Freedom, Truth, Intelligence & Information

In this wide ranging post Richard Fernandez one of the deeper thinking Bloggers out there looks at the relationship between freedom, truth intelligence and information.   He posits that absent freedom, there can be no discovery, and hence no intelligence.

But to really learn you have to be prepared to listen to what you don’t want to hear. The future only contains new information if it tells you something you don’t know. But bureaucracies want to make all new knowledge predictable, consistent with the existing narrative. And homogenization destroys information.

There is also a discussion of AI.  Read the whole thing.

Rules, Principles & Virtue

Consider that whenever we have a massive failure in a business industry like the .com era, real estate or banking we usually wind up with more regulation and more rules.  Rules are expensive to comply with.  Most compliance efforts are “letter of the law” not the spirit.  Before, during and after the rule process there is careful lobbying to insure there is minimum impact on various constituencies.  Power, influence, wealth all impact this.    The pharmaceutical industry supported the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) early to avoid being forced to sell prescription drugs at anything less than full price; many groups that supported it also received exemptions from the law and most recently Senate Democrats sought to exempt Congress.   It has ever been thus that competitive groups pushing and pulling shape the rules in their final forms.  Once a rule is in place clever individuals begin to find loopholes, whether placed there intentionally or accidentally matters little, they are found so people can say I complied without complying with the spirit.  It is in this way that the fundamental nature of rules is fragile.  They break quickly under pressure, they become irrelevant from societal change, and when there are too many laws it leads to cynicism within the populace who give up trying to obey.  When the rules are few and understood, the people will obey willingly from a sense of duty, a sense of right and wrong.  When rules become overwhelming, complex and dense, the people will turn cynical and that attitude is corrosive to the stability of society.  Double standards grow as some are exempted from  prosecution based on their intent where others will receive no such latitude and face jail time.  This will increase the cynicism of the people even more.  Over time there is a temptation of the ruling class to flaunt the double standard as a way of reminding the people who rules and who is ruled.

Unlike rules there exist principles, whose very nature is robust.  They are laws that have stood the test of time, for example, the general prohibition against murder, stealing, lying to obtain financial advantage etc.  If the government and the police were to disappear, theses laws would still be enforced.  If you went to Somalia at the peak of the anarchy and murdered someone’s child, you can be sure there would be a price to be paid if you were caught.  Whereas rules are easily broken, principles are not.  They can be broken under extreme duress but never eliminated.  The economist Arnold Kling has argued that regulations (rules) should be based on principles.  In an essay He makes the case that principles based regulation are superior to what he calls “bright line regulation” and that these hard and fast rules are easy for interested parties to outmaneuver.  This is a very strong argument.  It would still take impartial regulators to enforce, that is, regulators who are not selected from the industry itself and placed into the all to common position today of watching over their fellow wolves.  It’s this weakness that leads us to the final area, virtue.

Virtue has an interesting fundamental nature, what the moral philosopher and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called “antifragile.”  This is means under pressure, in chaotic environments — up to a point, it will actually get stronger.  We intrinsically understand this from challenges in our own lives.  Of the three, rules, principles and virtue the last one is absolutely required to be widespread among the people and especially the leadership.  If you look at any kleptocracy whether in Africa, South America or increasingly the United States, the lack of virtue within the leadership is an acid on society.  It’s corrosive effects drip into every corner, every life whether non-profit, charities, the education system, the city government or even the Boy Scouts.  Virtue has always been in short supply owing to our fundamental nature so the incentives should be in place to encourage it, celebrate it and support it.  Unfortunately “don’t judge me” is a ubiquitous phrase for people seeking to avoid criticism for their immoral actions, for offensive private actions that become public.  Politicians like Anthony Wiener, Elliot Spitzer or Barney Frank if they possessed any virtue at all would have disappeared from public life.  Unfortunately, they are most likely psychopaths whose regret extends to “I’m sorry I was caught.”  Liberty depends on virtue and without it, a culture will drift inexorably into tyranny.  Let us all examine our lives, and give up petty corruptions, instruct our children in the virtues that have spanned all cultures on the planet and demand it of our leaders.

Sociology Linked to Delusion and Fraud

That sociology is to science what quackery is to medicine should come as no surprise.  Here is one  data point in what has become all too common from both sides of the political spectrum (although I will say it appears more from the left simply because they dominate academia and especially the social sciences.)  I love the headline, “Suicide Risk Linked to Rates of Gun Ownership, Political Conservatism” note that it says linked not causes which means it is simply slandering a group.  Most of what passes for science from sociologists is nothing more than confirmation bias on public display.  Press releases like this one are propaganda dressed like science.  I could not in good conscience release a study like this unless I was mentally ill or a complete idiot.  There are, of course, the outright frauds like this guy.  The difference between him and other “social scientists” is he knew he was a fraud.  Sociology is nothing more than elaborate story telling, dressed up in statistics to give that patina of scientific respectability.  Anyone is capable of doing it.  You only need some data, a stat package and dogmatic beliefs you want confirmed.

Like Professor Augustine J. Kposowa let me put forth some alternate headlines which link suicide rates to some factor or another.

  • “Suicide Risk Linked to Climate Change, Political Conservatism”
  • “Suicide Risk Linked to Re-election of President Obama, Political Conservatism”
  • “Suicide Risk Linked to Loss of Economic Freedom & Increased Regulation”
  • “Suicide Risk Linked to Rates of Gun Ownership and Meth Production.”
  • “Suicide Risk Linked to Rates of Car Ownership, Listening to Glenn Beck.”
  • “Suicide Risk Linked to Rates of Newspaper Subscriptions, Listening to Nightly News.”

See how easy that is?  Look mom I’m a sociologist. Where’s my PhD?

Responding to whatthemuffin

The HarsH RealiTy blog had a post titled Abortion is Murder.  His primary point was as an adopted child he could never be in favor of abortion since it takes human life.   In the comments section, a poster named “whatthemuffin” responded to his post.  She tells a compelling story of being raped and pregnant at the age of 12 and the traumatic effects of both the rape and subsequent abortion.  She works at Planned Parenthood.  Here comment can be found here.  Her case is not typical when compared to the > 300K abortions performed each year.  The author of the blog responds to her and then she responds to him (and this time I will quote her in full.)

Thank you for not throwing a fit. To some degree, I agree with you, abortions aren’t birth control. On the other hand, it’s not justified to look at a woman and determine whether she ‘deserves’ an abortion or not. Unless one has taken the time to deeply understand her life story, no one can determine just by first glance if she’s a ‘baby killer’ or not. Often, I have seen many women pass by in my clinic that have been raped, but want to go through with the pregnancy. Some do well, and have a great life. Although, you must also consider the emotional toll it takes on a woman to carry not only just a baby, but a baby that has got quite a backstory. When I had my procedure, I had nightmares about not only the rape, but the abortion too, for 8 horrible months. I have NO intentions of trying to convert you whatsoever, it’s just that like you, I’ve got a story to tell, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it.

To which I responded with the following, quoting her:

‘Unless one has taken the time to deeply understand her life story, no one can determine just by first glance if she’s a ‘baby killer’ or not.’
Whatthemuffin is saying that one cannot make a judgement about a person’s actions without listening to their “life story.” The court system does this all the time. We are judged on our actions not the rationale that drove them. There are men in prison right now serving sentences for murdering their wives and if you ask them why they’ll tell you. “The bitch had it coming.” Plus who is this person making this determination at “first glance” or demanding that it be done that way? That’s nothing more than a straw man. You are quite muddled in your thinking and morally confused.

Then her disorganized response:

Although I’m not 100% certain who this comment is directed at, I feel that it’s being fired at me, given the word choice.

If you are in fact, saying that I am “morally confused,” I don’t think it’s necessarily your place to decide whether my values in life are wrong or not. I leave that for the man in the sky to decide. I could claim that you’re leading a bad life based on what you say and do as well, but I choose to allow people to explain their position instead of making rash conclusions.

Many people need to realize that not every person on this planet has a ‘black and white’ story. There are way too many colors in between for one to decide based on initial judgement whether they are “morally confused” or not.

I believe that god tells me what to do, whether I like it or not. Because I listen to him, he thanks me by allowing me to realize that judgement should not be placed on a person because I don’t like them or their values. I can simply disagree. For example, I don’t agree with opinionatedman’s views on abortion. Does that mean I suddenly despise him and will stop following his blog? No. That is a rash judgement.

Again, I’m not 100% certain if this was directed at me, and I’m not overly concerned either way. Except I will not let anyone judge my “values” because you don’t agree.

Whatthemuffin comments only reinforce what I previously stated that she is morally confused and her thinking is muddled.  The fact that she was unable to determine the object of my comment when I quoted her exactly and refer to her by name is just another data point.  There is nothing ambiguous when you quote someone directly.  To be clear when I say she is “morally confused” it is because she appears incapable discerning universal principle or that she is even espousing one.  She puts forth a principle and fails to see how it does not apply when placed into other contexts and domains.   Let’s extract her comments one at time and address them beginning with the original one:

“Unless one has taken the time to deeply understand her life story, no one can determine just by first glance if she’s a ‘baby killer’ or not”

I will restate this sentence as I understand it since the original phrasing is poor.   If it get it wrong she can correct me.  It is impossible to determine at first glance whether a woman is a baby killer unless I take the time to understand her life history.  “First glance” is an odd choice of words.  If by that she means a snap judgement with nothing else to go on but hearsay I would agree.  It could be a lie that you had an abortion.  Of course, if my “first glance” was that I witnessed you killing an infant or I was holding your hand while you had an abortion, my glance is pretty accurate.  Now let us take the case where you tell me you had an abortion and it’s true.  Are you killer?  Yes, you are.  You or the doctor killed something that was living.  Is it murder?  That’s a different question all together.  The universal principle in operation is not all killing is murder.  Traditionally, the life of the mother has been placed above that of the fetus.  It’s a terrible choice to have to make and I truly feel for anyone placed in that situation.  The point that I was making is that in our legal system is is not necessary to hear a person’s life history before rendering a judgement on whether their actions were criminal.  One  just needs to know the circumstances around the crime and this principle extends to moral conduct.

Ignoring the first sentence, we get this:

I don’t think it’s necessarily your place to decide whether my values in life are wrong or not. I leave that for the man in the sky to decide. I could claim that you’re leading a bad life based on what you say and do as well, but I choose to allow people to explain their position instead of making rash conclusions.

Here she states that I (or anyone we can assume) cannot decide if her values are wrong, that it is strictly the domain of “the man in the sky” as she defines him no doubt.  When rendering judgements we do so by some measuring stick, whether natural law, evolutionary history, or God’s law.  The 10 commandments most Westerners were once familiar with are found (plus or minus two) in all cultures on the planet (source).  If you are deviating from those laws, one is safe in saying your values are wrong without the need to bring “the man in sky” down to the earth to hold court.  You are judged by your actions not your intentions as some insane members of society claim.  A shoplifter needing money to support a drug habit could make the same claim about being judged.  I am not sympathetic.

In the next sentence she claims the moral high ground but trips climbing the hill.  I never said she was a bad person.  I said she was morally confused.  That doesn’t make you bad.  It means you lacked something in your education and you are unable to make proper distinctions.   A conclusion is a truth claim and it matters little whether it is made rashly or in haste or through an extended deliberative process.  It is either true or false.

In the next comment from her she claims special revelation.

I believe that god tells me what to do, whether I like it or not. Because I listen to him, he thanks me by allowing me to realize that judgement should not be placed on a person because I don’t like them or their values. I can simply disagree. For example, I don’t agree with opinionatedman’s views on abortion. Does that mean I suddenly despise him and will stop following his blog? No. That is a rash judgement.

That first sentence is pretty ambiguous.  It’s not clear if she has this belief whether she likes the belief or not or god tells her what to do whether or not she likes the idea of god telling her what to do.  We can assume the latter so in this paragraph whatthemuffin claims divine revelation.  The trouble with divine revelation is that so often it merely supports the strange predilections of the receiver.  From what I see most Christian cult leaders in the United States receive some form of divine revelation requiring them to have sex with underage girls.  Whatthemuffin’s revelation is far more ordinary.  God is apparently grateful that she listens to him (as opposed to say,  her being grateful to God) so he permits her this incredible divine tolerance to agree to disagree without judgement of lesser mortals. This is sometimes known as intellectual dishonesty.  She then cites, as an example of her thankful god’s permission to realize, by continuing to follow a blog that she strongly disagrees with the author’s view on abortion.  Anything less would be a rash judgement, which she previously assumed is inherently bad, regardless of its truth value.

Finally she closes out with this:

Again, I’m not 100% certain if this was directed at me, and I’m not overly concerned either way. Except I will not let anyone judge my “values” because you don’t agree.

She is not overly concerned but she did take the time to write a couple of paragraphs.  And she is not permitting me or anyone to judge her values because we don’t agree.  There is, of course, a big assumption in this that there is no universal truth by which one can judge her values and render judgement.  We cannot not judge.  We make judgements all the time.  We prefer this toothpaste over that one, we see and hear of things we judge horrible.  Everyone is judging all the time.  The concept that there are “no universal truths” is self-refuting since it too is a universal claim of truth.  I don’t judge her values because I disagree, I judge them in light of universal principles.  Long ago I used to take the side of pro-choice activists in arguments and say things like “I agree with you, it’s your right to hose that little parasite squid out of your body.  It’s stealing nutrients.”  then make vacuuming sounds, a chop with my hands and pantomiming dropping something in a trash can.   Both sides found that incredibly offensive but why?  Because we know that it’s human life and that life is unique and precious.  Abortion is legal in The United States.  If you are faced with that terrible choice, for all that is good, for all that is right, please choose life for your unborn.


I love ongoing debates which may never be resolved, such as Team Evolution versus the Intelligent Design crew.  I am hesitant to even post this since it tends to provoke apoplexy in people.  This quote from Jerry Coyne is quite clever which I got from this article.

When, after a Christmas visit, we watch grandma leave on the train to Miami, we assume that the rest of her journey will be an extrapolation of that first quarter-mile. A creationist unwilling to extrapolate from micro- to macroevolution is as irrational as an observer who assumes that, after grandma’s train disappears around the bend, it is seized by divine forces and instantly transported to Florida. (Nature 412:587, 19 August 2001.)

Of course, there are big risks to extrapolation which any one who has ever traded in the markets has learned.  As legendary trader Ed Seykota put it, “The trend is your friend except at the end when it bends.”

Then there is Mark Twain’s masterpiece from Life on the Mississippi.

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

I suppose the debate could end when a single observation is made which no longer requires extrapolation.  Let’s say it does I doubt that will change the minds of many.  Conversely, if it is shown at some point that it’s completely impossible to go from micro –> macro I doubt that will change many minds on the other side either.  Beliefs persist.

Centralization and Catastrophe

I have read a number of papers by Cass Sunstein, mostly disagreed with his ideas but he had a good paper against the precautionary principle and his work on the availability cascade should serve as warning to some of his own ideas.  In this article the great economist and thinker Thomas Sowell takes on Mr. Sunstein’s love of a benevolent elite.  Well worth the read if you find yourself thinking, we need one more program to control the plebes or the solution is to get the right people to run things.  In my time I have heard people say all those horrible things that happened in the past we know better today. Strange, I have never actually witnessed that.

You’re Going to Hell?

Over at Opinionated Man he has a brief comment about those telling you you are going to hell and their own certainty.  I commented and he politely replied.  I know exactly what he is talking about.

I once ran into a 19 year old “street preacher” on a university campus, shouting “you fornicators, you generation of vipers” at the top of his lungs.  I spoke with him asking him whether he was helping or harming Christianity.  He felt he was saving people by forcing them to confront their sin and decadence.  He was a caricature of the fire and brimstone preacher, smug, ostensibly certain and sanctimonious.  In the end he was making a truth claim no matter how odious the vehicle he delivering, to wit, if you reject Jesus as your savior you go to hell. Is that true?  You must decide for yourself.  If it isn’t true, no reason to be upset.  If you told me don’t go into the woods at dusk the magical creatures might get me, I have no reaction*.  All religions have truth claims.  Those claims are mutually exclusive, for example, “All roads lead to God” which is Hindu.  “There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet”, Islam.  Buddhism is systematic atheism.  Jesus claimed to be the living sacrifice to make peace between God and man.  I’ve heard people who claim to be Christians say all roads lead to God not realizing that in fact, that belief alone makes them more Hindu than Christian.  We don’t seem to like absolutes; we like to have a little wiggle room (unless it’s in our politicians who the more they express uncertainty the less likely they are to be voted into office).

Is that street preacher certain?  Let’s take Christianity as true by it’s claims as a thought experiment, that means the preacher believes he is saved, that God’s spirit dwells in him and that spirit strengthens his faith.  Those are all teachings in the Christian faith.  If the foregoing is true then he is certain.  If he rejects those teachings but preaches them anyway then he is not certain and rather a low order self-serving hypocrite.  If those teachings are false then he is certain only by delusion or psychopathy.   It seems to me most people commenting were assuming the third choice.  There are two others.

As a final thought consider this on the notion of hell which never crossed my mind until I heard a theologian being interviewed — on NPR? I don’t remember.  He said paraphrasing, God condemns no one to hell but ratifies a choice they have already made for eternity.  While people live if they choose to live apart from God when they die he makes that choice permanent.  Total alienation from God is hell.


*An old German told me this actually when I was entering at sunset the forest the brothers Grimm used to like to walk in (according to a local).  He was serious; I was an adult at the time and he was moving quickly coming out of the forest.  Pass auf Junge!