I am often when people who produce bad results via poorly thought out policies are said to have good intentions.
Too many people divide intentions into two binary categories – good and bad. I prefer to see intentions as ranging along a continuum, with one extreme for plans that involve meticulous research to ensure that the results that the wisest people would expect are consistent with altruism, and the other extreme for plans where anyone can see that the expected results will be unnecessary harm. Most intentions fall in the middle of this spectrum, with people not intending any harm but allowing their expectations to be biased by their self-interest (often their self-interest in appearing altruistic).
It’s unrealistic to expect people to change the way they describe intentions so that it fully reflects such a continuum, so I’ll encourage people to take a smaller step and replace the current Manichean dualism with three categories of intentions – good (resulting from unusual effort to ensure desirable results), normal (i.e. most intentions), and bad (where we expect that the person was aware that the results involve unnecessary harm).
Book review: The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin
This book makes a plausible argument that string theorists are following a fad that has little scientific promise. But much of the book leaves me with the impression that the disputes he’s describing can only be fully understood by people who devote years to studying the math, and that the book has necessarily simplified things for laymen in ways that leave out many important insights.
The argument I found most impressive was his claim that relativity shows that background independence is important enough that any theory which unites relativity with quantum mechanics will preserve relativity’s background independence (a result which string theorists don’t pursue). Still, this seems to be little more than an intuition, and until someone creates the revolutionary theory that unites relativity and quantum mechanics, there ought to be plenty of doubt about which approach is best.
His sociological analysis of the problems with physics is less impressive. His endorsement of Feyeraband’s belief that there’s no such thing as a scientific method seems implausible (although it seems plausible for some stages of scientific thought, such as decisions about what questions to ask; maybe I ought to read Feyeraband’s writings on this subject).
I’m unimpressed by his lengthy gripes about the large fraction of funding that goes to routine science rather than revolutionary science. He implies this is making revolutionary science harder than it used to be, but I still see signs that a revolutionary scientist today would follow a path similar to Einstein’s and encounter no greater obstacles.
He wonders why those who fund scientific research don’t fund some research the way the best venture capitalists do – taking risks of 90% of their choices failing in order to get a few really big successes. He seems to think risk aversion is the main reason. What I see missing from his analysis is the absence of large rewards to the funder who picks the next Einstein. I think that to get VC-like attitudes in funding agencies, we would need systems where part of the money and prestige of a Nobel prize went to a few people who made the key decisions to fund the prize-winning research. I expect it would be hard to alter existing institutions to replace committee-based funding decisions with the kind of individual authority needed for these incentives to work.
His proposal to avoid having one unproven paradigm such as string theory dominate the funding in its area by limiting the funding to any one research program to one third of the total seems naive. The most direct effects of such a rule would be that researchers get around the rule by redefining the relevant categories (e.g. claiming that string theory research is diverse enough to qualify as several independent programs, or altering whatever category is used to define the total funding).
He wants academics who have authority to influence hiring decisions to have the kind of training in avoiding prejudice and promoting diversity that their commercial equivalents get. I suspect he is way too optimistic about what that training accomplishes – my impression is that it’s designed mostly to minimize the risk of lawsuits, and does more to hide biases than it does to prevent them.
Book review: Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea by George Lakoff.
This book makes a few good points about what cognitive science tells us about differing concepts associated with the word freedom. But most of the book consists of attempts to explain his opponents’ world view that amount to defending his world view by stereotyping his opponents as simplistic.
Even when I agree that the people he’s criticizing are making mistakes due to framing errors, I find his analysis very implausible. E.g. he explains Bush’s rationalization of Iraqi deaths as “Those killed and maimed don’t count, since they are outside the war frame. Moreover, Bush has done nothing via direct causation to harm any Iraqis and so has not imposed on their freedom”. Anyone who bothers to listen to Bush can see a much less stupid rationalization – Bush imagines we’re in a rerun of World War II, where the Forces of Evil have made it inevitable that some innocent people will die, and keeping U.S. hands clean will allow Evil to spread.
Lakoff’s insistence that his opponents are unable to understand indirect, systematic causation is ironic, since he shows no familiarity with most of the relevant science of complex effects of human action (e.g. economics, especially public choice economics).
He devotes only one sentence to what I regard as the biggest single difference between his worldview and his opponents’: his opponents believe in “Behavior as naturally governed by rewards and punishments.”
His use of the phrase “idea theft” to describe uses of the word freedom that differ from his use of that word is objectionable both due to the problems with treating ideas as property and with his false implication that his concept of freedom resembles the traditional U.S. concept of freedom (here’s an example of how he rejects important parts of the founders’ worldview: “One of the biggest mistakes of the Enlightenment was to counter this claim with the assumption that morality comes from reason. In fact, morality is grounded in empathy”).
If his claims of empathy are more than simply calling his opponents uncaring, then it may help explain his bias toward helping people who are most effective at communicating their emotions. For example, a minimum wage is part of his concept of freedom. People who have their wages increased by a minimum wage law tend to know who they are and often have labor unions to help spread their opinions. Whereas a person whom the minimum wage prevents from getting a job is less likely to see the cause or have a way to tell Lakoff about the resulting harm. (If you doubt the minimum wage causes unemployment, see http://www.nber.org/papers/w12663 for a recent survey of the evidence.)
This is symptomatic of the biggest problem with the book – he assumes political disagreements are the result of framing errors, not differences in understanding of how the world works, and wants to persuade people to frame issues his way rather than to use scientific methods when possible to better measure effects that people disagree about.
The book also contains a number of strange claims where it’s hard to tell whether Lakoff means what he says or is writing carelessly. E.g. “Whenever a case reaches a high court, it is because it does not clearly fit within the established categories of the law.” – I doubt he would deny that Hamdi v. Rumsfeld fit clearly within established habeas corpus law.
This is a book which will tempt people to believe that anyone who agrees with Lakoff’s policy advice is ignorant. But people who want to combat Lakoff’s ideology should resist that temptation to stereotype opponents. There are well-educated people (e.g. some behavioral economists) who have more serious arguments for many of the policies Lakoff recommends.