Monthly Archives: March 2009

BSG is Detached Detail

Battlestar Galactica is the most celebrated science fiction of film or TV over the last few years.  And it does indeed have unprecedented quality in acting, characters, and character interactions.  The setting and plot mostly do a good job of setting off these characters and their interactions. However: this setting and plot make very little sense.  Nowhere was this clearer than in tonight’s series finale. – it doesn’t even make sense in a “God works in mysterious ways” sort of way.  It might be true to the emotional core of many characters and their interactions, but that hardly makes it a plausible overall outcome for a civilization.

Even though science fiction as a genre pays an unusual degree of attention to the larger settings of its stories, I in fact expect most BSG fans hardly noticed this key fact, and if they noticed hardly cared.  You could hardly ask for clearer evidence that the near “detached detail” fiction uses to fill in its far setting does not much discipline that setting.  You can tell pretty much any crazy far story and still fill it in with emotionally compelling near detail.

Added: I was recently flown to LA to personally advise a director of several famous (and good) SF movies, and his scriptwriter, on a new movie based on a famous SF book.  Even I was surprised by how little they understood the story’s basic technical premises, and how little they cared about its basic emotional core.

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Minchin’s Mistake

At Less Wrong, Vladimir Nesov approvingly cites Tim Minchin's poem Storm, vid here, text here.  It is an entertaining, passionate, articulate rant against fuzzy-headed thinking.  It is also seriously misguided:

By definition, (I begin)
Alternative medicine, (I continue)
Is either not been proved to work,
Or been proved, not to work.
Do you know what they call
'Alternative Medicine'
That's been proved to work?
— Medicine …

But, here's what gives me a hard-on,
I'm a tiny, insignificant
Ignorant bit of carbon.
I have one life,
And it is short and unimportant,
But thanks to recent scientific advances…
I get to live twice as long,
As my great-great-great-great
uncleses and auntses.
Twice as long!

Sadly, most anti-mystics think their strongest case is medicine.  They don't realize that the vast majority of medical treatments have no better supporting "scientific" evidence than the alternative medicine they deride, nor that modern medicine can only claim credit for a small fraction of our lifespan gains.  Someone needs to school them; they make the rest of us anti-mystics look bad!

Added: A colleague assures me most economic historians estimate we would be  pretty much just as rich and healthy today had the only "scientists" been researchers funded directly by firms, with no government, charity, or student funding. 

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New Tech Signals

New tech is usually adopted not for direct productivity gains, but to signal one is in fashion, one is technically capable, etc.  From a Post Oped Tuesday:

President Obama's proposed health-care reforms include investing $50 billion over five years to promote health information technology. Most notably, paper medical records would be replaced with linked electronic records to try to improve quality of care and lower medical costs. The recently enacted stimulus package included $20 billion for health IT. …

Yet while this sort of reform has popular support, there is little evidence that currently available computerized systems will improve care. … Large, randomized controlled studies — the "gold standard" of evidence — in this country and Britain have found that electronic records with computerized decision support did not result in a single improvement in any measure of quality of care for patients with chronic conditions including heart disease and asthma. …

Continue reading "New Tech Signals" »

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Toddlers Avoid Dissenters

The majoritarian instinct arrives very early.  The latest Psychological Science says toddlers prefer advice from toddlers who agreed with a majority: 

In two experiments, 3- and 4-year-olds were tested for their sensitivity to agreement and disagreement among informants. In pretest trials, they watched as three of four informants (Experiment 1) or two of three informants (Experiment 2) indicated the same referent for an unfamiliar label; the remaining informant was a lone dissenter who indicated a different referent. Asked for their own judgment, the preschoolers sided with the majority rather than the dissenter. In subsequent test trials, one member of the majority and the dissenter remained present and continued to provide conflicting information about the names of unfamiliar objects. Children remained mistrustful of the dissenter. They preferred to seek and endorse information from the informant who had belonged to the majority. The implications and scope of children's early sensitivity to group consensus are discussed.

Of course this can be interpreted either as an info or conformity strategy.

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The Pascal’s Wager Fallacy Fallacy

Today at lunch I was discussing interesting facets of second-order logic, such as the (known) fact that first-order logic cannot, in general, distinguish finite models from infinite models.  The conversation branched out, as such things do, to why you would want a cognitive agent to think about finite numbers that were unboundedly large, as opposed to boundedly large.

So I observed that:

  1. Although the laws of physics as we know them don't allow any agent to survive for infinite subjective time (do an unboundedly long sequence of computations), it's possible that our model of physics is mistaken.  (I go into some detail on this possibility below the cutoff.)
  2. If it is possible for an agent – or, say, the human species – to have an infinite future, and you cut yourself off from that infinite future and end up stuck in a future that is merely very large, this one mistake outweighs all the finite mistakes you made over the course of your existence.

And the one said, "Isn't that a form of Pascal's Wager?"

I'm going to call this the Pascal's Wager Fallacy Fallacy.

You see it all the time in discussion of cryonics.  The one says, "If cryonics works, then the payoff could be, say, at least a thousand additional years of life."  And the other one says, "Isn't that a form of Pascal's Wager?"

The original problem with Pascal's Wager is not that the purported payoff is large.  This is not where the flaw in the reasoning comes from.  That is not the problematic step.  The problem with Pascal's original Wager is that the probability is exponentially tiny (in the complexity of the Christian God) and that equally large tiny probabilities offer opposite payoffs for the same action (the Muslim God will damn you for believing in the Christian God).

Continue reading "The Pascal’s Wager Fallacy Fallacy" »

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Break Cryonics Down

The essence of analysis is to "break it down", to take apart vague wholes into clearer parts.  For the same reasons we make point lists to help us make tough job decisions, or ask people who sue for damages to name an amount and break it into components, we should try to break down these important social claims via simple calculations.  And the absence of attempts at this is a sad commentary on something. [Me last July]

Imagine you disagreed with someone about the fastest way to get from your office to Times Square NYC; you said drive, they said fly.  You broke down your time estimates for the two paths into part estimates: times to drive to the airport, wait at the airport, fly, wait for a taxi, ride the taxi, etc.  They refused to offer any component estimates; they just insisted on confidence in their total difference estimate. 

Similarly imagine some someone who disagree about which of two restaurants was better for a certain group, but wouldn't break that down into who would like or dislike what aspects of the two places.  Or imagine someone who claimed their business plan would be profitable, but refused to break this down into how many of what types of units would be sold when, or what various inputs would cost.  Or someone who said US military spending was worth the cost, but refused to break this down into which enemies were how discouraged from what sorts of damage by that last spending increment.

Such silent disputants reject our most powerful tool for resolving disagreements: analysis – breaking vaguer wholes into clearer parts.  Either they have not used this tool to test or refine their estimates, or they are not willing to discuss such parts with you.  I felt Tyler made this analysis-blocking move in our diavlog:

Continue reading "Break Cryonics Down" »

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My Cryonics Hour

To encourage people to sign up for cryonics, I've offered to debate influential bloggers on the subject.  Spurred by recent successes, and failures, I'll up the ante:

I hereby offer to talk for one hour on any subject to anyone who can show me they've newly signed up for cryonics.  You can record the conversation, publish it, and can sell your time to someone else. 

Yes, I know, this may not exactly be a huge incentive to most people, but its what I have to offer. 

Added: The Blogging Heads TV folks are interested in a cryonics debate, if that tips any of you influential bloggers over the line.

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My BHTV with Tyler Cowen

My "Blogging Frozen Heads TV" with Tyler Cowen is now available:

I found the conversation enjoyable but somewhat frustrating; I'll be interested to hear others' reactions.  Tyler is in general reluctant to test his reasoning by breaking it down into parts that match some analysis structure; this prevents us from exploring why he thinks cryonics working is less likely than Angels existing.  He says our choices to avoid or accept death risks say little about the value we place on our lives, and Tyler also flirts with saying economists are evil.

Tyler's readers' comments are here; Arnold Kling's are here

Added: Andy McKenzie weighs in here.

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Yes, Tax Lax Ideas

Politicians who really wanted to show they would keep their campaign promises would post bonds, judged by neutral third parties, forfeit if they broke their promises.  Similarly, pundits who really wanted to show they believed their punditry would offer to bet on their claims.  Pundit Tyler Cowen says this would be too much bother:

Bryan Caplan believes that scholars should be ashamed if they do not publicly bet their views.  In contrast I fear this requirement would become a tax upon ideas. How would you feel about an obligation (if only a moral one) for scholars and commentators to publicly reveal the content of their investment portfolios?  Those portfolios are their real bets.  Yet I still favor the privacy norm and I should note that Bryan never has (nor need he) revealed his portfolio to others at GMU, much less to the broader public.

Let's say that I, as a prolific blogger, express opinions on hundreds of economic policy topics, often involving either explicit or implicit predictions.  Then say that hundreds of people wish to bet with me.  Can I not simply turn them all down as a matter of policy and practicality?

If you're wondering, I practice "buy and hold and diversify," with no surprises in the portfolio and a conservative ratio of equity purchases.  But those investment decisions don't necessarily reflect my views on any given day.  I think it is intellectually legitimate (though perhaps not always prudent) to engage in mental accounting and separate those two spheres of my life.  I change my mind lots of times, on many economic issues, but does that mean I have to become an active trader?  I hope not and I'm not going to.

Yes, transaction costs keep investments from closely matching beliefs. For example, my investments have long been mainly in my house, family, job skills, and relationships; I don't have much money for more.  But that wouldn't prevent me, or Tyler, from having hundreds of small token bets on our public claims, at least the claims that lend themselves to bets.  Yes, a bit of a bother, but well worth it if our readers actually cared that we believe what we say, or wanted to track our accuracy.

Yes, most readers and voters probably don't care much about pundit and politician accuracy and sincerity; they mostly want to affiliate with a stately staccato stream of statusful statements.  Slowing this down to post bonds, make bets, or even just think carefully, would just not be worth the tradeoff.  But I'll join most of Tyler's commenters in saying that some of us do care about accuracy and sincerity.  I'm open to bets on my claims, even if that slows me down.

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Trusting Sponsored Medical Research

The comments on a recent post raised the question of how much we can trust drug studies sponsored by the very companies that manufacture the drugs in question. On that point, a recent New York Times article may be relevant:

In what may be among the longest-running and widest-ranging cases of academic fraud, one of the most prolific researchers in anesthesiology has admitted that he fabricated much of the data underlying his research, said a spokeswoman for the hospital where he works.

 The researcher, Dr. Scott S. Reuben, an anesthesiologist in Springfield, Mass., who practiced at Baystate Medical Center, never conducted the clinical trials that he wrote about in 21 journal articles dating from at least 1996, said Jane Albert, a spokeswoman for Baystate Health. . . .

The drug giant Pfizer underwrote much of Dr. Reuben’s research from 2002 to 2007. Many of his trials found that Celebrex and Lyrica, Pfizer drugs, were effective against postoperative pain. . . .

“When researchers are beholden to companies for much of their income, there is an incredible tendency to get results that are favorable to the company,” said Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine and the author of a book about conflicts of interest.

Is it naive to be astonished that it took this long for someone to notice that 21 scholarly articles had been published about clinical trials that had never occurred?

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