer metrics that are good proxies for this ultimate outcome.

So instead of just measuring the influence of academic work on future academic publications, academics and customers should strongly prefer metrics that also measure wider influence on the media, blogs, business practices, ways of thinking, etc. Relative to other kinds of impact, such metrics should focus especially on relevant innovation and intellectual progress. This theory also predicts that, instead of just crediting the abstract thinkers and writers in an academic project, there are strong preferences for also crediting supporting folks who write computer programs, built required tools, do tedious data collection, give administrative support, manage funding programs, etc.

My preferred theory, in contrast, is that academia mainly functions to let outsiders affiliate with credentialed impressive power. Individual academics show exceptional impressive abstract mental abilities via their academic work, and academic institutions credential individual people and works as impressive in this way, by awarding them prestigious positions and publications. Outsiders gain social status in the wider world via their association with such credentialed-as-impressive folks.

Note that I said “impressive power,” not just impressiveness. This is the new twist that I’m introducing in this post. People clearly want academics to show not just impressive raw abilities, but also to show that they’ve translated such abilities into power over others, especially over other credentialled-as-impressive folks. I think we also see similar preferences regarding music, novels, sports, etc. We want people who make such things to show not only that they have have impressive abilities in musical, writing, athletics, etc., we also want them to show that they have translated such abilities into substantial power to influence competitors, listeners, readers, spectators, etc.

My favored theory predicts that academics will be uninterested in and even hostile to metrics that credit the people who contributed to academic projects without thereby demonstrating exceptional abstract mental abilities. This theory also predicts that while there will be some interest in measuring the impact of academic work outside academia, this interest will be mild relative to measuring impact on other academics, and will focus mostly on influence on other credentialed-as-impressives, such as pundits, musicians, politicians, etc. This theory also predicts little extra interest in measuring impact on innovation and intellectual progress, relative to just measuring a raw ability to change thoughts and behaviors. This is a theory of power, not progress.

Under my preferred theory of academia, innovation and intellectual progress are mainly side-effects, not main functions. They may sometimes be welcome side effects, but they mostly aren’t what the institutions are designed to achieve. Thus proposals that would tend to increase progress, like promoting more inter-disciplinary work, are rejected if they make it substantially harder to credential people as mentally impressive.

You might wonder: why would humans tend to seek signals of the combination of impressive abilities and power over others? Why not signal these things separately? I think this is yet another sign of homo hypocritus. For foragers, directly showing off one’s power is quite illicit, and so foragers had to show power indirectly, with strong plausible deniability. We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

So does anyone else have different theories of academia, with different predictions about which metrics academics and their customers will prefer? I look forward to the collection of data on who prefers which metrics, to give us sharper tests of these alternative theories of the nature and function of academia. And theories of music, stories, sport, etc.

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Drexler Responds

Three weeks ago I critiqued Eric Drexler’s book Radical Abundance. Below the fold is his reply, and my response: Continue reading "Drexler Responds" »

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My Critique Of Drexler

My last post quoted Drexler on science vs. engineering. Here he is on exploratory engineering:

Exploring, not the time-bound consequences of human actions, but the timeless implications of known physical law. …. Call it “exploratory engineering”; as applied by Tsiolkovsky a century ago, this method of study showed that rocket technology could open a world beyond the bounds of the Earth. Applied today, this method shows that atomically precise technologies can open a world beyond the bounds of the Industrial Revolution.

Drexler’s most famous book was his ’86 Engines of Creation, but his best was his ’92 Nanosystems, which explored nanotech engineering. The book shows impressive courage, venturing far beyond familiar intellectual shores, impressive breadth, requiring mastery of a wide range of science and engineering, and impressive accomplishment, as little in there is likely to be very wrong. This makes Drexler one of my heroes, and an inspiration in my current efforts to think through the social implications of ems.

Alas, Drexler also deserves some criticism. His latest book, Radical Abundance, like several prior books, goes well beyond physical science and engineering to discuss social implications at length. Alas, though his impressive breadth doesn’t extend much into social science, like most “hard” sci/tech folks Drexler seems mostly unaware of this. He seems to toss together his own seat-of-the-pants social reasoning as he can, and then figure that anything he can’t work out must be unknown to all. Sometimes this goes badly. Continue reading "My Critique Of Drexler" »

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