URLs du Jour

2020-10-14

[Amazon Link]

  • My favorite science popularizer, Sabine Hossenfelder, provides a video and a transcript explaining: You don’t have free will, but don’t worry.

    Today I want to talk about an issue that must have occurred to everyone who spent some time thinking about physics. Which is that the idea of free will is both incompatible with the laws of nature and entirely meaningless. I know that a lot of people just do not want to believe this. But I think you are here to hear what the science says. So, I will tell you what the science says. In this video I first explain why free will does not exist, indeed makes no sense, and then tell you why there are better things to worry about.

    I was going to do an old-style fisking of Sabine's post, but let me just debunk the bit about "science says". Caltech's Sean Carroll has as much right to speak for "science" as does Sabine, and you can read his take (from 2011) on the issue here: Free Will Is as Real as Baseball.

    Sabine has (in the past) discussed Sean's take. So she really knows better than to (now) claim "science" has definitively put a thumbs-down on free will.

    Those interested in the issue might also check out the reaction of Jerry Coyne to Sabine's post. He's also an anti-free willer.

    Fine. As near as I can tell, this debate has been going on for centuries. And people might be convinced one way or the other, but I'm not sure anyone has let their views affect how they actually behave in day-to-day life. Evidence is weighed, desires and values consulted, personal decisions get made. (Yes, I'll have the scallops.)

    I'm a free will fan, but it's pretty clear that informed opinion is divided. Note (however) there's a telling lack of "science" involved here. Neither Sabine, Sean, nor Jerry do the science thing: propose an experiment or describe possible observations that would settle the question one way or the other. A good scientist should have a ready answer to the question: what sort of data would make you change your mind on that?

    I'm not holding my breath there. I'm assuming the silence means nobody can think of a way to resolve the issue scientifically.

    I suppose that could happen at some point. But until then, I'll have to go with lived experience. And either actually choose what shirt to wear today, or have the illusion that I'm doing so.


  • At Reason, J.D. Tuccille has the bad news: German-Style Internet Censorship Catches On Around the World. Skipping down to us in the USA:

    The U.S. faces its own speech- and privacy-threatening legislation in the form of the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act of 2020. The legislation, which was introduced in the House of Representatives last month, invokes children and the dangers of child pornography on its way to threatening platforms with the loss of Section 230 protection against liability for content posted by users if they don't adopt government-dictated "best practices."

    "The EARN IT bill would allow small website owners to be sued or prosecuted under state laws, as long as the prosecution or lawsuit somehow related to crimes against children," warns the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We know how websites will react to this. Once they face prosecution or lawsuits based on other peoples' speech, they'll monitor their users, and censor or shut down discussion forums."

    The legislation was introduced on the Senate side back in March. Like most bad legislative ideas, the supporters are bipartisan.


  • At AIER, Jenin Younes wants you to know something about "lockdowners". Which is: Lockdowners Speak with Privilege, and Contempt for the Poor and Working Class. Specifically, Jenin is not a fan of one particular critic of the lockdown-skeptical Great Barrington Declaration:

    Ironically, it is the Declaration’s most prominent critics, rather than its authors, who are politically motivated. Not least among them is Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist who has emerged as one of the most vocal and qualified detractors of the Declaration, which he has, in nuanced fashion, dubbed “bullshit” and “bad science.”

    Gonsalves’s writings and social media posts over the past six months make his agenda plain. In April, Gonsalves co-authored an editorial in the British Medical Journal blaming President Trump for the pandemic and the deleterious effects of countermeasures effectuated in response to it. According to Gonsalves, the President’s “most dangerous act” was to support the

    mass public protests by his supporters to “liberate” states from their stay-at-home orders, specifically targeting states with Democratic governors . . . By encouraging armed insurrection, said Washington state governor Jay Inslee, Trump is “putting millions of people in danger of contracting covid-19. His unhinged rantings and calls for people to ‘liberate’ states could also lead to violence.”

    I would suspect Gonsalves is also less than enamored with our "Live Free or Die" motto. Let's see… yup.

    Someone should tell Gregg that "live free and die" gibe was already lame and tired back in March.


  • We're still celebrating the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman's essay "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits". Andy Kessler in the WSJ agrees: To Serve the Public, Seek Profits. Something not appreciated enough:

    No, profits aren’t greedy. They are a critical price signal—a measure of how well a company is deploying capital and creating value for society. The stock market sums all expected future profits, funding companies with great profit prospects and starving unworthy ones. But besides owning shares in those companies, what’s in it for us?

    A lot. In a 2005 paper, Yale economist William Nordhaus concludes, “Only a minuscule fraction of the social returns from technological advances over the 1948-2001 period was captured by producers, indicating that most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers.” This is what Friedman was saying implicitly when he called for corporations to maximize profits: It would maximize value to society at large.

    Mr. Nordhaus quantified that value in a 2006 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research: “Innovators were able to capture about 4 percent of the total social surplus from innovation.” The social surplus Mr. Nordhaus identifies is the improvements capitalism brings to common living standards. That is societal wealth. Yes, entrepreneurs and innovators generate wealth for themselves, but not as much as they do for society. If that’s not socially responsible, I don’t know what is. Mr. Nordhaus should have won his Nobel for this, but it was his work on “integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis” that caught the committee’s eye in 2018. Sigh.

    The flip side is that for every dollar government removes from profitable uses through taxes or regulation, it theoretically takes 25 times that amount from compounding social wealth. Each lost dollar reduces investment and potential productivity, and instead goes to whoever public policies favor. Same for environmental, social and governance investing, where distortions diminish returns, just as federal car mileage standards and union overpay destroyed Detroit.

    I've said this in the past: there is not a single dollar in private hands that statist politicians do not imagine they could spend more wisely and humanely. Oh, sure: they'll probably let you keep some of yours. But that's not due to any lofty principle. The only rule is: if they think government "needs" it, and they can politically get away with it, they'll take it.


  • [Amazon Link]
    I recently read a book titled Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie (Amazon link at right.) So did Matt Ridley, and he updates Ritchie's observations with recent events: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Science.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the bond between the public and the scientific profession as never before. Scientists have been revealed to be neither omniscient demigods whose opinions automatically outweigh all political disagreement, nor unscrupulous fraudsters pursuing a political agenda under a cloak of impartiality. Somewhere between the two lies the truth: Science is a flawed and all too human affair, but it can generate timeless truths, and reliable practical guidance, in a way that other approaches cannot.

    In a lecture at Cornell University in 1964, the physicist Richard Feynman defined the scientific method. First, you guess, he said, to a ripple of laughter. Then you compute the consequences of your guess. Then you compare those consequences with the evidence from observations or experiments. “If [your guess] disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make a difference how beautiful the guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess or what his name is…it’s wrong.”

    That nicely dovetails with the first item up there, doesn't it?