To be educated is to be human.


Christopher Carr

Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

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40 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I have so far only skimmed this because I’m short on time, and I’m somewhat skeptical (as is the post) about the idea it sets forth as its topic (though at the end, I think the view has broadened somewhat), but I can already tell that this is one of the two or three finest pieces of writing to be published on this site in some time, and among the finest ten or fifteen in its history. I look forward to digesting it more fully later today.Report

  2. Avatar Pinky says:

    I know this is off-topic, and I’m sorry about that –

    but recapitulation theory is known for two things: one, implying that the human fetus isn’t particularly human in its early development; and two, being widely discredited.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Pinky says:

      There’s certainly no reason to apologize. You’re definitely right about recapitulation theory: it’s been replaced by more sophisticated modern ideas, but, at least in my experience studying biology, it is still used extensively as an explanatory device. I’m not sure whether or not recapitulation theory implies anything about the “humanness” of the fetus, whether or not this fetus is deemed to overlap more or less with fetal forms of other creatures. But I can understand why people would take sides on such a question and how it could be turned into a contentious debate.Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    Take economics as an example, as it is a discipline still with analysis in abundance yet particularly lacking in critical thinking skills: the history of mainstream economic thought over the last hundred years or so has been a history of ever-more-complex, ever-more-mathematically-elegant models which are all based on the absurd presumptions that individuals are perfectly rational actors, individuals act based on perfect information, and our economic programs will do what we say they will do. Actual behavior contrary to the models is often explained away as epiphenomenal or unrelated. Unpredicted results of national economic programs are often rationalized away as the result of “liberal” or “conservative” contamination.

    Except that none of that is true.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to James K says:

      I take it you’ve never read a column by Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.Report

      • Krugman is a fine economist, but he has a tendency to badly underestimate the intelligence of others in his field and be poorly read on anything that goes outside his narrow scope. Economics is an enormous field encompassing everything from behavioral and neural economics to social construction. Just a brief glance at say Freakonomics or Nudge would give you a sense that economics as a field is far more complicated than that silly stereotype.Report

        • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          I’m well aware of the wide-ranging and indeed interesting models of the world offered by the economics discipline, even if they do not allow themselves to be falsifiable. I can continue to consider them interesting and simultaneously criticize the fact that they regard themselves too highly.Report

          • But the point is that 1. a lot of the behavioral models are in fact falsifiable, 2. neuro-economics and behavioral economics DO NOT posit rationalism, and 3. they tend to be cross-disciplinary in that they require everything from psychology to sociology to biology to be applicable.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

              I’ve been watching the gold market going bonkers today. No particularly good reason for it. You’d think, what with Iraq blowing itself up, the Norks creating instability in the world, Russia going apeshit, China’s economy in trouble — gold should be going up.

              Neuro-economics is gobbledegook, a ridiculous pseudoscience. Our knowledge of the brain is vastly imperfect. We do not understand why human beings behave the way they do, even less why mobs act the way they do. Mobs don’t act in their own best interests. They’re led about by Robespierres and Dantons and eventually they self-destruct. I do AI. I don’t fully understand the neural nets I train but I can examine the connections. But then, I train my nets. I can teach them how to behave. There is no teaching a mob. Markets do not act in their own best interests: like mobs, they whirl about and eventually implode without external regulation.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I just figure someone lost a bet. there’s a lot of dark gold lying around that doesn’t trade hands much. If someone (or a lot of someones) got a margin call, voila, crash the gold market.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Of course there is teaching a mob. Of course there is controlling it.
                If it was that implausible, things like Anonymous wouldn’t exist (let alone them claiming credit for the arab spring).Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                Of course, such things fall under the category of “actively being researched”…Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                Now prove it. Mobs don’t behave rationally. Often as not they’ll eat their own, videlicet the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution. The list is very long.

                A teachable mob is a contradiction in terms. Anonymous and al-Qaeda are proof they aren’t. OBL’s over there in Pakistan, remonstrating with Zarqawi — quit destroying our credibility. All these Anony-mice, skript kiddies who can’t even conduct a proper DDoS.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Irrational behavior is easier to control than rational behavior, Blaise.

                An actual, literal, mob? Can be steered, guided, provoked. People make livings doing this sort of shit.

                “The Mob” as you’re talking about it? Anonymous, Occupy, Tea Party? Oh, yes, they can be taught.

                As I said, active area of psychology research. Besides, half of what /b/ does is to troll. and that’s just learning the psychology of how to push buttons…Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                This is why I hate discussing things with you. All contradiction, no evidence.

                Well, you’re hardly alone in picking fights with me. Maybe I need a vacation from the League, too.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                1) Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Greed, Envy…
                Made you look… eh?
                American Apparel’s ads are deliberately designed to show girls in questionable states of “ability to give informed consent.”
                There’s an ad company that makes radio ads for products that don’t work, it basically sells based on people’s greed.
                Ninja Loans, Liar loans…

                Do I really need to go on? Let me know what you’d like me to cite, and I’m willing to do it…

                Anonymous put a nice happy flashy graphic on an epileptic website. (naturally, it wouldn’t be funny if it actually hurt people). Oh, the hilarity (and humanity). Go read about it. It’s a great troll.

                Am I missing anything? Let me know what you’d like me to cite.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                Heh. Why don’t you work on a ruleset for predicting VIX. I said the markets don’t move in accordance with common sense. Now there’s the dataset, give me an algorithm which might give me better than even odds for entering VIX long or short.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                A bit of explanation might be in order. VIX measures market volatility and is basically a measure of market idiocy and fear. Yesterday, gold went apeshit. Today, gold is also going apeshit. When markets move, we’d like to think there are reasons for those movements.

                Generally speaking, gold is a fear buy. But yesterday, despite all the entirely justified fear, gold dropped (in fact markets tanked across the board) and today it’s the exact opposite.

                These markets aren’t motivated by fear. These markets are currently motivated by a far more fundamental force: neurotic stupidity — and VIX is how you measure it. Beyond a certain point, there’s no calculating stupid. Though you can hoodwink or buffalo one person at a time, panicking a rational market requires a Mount Everest sized asteroid of data impacting everyone’s happy little plans. No such data is in evidence.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                You make bets.
                Surely you know the story of the “Greater fool?”
                I won’t call the market rational, exactly, but it
                does conform to the data it’s given… mostly.

                Predicting VIX isn’t the model you want, anyhow.
                Fixing VIX is. Go ahead, start a war. Get a few Jews
                lynched in France (not like that’d be hard these days).
                Half a dozen other unpleasant things. Use the money you
                make for something good.

                Lot easier than writing a model without all the data.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                Solomon the Wise had something to say about a fool when he is silent.

                Now when these advocates of bio-phrenological behaviourists can show me one working economic model — hell, I’m not asking for falsifiable here, just better than even odds — and a dataset which does more than predict the past — then we can start talking seriously about its multi-disciplinary aspects, etc.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                And do us both a favour, Kimmi. Quit trolling me. And quit saying stupid things like “fix VIX” Take that up with our Libertarian compadres who think markets are rational. They’ll explain it all to you.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                Okay, this is simple microeconomics stuff: a person is far more willing to buy with a credit card than they are with cash. But it holds up, any way you want to slice it.

                I’m not gonna do macro from behaviorist modeling, because I think that’s actually pretty dunderheaded.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                I’m not trolling you. I’ve made a couple of trollish comments around here, but not to you (I believe my best was: “Jews were the first terrorists”, oh, but that had people howling. I believe I made my point, by being factually more accurate than my competition). You’re not predictable enough, nor do I really want to get under your hide.Report

              • Avatar Dave in reply to Kimmi says:

                Irrational behavior is easier to control than rational behavior, Blaise.

                No, BlaiseP is very correct on this one. As an example, please refer to the financial crisis in 2008. That is the one example I can explain most.Report

              • Avatar Dave in reply to Kimmi says:


                Well, you’re hardly alone in picking fights with me. Maybe I need a vacation from the League, too.

                If you’re seriously considering this, which would pain me greatly, please email me first to discuss. If there’s something that I can do or should be doing that I’m not, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.

                By the way, I don’t think markets are rational at all although I am surprised that the efficient markets hypothesis lived past 2008.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                Perhaps we’re referring to different people-scales? Advertising has proven to be quite affective at controlling people, mainly through the use of greed and lust, both of which are non-rational behaviors (no, buying a bud will not get you loads of hot chicks at your door).

                Besides, if humans were rational, we wouldn’t need to craft pseudorandom number generators that subtlely let people win.
                (actual, good pseudorandom number generators are rarely used in video games).Report

              • Avatar Dave in reply to Kimmi says:


                You’re trolling him. He has every right to be annoyed. I’d be annoyed if I was him.

                Dare I say that I think I liked it better when you were telling people to f–k off?Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                1) Trolling, good trolling, takes more work than I’m putting in.
                2) Obviously your definition of trolling and mine are different. I do not think that disagreement is trolling, particularly when I am fully willing to defend my (varied) points and cite my sources. I would be interested to know what you consider trolling, both because you’re a moderator, and because you’re a participant.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Kimmi says:

                If you are bothered by Kimmi, you are doing something wrong.Report

              • Avatar Dave in reply to Kimmi says:

                Irregardless of my definition, if he’s asking you to leave him alone, please do so. If you poke at a hornet’s nest with a stick, chances are you are going to get stung.

                As for the rest of what you said, I’ll have to address that later, but if you’re willing to defend points and cite them, rather than saying that you’re going to do it, just do it.Report

              • Avatar Dave in reply to Kimmi says:


                For me, bothered is too wrong a word, but if someone asks to be left alone, there is no point in attempting to continue a conversation. That’s all.Report

      • Krugman has made some excellent contributions to the field, but these days he seems content to simply confirm the prejudices of New York Times readers.

        Basically, economics doesn’t assume perfect rationality any more – not since Behavioural economics. And imperfect information has been in the mix for decades earlier than that.

        And as for “assumes polices will work perfectly”, economists may be the worst possible group to assign that label to. The first economist to warn about policies not always working according to plan was Adam Smith, in 1776. More recently, there’s a whole sub-discipline of economics called “government failure economics” talking about how policies can end up working not as well as was intended.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

      Economics has never learned to cope with irrational behaviour. If science is the accumulation of data from which predictions may be derived and tested, economics fails every such definition. Data it has in plenty, predictions also. When some clever economist manages to make even one of his predictions work based on all that data, then we might call it a science — but not until.

      Perhaps this lack of congruence is that irrational behaviour made manifest.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Behavioural economics is an explicit attempt to deal with irrational behaviour.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James K says:

          But it’s still something of a subdiscipline, is it not? Or at least not universally applied to all economic thought and analysis yet? It hasn’t been incorporated into *all* of the models that have tended to have such prominent place in popular policy discussions about the efficacy of fiscal policy, etc., etc., etc., especially in the aftermath of the crisis, or am I mistaken about that? I.e., merely from the existence of behavioral economics, it doesn’t just follow that every economic model or argument advanced today is immune to a charge that it relies still too much on assumptions about how people will respond to particular kinds of (ostensible) incentives.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Michael Drew says:

            I’m not even sure how you would apply it to all economic analysis, a lot of the time cognitive biases don’t actually matter, not enough to make accounting for them worthwhile.

            There’s more work to do sure, but Christoper’s argument was that economics was ideologically committed to rational decision-making to the point of denying alternatives, and that’s just wrong.Report

            • I’m not going to deny that there are intrepid economic researchers out there tying to shift paradigms; nor do I mean to insult the economics discipline specifically.

              I used economics as an example of the general phenomenon of prizing analysis over critical thinking – which I do believe is a problem for economics – since economics is a discipline with which I am rather familiar: it was my undergraduate major, and I generally try and keep up with developments in the field even though my academic attentions are now turned towards basic sciences.

              Economics in the academy or even in the think tank setting is probably definitely more immune to my charge than economics in the media or political realm. This kind of economics undeniably suffers from blindly adhering to core assumptions and then throwing the weight of complex analysis behind those assumptions – we could call this method “blinding with nonscience” if we wanted to.

              And, since my argument is about economics over the last century, and implicitly about economics in service of the Modernist program, certainly you can meet me halfway on this issue. Although I will admit that I should have made clearer who and what it was exactly I was criticizing, the strike at economics is ancillary to my greater point.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Michael Drew says:

            if you’re just going to blackbox people, then it doesn’t matter, much, what exactly they’re thinking, so long as you can model their behavior. (This comes to the fore in large scale models — in small scale models, the behavioural economics is the model).Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

          I’ve been working this angle of AI for some years, trying to monetise this proposition. The more I look at it, the stinkier it gets, especially these realtime approval knobby thingies for political speeches. We’re doing okay on the individual front. At group levels, it’s still alchemical hocus-pocus. Economics has a terrible reputation for this sort of Cargo Cult Science. They’re not good mathematicians, worse philosophers and absolutely brain-dead when it comes to AI or CompSci.Report