Are Numbers “Real”?

This Aeon Essay about whether numbers are cultural or innate is a rerun from 2017. But I read it again and it strikes me that the claims attributed to cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez are wrong on at least two counts.

Yet whether numbers really exist independently of humans ‘is not a scientific debate, but a philosophical, theological or ideological one’, said Núñez. ‘The claim that, say, five is a prime number independently of humans is not scientifically testable. Such facts are matters of beliefs or faith, and we can have conversations and debates about them but we cannot do science with them.’

This is doubly wrong.

First, I would argue that whether numbers “really exist” independently of humans is indeed a scientific question with little to learn from philosophical, theological or ideological perspectives.

And secondly I would say that, if numbers “really exist”, then the fact that five is a prime number independently of humans is indeed scientifically testable.

But first things first. The question of whether numbers “really exist” is really a question about whether or not our propensity to identify parts of our experience as separate countable things, and the binary logic that we use to relate propositions about them, are in fact capable of providing an optimal means for making predictions about what we will experience – or whether some modified “quantum” logic about not-exactly-countable objects with fuzzy boundaries may eventually do a better job. (Yes, some Philosopher may tell me that’s just one “Ontological Perspective”, but I would just ask them to come back when they have a better one.)

And with respect to the primality of five, I would say that (so long as our conventional rules of logic survive the test of experiment) one kind of scientific test of a proposition is provided by showing its logical relationship to others that have already been established. And the primality of five is indeed a logical consequence of the basic properties of numbers that we already consider well tested. (And, yes, some Philosopher may tell me that’s just one “Epistemological Perspective”, but I would just ask them to come back when they have a better one.)

But the article does raise some interesting questions about how our capacity for inventing and/or understanding numbers evolved – which I think are worthy of a subsequent posting.

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The Problem with “Scientism” is the Word

This is old enough that I may have already responded to it. And after more than half a century maybe I should admit defeat. But every time I see that word I re-live the indignation I felt as a 17 year old being forced to sit through a course on ‘Scientism, Man, and Religion’ and not being able to focus on anything other than the outrageous etymological dishonesty of introducing that pejorative term with the effect (obviously intended because any literate scholar would see it) of causing confusion in the public mind between the mental attitudes of a scientist (which is what the structure of the word implies) and an uncritical devotion to science as our only source of truth and value (which would have been better referred to as “scienceism”).

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Death in Custody

My contempt for the fearful overreactions of police is tempered by things like this (if that goes on too long for you here’s a summary and shorter version but I actually found the initial boring bit of the longer version quite instructive) and, for colour balance, this.

But while things like this show the colour negative of this, the fact remains that, although the final outcomes were similar, it is not obvious that the second one would have been so fatal if the lead perpetrator had been even one tenth as solicitous of the victim as the one in the first case.

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This Ignorance is Scary

So, apparently many nursing home staff in the US are skipping the vaccine. What scares me most about this (aside from the obvious fact that these people will potentially be carrying the virus into their clients’ living space) is what it says about the lack of medical knowledge among those staff. They don’t all need to be experts, and may well be as gentle and caring as others with more knowledge, but if there’s no medical training there may well be no vetting re other characteristics either.

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Worth Sharing!

1/16/2021 1:33 GMT —Nigel Higgenbotham reports from Washundasee, in the Republic of Uzambongo“The free and fair elections that recently took place in the tiny nation of Uzambongo are now being violently rejected by the followers of current Prime Minister and strong-man Doninga Batrumpe. Members of a pro-Batrumpe faction laid siege to the government building in Washundasee, as election results were being confirmed. The pro-Batrumpe rioters broke windows, smashed through doors, and pushed past government….

Source: (285) Sam Morningstar’s answer to What is the purpose of the Million Militia March that is slated to happen on January 20, 2021? – Quora

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What About the Workers?

The Economist has noticed that: After years of dithering, companies are embracing automationthough I wouldn’t necessarily consider waiting for development of the appropriate level of DeepLearning-based AI before making the leap to be “dithering”.

“We must build, but we must build surely”

But “What about the workers?”

“What about the workers, indeed …sir

Let them grasp, I beseech you, with both hands (toot! I’m so sorry, I beg your pardon madam) the opportunities that are offered in this new era of unparalleled progress in productivity. I am sure that we can all appreciate the benefits to society at large of the great, nay unlimited, prospects of these new developments. Let us assume a bold front and go forward together….”

(with apologies for the butchery to PeterSellers )

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Storming the Capitol

 Habib Fanny’s answer to What do you think about the fact that 45% of Republicans said they strongly or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol? correctly points out that the reported figure is nonsense. But the somewhat smaller numbers that may not support the storming but fail to consider it an attempted coup do not really disturb me.

I don’t actually think it was an attempted coup myself, in any but a few of the perpetrators’ and instigators’ minds. What I think most of them thought they were doing is attempting to shame, rather than coerce, the Republican senators into acknowledging the rampant fraud that they were convinced those senators really believed had happened.

And I actually feel some sympathy for the sense of profound disrespect and contempt that people like that correctly sense as coming from people like me.

Also (drifting even a bit more off-topic from the question here) I don’t really mind the doomed-to-fail legislators’ challenges and protests. Whichever way a US election goes there is often an objection at that stage from part of the losing side, and these do need to be heard and voted down.

In fact some of the objecting legislators’ speeches were not so much making claims of fraud as claims of non-transparency, and while I do favour mail-in or internet ballots, both in the current special circumstances and going forward, I think that it is not unreasonable for some to feel that the verification process needs to be reviewed and perhaps modified for future elections – both in the US and here in Canada. For example, when I submitted my mail-in ballot in our recent BC election, I was both annoyed by the silly extra “secrecy” envelope and troubled by the fact that with our current mail-in voting procedures we make a mockery of the idea of a secret ballot as there was nothing to prevent my wife from demanding to see my ballot and offering punishment or reward in order to control how I filled it in. (And I could well imagine churchfulls of fundamentalist bigots getting together for a communal voting event in which there would be a lot of social pressure to conform to the community leaders’ preferences.)

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75 year old, black, cancer-surviving congresswoman tests positive after being breathed on by maskless Republicans

Source: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman tests positive for coronavirus after lockdown with maskless lawmakers during Capitol siege – The Washington Post

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Michael Mann is an Idiot (again)

A friend recently pointed me to an article at Inside Climate News : Many Scientists Now Say Global Warming Could Stop Relatively Quickly After Emissions Go to Zero –  with the understandable comment “The game-changing, optimistic assertion in the headline is not discussed until the last eight paragraphs of the article (???)!!! And little ink is spent explaining it. Dunno why.”

Well, let’s see.

The article does say that “The idea that global warming could stop relatively quickly after emissions go to zero was described as a ‘game-changing new scientific understanding’ by Covering Climate Now, a collaboration of news organizations covering climate.” And the article linked to does, in turn, refer to two interviews with Michael Mann – one on the CBS News show 60 Minutes and  a companion interview in The Guardian, the latter of which I guess can be taken as the root source of the claim.

According to the Guardian:

 Using new, more elaborate computer models equipped with an interactive carbon cycle, “what we now understand is that if you stop emitting carbon right now … the oceans start to take up carbon more rapidly,” Mann says. Such ocean storage of CO2 “mostly” offsets the warming effect of the CO2 that still remains in the atmosphere. Thus, the actual lag between halting CO2 emissions and halting temperature rise is not 25 to 30 years, he explains, but “more like three to five years”.

Well if Mann said that he’s a scientific idiot. The idea that the oceans will “start to take up carbon more rapidly” if we stop putting it in the air is manifestly ridiculous. The oceans don’t care where the carbon comes from, and the rate of ocean uptake at any time is a function only of the current concentration and other atmospheric conditions at that time – not of their rate of change. Also, there is no way that ocean storage of CO2 “offsets the warming effect of the CO2 that still remains in the atmosphere”. Absorption into the ocean may actually reduce atmospheric CO2, but if it does so fast enough then the effect won’t just be to stop global warming but to reverse it (though the effects of the consequent ocean acidification may in that case be even stronger than in the earlier predictions).

And even if there is some correct science behind Mann’s garbled nonsense, he’s a political idiot for bringing it up in the context of this interview – for at least two reasons.

First, suggesting the possibility of a rapid reversal of global warming completely undermines his claim that another four year delay in shutting of the CO2 tap would be catastrophic.

And secondly, his idiotic claim on 60 Minutes that  “There’s about as much scientific consensus about human-caused climate change as there is about gravity” is undermined by his assertion that “research over the last decade has overturned” the previous consensus that even if all CO2 emissions were halted overnight, global temperatures would keep rising and heatwaves, droughts, storms and other impacts would keep intensifying “for about 25 to 30 years” (as Sir David King, the former chief science advisor to the British government, said in 2006). It is manifestly clear that large swathes of climate science are definitely NOT “settled” in anything like the same sense as that of gravity and to claim that they are is just to unnecessarily invite challenges to those parts where we do have some certainty – either about some of the actual facts themselves, or about our lack of certainty about how bad some other facts might be. (Whatever anyone may speculate, we certainly don’t know that there is anything that will mitigate the harmful effects of spewing GHGs. So we must stop. And, since we don’t really know how long we have, we must do so as soon as possible.)

I’ve always had doubts about Mann. From when his sloppy temperature studies had to be re-done by Richard Muller’s Berkely Earth Temperature Study and when foolish emails about data adjustment used language which virtually demanded charges of fakery and tampering. Unfortunately the most prominent advocates for anything are often not the most credible.

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Ioannidis’ Error?

Sometimes it is necessary to encourage people to follow a protocol while at the same time challenging its appropriateness and suggesting possible alternatives. Source: John Ioannidis: Coronavirus lockdowns questioned by Stanford scientist on Fox News – The Washington Post

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What Happened in Room 10?

I love the idea of Bloomberg Businessweek’s Annual Jealousy List, in which its writers select and promote the work of others.

My reaction to the choices is mixed, but one that struck me is Susan Berfield’s selection of What Happened in Room 10? from The California Sunday Magazine. As Ms Berfield says:

This is a masterful, beautiful, heartbreaking, and provocative story. Katie Engelhart starts with a close and harrowing account of the two women in Room 10 of the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., during the first weeks of the Covid pandemic. From there she moves confidently to dissect the business of nursing homes. Life Care is the biggest privately owned long-term care corporation in the country, its owner a billionaire. The lobbying for deregulation, the Medicare fraud, the fear of litigation, the many ways in which facilities fall short—all are explained with a light touch. She ends with a meditation on aging. What more could we want from a story?

Thanks to Ms Englehart for the story, to Ms Berfield for the pointer, to Bloomberg’s for the unselfish acknowledgement of the work of their competitors and to the New York Times for including a link to it in the ‘Morning Reads’ section of their newsletter.

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On the moral obligation to stir shit

Aeon’s sibling Psyche presents Nicholas Agar’s views: On the moral obligation to stop shit-stirring | Psyche Ideas

But, far from being the mere random trouble-making of a typical shit-disturber, the slow and deliberate shit-stirring of philosophers is actually what they do best – and most usefully – namely exposing the over-confidence of others, and especially of other philosophers, in the power and scope of their intellectual and moral systems.

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Canadians Urging Meng Release

Source: (20+) Live | Facebook

This happened a couple of weeks ago.

Panelists included Niki Ashton (didn’t show up but submitted a statement of support), Paul Manley, . . .and my fellow student from half a century ago John Philpot.

To my mind John McCallum was right, back when this started (in the comments that got him fired) and furthermore, regardless of the strength of its legal implications, Trump’s blathering about using Meng as a bargaining chip should have been taken as justification for a use of the Ministerial prerogative to refuse the extradition request. But at this stage it’s too late for that, and the gov’t is irreversibly committed to letting the legal arguments play out. Furthermore I am not convinced that release of Meng would automatically guarantee that of the Michaels. It depends on how explicitly the Chinese would want such a reciprocal release to be seen as an indication that the arrests were just a taking of hostages for exchange purposes – in contradiction to their repeated loud denials of exactly that.

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More Flying Lessons from an Ornithologist

The claim that An irrational constraint is the motivating force in modern science is completely wrong. The first hint of this comes in the subheading “Is hard data the only path to scientific truth? That’s an absurd, illogical and profoundly useful fiction”. Often editorial subheadings egregiously misrepresent the content of what follows, and we can’t fault the author for an editor’s incompetence, but in this case the summary is (almost) a fair one. The article does not deny the role of “beauty” as a motivation or even a path to understanding but it does claim that such considerations are not accepted as part of the process of acceptance of a theory, and that is just not the case. What matters first in the acceptance of a scientific theory is indeed the correctness of its predictions, and a theory that makes false predictions is indeed judged to be, well, false. But among theories that are not false those which can be most beautifully, ie elegantly, ie concisely, expressed are preferred. And there are many historical instances in which credit has been given for a theory which merely improves the elegance without changing the predictions (Copernican astronomy and Special Relativity being two famous examples). So beauty is taken as a valid criterion for comparing theories (so long as they meet the prior criterion of not being demonstrably false) and the claim that “science says you must ignore it . . . in your professional contributions, your publications” is just a lie. And the claim that it’s “irrational” to set one criterion as mandatory before employing another because it violates some philosophical  ‘principle of total evidence’ is complete nonsense!

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Who could object to the Equality Act?

This article in ‘The Economist’  would be more useful if it identified specific problematic wordings in the proposed US Equality Act (whose goal is allegedly to “ban “discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation””).

If the act really is intended to completely “ban” discrimination on the basis of sex, then the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation as additional forbidden grounds has little opportunity to undermine the legality of women’s sports and spaces.

It’s hard to find an article anywhere which does not use weaselly mis- and/or partial quotes to deniably misrepresent one side or another in an argument (or just to make a story more “interesting”). So Perhaps Donald Trump is right that all news is “fake”.

Of course his own lies are more blatant. But perhaps that means that at least he is an honest liar (in a similar sense to how the dad of a friend of mine in England referred to the cow shit we fell into while playing rugger in a pasture as “good clean dirt”).

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Missed Opportunity

What I had intended to post about is now gone! Moments ago the article: Federal Election Averted As Liberals, NDP Defeat Contentious Conservative Motion | HuffPost Canada had been about Singh’s raising the abstention option – which I had thought was fucking brilliant! He could just have said “we support this motion and will not vote against it but are not willing to vote for it at this time because we do not think it advisable to trigger an election”. So why did they end up actually voting against it?

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How the Many-Worlds Revivalism of Sean Carroll splits the World of Physics

It is sad to see a competent physicist and capable writer spouting meaningless nonsense in order to advance his position in a “public relations race” of his own invention.

There is no difference of opinion among physicists as to what quantum mechanics predicts, and although Sean Carroll has done, and is doing, good work on exploring ways in which a geometry of spacetime might arise as a mathematical consequence from a suitable kind of quantum theory, this does not give any reality to the notion of the universe actually “splitting”. No competent modern physicist considers “collapse of the wave packet” as anything more than a model for approximating what appears to us to be happening when an isolated experimental system starts to interact with the external universe which includes us as a part –  and (so) about which we do not have enough information to identify a pure state.

Source: How the Many-Worlds theory of Hugh Everett split the Universe | Aeon Essays

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What’s the Problem with Plastic?

https://www.facebook.com/constancehubbs/posts/10160037512144338

With regard to plastics, I doubt that the promise of recycling significantly increased the market for petroleum-based materials. But even without recycling, separation of refuse streams is a good idea as different materials lend themselves to different methods of disposal. And the price of any product should include a fee paid by the producer to the government to cover the cost of appropriate disposal.

P.S. See also this

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Trump Isn’t Afraid of Stoking Fear – Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine

The source of this article is what makes it most interesting.

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Steve Forbes Worries About UBI as a Disincentive to Work

“Do send in your comments and suggestions” Ha! Do you really mean that you useless piece of shit? How DARE you comment on the disincentive to work of a universal basic income when you yourself have been provided with an inheritance which obviated any need to work ever in your life for a lifestyle which is well beyond anything that any decent human needs?

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