Philosophy

Kieran Healy has a new paper on that topic (pdf), by the way a paper with a very short title (but this is a family blog).  Here is his opening paragraph:

Nuance is not a virtue of good sociological theory. Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise, and almost without exception when nuance is mentioned is is because someone is asking for more of it.  I shall argue that, for the problems facing Sociology at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that is intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful.
And yet I find this paper has a lot of…nuance.  But of course Healy is consistent, it is “Actually Existing Nuance” he is railing against…

I very much enjoyed this Live Chat, and I thank the participants for all of their stimulating questions and remarks.  Here is one excerpt:

Ben Casnocha:

How do you think your career and life would have been different if blogging, twitter, and digital media had be ubiquitous in your teens and 20’s? Would you have still pursued an academic path or would you have become a full-time columnist/commentator/speaker earlier on? I seem to recall you saying at one point that you’re glad the internet didn’t exist early on in your life as it gave you the time to read the classics and develop a substantive base of knowledge.

Tyler Cowen:

I am glad I was forced to live in “book culture” and “meat space’ for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It’s like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move is.

[and later] …contemporary academic is overly bureaucratized and there is a very good chance I would [if I were starting today] look for another model of success and contentment. It is an open question whether or not I could find one. Whatever its limitations, there is still a followable formula for academic success, which of course is part of the problem.

Other topics include when is the best age to live in various parts of the world, Alban Berg and Rilke, Marc Andreessen, my one hidden talent, Rene Girard, labor market networks, optimal travel into the past, and which is the most underrated or overrated wisdom tradition.  Do read the whole thing.

This book already has done a good deal to raise the status of autistic people and also studies of autism.  Silberman is to be commended for extensive research into the lives of Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner and into the modern “neurodiversity” movement more broadly.  He has taken on a very difficult topic and turned it into what is likely to prove a commercially successful book.

That said, most reviews of this work, while positive, are not very assured.  It’s as if the reviewers know they are not well-informed about the topic and thus they stick to general praise, without delving into the details.  Or maybe they like the book’s conclusion and are reluctant to criticize the work as a whole.  I, in contrast, have a few more pointed remarks:

1. Leo Kanner, a co-discoverer of autism, is made out to be the bad guy, yet his writings are more subtle than Silberman indicates, even though one can pull some bad phrases and quotations.  Kanner in particular had a much stronger grasp of the diversity within autism (pdf) than Silberman grants.  It is hard, after reading that piece, to see how his conception of autism could be described as monolithic.

The contrast between Kanner and Asperger is much overdrawn.  The truth is closer to “they both had profound early insights and were unjustly neglected” rather than Silberman’s “sadly the Kanner approach to autism at first beat out the Asperger approach.”  The latter narrative is an over-dramatized storytelling convention of a popular book.  The real problem back then was how various minorities and “deviants” were treated, from gay individuals to lobotomized schizophrenics, rather than the dominant influence of Kanner’s ideas.

2. Silberman promotes an “along a spectrum (spectra?) model” rather than an “autistic yes or no” model.  Maybe so, but it is far from obvious that the “yes or no” model is false and in fact it explains some of the data better (pdf).  Silberman offers no scientific reason for his choice, and he doesn’t define the underlying concepts clearly enough to outline exactly what is at stake.  Silberman argues that the spectrum models are ethically superior and more humane, but that is an unjustified presumption and it also does not settle the substantive dispute.  In any case both models are capable of accommodating either respectful or disrespectful attitudes toward autistic people.

3. For a 534-pp.book on autism, there is oddly little discussion of what autism is or might be.  That is author’s prerogative of course, but it means the book doesn’t offer much of a framework for judging the research history of autism, as it attempts to do.

4. Silberman devotes an entire chapter to the movie “Rain Man,” and in part the movie’s main role model, namely Kim Peek.  Yet the text fails to note it eventually turned out that Peek was not in fact autistic but instead probably had FG syndrome.  This is another instance of the book’s tendency to prefer a good story over the facts.  And that Peek was so ingloriously railroaded into the autism category is part of the actual story there (Dustin Hoffman played a role in doing that), yet that is a mistake which Silberman himself essentially repeats.

I hate to rain on the parade of this book because a) I love the topic, b) the author’s research is impressive, and c) the book is genuinely humane and tolerant and it will have an almost entirely positive impact on popular discourse.  Still, I think that the original organizing themes in the work are mostly wrong.

And oddly, for all its praise of autism and autistic ways of thinking, the style of the book is remarkably non-autistic.  It’s full of long stories and blah blah blah, rather than getting to the point.

Here is a review from Nature.  Carl Zimmer interviews Silberman.  Here is The Economist review.  Here is a related podcast.  Here is the Jennifer Senior NYT review.  Here is Silberman’s LATimes piece.  Here is a Morton Ann Gernsbacher review.  Here is The Guardian.  Here is The Atlantic.  Here is a PLOS interview with Silberman.

It’s an interesting read, but I don’t think you can trust what’s in there.

*Divergent Paths*

by on August 26, 2015 at 3:16 pm in Books, Economics, Education, Law, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new forthcoming Richard Posner book and the subtitle is The Academy and the Judiciary.  Virtually everything by Posner is worth reading, and this comparison of the worlds of the professor and the judge is no exception.

File this one under “unglamorous yet underrated philosophical paragraphs”:

There are really two problems that fall under the label of ‘the problem of intertheoretic choice-worthiness comparisons’.  The first problem is: “When, if ever, are intertheoretic choice-worthiness comparisons possible, and in virtue of what are intertheoretic comparisons true?”…The second problem is: “Given that choice-worthiness sometimes is incomparable across first-order normative theories, what is it appropriate to do in conditions of normative uncertainty?”

That is from the doctoral dissertation of William MacAskill, who is also a driving force behind the Effective Altruism movement.

Here is an oversimplified way of putting his point.  Let’s say you think utilitarianism is true with some probability, and Kantian deontology is also true with some probability.  Can you aggregate the recommendations of these two theories “across the probabilities”?  Not easily.  The Kantian theory offers an absolute recommendation, but should that carry the day if deontology is true with only 7%?  More generally, even less absolute theories do not offer comparable frameworks for cross-theoretical aggregation.  How does 6% truth for maximin, 13% truth for prioritarianism, and 27% truth for cosmopolitan utilitarianism all add up?  It’s not like calculating true shooting percentage in the NBA, because there is no common and commensurable understanding of “points” across the different frameworks.  This aggregation problem is actually tougher than Arrow’s, at least once we recognize there is justifiably uncertainty about the true moral theory.

There is actually some related blog commentary on this issue.  Overall MacAskill is on to one of the most important developments in consequentialist ethics over the last few decades.

cryo

While Anastasia Garvey, an actress and model, doesn’t have office pressure, she says she is constantly on edge wondering if she’ll get a certain job. She has developed a regimen of ways to disconnect: meditation, acupuncture, cupping therapy, monthly trips to a reservation-only spa and most recently cryotherapy — as in spending some time being blasted by air cooled to minus 260 degrees.

It only lasts three minutes, plus time to warm up again on a stationary bike, but it costs $90 a session, she said. She goes three times a week.

“The first time I did it I couldn’t remember my name,” she said. “You’re in a freezer. You’re so cold you can’t think of anything.”

There are many interesting ideas and bits in this NYT Paul Sullivan piece: “As for the seeming contradiction of the Buddhist boxer…”

From the comments — on suicide

by on August 22, 2015 at 2:09 am in Law, Medicine, Philosophy | Permalink

Switzerland tolerates assisted suicide since 1942 and there are very interesting numbers. A) From 1995 to 2009, assisted suicide cases have grown but the total number of suicides keeps constant. B) Assisted suicide in 2009 accounted for approx 30% of all suicides. C) Women chose assisted suicide more than men, but men use firearms more than women to commit suicide. D) Peak assisted suicide is between 75 and 84 years old. It seems that people that cross the 80+ years old line are not affected by painful or exhausting diseases thus they choose to life until it ends naturally E) Peak suicide is between 45-54 years old, midlife crisis is real, F) Overall suicide rates for women kept constant even if assisted suicide rates increase. G) Overall suicide rates for men are going down and assisted suicide goes up.

http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/en/index/news/publikationen.html?publicationID=4732

The overall suicide rate in Netherlands between 1999 and 2013 has been between 8.3 and 11 per 100K habitats. The lowest rate was just before the crisis. http://www.cbs.nl/nl-NL/menu/themas/gezondheid-welzijn/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2015/4320-suicide-in-noord-holland-noord-en-nederland1999-2013.htm

The WaPo article would lose its killer headline if the total suicide rate is considered when assessing the “exponential” increase of assisted suicide. This seems like another case of double standards. When someone blows their brains with a gun we have to respect the decision and comfort the family, when someone opens the valve of sodium thiopental with their hand…..it’s just wrong.

That is from Axa.

In 2013, euthanasia accounted for one of every 28 deaths in the Netherlands, three times the rate of 2002. In the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, one of every 22 deaths was due to euthanasia in 2013, a 142 percent increase since 2007. Belgium has legalized euthanasia for children under 12, though only for terminal physical illness; no child has yet been put to death.

That is from Charles Lane.

Observers seem to focus on the target event and not its complement.  Bagchi and Ince have a new paper on this question:

Consumers routinely rely on forecasters to make predictions about uncertain events (e.g., sporting contests, stock fluctuations). The authors demonstrate that when forecasts are higher versus lower (e.g., a 70% vs. 30% chance of team A winning a game) consumers infer that the forecaster is more confident in her prediction, has conducted more in-depth analyses, and is more trustworthy. The prediction is also judged as more accurate. This occurs because forecasts are evaluated based on how well they predict the target event occurring (team A winning). Higher forecasts indicate greater likelihood of the target event occurring, and signal a confident analyst, while lower forecasts indicate lower likelihood and lower confidence in the target event occurring. But because, with lower forecasts, consumers still focus on the target event (and not its complement), lower confidence in the target event occurring is erroneously interpreted as the forecaster being less confident in her overall prediction (instead of more confident in the complementary event occurring—team A losing). The authors identify boundary conditions, generalize to other prediction formats, and demonstrate consequences.

Of course this also has relevance for the evolutionary processes governing pundits.

Here is a related press release (pdf).  For the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

That is the title of my current column at The Upshot.  I very much enjoyed my read of William MacCaskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.  The point of course is to apply science, reason, and data analysis to our philanthropic giving.

I am more positive than negative on this movement and also the book, as you can see from the column.  Still, I think my more skeptical remarks are the most interesting part to excerpt:

Neither Professor MacAskill nor the effective-altruism movement has answered all the tough questions. Often the biggest gains come from innovation, yet how can a donor spur such advances? If you had a pile of money and the intent to make the world a better place in 1990, could you have usefully expected or encouraged the spread of cellphones to Africa? Probably not, yet this technology has improved the lives of many millions, and at a profit, so for the most part its introduction didn’t draw money from charities. Economists know frustratingly little about the drivers of innovation.

And as Prof. Angus Deaton of Princeton University has pointed out, many of the problems of poverty boil down to bad politics, and we don’t know how to use philanthropy to fix that. If corruption drains away donated funds, for example, charity could even be counterproductive by propping up bad governments.

Sometimes we simply can’t know in advance how important a donation will turn out to be. For example, the financier John A. Paulson’s recently announced $400 million gift to Harvard may be questioned on the grounds that Harvard already has more money than any university in the world, and surely is not in dire need of more. But do we really know that providing extra support for engineering and applied sciences at Harvard — the purpose of the donation — will not turn into globally worthwhile projects? Innovations from Harvard may end up helping developing economies substantially. And even if most of Mr. Paulson’s donation isn’t spent soon, the money is being invested in ways that could create jobs and bolster productivity.

In addition, donor motivation may place limits on the applicability of the effective-altruism precepts. Given that a lot of donors are driven by emotion, pushing them to be more reasonable might backfire. Excessively cerebral donors might respond with so much self-restraint that they end up giving less to charity. If they are no longer driven by emotion, they may earn and save less in the first place.

On Paulson, here is Ashok Rao’s recent post on compounding returns.

The culture and polity that is Germany:

Officials in Stuttgart were among the loudest protesters against the labour minister Andrea Nahles’ new workplace safety regulations, which stated that the lifts could only be used by employees trained in paternoster riding.

“It took the heart out of this place when our paternoster was brought to a halt, and it slowed down our work considerably,” said Wolfgang Wölfle, Stuttgart’s deputy mayor, who vociferously fought the ban and called for the reinstatement of the town hall’s lift, which has been running since 1956.

“They suit the German character very well. I’m too impatient to wait for a conventional lift and the best thing about a paternoster is that you can hop on and off it as you please. You can also communicate with people between floors when they’re riding on one. I see colleagues flirt in them all the time,” he added, celebrating its reopening at a recent town hall party to which hundreds of members of the public were invited.

…In officialese the lifts are referred to as Personenumlaufaufzüge – people circulation lifts – while a popular bureaucrats’ nickname for them is Beamtenbagger or “civil servant excavator”. The name paternoster – Latin for “our father” – is a reference to one of the prayers said by Catholics using rosary beads, which are meditatively passed through the hand, just as the cabins are in perpetual motion around the shaft.

There is more here, with excellent videos of paternoster riding, all via Michelle Dawson.  By the way, it has been against the law to build new paternosters since 1974.

Sentences to ponder

by on August 12, 2015 at 1:24 pm in Education, Medicine, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

We did not observe any individual protein-altering variants that are reproducibly associated with extremely high intelligence and within the entire distribution of intelligence.

That is from “a whole bunch of guys” writing in Molecular Psychiatry, via Michelle Dawson.  In other words, the prospect of straightforward genetic engineering for smarter babies probably won’t be a reality anytime soon.  Technology remains pretty far behind the matchmaker.

Or so it seems.  Mansfield, Mutz, and Silver write:

In this paper, we provide one of the first systematic analyses of gender’s effect on trade attitudes. We draw on a unique representative national survey of American workers that allows us to evaluate a variety of potential explanations for gender differences in attitudes toward free trade and open markets more generally. We find that existing explanations for the gender gap, most notably differences between men and women in economic knowledge and differing material self-interests, do not explain the gap. Rather, the gender difference in trade preferences and attitudes about open markets is due to less favorable attitudes toward competition among women, less willingness to relocate for jobs among women, and more isolationist non-economic foreign policy attitudes among women.

The pointer is from Ben Southwood, I do not see an ungated copy.

*Just Married*

by on August 9, 2015 at 2:33 am in Books, Law, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new and highly intelligent book by Stephen Macedo, and the subtitle is Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy & the Future of Marriage.  I balk at only one of his conclusions: he is pro-gay marriage, where I agree, but he does not believe in legal polygamy.  For instance he argues there is no polygamous orientation comparable to a same-sex orientation, rather polygamy is a preference.  He views polygamy as unstable, and also as leading to distributive injustice, with high status males reaping excess gains.  Furthermore the historical record of polygamy is often negative.  Here are relevant comments from Will Wilkinson, who (like me) is convinced by Macedo on gay marriage but not polygamy.  Is polygamy going to be such a significant practical problem that we ultimately have to in some way wield the coercive apparatus of the state if people insist on trying to practice it?  Would polygamous-equivalent contracts be not just left unenforced but also banned?  I don’t quite see how a liberal doctrine gets you there.  Furthermore, might polygamy make more sense in some eras than in others?  (“Not your grandfather’s polygamy!”)  I still wish to defend the presumption for some notion of freedom of contract.

…Even Cowen tells OZY that even he doesn’t want Tabarrok to “entirely get his way” on all things…

Otherwise it is all about Alex, but that is my cameo.  It is a good and fun profile, though I think it understates Alex’s pragmatic side somewhat.  The author is Sanjena Sathian.