URLs du Jour


  • Jerry Coyne, at his Why Evolution is True blog, asks the musical question: Did a philosopher make evolutionary psychology impossible?

    (Yes, as I apparently never tire of pointing out, Betteridge's law of headlines applies.)

    And I probably wouldn't have blogged this except the philosopher in question is a facule at the University Near Here, one Subrena Smith. Coyne links to Prof Smith's article: "Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?" (No, she says.) And also links to a Gizmodo article: This Philosopher Is Challenging All of Evolutionary Psychology. But:

    Well, has she done what she aimed to: brought down an entire discipline? My judgment is “no—certainly not.”  She doesn’t even come close. What she does is list a set of standards that, Smith thinks, must be met for an evolutionary psychology explanation to be credible, and these standards are so rigorous and hard to meet that no study has met them or can meet them. Ergo, evolutionary psychology—done the way she wants—is “impossible.”

    I believe that her overly excessive requirements bespeak Smith’s lack of understanding of how evolutionary biology is done. And that, I believe, comes from the fact that Smith is not a practicing scientist, but rather a philosopher, all of whose degrees were in philosophy. I usually don’t bring up credentials when discussing an argument, but I think her concentration on philosophy is relevant to her belief that evolutionary psychology fails to meet all tests of being a scientific field. Philosophers tend to be absolutists who require a clam claim to follow a set of strict rules.

    Also worth reading, if you're interested, is Steven Pinker's contribution. to the controversy, also at Coyne's blog. Sample:

    The motive seems to be the slipshod politicizing I exposed 18 years ago in The Blank Slate: if we’re blank slates, there can’t be differences between races, which would make racism impossible; therefore to combat racism we must believe that humans are blank slates. It fails both in philosophical coherence (racism is not an empirical hypothesis that might be shown to be true or false) and in accuracy — most evolutionary psychologists argue for a universal human nature. Also, a philosophical argument against evolutionary explanations in psychology ultimately falls apart when it unwittingly “refutes” even the most unexceptionable evolutionary explanations, such as sexual desire or protectiveness of children. And ironically, though this argument claims to be based in the philosophy of science, it seems unaware that within that field “argument to the best explanation” is generally considered the only means by which science of any kind is done — science never makes apodictic pronouncements based on a prior list of methodological precepts.

    Science—all science—is a human enterprise, and is subject to various human frailties. Granted. But making some subfield's departure from a kind of imagined Platonic ideal of SCIENCE! into The Story is fallacious.

  • Jeff Jacoby is a token conservative at the Boston Globe, where he's largely hidden from the world behind the Globe's nasty paywall. But he also posts at his Patreon site, and his latest is a combination of good stuff, on Pope John Paul II, the California effort to repeal "Prop 209", which forbade the state from racial preferences, amd Massachusetts' corporate welfare directed at hapless General Electric. From the latter:

    Stock in General Electric dropped to a new low last week, sinking at week's end to $5.49 a share. In nominal dollars, that's about what it was worth 30 years ago (much less, of course, if adjusted for inflation). And it is just a small fraction of the nearly $30 a share it was going for in January 2016, when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh were patting themselves on the backs — to the lusty cheers of many in the media — for having coaxed GE to shift its headquarters from Fairfield, Conn., to Boston's Fort Point Channel district.

    At the time GE's move to Boston was announced, its market capitalization (the standard measure of the value of a publicly traded company) was about $270 billion. That instantly qualified GE as the most valuable company in Massachusetts. It debuted on the Globe 25 Index — a listing of the 25 biggest companies headquartered in Massachusetts — at No. 1, and by a wide margin.

    And there it perched, high above its peers. Until, like Humpty Dumpty, it had a great fall.

    Unsurprising news: welfare, whether directed to individuals or corporations, tends to make them dependent. No, not in all cases. But that's the way to bet.

  • [Amazon Link]
    Matt Ridley has a new book out (as of yesterday, Amazon link at right), and there's a sneak preview at his blog: Innovation Can’t Be Forced, but It Can Be Quashed.

    The Covid-19 pandemic reveals that far from living in an age of incessant technological change, we have been neglecting innovation in exactly the areas where we most need it. Faced with a 17th-century plague, we are left to fall back mainly on the 17th-century response of quarantine and closing the theaters.

    It is commonplace today to say that innovation is speeding up, but like much conventional wisdom, it is wrong. Some innovation is speeding up, certainly, but some is slowing down. Take speed itself. In my lifetime of more than sixty years, I have seen little or no improvement in the average speed of travel. Congestion on the roads and at airports has in many cases increased the scheduled travel time between two points. A modern airliner, with its high-bypass engines and less-swept wings, is designed to save fuel by going more slowly than a Boeing 707 did in the 1960s. The record for the fastest manned plane, 4,520 miles an hour, was set by the X-15 rocket plane in 1967 and remains unbroken. Boeing 747s are still flying half a century after they were launched. Concorde, the only supersonic passenger plane, is history.

    Moreover, recent decades have seen innovation stalled or rejected in a number of technologies. Nuclear power has been unable to roll out plans for new reactor designs. Genetic modification of crops was effectively rejected by Europe. The flow of new pharmaceutical drugs has slowed to a trickle. Ride-sharing apps have been banned in many cities. As the investor Peter Thiel has pointed out, innovation is now largely a digital phenomenon, because bits are lightly regulated and atoms heavily regulated. On all sides we hear arguments that innovation threatens jobs, the environment, privacy and democracy.

    We've known the genome of the Coronavirus for months. Wouldn't it be nice if there had been some bioengineering innovation that could have designed an effective vaccine near-immediately from that data?

    Maybe next time.

  • If only our fair state had the foresight not to be so damn close to its southern neighbor… Michael Graham notes the odd symbiosis: Boston's Mayor Says Infection Rates Are Too Low to Lift Lockdown. What Does That Mean for NH?

    So, what does it mean for New Hampshire businesses and families that Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh has announced that he’s holding off on loosening some of the restrictions on the city because the level of coronavirus infections in his city is too low.

    You read that right: Too low.

    A study by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Boston Public Health Commission in four Boston neighborhoods found just 9.9 percent of those tested had antibodies indicating they’d been exposed to the virus. As a result, Walsh said, he’s holding off on lowering some of his restrictions on the city on Monday, May 18 as planned.

    I have given up on any politician basing their Covid-19 policies and responses on clear-eyed rational grounds.

    No, it's not a conspiracy. They just don't want people to say they killed grandma. (Even when they did kill grandma.)

  • Writing in the (probably paywalled) WSJ Texas CongressCritter Matt Crenshaw wonders: Why Does Reopening Polarize Us? Is it Trump? Geography? A free economy versus a "planned" one?

    Maybe. But Congressman Dan has his eye (sorry, cheap joke) on something I've noticed myself:

    […] I believe a complete account would take us deeper, into the realm of psychology and morality. Liberal and conservative brain function has been shown to differ considerably during exercises in risk-taking. These differences led researchers to conclude that socially conservative views are driven, at least in part, by people’s need to feel safe and secure. While liberals present themselves as more open to experience and change, conservatives seem more likely to protect that which we know. This divide appears to apply to multiculturalism, traditional institutions and financial risk, but not all unknown risks.

    Today conservatives are the ones ready to confront risk head-on. That’s consistent with my experience in the military, where the overwhelming majority of special operators identify as conservatives. Recent data confirm my experiences, indicating that high-risk civilian occupations tend to be filled by those who lean right. If conservatives show more brain activity when processing fear, they also seem better at overcoming it.

    Let's also point out that liberals are inordinately fond of risking taxpayer money (aka "other people's money") on all sorts of silly schemes.

The Pursuit of the Pankera

A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes

[Amazon Link]

So this is Robert A. Heinlein's latest novel. Pretty good trick for a guy that's been dead since 1988. I think he might have appreciated the chutzpah involved in putting it out.

The first 29% of this book is pretty much the same as RAH's The Number of the Beast, published in 1980. (If you have a Kindle version, and you want to immediately skip ahead to the new stuff: search for the word "Splat".) But then things diverge. And you may find the divergence interesting, or not.

Let me repeat my synopsis from TNofB: Zeb Carter is at a party, where he meets Deety, daughter of math prof Jake. The party is hosted by Hilda. Zeb and Deety decide to get hitched, Jake and Hilda do the same, and then it develops that some baddies—the "black hats"—are trying to kill Jake for his discovery/invention of the means to travel between parallel universes. Deety and Hilda are impregnated, the universe-hopping gadget is installed in Zeb's flying car, and they're off. Not trying to save the world, but avoiding death.

As with TNofB (slight spoilers ahead) the plot depends strongly on what the characters call "multiperson solipsism". For the book's purposes, this means they can visit universes they previously considered to be entirely fictional. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom. Baum's Oz. Doc Smith's Lensman universe. All these diverse realms get mustered into an unlikely alliance to exterminate the "black hats"—the Pankera.

Unfortunately, the book shares the same features I disliked in TNofB: too much Heinlein-character yakking, and at certain points things just stop for a page after page discussion of some obscure point about Barsoomian protocol, or the flying car's operating system, or…

Let it be said, however, that I found some of the pages to be amazingly magical.

Can I recommend it? If you are less than a rabid Heinlein fan, probably not. But if you thought The Number of the Beast was OK, than you might find this OK as well.

The Current War

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

What's good: Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Alva Edison. That's some serious acting talent right there.

What's not so good: While I love American capitalism and innovation, the movie doesn't really make it interesting, at least not cinematically interesting. Edison was famous for that saying about 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration; putting that nose-to-the-grindstone sweaty stuff up on the screen is (I assume) a major challenge.

Anyway: it's the story of the Westinghouse/Edison competition to electrify America, with Westinghouse behind AC (which won), Edison clinging to DC, because he thought it to be safer. And that's where his patents were. Hanging around both guys is prickly genius Nikola Tesla, who doesn't fit in well with either corporate culture. There's also a bunch of family stuff. The sets are pretty amazing.

Thanks to it being a Harvey Weinstein-related production, the movie didn't really show up in theaters, and didn't make back its production budget.

Playing a young Samuel Insull, by the way, is a kid who looked sort of familiar… who the heck is that? Finally the credits rolled, and, whoa, it was Tom Holland! Spider-Man! And Doctor Strange! Together again!