Two Ideas at War

The deep-revolving Mike Flynn has posted a wonderful series on the end of the Modern Age, starting here. Wonderful in the sense of making me wonder.

To sum up: We’re so doomed. Unless maybe we’re not.

Couple this with this year’s graduation speech by Cardinal O’Brien at Thomas Aquinas College:

In being formed by the unique education offered here at Thomas Aquinas College, you have been formed for a mission: and that mission is nothing less than the rescue of the civilizational project of the West. Some of you will do this in the beautiful microcosm of the family. Others of you will do this through a vocation to the priesthood or the consecrated religious life. All of you will do this, I pray, as citizens. It is a challenge that you have been uniquely equipped to meet, a task for which you are singularly well-formed. The challenge and the task are daunting, to be sure. But the challenge and the task are also exhilarating.

The whole thing is excellent, but raises the question: Are we commissioning our children to preserve something that is doomed, that is in fact already dead?

Flynn begins his analysis with the following quotation:

“We live in the ruins of a civilization, but the ruins are in our minds.” 

– John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age

As the West’s death spiral/probably unpleasant but not fatal altitude adjustment takes place – and it is taking place all around us – what do we try to save? As the ruins crumble around us, what in them is worthy of laying down our lives for? Conversely, what do we let slide?

The post modern mind is haunted, and deathly afraid of ghosts. Among the ruins in our minds are the ruins of the family – we are haunted by the ghosts of the faithful, loving mothers and fathers who never were. We see the ghosts of a living, heartfelt culture – of the traditions and street-level social support, last seen in immigrant neighborhoods, that the state can only replace with an empty, crushing shell. The intellectual ghosts of a common and bracing heritage, the true multiculturalism of men not just from different places but from different ages embracing each other in a battle of ideas. The ghosts of the vigor of that world still howls in the ruins, calling shame upon the small people of today.

What do you do if you deny the existence of what terrifies you? You must shout down – or worse – the tellers of the ghost stories. You must ‘suppress’ any followers of the ghosts. And you must attack even the ruins, in the light of day, with your horde about you, shouting down the bodiless voices with it matters not what battle cry – as long as its loud.

So, again, what do we save? What do I tell my children, believers in ghosts who have the gall not to be afraid, to do, knowing that if they do anything but conform, the haunted may go after them with fury born of terror?

Do we want some things to be preserved as monuments to us, gravestone with our birth, death and a witty saying? Or do we save the seedcorn?

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, founded 635 A.D. “The small community lived quietly on Holy Island until the suppression of the monastery in 1537.” Suppression doesn’t sound so bad! Just pushing it down a little. Wonder how many monks died of suppression? Almost 500 years later, are the British still haunted by these places, and what was willfully done to them?

Unintended Consequences: Case Study

Gripping stuff from the dismal science here – but you might want to understand it, if you, for example, vote. Or it may cure insomnia. Even I get drowsy thinking of it:

Arbitrage: Buying and selling the same thing at the same time in two different markets at two different prices. Say I have a buyer for something – pork bellies, crude oil, default risk on a consumer mortgage portfolio, whatever. I don’t own what the buyer wants to buy, but I know how to get it. I shop for a price that’s lower than the buyer will pay. I execute the purchase from the seller at the same moment I sell to the buyer. I never see the pork bellies or crude oil – the seller and buyer make whatever arrangements they want. The difference is profit. I earn the profit by being more aware of the markets for the goods I’m arbitraging than the buyer or seller are. The buyer could, in theory, shop for himself and maybe uncover the same deal I found. But this is often difficult in practice.

The market* (there’s that market, again) is strongly inclined to eliminate arbitrage. When arbitragers report huge profits, the buyers tend to want to keep that profit, which, after all, came out of their pockets (or out of the pockets of the sellers who clearly undercharged – right? Whose bull got gored, and all that). Sometimes, the arbitrage is just too ingenious, involving buying bundles of things where the parts are sold to people uninterested in the bundle as a whole, and bought from people uninterested in breaking up the bundle. There are people who while away their lives watching, for example, index funds versus the stocks supposedly in them, to make sure it all adds up *perfectly*. If not, there may be an angle. When the knowledge of the buyers and sellers is both good and widely know, arbitrage doesn’t happen.

Hold this thought.  Continue reading “Unintended Consequences: Case Study”

On Method

Following up on the post On Data, with another point. Again, I’m mostly thinking out loud here, trying to give some vaguish ideas more solid form.

Sometimes, using science, we want to know something that can be addressed directly: how tall somebody is, what is the melting point of water ice under normal conditions, how much volume a pound of pure iron occupies at room temperature, and so on.* In such cases, we pull out the tape measures, the thermometers and the displacement tanks, and have at it.**

But this is often not the case, for practical and moral reasons. How far away are the Pleiades? We can’t just take out our 100 light year tape measure; we can’t even take out our surveying equipment and triangulate (at least not very simply, although in the end, that is pretty much what we do). How long can an unprotected man survive in the vacuum of space? We don’t just throw a few dozen naked guys out the ISS airlocks and grab a stopwatch. Apart from the logistics, it isn’t morally permissible (although the speed at which the moral basis for such restrictions is being cast aside is truly breathtaking).

In these more complex cases, we need to get more fancy in our methods to work around the difficulties in a direct approach, not do anything immoral, or both. Two points, from my ‘educated layman’ approach to assessing the claims of science:

  1. Complex approaches almost invariably add uncertainty beyond that in the theoretical simple approach – the results of a multi-step method is unlikely to be as certain as the results of a more direct method.
  2. No matter how convoluted the approach to getting an answer may become, it is essential to keep in mind what the direct approach to the question would look like, to make sure that the logic of the direct approach that the complexity is trying to stand in for doesn’t get lost.

Let’s take measuring the distance of stars. The simplest, most direct way to determine the distance to something you can see far off is by measuring parallax – the apparent movement of the stars when viewed from different locations.

Betelgeuse is to the upper left, 640 light years, or 196 parsecs distant from earth. Han Solo could make the Kessel Run over 16 times in that much, um, time?

Turns out the most direct practical approach to determining distances to stars is not very easy. It’s only in fairly modern times (1838, by Friedrich Bessel)  that it was successfully done. For all but the closest stars, up to about 1,000 light years away, this approach doesn’t work – the tiny amount of parallax falls below the accuracy of the instruments. But the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, meaning distances to only the comparatively microscopic number of stars very ‘near’ us can be measured with parallax. The vast majority of stars in the Milky Way are tremendously out of range for parallax, not to mention any objects outside our galaxy which are way, way, WAY farther (technically speaking) than stars in our own galaxy.

So, how do we (there’s that ‘we’ again!) figure out how far away something like, say, Andromeda, is? We start with what we know pretty well: the distances of nearby stars determined by parallax. Then it starts getting fun. To finish this post in my lifetime, we’ll just talk about the method used for the next closest objects: standard candles.

Turns out if you know the absolute brightness of something, say, a certain type of star, then you can tell how far one of them is by simply observing the apparent brightness and applying the inverse square law. If a star of a certain class has an absolute brightness of 1 at 1 parsec distance, and a star of that class is observed to have an apparent brightness of .25, then, by the magic of math, we know it is 2 parsecs distant.

At least we strongly suspect it is, so strongly we take it for granted, unless somebody can come up with a good reason not to. What is important to note here is that the usefulness of standard candles is the result of 1) getting accurate distances to some of them that lie within 1,000 light years of us using parallax; 2) measuring their luminosity correctly; and, most of all, 3) making sure that the class to which they belong is clearly defined so that we can say for sure whether an observed star is or isn’t in the class.

To sum up: we try to measure the distances of stars as directly as we can. Then we devise a surrogate method using standard candles that allow us to estimate the distances to stars and other objects we cannot measure directly. (And from there, we develop a bucket of other surrogate measures for even more tricky/farther away object.)

The point here: I think it is critically important to keep in mind what it is we are trying to measure, and be aware of when we are measuring directly and when we are using surrogates. Some surrogate methods are logically very tight, such as standard candles, where the assumptions and steps stand up to intense scrutiny very well (although there is this – eternal vigilance!).  Others, such as asserting we are measuring something about the human population at large by studying a group of WEIRDs, couldn’t stand up to the lightest breeze.

Finally, I like to state the method of approaching a science question assuming the most direct possible measurements can be made – that way, I can be more sure to see when we’re not using them. It is ubiquitous in the soft sciences to pull a switcheroo – claim to be measuring one thing (bias, racism, and so on) using surrogate measures that cannot be made to yield such information. But even in more firm sciences, the temptation to try to get statistical blood from a data set of turnips is a constant and ill-resisted temptation.

* in a comment on the last post, TOF points out that even such seemingly straight ahead cases tend to get messy – instruments and methods in the real world refuse to behave as cleanly as theory wishes they would. Our level of certainty in any given measurement is never 100% – truth and accuracy are not really the same thing.

** and, after a few dozen or thousand measurements and maybe some fancy ‘sum of least-squares’ analysis I may have understood years ago, we come up with a value we can live with – everything in science is done to a ‘close enough’ standard – because there isn’t any other in a contingent world.

Book Review: Judge of Ages

Just finished the Judge of Ages, the third of 6 books in John C. Wright’s epic Count to a Trillion space opera.

Short form: This book ends well, but, even though the pages kept turning, was less satisfying in the middle sections. Still, there’s enough momentum to keep me eager for book 4. 

When we last left our intrepid hero Menelaus Montrose, he is witnessing the destruction of one of his carefully guarded cryogenic tombs, in which are stored members of each of the races of men that have inhabited the earth over the past 8,000 years. Everything seems wrong – all the elaborate defenses, both machine and human, that have guarded his tombs for millennia are failing. Worse, his careful interventions in human history, in which he counters every move of Blackie del Azarchel and his henchmen, seem to have  failed and left a dead, frozen world.

Through enhanced human and computer intelligence, and the bioengineering and gadgets such genius produces, Blackie is trying to manipulate mankind into becoming perfect slaves for the alien from Hyades, who are due to arrive in 400 years. Menelaus wants men to be free, and wants to fight the Hyades. And he wants to survive the 60K+ years it will take to get his wife back, the wife Blackie thinks he stole from him.

The book opens with Menelaus, captured, being  lead down into the tombs. in the hands of Moreaus, enhanced dog-based near human guards. Can he somehow get free, defeat the tomb robbers, and face Blackie in the gun duel for all the marbles?

In the Hermetic Millennia, we got the back stories on all the races created by Blackie’s henchmen, which were interesting and inventive. However, in this book, a hundred plus pages are spent in a fight scene that read like I imagine the climax of a really huge and imaginative RPG would come down. I myself have never played, but my kids do, and I’ve heard them in their sometimes hours long set up, where characters and powers and weapons and vulnerabilities are chosen, a setting is created – and then, eventually, a battle takes place where a skillful dungeon master uses all the set up to create as epic a battle as possible, wherein the players get to use all that cool stuff. Maybe that’;s totally wrong, but that’s how both RPGs and huge part of this book appear to me.

It was interesting enough that I read right through it, but I was less than fascinated or thrilled. From a moving the story forward perspective, it could have 1/10th as long. Then comes some very dramatic plot twists – and another 50 pages of people standing around talking, then we get more plot twists and another cliff hanger.

Now, I *like* the philosophical digressions and reveals. I liked all the back story stuff in Hermetic Millennia.  But here, riding on the heels of the long battle scenes, it was a bit much.

None the less, by the end, Wright had recaptured the sense of wonder and surprise that is so much on display in this series. He has a wonderful talent for leaving enough clues that the reader can figure out some of what’s coming next, yet he always adds a twist or 6 – fun.

Conclusion: worth reading, and didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the next book, but not as good as the previous 2 installments.

Speaking of Science!

1. I’m not even linking to this click bait from National Geographic: Are Mites Having Sex on My Face?  But I got give ’em credit for trying.

2. The “we are so doomed” news of the day, again from International People’s Geographic, with my comments in Lysenko Red:

A movement to fight climate change has real people power.

The most surprising development of the summit didn’t unfold in the halls of the UN. It happened two days before the summit, when an upstart environmental group,, organized a march through Manhattan that attracted thousands of people (official crowd estimates for such marches are notoriously unreliable). Hundreds of smaller demonstrations were staged around the globe. The turnout, especially for the New York march, was far greater than anyone, even organizers, expected. (but how many of us expected the turnout to be far greater than the organizers expected? Did we expect a ‘far fewer people showed up that we hoped’ announcement? In this space-time continuum?)

“Our citizens keep marching,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in his Tuesday address, acknowledging the protest. “We cannot pretend we do not hear them. (I dunno. Pretending to not hear people seems right in the President’s wheelhouse. Fore!) We have to answer the call.” (but you don’t have to buy what they’re selling. Just a friendly tip.) 

Asked this week how the summit would impact ongoing negotiations, the U.S. Department of State’s special envoy for climate change (When the history of all this is written by a saner age, this title will go down with The Committee for Public Safety as one of the great verbal triumph of statism), Todd Stern, started talking about the impact of the march instead, calling it the biggest climate demonstration ever. (Can’t one consider a million Californians hitting the beach on a summer weekend a ‘climate demonstration’? No?)

“You had 400,000 people on the streets of Manhattan,” Stern told reporters at the summit’s conclusion. “You have to say that that matters.” (Not really. You have at least twice that insanely inflated number marching in Washington every year for Life – and, no, the special envoy for Life (there’s one of those, too, right? based on the logic here?) hasn’t issued a statement that I know of.) 

The UN’s Ban marched in the demonstration, gushing about the experience in his Tuesday speech. “Two days ago I was part of a massive people’s climate march in New York,” Ban said. “I was overwhelmed by the energy of the tens of thousands of people.”  (that ‘energy’ was probably just hemp.)

This is just like how, when a trial doesn’t go their way, the mob decides justice. This mob is deciding both science and government policy. Probably helps that the UN and our government just about wets their collective pants at the thought of the level of power needed to do anything about the climate. Woohee, that’s some power! And, since they themselves aren’t likely to have to eschew planes and imported delicacies and vacation homes and chauffeurs, it’s a win-win! The real risk is that people will notice things aren’t so bad the way they are, or, more sophisticated, will notice that nothing we can do will have any meaningful effect on the climate any time soon, if ever.

The only real solution? Mass slaughter. Get the human population down to about 500 million or less, and we can live on organic greens, huddle for warmth, and walk anywhere we need to go, without a carbon footprint any bigger than the world’s cetaceans, who should be our standard since who doesn’t love the whales?

Not enough. Old Scratch wants us all gone. A nice big world war would be more to his liking.

3. This is so cool! Indian spacecraft set to enter Mars orbit Having just read the Wreck of the River of Stars, I was feeling pretty melancholy – Flynn has all these solar sails traveling between the permanent settlements from low earth orbit out to Saturn – and has them doing this starting in about another 20 years. Ain’t gonna happen, I said to myself, we ain’t done nothing much in space for 40 years. What makes anybody think that’ll change?

India getting a satellite to Mars for $74 million, that’s what. Hell, NASA can’t remodel the men’s rooms at Ames for that kind of money. So, let’s get a bunch of cheap Edisons hacking away at this – maybe it will work.

Of course, nobody has yet demonstrated that the self-contained greenhouses proposed as space settlements even work, let alone that human beings could live in them indefinitely. But let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o! This is a happy occasion!

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, File
All that gold foil is just the inside of recycled Mylar Valentine’s day balloons. Frugal! And you’re not sure I just made that up!


On Data

(Another half-baked attempt to see if I can understand something by writing it out. Riffing on a recurring theme in Mike Flynn’s blog in light of some current misunderstandings of what data can tell you. You’d be better off reading him, frankly.)

Mike Flynn has pointed out on several occasions (for the purposes of this post, here is a good one) that a ‘fact’ is, in its Latin root, a ‘thing made’. While things may BE simply, to be UNDERSTOOD they need to be, in a sense, made. The facts, in this sense, don’t speak for themselves – it would be more truthful to say that the facts confess under the duress of a theory.

What this means in practice is that one must understand the theory and practice under which the facts are made – or, in a word evocative of a harvest at the end of a season of work, ‘gathered’* – in order to understand what the facts *are*. Then, we next must understand the explanation (or theory or chain of causality) under which the facts ‘speak’. We’ll confine ourselves to the observational data and fact-making here.

This farmer is hoping that plentiful harvest of rice validates his theory. Otherwise, he’s just out standing in his field.

To take an egregious example from an alarmingly large pool of such examples: infant mortality. It might seem that the tragic death of a baby is a pretty eloquent fact in itself. But we are not here talking directly about infant death – we are talking about the subtly different concept of mortality, which is an impersonal rate of death over some time and (usually) place.

Often, the infant mortality rates of different countries are compared. Seems fair, but it relies on two assumptions that are far from certain:

– that infant death means the same thing always and everywhere;

– that the methods of gathering the data are the same, or at least give effectively the same results.

Neither of these assumptions hold in the real world.  In America, an anencephalous baby who dies minutes after birth is counted in the infant mortality statistics; in most other places, that child would be considered a still birth; in America, traditionally, heroic efforts are made to save even very premature babies, who, if those efforts fail, is counted in the infant mortality numbers; most places in the world do not make such heroic efforts, and would count the child as stillborn. American hospitals report each infant death separately and immediately; in much of the rest of the world, infant deaths are obtained not from hospitals, but from household survey data.

And so on. Note that here I’m making no judgement about which method of counting is best, merely pointing out that the results make simply comparing one country’s reported infant mortality rate to another country’s meaningless.

The danger is when some number is taken as a data point – say, infant mortality rate in India in 1998 – and then thrown in the hopper with other numbers – say, the infant mortality rate in England in 2003 – and treated as if they are both the same sort of thing and, in fact, more real than the deaths and method of counting that underlie them. Then people try to say things about these numbers that the facts that underlie them cannot be made to say. Bad science. **

Because of these considerations alone, ANY comparison of statistics gathered from different places and times is immediately suspect. Anyone doing such a thing would need to begin his paper by addressing:

1. the definitions of what is being counted;

2. the methods under which whatever is being counted is counted;

3. how the following research allows for these differences.

Any research that doesn’t do that right out of the chute is Cargo Cult Science, full stop. Even if these steps are taken, it still remains for the reader to decide whether, in fact, the results can be relied upon to tell us anything. Remember, the best answer in science is most often: we don’t know.

And it gets worse: sometimes, the researcher themselves will change the definitions in mid-stream: ignoring what the data gatherers were gathering, they apply another definition, thereby completely obscuring whatever the true relationship between the underlying observations, facts and theory is.

Finally, there’s always a judgement call or 6 in any scientific observation. One example among many: In the physical sciences, great care needs to be taken to not intentionally or unintentionally exclude observations. The classic example is from Millikan’s famous efforts to measure the charge of an electron: when he got ‘bad’ results from any particular observation, he seems to have assumed he must have just screwed up that run and threw the results out. Perfectly understandable human behavior. Nope – too easy for confirmation bias to sneak in and start defining what a ‘bad’ observation is – any that don’t support my theory.

So, a baby’s tragic death, any particular observation of an oil drop in a magnetic field, any scientific observation or classification becomes a fact only by virtue of being defined by the method and theory under which the fact is considered. If one is to compare facts, those facts must have been made under the same theory and method, or, failing that, the commensurability of the methods and theories must be established.***

* It’s lovely to think of scientific facts as the fruits of a harvest. The ground is prepared so that the natural thing – or, more precisely, the nature of the natural thing – can reveal itself. Thus, the wheat and vine yield their grain and grapes as the actualization of their natures. Man does not create those natures, but rather creates the conditions under which they can reveal themselves. Similarly, we often say that researchers are teasing out the data – we build a supercollider to provide the right conditions for the subatomic particles to reveal their natures; we put telescopes in orbit so that the nature of the cosmos can reveal itself to us. But the farmer would not farm, nor the scientist experiment, if they did not already have a good working theory of the general nature of plants and scientific , respectively.

** Take these same definitional and reporting problems, spread it across all health issues – and now imagine how much valid information is contained in an across the board comparison of healthcare across countries.For example, healthcare in England is often held up as the ideal toward which American healthcare should strive. And, anecdotally, my sister gave birth in England twice to healthy babies, and has nothing but praise for the care she received. But reports are different for 70 year old smokers needing care. Even in America, people who can afford it go to nice state of the art research hospitals, not County General. Why? Is healthcare really fungible no matter what kind of care and regardless of where it is delivered?

Those heroic efforts to save premature babies – if it were your kid, it makes a huge difference to you that he be delivered in America and not somewhere else. Yet, because of this practice, Americans will spend much more money on care from preemies than other countries. The care is not fungible.

*** This is one of the reasons real science is such a great game, and why real scientists deserve the honor we give them. And why bad science, meaning science that doesn’t recognize and uphold these conditions, needs to be called out and held up for ridicule. The price of good science is eternal vigilance. In the hard sciences, my impression is that the policing is internal and vigorous, except in those cases where the practitioners step outside their expertise. It’s in those cases, and in the firm yet not *hard* hard sciences – medicine, biology and all their related fields – that we educated peons need to step up. The soft ‘sciences’ seem beyond hope, but at least we can point out the Hegelian nature of their methods and claims.

Book Review: The Wreck of the River of Stars

The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn

Short Form: Excellent book. Go read it now.

It took me a long time to read this book – about three weeks, which might usually lead one to think it wasn’t gripping or was a chore. Not true, for two reasons related to the reader, not the book. I have a flaw as a consumer of entertainment – I get too emotionally attached, sometimes, to characters, and find it hard to just keep reading when it’s pretty clear there’s an unpleasant doom coming – and, in a story about a shipwreck in space, that’s going to happen. (Heck, I never actually finished East of Eden, even though I love Steinbeck – the sense of doom was just too much. Yea, I’m a wimp.) So, I needed to put down the book more than once. This is a tribute, rather, to Flynn’s ability to create characters a reader can love.

Second, during those weeks, a dear young man, a friend and friend of the family, died suddenly and unexpectedly.  So a story that puts a bunch of young adults in mortal danger was just too much, from time to time. Anyway, on to the book!

Flynn builds a world of interplanetary commerce in the late 21st century. There are settlements and outposts in earth orbit, on the moon and Mars, on the moons or in orbit of Jupiter and Saturn. It’s a time like the last half of the 19th century, of bustling exploration and commerce, when steam engines were added to wooden sailing ships, creating short-lived hybrids, destined to be obsoleted by iron and diesel. The River of Stars, the greatest solar sail ever built, is such a hybrid, only in 21st century space.

In Flynn’s future world, the ocean deep of space was first breached by solar sailing ships, huge vessels with even huger superconducting sails many kilometers across, that took great skill to fly. The early astronauts (Planetnauts? Solarsystemnauts?) developed a culture much like the one among the sailors of the 19th century – great honor is given to the masters of the craft, the captains and sailing masters, with crews of mates under them. On board, your social position is largely determined by your rank and berth. Core people – the sailmaster, the navigator – have more prestige than more peripheral crew – the doctor, the cook. Civilians, on the other hand, are a sort of separate species. This is a dynamic known to all highly specialized teams with concrete goals to achieve.

Vast crews are required to sail these ships. As in the great sails of the 19th century, a ship needed to have on board everything it might take to keep her afloat for months without putting into port. So, in addition to food and water and air, you have machine shops and raw materials for building replacement parts. Like the ships carpenter of olden times, the crew of a solar sail must be able to effect repairs in isolation.

The steam engine equivalent is the Farnsworth cage drive: a fusion drive that generates more power than the sails and requires a much smaller crew. The River of Stars, once the greatest and most prestigious ship of all, on which flew the mighty and famous, has been reduced to a tramp hauler by the introduction of Farnsworth cages. Retrofitted with 4 cages, and stripped of most of its luxury fittings, the ship is classified as a hybrid – the sails remain, but have not been unfurled in 20 years. However, the laws require that the ship maintain a nominal sailing master and crew, more for form’s sake than anything real.

This is the background. The story revolves around the current crew of 14 misfits, put together by Captain Evan Dodge Hand, and one last passenger, for a trip out to Jupiter. Disaster strikes – and the passenger and crew need to pull together if they are to survive.

The first 1/3 of the book seemed a little slow, but that may have been just me, for the reasons described above. Flynn has to introduce us to a large cast of characters, and lay the groundwork for their interactions and, ultimately, their fates. “Ship”, the AI designed to manage all the routine reads and adjustments during flight, becomes yet another character.

All the characters are loveable in some way, even those who seem harsh or cruel. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and many hold grudges or other hurts. These are revealed over time and become factors in the ultimate fate of the ship and its crew. Moments of great beauty and heroism, of the least likely coming through big, of tragic loss – it’s a modern Greek tragedy.

The deftness and poetry with which Flynn unfolds the tragedy is beautiful, and reminded me of Steinbeck in many places. When reviewing Eifelheim, I referred to Flynn’s characters as ‘warty’ – that’s about right. Nobody is a goody-goody, and nobody turns out to have a heart of gold in a sappy way. But some do find unexpected goodness in themselves, and rise to occasions in both surprising yet fitting ways.

BTW: if I ever get cats, Ratline and Satterwaithe are in play as names.

Flynn has mentioned a couple times on his blog that this book was more a critical than a financial success. I can kind of see that. It was not an entirely easy read, but required a bit of reader investment. I suppose he can take comfort in how Melville was eventually vindicated for Moby Dick (talk about requiring reader investment). Well, I guess that Herman having been dead for a while when that happened could be seen as a downside…

All in all, the book is a masterpiece. It’s a sad masterpiece, a Greek tragedy, but ultimately beautiful and moving. That Flynn achieves all this in a hard science fiction setting is remarkable. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

Politicians say the Darnedest Things

You know this big kerfuffle about domestic violence in the NFL? How we have suddenly noticed that huge, violent men who make their livings trying to break each other in half, who take delight and pride in their ability to inflict and absorb pain, whose entire self-image from the time they’re 10 or so has been built upon this mastery of violence – sometime – you’ll be shocked to hear this – sometimes, not all of them are able to keep clear the distinction between their personal lives and their professional lives. Sometimes, some of them try to use the solutions that have worked so well at work at home. So, they punch out their girlfriends, whip their 4-year-olds, and, in the case of O.J., murder their wives.

A professional football player doing needlepoint in his spare time. Not to be confused with…

Sane women, one would hope, would not tolerate violence directed at them. Therefore, one suspects the sort of women who do put up with it are possibly not quite sane. Not blaming the victim, but pointing out that a grime sort of natural selection is in play in determining what sort of woman is most likely to find herself in violent situations with a pro football player. In a world where we all tend to worship the athlete, and the prom queen is supposed to date the quarterback, this could be very confusing and conflicting for anyone. Misery upon misery.

Collateral damage to America’s favorite game.

Anyway, a number of players have been suspended/banned this season, curiously highlighting the distinction between ‘incidents’ and ‘diagnosis’ mentioned in an earlier post. However, one team has pushed back, the least likely team in terms of location: the San Francisco 49ers. One of their players was arrested on a domestic violence charge, but not charged, and the team so far refuses to suspend or release him. Wiser heads have speculated that the 49er’s brass knows something we don’t, something that inclines them to be more circumspect.

… a football player doing his job: attempting to break another football player in half.

This outrages the usual suspects. I’m not making this up: I heard Nancy Pelosi on the radio say that the 49ers should not hide behind due process.Hide behind due process. In other words, this player should be punished based on presumed guilt before he’s even been charged with a crime – a sentiment shared by lynch mobs, fascists and soviets everywhere. An elected official in a putative Republic admonishing a private company not to let being fair to the accused nor the as yet unknown facts of the case get in the way of doing what strikes us as right at the moment. What’s that German phrase for the sunset of the West?

Obligatory footnote: this post is a commentary on our expectations and on what an elected official can say without her constituents immediately launching a recall campaign, not on football per se. Whether or not we consider football a fine thing, we are crazy if we think such a violent game won’t attract men and women who are attracted to violence (and let’s not even talk about what the PEDs do to you).

Vaccines and Autism: This is Starting to Get Really Weird

You know, I have very well developed ‘just stay out of it’ instincts – as a kid, older siblings would fight, people start yelling, and my self-preservation instincts kick in, and I whistle off into the corner and mind my own business.

Those instincts have failed me.

There’s just way way way way WAY too much (understandable) emotion running high in this issue. People are not rational. Even those trying to be rational are usually wrestling a tiger just off-stage. And I have tons of sympathy – If any of my kids were autistic, it would be really, really hard to be objective.

What I’m getting at: my feeble attempts to look at the evidence, look at the methods, and pronounce science or Science! on the web on this issue are so doomed. So, so, doomed. So, with any luck, this will be the last thing I’ve got to say on this topic.

Dr. Stacy Trasancos has responded to Dr. William Briggs’ analysis of Theresa Deisher’s paper on the link between vaccines and autism. I was struck by how little effect Dr. Briggs’ criticisms had on Dr. Trasancos take on the paper. In a very restrained and polite way, Briggs pretty much ran it through the wood chipper: in Aristotle’s famous phrase, her premises are false and her conclusions do not follow. So, he’s calling bad science on the paper. Politely, precisely, as a complete gentleman – but damning it nonetheless.

In my foolish hope to keep things cricket, I tried in the comments section to point this out very gently, as follows:

Thank you for this post, and for turning to Dr. Briggs for analysis. However, it seems to me that you missed a couple significant points in his criticism.

First off, I’m an educated layman – my first love, back in grade school, was science, but I pursued philosophy and a little math in college. So my understanding and analysis tends to be more conceptual than anything specifically related to the domain. I’m the anti-Bones: I’m a philosopher, not a doctor. And I’m a father of 5, so I get the importance of this question.

So: a key point in Dr. Brigg’s analysis is that the paper does not make a critical distinction between *incidents* of autism from *diagnoses* of autism. This is, in itself, a hopeless flaw – do not pass go, do not collect $200. One cannot conclude that the increase in diagnoses is representative (entirely, partly or even a little) of an increase in incidents. May be. May not be. One certainly can’t tell from this.

Yet, you repeat that claim – that incidents of autism are on the rise – here in this post. It may very well be true. But it may not. One would certainly never know based on this paper – no valid conclusions can be drawn from it one way or the other. That’s not good science.

Second, based on this paper alone, it is incorrect to say that Dr. Deisher is doing good science. This paper presents very poor science: good science doesn’t include the methodological problems and poor use of statistics present here, as Briggs explained. She may do very good science elsewhere, but not in this paper, based on Brigg’s analysis. Aside: the very poor quality of medical research in general is not an excuse for this – just because Dr. Deisher’s paper looks good in comparison does not make it good in itself.

This is getting long, sorry. Couple more things:

It’s pretty clear that there are really only two general approaches to answering the question: does vaccine X cause autism? 1: experiment on children (I’m against this); 2: select a large pool of people who are sufficiently homogenous in all ways except that some have taken vaccine X, some have taken some other vaccine, and some have taken no vaccine. Then establish a very specific consistent protocol for diagnosing autism, and have every person in the pool so assessed by a third (blind) party. Then check it out: do those in the group who took vaccine X have a higher incidence of autism, as diagnosed using a single consistent independent method, than those in the other groups? If so, there’s a correlation in the real world between autism and vaccine x. Causality could only be established once we have a tested theory, but the correlation alone would be enough for *me* to decide to not use vaccine X. Such a study would completely outweigh and obviate Dr. Deisher’s paper.

Saying “Wakefield was discredited” is like the British calling WWII “the late unpleasantness”. Understatement doesn’t do it justice. if I weren’t morally obliged to oppose the death penalty, I’d want him hung, drawn and quartered.

With all this in mind, this post still seems to have a bit of the ‘she’s a saint, therefore her science is good’ vibe about it – otherwise, why mention what a wonderful human being Dr. Deisher is? No doubt, she is wonderful – but if we’re going to discuss science, perhaps it would be best to leave such information out?

Thanks, keep up the good work.

Yep, I even threw in a ‘keep up the good work’ – I’m referring to the rest of her blog, the few bits of which I’ve read are, in fact, good work. But that was weaselly, in retrospect. The particular post to which this comment was appended wasn’t good work. It was actually kind of frightening, coming from a scientist.

Then, in the comments, Simcha Fisher rolls out the 75s and lays down withering fire.  I think the screen was smoking as I read it. And, in retrospect, she’s, well, right. What Dr. Trascanos is saying is an embarrassment to both science and Catholics: that criticism of the science needs to take into account who is making the claims, and if that person is good and on the right side, we cut them slack for their science.

It doesn’t get any wronger than that. Lysenko standing on his head.

A 75. Simcha rolled out several.

Now, off to whistle in the corner.

Simcha Fisher’s Science Post: the Gift that Keeps On Giving!

As first mentioned in a post here. I make the distinction between using a practical approach to evaluating scientific claims – namely, deciding who you trust – to using a philosophical approach – namely, analyzing first if the what is being claimed can even in theory be known via the methods of science, and second, if so, what steps would need to be taken to obtain that knowledge. If it can’t be known via science (e.g., what ought to be done) or the steps needed to know it have not been taken, we owe the claim no allegiance, no matter how qualified and trustworthy the people making the claims are.  My approach eliminates from serious consideration about 90% of what is popularly presented as science (instead, it’s Science!, that brand of popular voodoo used by our betters to impress us peons and keep us in line.)

There can be a huge overlap in these methods, but they are fundamentally different. Used well, they should reach about the same conclusions. At least, that’s the idea.

Now, due at least in part to activity in the comboxes involving Simcha and Stacy Trasancos in the controversy over claims that vaccines that use stem cells from aborted babies cause autism, Dr. Trasancos has asked Dr. Briggs to weigh in on the subject: 

Stacy Trasancos asked me to review her post “Why Are Catholics Criticizing Dr. Theresa Deisher?“, and in particular the paper “Impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of autistic disorder after 1979″ in Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology by Theresa A. Deisher and four others (Trasancos has links to all the material).

The Statistician to the Stars (SttS from now on) is a brilliant practitioner of the Philosophical approach. While not uninterested in the researcher’s qualifications to do the research, such considerations are rarely enough to determine anything. Instead, he starts with definitions (making the baby Aquinas smile) and then works through *precisely* what is being asserted and *precisely* what steps were taken to reach the conclusion. Then he evaluates if such steps are adequate for the claims made, and then, as a bonus, what steps one would need to have taken in order to support the claims made.

It’s a thing of beauty.

It is Deisher’s (implied) claim that vaccines created (in part) with stem cells “harvested” from the human beings killed for being inconveniences to their mothers are causing an increase in the rate of autism.

OK, that’s a big deal. So break it down, SttS:

There are several matters of interest people are having a difficult time keeping straight. Here’s a list:

  1. Whether it is, or under what circumstances it is, ethical to kill human beings still living inside their mothers.

  2. Whether it is ethical to use the tissue from these killed human beings, considering this tissue might lead to more efficacious or cheaper vaccines (which will surely save lives).

  3. Whether these vaccines might cause any form of autism.

  4. If so, how likely is it to contract some form of autism from these vaccines.

  5. Whether it is ethical for Deisher to investigate these claims, given that she might personally benefit (monetarily or spiritually or whatever) from identifying this cause of autism.

  6. Whether Deisher is a liar, cheat, or a fraud.

That about sums it up. SttS remarks that 1 & 2 are outside the range of this discussion, that the answer to 5 is ‘Yes’, and 6 is ‘No’. The bulk of his post therefore concerns 3 & 4. Rather than just cutting and pasting the whole post, go there! Read it! 

So, to sum up the results of the Philosophical Approach to this issue:

1. Yes, the methods of science are in theory adequate to determining this issue;

2. The steps needed have not yet been taken.

What are those steps?

Deisher nowhere measured which vaccines each child received and which child developed autism, which is the only way to demonstrate potential causality. She only (crudely, too) measured various rates of diagnoses. To conclude the changes in these rates must be from the one cause she posited is to commit the epidemiologist fallacy.


Obviously, experiments cannot be run on children to see which vaccines might cause which disease. But vastly superior epidemiology can be performed. Specific records on children (including medical history, genetics, etc.) can be kept, tracking when and what kind of vaccines, and so forth. And because this has become a public concern, such things are being done.


I am (often painfully) aware that I do not think like most people. Perhaps for most people, the practical approach – reasonably deciding who to trust – is better or at least more achievable. It’s true that you don’t need to know anything at all about science to use it. But I’ll stick to the philosophical approach, because I do know a little bit about science, and it seems to give better results.