Liberty Magazine has an interesting article on Dubai called Freedom Blossoms in the Arabian Desert about the remarkable prosperity and freedom in that city.
A quick internet search shows reports such as this Report on International Religious Freedom and this report on Sunshine and censorship: Press freedom in UAE suggest the Liberty article exaggerates how free it is, suggesting it’s more like another Singapore than a Hong Kong. But even with that caveat, there’s still plenty of room to hope that it’s providing an opportunity for the Muslim world to escape the political systems that have kept it primitive.
Book Review: The Blank Slate : The Denial of Human Nature and Modern Intellectual Life by Steven Pinker
Pinker makes a good case that there’s a widespread bias toward a blank-slate world-view. But when dealing with serious scientific literature, his attempts to find clearcut enemies seem mistaken.
Pinker’s claim that “The second scientific defense of the Blank Slate comes from connectionism” is pretty puzzling. This “defense” consists of modeling the mind as “a general-purpose learning device”. But the books that Pinker references (Rethinking Innateness, and Parallel Distributed Processing), are both careful to point out why their models are completely consistent with the kind of genetic influences on behavior that evolutionary psychologists are talking about. Their disagreements with Pinker seem to be at most about how those influences are implemented, and even there I can’t find anything in Pinker’s arguments that clearly rejects what the connectionists believe.
Pinker’s attacks on Gould’s quasi-defense of the blank slate mainly convinced me that Gould didn’t want to think clearly about the subject, probably because he considered that any mechanistic explanation of the mind (genetic or environmental) was demeaning.
Pinker’s arguments that it’s silly to believe in the tabula rasa and noble savage world-views are eloquent and compelling, but his response to the “it’s demeaning” attitudes will convince fewer people, because he ignores the very real benefits of holding an unrealistically high opinion of one’s self (overestimating one’s abilities seems to be an effective means of advertising one’s strengths). To those who want to portray themselves as angelic or as wiser than software of the future, an accurate model of the mind is genuinely demeaning.
Pinker seems somewhat inconsistent about how important it is to know whether the mind is a blank slate.
On pages x – xi he says “the conviction that humanity could be reshaped by massive social engineering projects led to some of the greatest atrocities in history.” But in the chapter on fear of inequality, he claims (more convincingly), while defending his views from the charge they will encourage Nazism, that the differences between Nazi beliefs in genetic superiority and the blank slate viewpoints of Stalin and the Khmer Rouge didn’t have much effect on whether those tyrannies engaged in genocide – it was the greater tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups that best distinguishes the worst of the genocidal tyrants.
Pinker exaggerates the importance of finding the correct answer to the nature-nurture debate in other ways as well (I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that an author overestimates the importance of what he’s selling).
He gives examples such as forcing people to live in drab cement boxes (as if their taste for a more natural surrounding could be reversed by social engineers), or releasing psychopaths (because societal problems caused their insanity).
But a genetic component to these behaviors doesn’t prove that they can’t be altered (I have genes for brown hair – does that mean I can’t dye my hair blue?). It only gives hints as to why they might be difficult to alter.
It sure looks like careful scientific studies of whether we knew how to alter these behaviors would be a more reliable way of debunking the faulty conclusions.
There’s a report that the Flynn effect has stopped fairly abruptly in the industrialized countries. The new data suggest a more sudden halt than nutritional theories would predict. I’m uncertain what to make of this.
In the past few weeks two different studies showing the shortcomings of democracy have been getting a modest amount of publicity, but they deserve more.
One reports evidence that voters reward politicians for manipulating the economy so that personal income is maximized in the two quarters before an election.
That short-sightedness isn’t good, but it leaves plenty of room for defenders of democracy to claim it’s unclear that the effect is harmful on balance. The most recent report claims to demonstrate that the outcomes of about 70 percent of recent U.S. Senate races are predicted by a measure of how babyfaced each candidate is. The bad part about this is that this effect is negatively correlated with measures of competence such as intelligence, education, and ability to win military medals.
I guess I should think harder about what I can do to create something like Futarchy.
Book Review: The Emperor of Scent : A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses by Chandler Burr
This is an entertaining and informative story of how a failed class of theories that tried to explain smell as purely shape recognition have been challenged by a theory that involves detecting the vibrational frequencies of bonds.
Burr does a very good job of making some rather technical discussions of chemistry readable and accurate without intimidating amateurs. The story is enjoyable except when reporting the ugly side of academic and corporate politics. The extent to which he claims that researchers who have based careers on the failed approach to smell refuse to think about the vibrational theory seems rather extreme. Yet I can only find one instance in which Burr unfairly criticizes one of those researchers (on page 233, when he says it’s strange not to know what “the same vibration” means, and implies that “same” simply means an identical integer number of nanometers. Yet it would be strange if vibrations had an integer number of an arbitrary unit such as nanometers, and on page 64 Burr implies that vibrating at 2550 nanometers is the same as 2500 nanometers).
One other incidental comment the book makes about the peer review process is worth repeating. One of the reasons that big name research labs continue producing good results is that they have an advantage comparable to insider trading as a result of seeing papers at the peer review stage, while the average lab has to wait longer to get the same ideas.
Bryan Caplan writes about Robin Hanson’s contrarian views on the effectiveness of medicine and parenting.
Caplan’s conclusion about medicine involving a mix of beneficial and harmful practices is probably correct (and probably consistent with Robin’s views), but some of his reasoning is bogus:
Start with medicine. Modern techniques have clearly saved a lot of lives. If memory serves me, survival rates for premature babies have skyrocketed from 10% to 90%.
Part of Robin’s point is that we can’t tell from the improved survival rates that medicine was responsible. It may be that improved maternal nutrition has made babies better able to withstand premature birth. There is no easy way to distinguish the causes, and there’s some reason to think doctors are more effective at biasing consumers to credit them with improving peoples’ health than farmers are.
The evidence that medicine is less effective than most believe has fewer practical implications than a superficial glance suggests. It implies that you shouldn’t choose an expensive health plan over a cheap one, but leaves open the possibility that you should still see your doctor fairly often, and the possibility that you can “buy” health care that will slightly increase your life expectancy by moving from, say, Havana to San Francisco.
The argument (started by Judith Rich Harris) that parenting styles have little effect has a stronger conclusion. Caplan claims:
The same goes for parenting. We all know kids who let their parents plan their lives for them. Maybe it’s 100% genetic, but that’s a stretch. It’s more plausible to acknowledge that these pliable kids exist, but point out that they’re only half the story. We also all know kids who heard their parents’ plans for their future, and did exactly the opposite just to spite them.
I do not know kids who come close to fitting the first pattern after puberty. Essentially all kids need to demonstrate to their peers by about puberty that they are mature enough to be somewhat independent of their parents. And if you think about the sexual selection pressures on children around that age, you should expect that to be just one symptom of the pattern that Harris points out. Their reproductive success is heavily dependent on their ability to compete with and to impress people who are sufficiently close to their age to become a mate or to compete for a mate. That implies that it is important for them to adapt their personalities in ways that respond to evidence about their peers, and to treat parental opinions as much less relevant.
Unlike the arguments about the ineffectiveness of medicine, the evidence against the importance of parenting styles appears to show that all attempts to improve parenting styles (except for those, such as choosing the best school, which influence whom the child can have as peers) have failed to show benefits.
We have a large industry devoted to convincing parents to buy its advice on parenting styles. This creates a nontrivial incentive to provide evidence that some parenting styles work better than others. That includes incentives to distinguish children that will be helped by style X from those who will be helped by the opposite style. And unlike the evidence that some medical practices work, the evidence for the value of advice on parenting styles consistently fails when subjected to close scrutiny.
It is still possible that parenting styles are sometimes helping and sometimes hurting, but theory and the breadth of the evidence suggest betting against that. Eventually, given tools as drastic as manipulating the child’s genes, parents will someday find ways to manipulate their kids minds. But since there’s little reason to think that children are currently suffering from negligent parenting styles, and there are moderately good reasons to guess that youthful rebellion is mainly the result of children pursing their (gene’s?) interests, it’s hard to see why parents should be trying to alter their children’s behavioral strategies rather than ensuring that they have the resources to do what they want. (Unless, of course, parents have good reasons for pursuing different goals than their children. I’m having trouble analyzing that possibility.)