Category: Science

Blog author: dpahman
Thursday, November 10, 2016
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In his best-selling book The Black Swan, probabilist Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns against the need for easy narratives to explain the unexpected. Given how unexpected the result of this Tuesday’s election was, it is worth taking some time to review what Taleb calls “the narrative fallacy.”

According to Taleb,

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Yesterday, I reviewed New York Times exit polling data to try to look at what we actually know about who voted for president-elect Donald Trump or Sec. Hillary Clinton. The results, as I noted, were often surprising.

The reason they are surprising is precisely because of what Taleb gets at here: we have a tendency to want everything to fit into neat-and-tidy narratives. But reality rarely works that way, especially in the case of unexpected events. Donald Trump’s win was a Black Swan event to many.

By nearly every poll, Hillary Clinton was the favorite to win (and, of course, it appears she did win the popular vote). The most cautious index I saw was FiveThirtyEight, where to their credit they stressed the probabilistic nature of their forecast. They basically put the odds at 2-to-1 in favor of Clinton, and they even said that her chances were not as good as President Obama’s reelection in 2012. Even so, they too have been reeling at the inaccuracy of, again, basically every poll.

So Trump won. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility (obviously now), but it was certainly unexpected to most, even some of those who gave him a better chance than others. How did it happen? (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
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These Russian Orthodox cosmonauts get it. Click photo for source.

… Or does religion need Mars? So argues social commentator James Poulos at Foreign Affairs:

What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs. It has filled up so much with people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff that it’s maddening to find what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a fresh green breast of a new world — the experience of truly open horizons and an open but specific future. That’s a problem that does suggest a terrible calamity, if not exactly an imminent apocalypse. But by making a fresh pilgrimage to a literally new world — say, red-breasted Mars — we could mark our pilgrims’ progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God.

I’m sympathetic to Poulos’s general point that Mars — and those, like Elon Musk, who want to colonize it — needs religion. (Perhaps even Calvinism in particular!) However, I’m not so sure that Earth has lost its ability to evoke spiritual renewal. (more…)

Today at Public Orthodoxy, the blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, I have an essay on the need for Orthodox theology to more seriously engage modern economic science. The argument would likely apply in some degree to other theological traditions as well.

I write,

Personal relationships and the monastic life have different norms than impersonal markets. This does not mean that markets have no norms, nor that the norms of markets should overrule any other concerns. But it does mean that if we wish for our economies to be more moral, whether we hail from the political right or left (or somewhere outside of that simplistic binary), we must first understand what they are and how they function.

In the article, I quote Peter Hill and John Lunn on this distinction, but it can be found in the work of Paul Heyne as well. For example, in his essay “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” citing a newspaper article about Mother Theresa (now officially recognized as a Roman Catholic saint as of this past Sunday), he wrote,

I shall conclude with two recent newspaper items. One is a short news item reporting that Mother Teresa was about to appeal to prevent the execution of a convicted California murderer. I don’t know whether she did appeal or not, but the newspaper said that she was going to call the Governor and say that this man should be forgiven because that is what Jesus would have done. Now I don’t want to get into the issue of capital punishment; I just want to point out that if Mother Teresa made that argument she was mixing different moralities. I choose Mother Teresa because I can’t think of a person for whom I have more respect; she is a far better person than I am. But forgiveness is appropriate only in face-to-face relations or for God. The criminal-justice system of the State of California is not God nor is it running a face-to-face society. A judge who forgives a convicted criminal is not a candidate for sainthood but for impeachment. The morality of large social spheres is simply different from the morality of face-to-face systems. Arguments against capital punishment must take those differences into account, and so must our arguments for revised economic policies.

This is a crucial distinction that I have come back to again and again, and one that I explore in more detail at Public Orthodoxy today. Read my full essay here.

malthus-glasses1The doom delusions of central planners and population “experts” are well documented and refuted, ranging from the early pessimism of the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus to the more fanatical predictions of Paul Ehrlich.

Through these lenses, population growth is a driver of poverty, following from a framing of the human person as a strain and a drain on society and the environment. As Michael Mattheson Miller has written, such thinking suffers from a zero-sum mindset wherein the economy (or any web of human relationships) is a fixed pie “with only so much to go around.” “But the economy is not a pie,” he explains, “Economies can grow, and population growth can actually help development. A growing population means more labor, which along with land and capital are the main factors of production.”

Yet even still, despite the range of agricultural and technological innovations, and the worldwide evidence of booming prosperity in highly populated areas like Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the Malthusians of yesteryear are connecting their cramped imaginations to present-day concerns.

In an article at National Review, Kevin Williamson identifies this wrinkle, noting that the “new new Malthusians” are worried less about human impacts on natural resources and instead worry about the human costs of our own unbounded ingenuity: (more…)

tyson-chambers1“Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.” –Whittaker Chambers

The vain self-confidence of high-minded planners and politicians has caused great harm throughout human history, much of it done in the name of “reason” and “science” and “progress.” In an information age such as ours, the technocratic temptation is stronger than ever.

As the Tower of Babel confirms, we have always had a disposition to think we can know more than we can know, and can construct beyond what we can construct. “Let us build ourselves a tower with its top in the heavens. Let us make a name for ourselves.”

America was wise to begin its project with active constraints against age-old conceits, but we have not been without our regimes of busybody bureaucrats seeking to plan their way to enlightened equilibrium and social utopia.

Such attitudes emerge across a range of specialties, but a recent proposition by popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson captures the essence rather well.

Thomas Sowell is fond of saying that “the most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best,” and for Tyson, his preferred pool of “evidence” hustlers offer a very basic answer. (more…)

Acton University is a unique conference, a fact noted by Nobel Economics Laureate Vernon L. Smith, who used his appearance on Wednesday, June 15 as an opportunity to “speak on a topic that my fellow economists would never have asked me to speak on”: religious faith and its compatibility with modern science.

We’re pleased to present Smith’s lecture below.

There’s been a lot of discussion leading up to the planned Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete this month. As is typical of councils in the history of the Church, so far it’s a mess, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

In what has been described as an act of self-marginalization by Bulgarian Orthodox scholar Smilen Markov, it looks like the Bulgarian Patriarchate has already backed out.

Antioch has a laundry list of grievances.

The OCA, which might not even technically be invited in the first place, has issued a statement.

And further statements from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Georgian Patriarchate, and others can be found.

No need to review the contents as the point is simply to note that, once again, the council is already a mess.

Officially, I should be calling it the “Great and Holy” council, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. That’s not out of cynicism (well, not entirely) but due to the record of history and the science of economics. (more…)