Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The police state, or maybe the police municipality

Tomorrow a new law goes into effect in Austin. It will be illegal to use a cell phone, as well as a variety of other devices, while driving or cycling, unless the device is being used in a hands-free fashion. A question this raises in my mind: will the police abide by this law? In Austin, as in probably just about every jurisdiction in the U.S., police have laptops mounted in their vehicles. More than once I have observed a police officer looking at his laptop screen or tapping on the keys while his vehicle is in motion. (The law seems to prohibit touching the device while in motion, so I guess simply looking at a screen of any kind would be within the letter of the law, as would touching the device when the vehicle is at a full stop.) I seem to remember hearing a story or two about this kind of behavior on the part of the police causing an accident, although I don't have a reference.

So I wonder, will police officers be expected to refrain from touching any of their electronic devices while driving? And even if the official policy is that they must, will they actually do so? I doubt there would be any reprisal against an officer for breaking this law in any instance where it did not lead to an accident. It's hard to imagine one officer writing a fellow officer a ticket for laptop use while driving.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Here's a hypothetical:

Let's say that the police have a man in custody who has kidnapped a child and hidden the child in a location that he refuses to disclose. Let's also assume that inflicting physical pain on this man is the only way to get him to disclose the location, that there would be no permanent damage caused by this infliction of pain, and that there is no other way that the police will be able to find the child. Is it then okay to torture the man for the sake of the child?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Good questions to ask about the chokehold

I'll say up front that I do not have the answers to these questions, that I am not supporting or opposing the use of the chokehold by law enforcement, and that I am not expressing any opinion about any specific incident. This post is, however, inspired by discussion of specific incidents, in which I find that people often focus on one issue to the exclusion of others. That is one of my primary objections to debate about all sorts of issues.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

More about beliefs vs. facts

This article refers to research that makes some progress on the question of how to correct false beliefs. At the same time, reading it renews the concern I discuss here and here. If the article is correct about the reason for the persistence of false beliefs, we should expect that some people hold correct beliefs for the wrong reasons. I.e. if beliefs can be based on something other than facts, then some beliefs will be only coincidentally consistent with facts. These coincidental cases can lead to an unjustified confidence in one's whole process of belief formation. I'm concerned that someone reading the article might reason as follows:
  • Global warming is a problem.
  • I believe that it is a problem.
  • Therefore, I am on the side of truth.
  • Therefore, my beliefs about other things are correct also.
Quite the meta-problem.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Knowledge and the real unicorn

My daughter often talks about alicorns and sometimes pretends to be an alicorn. That's a cross between a pegasus and a unicorn, i.e. a unicorn with wings. So why can't she just be a unicorn with wings? Because unicorns don't have wings, of course. Not real unicorns (according to My Little Pony, that is, and perhaps other sources as well).

Someone who is asked how to kill a vampire will probably say a stake through the heart, and perhaps will mention other methods; but will most likely not qualify the statement with anything like "typically" or "according to the majority of popular sources." When it comes to some of the finer points of vampire mythology, like whether they can survive in sunlight, there is significant disagreement among popular sources (The Hunger: yes; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: no; Twilight: yes, but they prefer to avoid direct sunlight because it makes them glitter conspicuously). It wouldn't be unheard of for vampire geeks to argue about such things without acknowledging that they are really arguing about which mythology is the dominant one, or which mythology each person prefers. Like when I was talking to someone who claimed that "Elvish" and not "Elfish" is the correct way to refer to the language of elves. ("Says who?" I said. "You realize elves aren't real, right?")

Consider, by way of contrast, Sherlock Holmes. He is no more real than unicorns, vampires, or elves, but if you want to know his address, there is a definitive answer. Or at least there is an answer that virtually everyone can agree on, because virtually everyone would agree that Arthur Conan Doyle is the definitive source. This even though there may very well be fan fiction out there in which Holmes lives at 221A Baker Street, or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or wherever. In the same vein, one can confidently claim that J.R.R. Tolkien is the definitive source for information about hobbits. He did invent them, after all. There is much more room for argument about elves (and orcs, and all kinds of other stuff), not least because there won't be universal agreement about what "definitive" even means. (Tolkien also capitalizes the names of these races, but I'm not on board with that. Languages, on the other hand, even made-up ones, should be capitalized, imo.)

Here comes the tortured analogy. Nowadays, knowledge is viewed more like the mythology of vampires or elves than that of Holmes or hobbits. I think that's fair to say. There is good reason to view results of scientific research as authoritative (which is not to say infallible), whereas arguing over whether one non-scientific source is more authoritative than another tends to boil down to declaring allegiance to something--an ideological group, a way of thinking, a set of values, etc. Which is something like claiming that one depiction of vampires (or elves or unicorns) is "right" and another "wrong." Far from a perfect analogy, but what the hell.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

De-politicization of beliefs

An addendum to yesterday's post.

Say there is some issue A, like "climate change is a problem that warrants policy intervention," with which liberals are more likely to agree and conservatives are more likely to disagree (or vice versa). There has been talk of de-politicizing such issues, meaning removing the association of the issue with one ideological group (which may be a matter of detaching the issue from underlying beliefs or values that differ across ideological groups). The presumed benefit of de-politicization is that it would make conservatives more likely to believe A. But at the same time, it would make liberals less likely to believe A. That it is a political issue cuts both ways: it's harder to get some ideological groups on board, easier to get others.

Now, what we really want to accomplish is to get people to believe something because it's actually true. Appealing to reason doesn't seem to be the way to go, its effectiveness being severely limited. Perhaps there is a way to appeal to beliefs or values that are common to many ideological groups--stuff that tends to unite rather than divide people. This  raises the question of whether people adopt beliefs because they want to agree with their own group or because they to want to oppose some other group (about which I wrote a paper). If you argue an issue in a way that is meant to appeal to one's humanity (rather than one's ideology), will that fail because there is no obvious group to which one can be opposed? Does Haidt's "groupishness" have an inherent us-vs-them component? If so--if people need to find something to disagree about--then maybe the thing to do is change the focus of disagreement to something more innocuous. I.e. try to get liberals and conservatives to expend their us-vs-them energies on something that doesn't have such dramatic consequences.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A good point about climate change beliefs, and beliefs in general

Dan Kahan's research deals largely with individuals' adoption of beliefs as a means of identifying with some kind of ideological group: e.g., someone denies that global warming is a problem, not as a result of weighing the evidence but because the person wants to identify with fellow conservatives, who tend to hold that belief. I'm not completely convinced that the mechanism for belief adoption is exactly as Kahan says it is, but it does seem perfectly clear that publicly stated opinions are not always about truth and may not even be based on perceived truth.

Arnold Kling comments on Kahan:
Kahan advises climate worriers to try to engage in public discussion in ways that are less “culturally assaultive.” This assumes that climate worriers care more about climate policy than about asserting their moral and intellectual superiority over conservatives. The most charitable I can be is to say that I am willing to wait and see whether that is the case.
I can put it a bit more charitably: even if the "worriers" are correct, some of them are adopting the right belief for the wrong reason. Kahan focuses on those who deny global warming for the wrong reasons (although he may very well address the flip side somewhere). One might infer from this treatment that everyone who believes in global warming does so for the right reasons, or that it doesn't matter why they think what they do as long as they end up at the correct conclusion. In fact, it is essential to recognize that lots of belief in global warming is poorly founded, and that this is part of what makes the discussion "culturally assaultive." It is a mistake to assume that we can detach the way beliefs are defended in some public arena from the way those beliefs were formed in the first place.

Which is not to say that there isn't some actual truth in the matter. In this case, I really have no doubt that global warming is a problem that warrants action, and I don't think that anyone approaching the issue with even a pretense of objectivity can reasonably claim otherwise. But supporting a reasonable conclusion for the wrong reasons doesn't do any good. I see this kind of thing all the time, with respect to lots of issues. For example, I might agree with someone that having a minimum wage is a good idea, but if someone denies that the efficiency effects even exist, I can't take their opinion very seriously. It becomes a real problem when someone who does not support minimum wage encounters such an opinion. One can then jump to the conclusion that those who support minimum wage don't even understand its effects, avoiding the reasonable discussion that could be had about how severe the inefficiencies created really are and whether it is worth it to create these inefficiencies.

I don't know whether framing public debate this way makes me feel more or less optimistic about the potential for resolving disagreements constructively.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

God and null hypotheses

Comedian Tim Minchin performs a song, "Thank You God," prefatory to which he tells a story about meeting a fan of his who is a Christian. When asked why he does not believe in God, Minchin says this is part of a more general policy of only believing things for which he has evidence. What he does not acknowledge is that there also is no evidence that God does not exist. Don't get me wrong: I do enjoy the man's comedy. However, if we're being scientific about this, we start with one of two null hypotheses--God exists, or God does not exist--and we cannot reject either. One might argue that one of those hypotheses is the more reasonable starting point, but it is incorrect to claim that the lack of evidence is an unconditional indication that God does not exist (although, to be fair, I'm not completely sure Minchin was trying to make that claim; maybe he was standing up for agnosticism rather than atheism).

Scientists of all kinds avoid any confusion over the conclusions of research by stating the conclusions carefully. You'll often hear the statement, "There is no evidence that [blank]," which basically means that if we start with the assumption [not blank], we don't have enough evidence to reject that assumption with any reasonable degree of certainty. That could be the case after hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have attempted to demonstrate [blank], or it may be that no one has even tried. Either way, "There is no evidence that [blank]" is not at all the same claim as "There is evidence that [not blank]" and should not be treated as such. Case in point: when my firstborn was an infant, I heard from more than one source that there is no evidence that allowing a baby to "cry it out" causes any lasting psychological damage, but I wasn't about to let my son cry for hours at a stretch.

I think it is common for null hypotheses to go unnoticed or unacknowledged. There's always some kind of default belief. Consider the vaccination scare, still active in some quarters. I don't think that childhood vaccinations cause autism, and that conclusion is predicated on the belief that we shouldn't think that vaccines cause autism unless we have some good reason to do so. One could take the opposite belief as the default, once the possibility of a connection is raised: that vaccinations do cause autism, or some other kind of harm, unless we have strong reason to believe otherwise. I'm not sure if that belief is thoroughly unreasonable, but it is certainly subject to criticism. Such as: given all of the potential causes and potential effects in the universe, any pair chosen at random are extremely unlikely to be related, and therefore the reasonable default belief is that there is no causal relationship between any pair of randomly chosen events. And why are we focusing on autism in particular? Why not other disorders or diseases, or even positive effects, for that matter? Why not take the default belief to be that childhood vaccines cause pattern baldness later in life? And so forth. Apart from the reasonableness of the null itself, adopting the wrong null is costly if there is insufficient evidence to reject the null. If you avoid vaccines because you believe they cause autism, you risk disease that vaccines can prevent (and we have very good evidence for that).

Back to Tim Minchin: it hardly makes sense not to believe anything without evidence. A more defensible statement is that one will not deviate from some kind of baseline beliefs without sufficient evidence. Then the origin of these baseline beliefs becomes the issue. These baseline beliefs are often unstated and may even be subconscious. I doubt that the anti-vaccination crowd is thinking things through in the way I describe above. Opposition to vaccinations may arise from a fundamental belief in the ability of the human body to heal itself under some kind of natural conditions, or from a distrust of the medical establishment's ability to improve health in a substantive way. I suspect that anyone considering the vaccination question has some kind of predisposition toward one side of the debate or the other, and that this predisposition often goes unarticulated.

I can imagine all kinds of baseline beliefs that fuel conflict over social and political issues. For example:
  • People are basically good (or bad)
  • Government agencies are generally corrupt (or trustworthy)
  • Life on Earth is generally getting better (or worse)
One can find indications of any of these things but nothing like definitive proof. If we think about beliefs scientifically, the way to get evidence for something is to assume the opposite and then demonstrate that the data are inconsistent with that assumption. There is no further scientific guidance in forming the null hypothesis: it's just the thing you are trying to disprove. Of course there will always be some reason why one chooses to look for evidence of one particular thing, but this cannot be reduced to a purely logical exercise. I would like to see more explicit acknowledgement of all sorts of baseline beliefs: e.g., the anti-vaxxer says, "I oppose vaccinations because I think medical science is full of it," or the research scientist says, "I am trying to prove this result because it would be neat if it were true."

Tim Minchin's disbelief in God is a matter of faith. Nothing wrong with that, and he can try to argue that this belief is somehow better or more reasonable than the opposite belief. But he can't claim that he is on the side of objective truth.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Good things & bad things: competition and privatization

When I talk to students about anti-competitive behavior, I like to start with a stark illustration. There are lots of things firms might do in order to earn profit, and these things might be good or bad, broadly speaking. Profiting by producing a higher-quality product, or by producing at a lower cost than competitors: good things. Sending Fat Tony to threaten your competitors with violent death if they do not bow out of the industry: bad thing. The good things are profitable to firms because of the benefit to consumers that is generated, whereas the bad things benefit firms at the expense of everyone else. The purpose of competition policy is to preserve firms' incentives to do the good things and preclude them from doing the bad things. There are lots of complications, of course, making it difficult to sort out whether a particular strategy (e.g. a merger between two firms) is actually a good or a bad thing. But the basic idea is that when firms are doing their best to earn profit within the constraints of well-designed laws, their activities enhance consumer welfare.

The same question arises in the context of privatization. If some government-run entity, like a prison, is put into private hands, there is then someone who stands to profit if he does a good job of running the now-private entity. The hope is that a firm running a prison for profit will do good things for the sake of profits, like reducing costs, insofar as this can be done while still fulfilling the purpose of having a prison. I would guess that prisons are a target for privatization for two reasons: in addition to the general phenomenon of government agencies doing things less efficiently than private firms, incarcerating convicts is probably a relatively costly activity. Thus there would be a lot of benefit to be had by creating strong incentives for running prisons better.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Four-way yields

There are a few four-way yields in my neighborhood, and I would guess that it is more often than not that they don't function as planned when two drivers approach the intersection at about the same time. Drivers generally seem aware of and willing to abide by a yield that occurs at an on- or off-ramp or some other place where two roads merge. At the four-way yield, however, I think that the typical driver's attitude is: "It's a yield, not a stop sign. Therefore, I don't have to stop." While technically correct, this ignores the whole point of the sign. One intersection in my neighborhood controlled by a four-way yield is the crossing of a somewhat busier street with a somewhat less busy street, and I have often seen drivers on the busier street cruise through the intersection totally unaware of drivers approaching the intersection from the cross street. That these intersections are mini-roundabouts with a big, round planting in the middle exacerbates the problem: even if the driver on the somewhat busier street notices the driver entering the intersection from the less busy street, the former driver tends to proceed into the intersection if he can do so before the other driver gets to his position, when the standard should actually be to yield the right of way to the driver that enters the intersection first. If the planting were not in the middle of the intersection, there would be no ambiguity about which car entered the intersection first and thus has the right of way.

Much better if these intersections had either two-way stops or four-way stops (or nothing). Whatever is this intermediate case that the four-way yield is supposed to cover, it isn't doing a good job of it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Antihero for president

I'm tempted to dub Francis Underwood the greatest antihero of all time, but I'll play it safe and say the greatest antihero in recent memory. What is so striking to me about him is that he is really a terrible person--over the course of two seasons of House of Cards, we see ever increasing levels of self-centered ruthlessness--and yet the viewer is on his side. I am, anyway; maybe not everyone sees him that way. I would particularly contrast him with Walter White, who in my view evolved from a hero to a villain over the course of Breaking Bad. His character is interesting in a very different way: we see a good man become bad, squandering virtually all of the viewer's sympathy by the end of the series (again, to me, but perhaps not universally). I can't put my finger on the difference in the characters' ability to evoke sympathy, since their misdeeds are fairly comparable. Is it Frank's statesmanlike bearing that does it? Is it his South Carolina accent?

Surely there has been much written about the antihero, from classical literature to modern popular culture, and I'm not sure how fairly Wikipedia represents all that; but I didn't much like the definition I saw there, and I had lots of disagreements with the list of antiheroes. Some of them (Satan) are really just villains; lots are heroes, with some complication of character or history not severe enough to warrant the "anti" (Shrek, Angel from BtVS, Oh Dae-su from Oldboy, Veronica Mars); and some are no kind of hero at all, just characters with some mix of sympathetic and objectionable characteristics (George Costanza, David Brent from The Office). There were lots of good ones there, though, like Jack Reacher, Tony Soprano, and Greg House: these are at least the same species as Frank Underwood, though not writ so large.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ask a libertarian

Next time I encounter a libertarian who opposes some specific policy, like a gun-control measure or a financial regulation, I want to ask: do you oppose requiring cars to have license plates?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Homeline college

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed supports the idea of "Home College," essentially home-schooling for higher education: