Pssst – You Can Actually Figure It Out By Yourself

A couple years back, as part of the hysterics accompanying the imposition of ObamaCare, I had a discussion with a friend of mine, that went something like the following:

Me: While not opposed to universal health care in principle, there’s no way the plan on the table works out economically – how do you pay for insurance for an additional 35 million people without charging someone somewhere a lot of money?

Friend: the money will come from pharmaceutical company profits.

Me: total pharmaceutical company profits are not nearly enough to cover the expenses.

Friend (in effect): You are believing a bunch of conservative lies!

Me: No, really – you can check it up yourself! You don’t need anyone to tell you – just look it up.

Now, while I doubt my friend put any effort into verifying his belief, I *did* go look it up – I looked up total Medicare costs in a year – I think it was 2008 – divided by the number of people covered to get a rough idea about how much per person it cost for government mandated health coverage. Then, I multiplied by the number of uncovered people to get a ballpark on how much money we’re talking about here. Then you go to a stock market tracking site, and check the total profits of the pharmaceutical industry in the same year.

I don’t recall the numbers off hand, but the cost of the insurance was at least an order of magnitude greater than the sum of industry profits. Sure, these are sloppy numbers, but they’re at least real and objective. It’s a way different argument that my numbers need revision – a point eagerly granted, now tell me how to do it better – than to argue that it’s just KNOWN that the profits of the evil evil Big Pharma will cover insurance for 35 million people.

Ya know? Not like there’s not arguments to make – just not that one.

In a similar way, I’ve always found certain historical arguments very odd. Again, there are some things – not everything, but some things – that one can simply settle – can simply figure out all by one’s self without recourse to the digestive processes of middlemen. Yet, this is hardly taught in schools. It’s as if the schools are set up specifically to produce people who don’t know how to do any research, who can’t recognize the difference between, say, Dan Brown and Thucydides. Partly, this is achieved by near-paranoid avoidance of source materials. This leads to some odd things, such as whole books on Platonic philosophy, which lay out in systematic details what Plato taught – ignoring that nowhere in the extant works of Plato is such a system laid out, a fact well-known to anyone who has taken the effort to read Plato seriously. Or supposedly serious works repeat the claim that Hypatia was brutally murdered and the library of Alexandra burnt by Christian crowd – even though there are contemporary source materials, easily found on the interwebs, that clearly declare otherwise.

This brings me to another class of bizarre claims: those centering around what books make up the Bible. What seems odd to me is that this is not essentially a theological issue, but an historical one, yet direct, simple recourse to history is almost never employed by one side in the dispute – the side that wants to pretend, against the simple direct historical evidence, that the question of what books make up the Bible was some hotly debated issue up until very recent times.

Fact is, in the West, the question was settled definitively by the early 5th century, at the absolute latest – and this is a simple, direct historical fact backed up by both ample physical evidence (all complete editions of the Vulgate translation of St. Jerome, for one)  and the assertions of contemporary Christians, Augustine’s being the best known example.

So, sure, you can question whether, for example Maccabees or Song of Songs should be included in the Bible. But it is simply culpably ignorant to claim that this question was not settled in the West between 400 A.D. and 1520 A.D. Jerome settled it. Augustine settled in. Church councils (whether you think they were merely political confabs or the evidence of the Spirit working in the world doesn’t really matter here) settled it. Anyone picking up a Bible in the West between the completion of Jerome’s translation and the mid-19th century would have found – and, if they knew the Bible, expected to find – Song of Songs and Maccabees right there. People may very well have had questions, but the question wasn’t ‘is Song of Songs part of the Bible?’ – clearly, irrefutably, *physically*, it was.

But don’t take my word for it – you can actually figure this out by yourself!

Conservatives & Science

To repeat: I am of the ‘A Pox on Both Your Houses’ party. I’m not attacking one and defending another. What I am doing is pointing out that this is a prime case of Lying through Statistics:

Turns out, according to a study, of all things, that Conservatives have less confidence in Science than others.

I hardly know where to begin. How about pointing out that ‘esteem’ and ‘trust’ are not words with any bearing on science – do I trust scientists? Hold them in esteem? Should anyone? Does the fact that Elle, for example, esteems certain women mean I should trust them? About what? Maybe climate change? Economic policy? The limits of scientific understanding? Where to get some totally pumped up kicks?

Maybe the problem has to do with ‘esteemed’ and ‘trusted’ scientists like Carl Sagan turning out to be disingenuous publicity hounds more interested in their Q-rating than, you know, actual facts that can be backed up with real science. Or fundamentalist loonies like Richard Dawkins, who believes that his admirable work on popularizing evolutionary theory means that we are obliged take his opinions on topics upon which his ignorance is blindingly obvious as Gospel. Trust either of those guys? Yes – if I need an estimate of total energy output of a main sequence star during different phases of its life cycle, or a plausible explanation of the evolutionary development of certain characteristics of beetles. But about the ‘probability’ of intelligent life in the universe? (hint: there’s no probability of a second case if there’s only one known case – there’s no probabilistic analysis of a single unique case). Or of the adequacy of science to answer ‘why’ questions when, by definition, science considers such questions irrelevant to science? Really?

And, then, let’s talk about the scientific validity of a study based on self-reporting by sample populations. The scientific conclusions from such a study can only be very timid – all you might be able to say is something like: the respondents of this survey who self-identified with the undefined category ‘conservative’ also self-identified as having less trust – another undefined term, in context – of science – ditto – than respondents who self identified as independents or liberals, terms which are also undefined.  If you think that conclusion is the equivalent of Conservative Have Less Confidence In Science Than Others, then, well, you might need to avail yourself of a remedial course on the scientific method.

But, hey, it’s clear from the rest of the article that the author either doesn’t understand or care about the scientific method – he’s interested in painting Conservatives as ignorant bumpkins, as opposed to the clearly more enlightened, urban and sophisticated independents and, especially, liberals. His efforts run aground on, what do you call those things? Oh yea, FACTS. You know, the stuff science is supposed to deal with?

Here’s one: If you have a degree from an American University, are you more likely to be a Democrat or a Republican? Turns out that you’re significantly more likely to be a Republican. But isn’t holding a degree an indicator of superior intelligence? So, how does one explain such a thing?

Conversely, if you are a high school drop out who votes, what are you likely to be registered as? What do you think? Why aren’t the results of  a study on this issue plastered all across the newspapers and interwebs? Since just about everybody but me agrees that academic achievement correlates almost exactly to native intelligence, shouldn’t the above issues be critical to our understanding about the relative intelligence of the members of political parties?

How about I write a survey – it’ll have to be a thought experiment unless somebody’s got a couple hundred grand or so to fund it – where I ask people who they voted for in the last presidential election, a series of true or false questions about the Chicago Political Machine, (Sample; over 50 people associated with the CPM are currently doing time in prison – true/false/don’t know)  and then ask them to identify sciences:

Are the following fields sciences?

– Freudian Psychology

– Jungian Psychology

– Other Psychology

– Sociology

– Economics

– Astrology

– Political Science

and then crunch some correlations. I’d be guessing the results might be informative.

Personally, I care little about whether members of the Stupid Evil Party had more or less success in school than members of the Evil Stupid Party. But I’m appalled and infuriated at the continued misuse of science for political ends by hacks like the authors of that study and the piece linked above.

The Right Answer: “We Don’t Know”

The most powerful and certain argument against the “ends justify the means” argument is that we simply do not know the ends, all we know is the means. All we choose is the means. Prudence doesn’t mean we’ve got a crystal ball whereby we see past the means and choose only the ends. We cannot choose the end. Pretending that our choice of means is really a choice of ends is an arrogant, foolish lie.

“Nobody knows”. That was the answer Richard Feynman’s dad gave him, when, as a boy, he asked why, when you rolled a wagon with a ball in it, and stopped, the ball keeps going until it hits the front of the wagon.

Good question. Complete scientific ignorance might lead to the honest answer ‘I don’t know”. Ignorance of philosophy coupled with some science might lead to a complicated side-stepping,  into Newton’s Three laws of Motion.  The senior Mr. Feynman was astute enough to give the right answer: nobody knows.

The good question, the one young Richard asked, is not how, or according to what rules do we measure, or the history of the exploration of motion, but the simple ‘why’.  And, it turns out, to this day, nobody knows. The best answer within a scientific context: we call the general case of this thing you are seeing ‘momentum’, and it is evidently a fundamental feature of physical reality. Turns out the only way we can have an observable world (observable by us, at least) is if momentum is just such a fundamental feature exactly the way it is observed. Why it is such a fundamental feature is unknown – we can’t even begin to answer that question, except to say, were it not so, we wouldn’t be here to ask it.

“We don’t know” turns out to be the right answer to almost all of life’s interesting questions, if we’re talking about either the scientific approach or strict logic. While it is clearly true that we almost never know what’s going on now or what has just happened, it is triply true that we don’t know what is going to happen.Those things we can know, or are even  somewhat confident about, are precious and few.

Yet, if we sift a little, we can easily see how much of today’s social and political arguments are about predicting the future based on things we don’t even understand today. Two examples, one from science and one from morality. Continue reading “The Right Answer: “We Don’t Know””

Full Disclosure – I’m the 2%, more or less

Woke up one morning a few years back, to discover that *I* was the 2%. As a lazy dude who studied both philosophy and art as a student years ago, and doesn’t really get into the whole corporate job scene – how could such a calamity befall me?

Here’s how, starting with a little history, which, like all real history, is a little peculiar:

I am the 7th of 9 children. My father was a welder, sheet metal fabrication dude, shop foreman who, at the age of 45, when I was 5, decided to start his own sheet metal business. Before then, and for the next 7 years, our family had little extra cash – 8 or 9 of us in a typical ’50s tract house. Mom and Dad lived through the Depression, so they coped well – we never went hungry, Mom made clothes for us, the usual. (Prior to my birth, the family raised its own chickens and rabbits for food – kinda glad I missed that.)

Then, around 1970, Dad’s business started yielding some decent cash – we moved to a bigger house, actually bought a couple *new* cars, took 1 week vacations to nice places. Eventually, Dad had to sell his business after a massive heart attack at age 59 almost killed him, but by then, he’d actually made enough money to retire to a nice neighborhood and live comfortably for the remaining 29 years of his life.

What this means for me – I had a somewhat schizophrenic childhood, in that, for years, getting as much as a dollar out of my parents for anything non essential was unlikely, and we worked in the neighborhood and scrounged coke bottles for money. Then, when I was ready to go to college, Mom and Dad just wrote a check – totally weird, when you think about it.

So, off to college, where I study classics – the Great Books – then do a couple years volunteer work for the Church, then a year of art school, then – whoa. I’m now 27, and, other than working for my dad at his shop, have never really had a ‘real’ job – lots of odd jobs and grunt labor stuff, nothing ‘professional’. And, I want to get married to my beloved (that’s worked out well – 5 kids and 25 years later, we’re more in love than ever).

So, I return to my parent’s house, get a job at an insurance company, move, get another job at another insurance company, get married – and panic. Saying I don’t fit in an insurance company environment is like saying water doesn’t burn well. In (over)reaction, I get an MBA at the local state college, mostly at night. This takes 7 years – did I mention I’m disorganized and lazy?

During this time, we have 3 children, my beloved wife eventually stays at home (working harder at a more important job than I’ll ever have), and we have a household income at or below the median for our area, while having a household size larger than the median. In other words, NOT RICH.

Then, a funny thing happened. Got my MBA – at 38 – and landed a job with a peculiar little company that could actually use a goodly number of my talents – at a pay cut from what I was making. took the chance and the job, worked my way ‘up’, and – woke up, at around the age of 45 to discover I was in the 5%. Then, things got better.

The weird thing – because i spent the first couple decades of my working life at jobs that did not pay too well and with a growing family, we accumulated very little wealth. Our vacations got nicer, our house got bigger – but,  with kids hitting college age, it’s not like I’m rolling around on the floor in piles of cash.

I know I’m lucky (blessed), I know we’ve got more than most people, and I know I have, therefore, an obligation to be generous and to fear God’s justice. would I say any of these stupid things? (NSFW) I sure hope not. And, as a rich guy, at least according to what most people think of as rich, I don’t mind paying income taxes. What I do mind is being lumped in, somehow, with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and the Walton family – I still have to get up and go to work in the morning, my family would be screwed if I lost my job. Those folks employ people who look after the people who look after their money, and hardly care about income – taxable income, after all, is for the little people.

But you can read more about that under the category moneymoneymoneymoney.