Tag Archives: Philosophy

Girl Power Economics

The Libertarian Blog over at Reason.com had a delightful piece today on the correlation between girl band popularity and economic growth. I’m actually not sure if it is satire or not.

“Why didn’t the United States see [strong] growth during the ’60s boom? America… lost interest in [girl bands] in favor of a self-styled “invasion” of boy groups… We went off the girl standard before France did… The Go-Go’s fueled the recovery from the early 1980s recession… The effect was strongest in the 1990s… NAFTA allowed the free exchange of angry Canuck songstress Alanis Morissette. Britain maintained low inflation and low unemployment… thanks both to economic liberalization and to the rise of the Spice Girls.

Just as the decrease in piracy is correlated with the increase in global temperatures, the economic tide seems to be correlated with girl bands. Thus, we need more pirates and more girl bands, then we will have economic prosperity and stable temperatures. As satire, this is good stuff. If gender balance in music is as good a predictor as anything else, it calls into question the validity of “real” economic predictors.

But, as I said above, I’m not sure if this is satire or not.


Amazing first decade, futurists, and suffering

The Jester has has his time for long enough. Once he crosses the line into flagrant paranoia, I have to step in.

It’s a new year and a new decade. The decade might have been better for Science (still no flying cars) but all-in-all, I’m pretty happy. We’ve seen tissue engineering come a long way including grow-your-own skin and grow-your-own hearts. We’ve seen metamaterials with negative index of refraction and a lower thermal conductivity than vacuum, both of which I grew up believing were physically impossible. We seen bona fide proof of evolution (as if we needed more).

Basically I can’t even begin to touch on all the cool things in that happened in the last ten years. It’s enough to have give me a glimmer of faith in the vision of the futurists’ utopia: we may conquer death and scarcity and create a world of never-ending exploration. But maybe human nature needs scarcity and death to be whole. Maybe ten years is a good time for reflection on what we all want for ourselves and for each other. Facile suggestions that ‘happiness’ is what we want miss the point: If we knew what would make us happy, we would have it by now.

Ultimately, and strangely, I’m not sure that conquering death and scarcity will make us any kinder. I think we’ve made some real progress toward doing those things, and I’m not alone in that thought.

Yet, even so, I think a lot of otherwise crazy-seeming people might be sane in the light of this statement: abundance does not necessarily engender generosity. People who think we’re better off without public healthcare may be right up to a point: the threat of true suffering can be motivation for good. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hold with people who would sell others’ welfare for the sake of an abstraction. The Free Market is all well and good until Henry Frick has you killed because you want fair pay. Yet, we only have the opportunity to be truly charitable in the face of true misfortune. Would we cheat ourselves of this sorrow?

If we could truly alleviate human suffering on a large scale, would we be neutering humanity?


The data will not lie

Consider empirical skepticism: a high standard for physical evidence before committing to a belief. One might be tempted to think that this means “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Strangely, this is not the case. Example: A few short centuries ago, doctors “saw” imbalanced humors and bad vapors, and they “saw” people cured when those conditions were relieved. The “evidence,”confirmed their incorrect theories because it was limited and not properly examined. Skepticism was the idea that maybe the deductive reasoning from the theoretical premises of the day (four Aristotelian elements, humors, etc.) might be flawed because the theories were affecting the perceptions of the outcome.

Skepticism said: “Don’t trust your eyes. Trust the data.”

Modern surgical technique was developed by Joseph Lister who reportedly said “it’s as important to wash your hands before surgery as after.”

Think of how radical that is! It is tantamount to saying “don’t trust what you can see. I know you can’t see the thing on your hands that will kill your patient. I don’t even know what it is. Some Frenchman named Pasteur thinks maybe he’s on to something about that. Look, just trust my blind data that tells me that more people survive surgery if I wash my hands.”

We fancy now that it’s so obvious that there are these invisible things called “bacteria,” that anyone with any sense would figure that out from a few simple observations and “common sense.” Quite the contrary. As a doctor or a researcher, it is critical to remember that your conception of the world changes your perception of the world. The data is the only thing that will tell the truth, and it will only tell you the truth insofar as you ask the right question with your experiment.


Smart Dogs

There have been a few articles recently about the finding that dogs are about as smart as two-year-old, human children. They have a similar level of vocabulary and mathematical ability, and they can deliberately deceive – something that children only learn to do later. So that’s where dogs stand today.


Here’s a question I have been considering for a while: how long would it take to selectively breed dogs with human level intelligence? I’m not considering transgenic dogs or gene-splicing. Genetic mapping for mate selection is OK. What are we talking about, here? I imagine it would be a logarithmic curve: quick at first as we collected all the smart genes in one dog, then slow as we wait for mutation to produce a breakthrough.

But if we don’t look for anything but intelligence – that is, let the breed characteristics fall where they may – how close could we get and how fast?

Let’s say we have a pool big enough to get to human level intelligence in 200 years. That’s probably quite optimistic – about 100 generations. What are the ethical implications? Moral implications? Did we just create a creature with a soul? Was that morally right or wrong? Are we morally obligated to do this, if it is possible?