January 4th, 2020

Aeon has re-circulated an essay from last March which claims that belief in meritocracy is harmful without even identifying exactly what “meritocracy” is. In order not to be accused of the same omission I will identify a meritocracy as a social context in which power, wealth and/or other rewards are determined primarily by some kind of objectively measurable and universally recognized “merit”. There are of course many potential measures of both merit and power/reward, and so there are also many different kinds of meritocracy. The Aeon article appears to be concerned mainly with rewards of material wealth, and with merit as some vaguely defined combination of innate talent and hard work but it doesn’t explicitly say so and does not acknowledge any alternatives (such as those which apply in the academic world for example).

Another major problem with that article is that, despite claiming to make the distinction between reality and aspiration, it ends up nonetheless using arguments that conflate “belief in meritocracy” as a goal and as an opinion about the existing state of affairs. It starts by proclaiming the distinction and discussing the latter, but its main goal is to denounce the former and its arguments in that direction are where the conflation occurs.

Those who believe that we actually live in a meritocracy may indeed be unsympathetic to those who are less well off (and I am not unaware of the problem that if we actually did live in a meritocracy that might lead to an undesirable level of unconcern); but in fact we obviously do NOT live in a true meritocracy (where wealth and power are determined primarily by some kind of objectively measurable and universally recognized “merit”), and so the opinion of anyone who thinks we do is, to say the least, suspect (and I hope not representative of what would actually be the response of most people if we actually did live in such a meritocracy).

But the article then goes on to assert that having meritocracy as a goal also leads to hardening of unfair discriminatory attitudes. Some of the referenced research does seem to correlate a hardening of attitudes with a belief in the goal of meritocracy, but even in that research, not enough effort seems to have been made to clarify the distinction between what is desired and what is believed to be real – nor to discount the effect on one’s attitudes of thinking about an ideal alternate world without focusing on it’s difference from our own. In particular, for example, in the study by Castilla and Benard which “found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate” the “companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value” may have followed the usual corporate practice of asserting that one embodies a value and expecting everyone to agree rather than admitting that one does not actually embody that value and working to identify and correct deficiencies.

I actually suspect that a fairly subtle change of wording in some of the questions in those surveys might have had a dramatic effect on the responses and “conclusions”. (And most of what passes as social science “research” these days is similarly worthless because of the ease with which minor changes in protocol can be used to manipulate whatever outcome one desires to “prove”.)

What in my opinion is harmful about belief in a certain kind of meritocratic ideal is the lack of concern for the hardships of those we judge to be less deserving. But the belief that only those with some level of merit deserve a reasonable life is only a particular kind of meritocracy and there is no indication that holding to a kinder form leads one towards the more cruel. Leaving aside the tedious debates about whether the real Bill Gates fortune is due primarily more to talent or to luck, there is no need for a meritocracy which permits such wealth to deny the provision of a respectable floor below which no person’s wealth is allowed to fall.

Conventional Wisdom?

December 27th, 2019

The previous item (about generating Carbon nanotubes etc after “burning” off just the hydrogen from methane using CO2 as the oxidant) raises a point that soot is mostly just unburned carbon and repurposing it as such may ultimately be a good approach to CO2 removal – which challenges the ideal of always demanding complete combustion.

And the same issue of Scientific American where that came up (though just in the paid promo section from Qatar) also includes a real article (by Wade Rouche in the edited ‘Ventures’ section ) which raises some concerns that have often troubled me about bio-degradable plastics (which always end up back in the air as CO2 rather than underground or on the seabed in a form which may eventually get geologically reformed into petroleum). Perhaps coincidentally(?), the first of the ’emerging technologies’ touted in that issue is the use of bio-sourced materials for the production of bio-degradable plastics – but without any acknowledgement that using those materials to produce non-degradable products would be even better.

CO2 reduction via Methane partial oxidation

December 27th, 2019

This was referenced in the promotional supplement to the Dec 2019 issue of Scientific American. The idea is to combine methane and carbon dioxide to produce just water and unoxidized carbon – with the carbon in an economically attractive form such as nanotubes or fibres. If it works, and there is sufficient demand for the product, then it could perhaps eventually pull a significant amount of CO2 from the atmosphere while at the same time providing advanced materials for high tech applications.

Source: Texas A&M University at Qatar | Researchers develop natural gas processing technology that could reduce Qatar’s carbon footprint

Here’s an earlier theoretical discussion of the chemistry involved.

Pluck or luck? 

December 7th, 2019

In Pluck and hard work, or luck of birth? Two stories, one man | Aeon Essays, David Labaree explores the role of luck and privilege in his own life.

Commenter Tom Horton asks “When you finally drop the merit illusion and acknowledge the huge role of luck in your life, what should you do about it? My own opinion is that you should share your luck as widely as possible. And I don’t mean become a philanthropist.” and Labaree replies “As you say, the first step is to give up the illusion that you earned all the social benefits that have come your way. The next step is to make this clear to others. That’s why, in the last few years, I started telling a short version of this story to my students at Stanford – a way of nudging them to reconsider the circumstances that brought them there. As you note, this is not to say they didn’t work hard to get admitted, just that there are lots of people who worked just as hard who never had a chance.”

And by telling his story more publicly, Labaree is taking the full stride of that second step – namely encouraging others to do likewise.

But there is a third step needed too. Once we have widespread agreement with the idea that inequality is largely a result of luck rather than merit (and further that having merit is itself a result of luck), then we face the question of what (if anything) to do about that.

The question then is whether and how hard we should strive to eliminate or reduce the effects of pure luck as a source of difference in human life fulfillment. Do we just accept (or even relish) the role of fate in our lives (perhaps, if on the lucky end of the spectrum, assuaging our guilt by dribbling a bit of charity down on the losers), or do we look for real ways of adjusting our society to minimize the pain that fate can impose?

There are many things we can’t equalize and risks we can’t eliminate, but the lack of early access to capital is not one of them. In the light of the fact that the vast majority of humankind’s accumulated capital wealth is the result of the thought and labour of countless generations of our mutual ancestors, and that it’s present distribution is a result only partly of the efforts of recent generations and much more on a combination of luck or theft throughout the ages, it makes perfect sense to guarantee every child access to an inheritance of a fair share of that wealth. Where should this come from? Well a tax on unfairly large inheritances would seem to be the obvious solution. And, since pre-death gifts might be used to circumvent that, it should be extended to apply to all gifts and unearned income from any source. And what rate should apply? Why not start with the same graduated rate that applies to any other income? What you want to tax the doll I give my child at Christmas? Yes, but only if the combined value of that doll with all the other gifts you and others give her adds up to a taxable income. And if you want to give your adult child an income of $100000/year rather than give it all at once when you die, then yes you will be able to reduce his overall tax burden that way (and will probably also benefit from a more gradual transition of authority if you are passing on a family business).

To my mind it has always seemed odd that our tax system privileges unearned over earned income. Does this make any sense? If not let’s put an end to it – and use the revenue to give every child a fairer share of our universal inheritance.

Is virtue signalling a perversion of morality? | Aeon Ideas

November 29th, 2019

A recent essay by Neil Levy in ‘Aeon Ideas’ asks: Is virtue signalling a perversion of morality? Here’s my answer.

From hypocritical priests and preachers to conspicuous displays of environmental concern, virtue signalling has always been part of our nature. Whether or not we are good, most of us instinctively understand the value of being seen to be good.

In my opinion, virtue signalling, interpreted as the conspicuous exhibition of virtuous behaviour for the purpose of increasing one’s own perceived value, is indeed a perversion of morality. But not all instances of moral grandstanding have a selfish purpose. Some may be intended as an honest attempt to increase public acceptance of a particular honestly held moral value. This is not in my opinion a perversion of morality (although it may, if ineptly done, be counterproductive as a result of looking like virtue signalling).
The accusation of virtue signalling may often be either virtue signalling itself and/or an attempt to divert the topic of discussion. But that is not always the case. For example the accusation of virtue signalling may be raised against one with whom we agree about the claimed virtue of the behaviour in question but whom we suspect of hypocricy in their own motivation (and so perhaps whose behaviour is undermining rather than supporting public acceptance of the position).

On Muddled Thinking

November 16th, 2019

Mathematics is a process of staring hard enough with enough perseverance at the fog of muddle and confusion to eventually break through to improved clarity. I’m happy when I can admit, at least to myself, that my thinking is muddled, and I try to overcome the embarrassment that I might reveal ignorance or confusion. Over the years, this has helped me develop clarity in some things, but I remain muddled in many others.

— William Thurston, Fields-medal winning mathematician

Beware the Fanaticism of Converts

October 25th, 2019

When one has been persuaded of an extreme view there is a danger of over-reacting in the opposite direction and turning to believe everything that is said against it and also against less extreme versions of the same view.

I wouldn’t call Mark Heyer’s answer to With global warming and coastal flooding imminent, should major coastal populations start relocating now? – Quora fanatical, but it does show the beginnings of turning from a gullible supporter of one view to become a similarly gullible supporter of its opposite.

In particular it seems that Heyer has gone from believing in extreme exaggerations about climate change to believing in extreme exaggerations about those who consider it a risk that should be avoided. (See Israel Ramirez’s answer to Did the climate scientist James Hansen really predict that New York’s West Side highway would be flooded by 2008?)

What’s Wrong with Yang’s UBI Proposal?

October 23rd, 2019

US Democrat presidential nomination candidate Andrew Yang includes a kind of universal basic income in his platform; and he identifies it as a “dividend” which I prefer because it clarifies that it is not welfare but a deserved share of our common heritage of wealth and knowledge which derives from the effort and skills of all our ancestors. But there are various aspects of his proposal which undermine its effect.

Most importantly it is NOT universal, and in fact is just a give-away to those of us whose need is not sufficient to qualify for welfare in the current system. Those on welfare do not get the full benefit of the “dividend” because they have to give up their current benefits in order to receive it. To call this a universal improvement is quite dishonest and the best I can do for Yang on this issue is thank him for raising the issue but not to support his proposal as it stands.

The issue does need to be discussed however, and Yang has other proposals that also deserve attention, so I do hope his voice gets heard and properly responded to.


October 23rd, 2019

UBI advocate, Scott Santens, has produced A Visual History of the #YangMediaBlackout  in which he shows many examples of what appears to be systematic ignoring of Andrew Yang’s campaign (esp by MSN). This seems to be an example of the kind of snotty entitled behaviour of mainstream media that Trumpists decry as “fake news”. And I think they are right. The anger and distrust of the Trumpeters, science deniers, and right wing nut jobs does not come out of a vacuum. It is fed by the constant barrage of biased, and yes fake, reporting that comes from people who think they know a lot more than they really do. Unfortunately it is all too easy to accept political support even when it agrees with us for wrong reasons, and the situation is not helped by the tendency to belittle, as overly academic pretentious condescending quibbling, any attempt to correct the wrong reasoning behind a correct opinion.

That said, I don’t actually agree with Yang’s UBI proposal.

1. The metaphysics of memory – The Brains Blog

October 22nd, 2019

I can imagine falling in a playground whose features I remember and where I undoubtedly may have fallen several times. If I do that repeatedly I can come to feel that the imagined event really happened exactly as I imagine it – in which case I have a (possibly false) memory. What besides some sensation in my own mind distinguishes imagination from memory?

This week I am writing a series of posts about my new book Memory: A Self-Referential Account (Oxford University Press, 2019). My first post, today, concerns the metaphysics of experiential, or epi…

Source: 1. The metaphysics of memory – The Brains Blog

Waking Up

October 21st, 2019

“Now I’m awake, but the idea is gone.”

Why came it upon me to type that just now?

At first ’twas a puzzle, but now it has come to me.

Like the guy in “Forgetting” I had sent me a message

A clue to revive the idea that is gone.


I recall repeating that mantra in sleepy-land

In the hope that later it would come back to mind

And now I must strive to bring back those great thoughts

That run through my head in the first light of dawn

It was something important I know that for sure

But what exactly it was I can recover no more.

Development as a chapter in the moral tale of economics | Aeon Essays

October 20th, 2019

This includes some bits that I find helpful for thinking about both Tiananmen and the recent rise of the populist right.

Source: Development as a chapter in the moral tale of economics | Aeon Essays

Opinion | Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics – The New York Times

October 15th, 2019

Physicists brought up in the modern system will look into your eyes and explain with all sincerity that they’re not really interested in understanding how nature really works; they just want to successfully predict the outcomes of experiments.

This would indeed be a sad commentary on the state of modern physics if only someone could give any real meaning to the question of “understanding how nature really works” beyond just being able to “successfully predict the outcomes of experiments”

Source: Opinion | Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics – The New York Times

(106) What is meant by an ‘observer’ in QM? Do you have to directly observe the electron in order to collapse the wave? – Quora

October 13th, 2019

In almost any imaginable theory an experiment involves the preparation of a system in what we call a “state” and the subsequent observation of various quantities which we call “observables”. The observable quantities might be lengths, colours, states of matter, relative phases of signals, or many other things – but they can almost always be reduced to just real numbers or even just sequences of yes/no questions. And the prepared states typically correspond to the specification of some particular observable values by filtering out those that don’t meet the required criteria. States which are specified as completely as possible are called “pure states” but it is also possible to prepare a “mixed state” in which the specification is not complete and so where the values of some quantities which could be specified more precisely (without interfering with others already specified) are given just by some statistical distribution. In quantum theories the complete specification of some observables may make it impossible to also have a complete specification of others and so even in pure states the values of some observables may not be completely determined. In such cases the state cannot be written as a statistical mixture of ones in which the problem variable is completely determined (which are called eigenstates of that observable), but rather as a linear combination (aka superposition) of the corresponding wave functions.

The measurement process has several stages, and a lot of confusion about what is meant by an “observer” in QM arises from not keeping them separate.
Two of these stages are often identified with the notion of “collapse”.
One is where a small part of the world appearing to be in a pure state (which, for any particular observable, may not be an eigenstate but just a linear superposition of the eigenstates corresponding to different values of the observable) interacts with some part of the external world (which is not in a pure state) in such a way that the small part ends up appearing to be in a classical statistical mixture of eigenstates. After this interaction is complete the observer still may not know which eigenvalue applies (ie what the observed value of the measurement will be), but the situation will be no more (nor less!) mysterious than that of a coin toss which has not yet been observed. For this first stage of collapse (which has been understood in principle since von Neumann, but for which in the last few decades specific more detailed examples have come to be touted as “decoherence”) the part of the world “causing” the collapse could be anything from surrounding thermal radiation, to an actual measurement instrument, or a cat, or another human observer (cf “Wigner’s friend”) who learns the truth before you do.

But if you are the observer we are interested in, then the system remains in a mixed state until you become aware of the result, and collapse of the classical probability distribution happens only in your mind.

So tl;dr there is no “collapse of the wave”. What there is are first decoherence of the wave (which can be caused by interaction with almost anything that is even slightly complicated), and then, later, collapse of the resulting probability distribution which is where you and your “consciousness” come in.

Source: (106) What is meant by an ‘observer’ in QM? Do you have to directly observe the electron in order to collapse the wave? – Quora

Speculative Science is not necessarily “Post-empirical” Pseudo-Science

October 8th, 2019

In the promo for his piece: Post-empirical science is an oxymoron, and it is dangerous | Aeon EssaysJim Baggott is identified just as a “popular-science author”, but in fact he’s also a real scientist with research awards and applied experience. And this shows in the quality of his essay which objects to much of the sensationalist mumbo-jumbo that passes for popular science writing these days. But there are other real scientists among those he objects to and I think there is plenty of room for people to work on (and write about) speculative ideas that do not yet have testable consequences.

In his article, Baggott refers to an earlier article by Massimo Pigliucci entitled Must Science be Testable? which carried the subhead “String wars among physicists have highlighted just how much science needs philosophy – and not just the amateur version” (to which I responded with a comment at the time).

For me, YES, science must be testable, and No science does not “need” philosophy – especially the “professional” version.

That’s not a statement about how the world “is”, but about how I choose to define the word “science”, and I suspect that most of my scientific colleagues feel similarly (in general terms though not perhaps in all the details).

More completely, I think of science as the game (a word I shall not try to define!) of making the most complete and accurate predictions from the most compact set of assumptions. It differs from some games in that the “scoring” system is not precisely defined and is largely a matter of personal taste (kind of like judged aesthetic events like gymnastics and diving in the Olympics).

String Theory is a part of that game because it is an attempt (still in progress) to interpolate between General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory in a way that reduces the number of bits needed in order to describe the assumptions while not failing to at least match the accuracy of any of the separate theories’ predictions. One can argue as to whether it is likely to succeed, but any claim to have properly constructed it will be testable in several ways – not all experimental. One is just whether it is logically and mathematically consistent. Another is whether it has limiting cases which match GR & QFT. But then it will almost surely make predictions in situations where the other two break down, and so it will also probably be possible to design experiments which detect whether or not those predictions are correct.

A “theory” which I would not consider real science is the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is designed to exactly mimic the predictions of standard QM and requires exactly the same mathematical tools but just dignifies some of them with the label “real” which sadly does not seem to have any real meaning; however I can see how the interpretation might earn some points if we added a criterion of aesthetic appeal or conceptual accessibility to the scoring table.

There are also some similar-sounding “multiverse” theories that go beyond the many worlds idea and may possibly one day make predictions re observable effects from “nearby” “branes” and such; and the “mirrorverse” idea that Leah Broussard is proposing to explain some observed anomalies in neutron decay time measurements seems to be one of these. As yet it may be even further from being properly constructed than string theory, but I think Baggott is overstating the case against it.

Baggot and others like Sabine Hossenfelder can argue that certain lines of investigation are a poor allocation of scientific resources, but that is very far from making it appropriate to identify them as “pseudo-science”.

An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have 

September 28th, 2019

This could be used as part of a rebuttal to Searle’s silly ‘Chinese Room’ argument. Source: An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have | Aeon Ideas

Is dark makeup always racist?

September 21st, 2019

In response to the dismay caused by recent disclosures of past events where he wore dark makeup, Justin Trudeau has said:

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is… unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” he said. “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”

But is this really true? Actually, I think not for it really does depend on the “context or circumstances”.

Some of the exceptions are extremely rare but it is wrong to deny that they exist. For example there may be medical treatments which darken skin as a side effect, and deliberate darkening for its own sake is often used by commandos and the like in order to evade detection at night or when moving in a dark environment.

The context of a non-comedic amateur dramatic performance should also, in my opinion, be excluded as it may be useful in such a context for both darkening and lightening makeup to be used to reinforce role reversal activities.

In professional performances though, I think there is an obligation to find appropriately pigmented actors if one wants to represent skin colour accurately because it is harder to lighten than to darken and so allowing colour adjustment gives an employment advantage to the lighter-skinned. But in that context the reason for the “ban” is to increase economic opportunity rather than because to permit the colouring would be in any sense racist.

It’s really only in the context of comic or malicious performances that skin darkening can be taken as strongly suggestive of racism, but any adult or adolescent halloween-type costume is sufficiently likely to have humorous or frightening intent that any reasonable adult should be aware that even if the intent is not there the possibility of it being perceived and hurtful is sufficient reason not to do it.

Unfortunately this last is the context that applies to Mr Trudeau and so I think he is right to apologize – and also to acknowledge at least to himself that there may have been an element of racist mockery in his behaviour. But to declare that his offense was to violate an arbitrary absolute ban actually diminishes rather than strengthens his apology.

Source: Trudeau Apologizes For Blackface Video After Saying Sorry For Brownface Photo | HuffPost Canada

Is ALL Advocacy and/or Advertising now Potentially Partisan According to Elections Canada?

August 20th, 2019

If saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity just because some candidate or other denies it, then surely the same would apply to all advertising for, say, Coke or Pepsi if some candidate expressed a preference and intent to favour one or the other (esp. if in government contracts)  – or more realistically, if some politician spoke out against the widespread marketing of both these and other similarly poisonous addictive beverages.

Perhaps having to report their advertising budgets as third party political advocacy would not be too much of a burden on the big soft drink companies, but they would not be the only ones so labelled, and the loss of charitable status for healthy food advocates would be a nasty consequence of having their cause taken up more by some politicians than others.

So, if this interpretation stands then clearly the legislation was incompetently written. But perhaps the real takeaway is that all charitable contributions should be no more eligible for tax deduction than political ones. A fixed per person limit would both reduce the window for scammy self-serving “donations” and provide less encouragement for the wealthy to distort our pattern of social service by giving massively greater support to those charities that they happen to approve of.

Source: Saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity during election campaign, Elections Canada warns – The Globe and Mail

The Earth’s carrying capacity for human life may not be “fixed” but it IS bounded!

August 13th, 2019

Ted Nordhaus’ disappointing essay in Aeon Ideas provides encouragement to those who would deny the need to end human population growth. Of course Earth’s carrying capacity is not fixed, but regardless of what future technology may bring, it will always remain several orders of magnitude less than “standing room only”. And allowing growth before ensuring that it can be supported will just guarantee more of the hardship and starvation that was happening before the “green revolution” (whose primary author was adamant about its giving us only a “breathing space” in which to come to terms with our looming “Population Monster”(*))




(*) From his Nobel Prize address in 1970: “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”…Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…”[34]

Is There really a Naturalistic Case for “Free Will”?

August 12th, 2019

In The Naturalistic Case for Free Will: The Challenge, Christian List opens a series of posts at The Brains Blog discussing some key ideas from his book ‘Why Free Will is Real’ (Harvard University Press, 2019).

But if Free Will is defined, even just on a “first gloss”, as “an agent’s capacity to choose and control his or her (or its?) own actions”, then surely it does exist – even for an agent as simple as a programmed light switch (which chooses whether to switch on or off depending on what it perceives by way of motion and/or warm objects in its environment). So the “Free Will” that is denied by some must certainly be more than this (though rather than deny its existence, I would rather say that I have never seen a coherent definition of it).

What neither the light switch nor the human agent possesses is the capacity to change its own programming for past decisions. A human, or even a suitably programmed learning agent, can of course modify the part of its “program” that will make future decisions, and even may modify its own learning algorithm; but neither he, she nor it has the capacity to modify the program with which it started.

What is relevant for ethical and legal discussions though is not some mythical mystical property that is possessed uniquely by humans, but rather the property of responsibility – by which I think we should mean the capacity to modify ones future behaviour on the basis of responses (praise, censure, punishment, reward, etc.) that one receives, or perceives as being received by others as reactions to past decisions.