Archive for October, 2019

Beware the Fanaticism of Converts

Friday, 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?

Wednesday, 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.


Wednesday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Sunday, 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

Tuesday, 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”.