Quotulatiousness

September 21, 2016

QotD: The worries of the Baby Boomers versus the worries of the Greatest Generation

Filed under: Health, Humour, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… I am conceding that by the standards of today, my parents’ behavior would be considered irresponsible. Actually, “irresponsible” is not a strong enough word. By the standards of today, my parents and their friends were crazy. A great many activities they considered to be perfectly OK — hitchhiking; or driving without seat belts; or letting a child go trick-or-treating without a watchful parent hovering within 8 feet, ready to pounce if the child is given a potentially lethal item such as an apple; or engaging in any form of recreation more strenuous than belching without wearing a helmet — are now considered to be insanely dangerous. By the standards of today, the main purpose of human life is to eliminate all risk so that human life will last as long as humanly possible, no matter how tedious it gets.

And the list of things we’re not supposed to do anymore gets longer all the time. I recently encountered an article headlined:

IS YOUR HANDSHAKE AS DANGEROUS AS SMOKING?

The answer, in case you are a complete idiot, is: Of course your handshake is as dangerous as smoking. The article explains that handshakes transmit germs, which cause diseases such as MERS. MERS stands for “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” a fatal disease that may have originated in camels. This is yet another argument, as if we needed one, against shaking hands with camels. But the article suggests that we should consider not shaking hands with anybody.

If you could travel back in time to one of my parents’ parties and interrupt the singing to announce to the guests that shaking hands could transmit germs and therefore they should stop doing it, they would laugh so hard they’d drop their cigarettes into their drinks. They were just not as into worrying as we are today.

And it wasn’t just cigarettes and alcohol they didn’t worry about. They also didn’t worry that there might be harmful chemicals in the water that they drank right from the tap. They didn’t worry that if they threw their trash into the wrong receptacle, they were killing baby polar bears and hastening the extinction of the human race. They didn’t worry about consuming trans fats, gluten, fructose, and all the other food components now considered so dangerous they could be used to rob a bank (“Give him the money! He’s got gluten!”).

Dave Barry, “The Greatest (Party) Generation”, Wall Street Journal, 2015-02-26.

September 15, 2016

Asymmetric Information and Health Insurance

Filed under: Economics, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 23 Sep 2015

In this video, we discuss asymmetric information, adverse selection, and propitious selection in relation to the market for health insurance. Health insurance consumers come in a range of health, but to insurance companies, everyone has the same average health. Consumers have more information about their health than do insurers. How does this affect the price of health insurance? Why would some consumers prefer to not buy health insurance at all? And how does this all relate to the Affordable Care Act? Let’s dive in.

September 8, 2016

QotD: The US space program was “a WPA for engineers instead of artists”

Filed under: Quotations, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… even when uttered by the First Lady of the American Screen, any blather about the constellations leaves me as cold as Neptune. Yes, as a teenager, I obediently watched Cosmos like everyone else. But neither Carl Sagan’s corduroy charisma nor those glossy special effects fired up my heart and brain, any more than all those NASA expeditions to vacant rocks in the sky that had punctuated my childhood (and interrupted my cartoons).

The space program was a spectacular waste of extorted tax dollars, a WPA for engineers instead of artists. Watching nerdy small-government libertarians swoon in pathetic conformity over Apollo and SpaceX proves once again that Conquest’s Laws are bunk: Everyone is, in fact, a raving liberal when it comes to his pet passion. Elon Musk is a welfare queen.

Bores insist that the space program has spun off a host of indispensable inventions, but these they can rarely name, and besides, such wonders, if truly crucial, would have been developed anyhow — perhaps even faster, and more cheaply, had the government left trillions in stolen cash in the hands of private enterprise.

Perhaps some readers will find my opinions more palatable if phrased this way: “Federally funded spaceflight is the quintessential neoconservative project: a giant, wasteful crusade designed to fill Americans’ supposedly empty lives with meaning.”

Kathy Shaidle, “The Lovers, the Dreamers, Not Me”, Taki’s Magazine, 2016-08-23.

September 7, 2016

QotD: Plato, Epicurus and Democritus

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

For Plato, the world of appearance was a kind of dream, and the real world was something that only the initiated could begin to understand through logic and mathematics, and perhaps a dash of magic. So far as it existed, matter was evil, and the universe was strictly bounded in space and time.

For Epicurus, the world of appearance was the real world. There is a void, or vacuum, which is infinite in space and time. It has always existed. It will always exist. It goes on forever and ever. In this void is an infinite number of atoms. These are very small, and therefore imperceptible, but indivisible particles of matter. They have always existed and will always exist. They are all moving through the void at an incredibly rapid and uniform speed. The world as we see it is based on combinations of these atoms. Every atom is hooked, and the collision of atoms will sometimes lead to combinations of atoms into larger structures, some of which endure and some of which we can eventually perceive with our senses. All observed changes in the world are the result of redistributions of the invisible atoms that comprise it.

Though we are not able to see these atoms, we can infer their existence by looking at the world that our senses can perceive. All events — the wearing away of a rock by water, for example, or the growth of crystals or trees — can be fully explained by an atomic hypothesis. Since there is nothing that cannot be so explained, there is no need of any other hypotheses. In a surviving explanation of his method, he says:

    …[I]n our study of nature we must not conform to empty assumptions and arbitrary laws, but follow the prompting of the facts.

Everything in the universe is made of atoms. We are made of atoms. Our souls are made of very fine atoms. Our senses work because every other physical object is continually casting off very thin films of atoms that represent it exactly as it is. These films strike on our senses and give us vision and sound. Heat is produced by the vibration of atoms temporarily trapped in structures that prevent them from their natural onward motion.

Whether or not anyone can at any moment think of a likely explanation, all events in the universe can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. Assuming atoms and motion, no further hypotheses are needed to explain the world.

Epicurus was not the first to explain the world by an atomic hypothesis. That was Democritus (460-370 BC). But he seems to have developed the hypothesis with a consistency and detail that took it far beyond anything that earlier philosophers had conceived.

Perhaps his most notable innovation is the doctrine of the swerve. There are two objections to the atomism of Democritus. The first is that if the atoms are all moving at the same speed and in the same direction, like drops of rain, there is no reason to suppose they will ever collide and form larger compounds. The second is that if they are not moving in the same direction, they will collide, but they will form a universe locked into an unbreakable sequence of cause and effect. This conflicts with the observed fact of free will.

And so Epicurus argues that every atom is capable of a very small and random deviation from its straight motion. This is enough to give an indeterminacy to the universe that does not conflict with an overall regularity of action.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Englightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

September 1, 2016

Don’t blame the market for the EpiPen price hike – blame the FDA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Scott Alexander explains why “the market” has very little to do with the outrageous price hike for EpiPens:

EpiPens, useful medical devices which reverse potentially fatal allergic reactions, have recently quadrupled in price, putting pressure on allergy sufferers and those who care for them. Vox writes that this “tells us a lot about what’s wrong with American health care” – namely that we don’t regulate it enough:

    The story of Mylan’s giant EpiPen price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would.

Let me ask Vox a question: when was the last time that America’s chair industry hiked the price of chairs 400% and suddenly nobody in the country could afford to sit down? When was the last time that the mug industry decided to charge $300 per cup, and everyone had to drink coffee straight from the pot or face bankruptcy? When was the last time greedy shoe executives forced most Americans to go barefoot? And why do you think that is?

The problem with the pharmaceutical industry isn’t that they’re unregulated just like chairs and mugs. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that they’re part of a highly-regulated cronyist system that works completely differently from chairs and mugs.

If a chair company decided to charge $300 for their chairs, somebody else would set up a woodshop, sell their chairs for $250, and make a killing – and so on until chairs cost normal-chair-prices again. When Mylan decided to sell EpiPens for $300, in any normal system somebody would have made their own EpiPens and sold them for less. It wouldn’t have been hard. Its active ingredient, epinephrine, is off-patent, was being synthesized as early as 1906, and costs about ten cents per EpiPen-load.

Why don’t they? They keep trying, and the FDA keeps refusing to approve them for human use. For example, in 2009, a group called Teva Pharmaceuticals announced a plan to sell their own EpiPens in the US. The makers of the original EpiPen sued them, saying that they had patented the idea epinephrine-injecting devices. Teva successfully fended off the challenge and brought its product to the FDA, which rejected it because of “certain major deficiencies”. As far as I know, nobody has ever publicly said what the problem was – we can only hope they at least told Teva.

[…]

Imagine that the government creates the Furniture and Desk Association, an agency which declares that only IKEA is allowed to sell chairs. IKEA responds by charging $300 per chair. Other companies try to sell stools or sofas, but get bogged down for years in litigation over whether these technically count as “chairs”. When a few of them win their court cases, the FDA shoots them down anyway for vague reasons it refuses to share, or because they haven’t done studies showing that their chairs will not break, or because the studies that showed their chairs will not break didn’t include a high enough number of morbidly obese people so we can’t be sure they won’t break. Finally, Target spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and gets the okay to compete with IKEA, but people can only get Target chairs if they have a note signed by a professional interior designer saying that their room needs a “comfort-producing seating implement” and which absolutely definitely does not mention “chairs” anywhere, because otherwise a child who was used to sitting on IKEA chairs might sit down on a Target chair the wrong way, get confused, fall off, and break her head.

(You’re going to say this is an unfair comparison because drugs are potentially dangerous and chairs aren’t – but 50 people die each year from falling off chairs in Britain alone and as far as I know nobody has ever died from an EpiPen malfunction.)

Imagine that this whole system is going on at the same time that IKEA spends millions of dollars lobbying senators about chair-related issues, and that these same senators vote down a bill preventing IKEA from paying off other companies to stay out of the chair industry. Also, suppose that a bunch of people are dying each year of exhaustion from having to stand up all the time because chairs are too expensive unless you’ve got really good furniture insurance, which is totally a thing and which everybody is legally required to have.

And now imagine that a news site responds with an article saying the government doesn’t regulate chairs enough.

August 31, 2016

QotD: A scientific explanation of “the munchies”

Filed under: Health, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Besides making a bongo drum sound inexplicably magical and enhancing a person’s ability to talk nonsense for extended periods of time, generations of cannabis smokers will recognise the “munchies” as one of the drug’s most reliable side-effects.

Now scientists have shown that the insatiable urge to eat after smoking is caused by cannabinoids hijacking brain cells that normally suppress appetite. The study suggests that cannabis causes the brain to produce a different set of chemicals that transform the feeling of fullness into a hunger that is never quite satisfied.

Scientists believe the findings, which illuminate a previously unknown aspect of the brain’s feeding circuitry, could help design new drugs that would boost or suppress appetite at will.

Tamas Horvath, who led the work at Yale University, said: “By observing how the appetite centre of the brain responds to marijuana, we were able to see what drives the hunger brought about by cannabis and how that same mechanism that normally turns off feeding becomes a driver of eating. It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead.”

Hannah Devlin, “Reefer research: cannabis ‘munchies’ explained by new study”, The Guardian, 2015-02-18.

August 29, 2016

QotD: Conflating the Hobbesian and Rousseauvian views of mankind

Filed under: Government, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

[…] there is a second, possibly more important source of the man-as-killer myth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment — Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature as a “warre of all against all”, and the reactionary naturism of Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. Today these originally opposing worldviews have become fused into a view of nature and humanity that combines the worst (and least factual) of both.

Hobbes, writing a rationalization of the system of absolute monarchy under the Stuart kings of England, constructed an argument that in a state of nature without government the conflicting desires of human beings would pit every man against his neighbor in a bloodbath without end. Hobbes referred to and assumed “wild violence” as the normal state of humans in what anthropologists now call “pre-state” societies; that very term, in fact, reflects the Hobbesian myth,

The obvious flaw in Hobbes’s argument is that he mistook a sufficient condition for suppressing the “warre” (the existence of a strong central state) for a necessary one. He underestimated the innate sociability of human beings. The anthropological and historical record affords numerous examples of “pre-state” societies (even quite large multiethnic/multilingual populations) which, while violent against outsiders, successfully maintained internal peace.

If Hobbes underestimated the sociability of man, Rousseau and his followers overestimated it; or, at least, they overestimated the sociability of primitive man. By contrasting the nobility and tranquility they claimed to see in rural nature and the Noble Savage with the all-too-evident filth, poverty and crowding in the booming cities of the Industrial Revolution, they secularized the Fall of Man. As their spiritual descendants today still do, they overlooked the fact that the urban poor had unanimously voted with their feet to escape an even nastier rural poverty.

The Rousseauian myth of technological Man as an ugly scab on the face of pristine Nature has become so pervasive in Western culture as to largely drive out the older opposing image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” from the popular mind. Perhaps this was inevitable as humans achieved more and more control over their environment; protection from famine, plague, foul weather, predators, and other inconveniences of nature encouraged the fond delusion that only human nastiness makes the world a hard place.

[…]

In reality, Nature is a violent arena of intra- and inter-species competition in which murder for gain is an everyday event and ecological fluctuations commonly lead to mass death. Human societies, outside of wartime, are almost miraculously stable and nonviolent by contrast. But the unconscious prejudice of even educated Westerners today is likely to be that the opposite is true. The Hobbesian view of the “warre of all against all” has survived only as a description of human behavior, not of the wider state of nature. Pop ecology has replaced pop theology; the new myth is of man the killer ape.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

August 18, 2016

QotD: The environmental and economic idiocy of the ethanol mandate

Ever since the beginning of the ethanol mandate it was obvious to anybody with eyes to see that the whole thing was a boondoggle and a huge waste for everybody except ADM. What the Greens failed to understand is that if you prop up corn prices by buying, distilling and burning massive amounts of corn whisky in cars, two things are going to happen. One the price is going to go up, making things like cow feed and other uses of corn more expensive and 2. farmers are going to, without restraint, plant ever larger amounts of corn, which will 1. push out other crops like wheat and 2. require more land use to plant even more corn. Which is why you can now go from Eastern Colorado to Western NY and essentially see nothing but corn. Millions of acres of corn, across the country, grown to burn. Somehow this was supposed to be environmentally friendly?

J.C. Carlton, “The Law Of Unintended Consequences Hits Biofuels”, The Arts Mechanical, 2016-08-07.

August 15, 2016

Evolved sexual differences

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Amy Alkon on the reason men and women value different attributes in one another:

Why Does Feminism Mean “You Can’t Say That About Women!”?
Feminism, too often these days, means treating women like eggshells, not equals.

If you talk about a woman’s looks — and maybe criticize how much she cares about her looks — you are stomping on hallowed ground, and you’re in for a media reaming (if you make your criticism at all publicly).

By the way, we care about women’s looks — and women care about caring for and showing off their looks — because of our evolved sex differences. Women prioritize status and power in a man and men prioritize physical attractiveness.

This isn’t all we care about in a partner, and it isn’t all we use to judge another person, but these preferences evolved to promote our mating and survival, not out of nowhere. We are living in a modern world with pretty antique psychology — perfect for life in an ancestral environment — so these sex differences in our psychology remain.

I write about these differences in our preferences in my science-based book, Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck:

    Many women think men are pretty rude to care so much about a woman’s looks. In a just world, men would have the hots for women simply for the beautiful people they are on the inside. Unfortunately, in the real world, this is just not how male sexuality works. (The penis is not a philanthropic organization and will not get hard because a woman bought a homeless guy a sandwich.)

    Because male sexuality is all about the visuals, men’s magazines are filled with pictures of naked women with freakishly large breasts and women’s magazines are filled with pictures of beauty products and ass-cantilevering $2,000 stilettos. Men evolved to go for signs of reproductively hot prospects — an hourglass figure, youth, clear skin, symmetrical faces and bodies, and long shiny hair: all indicators that a woman is a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man’s genes. Women co-evolved to try to make themselves look reproductively hot, though that’s not how we think of it.

August 14, 2016

QotD: Women in graduate math programs

Filed under: Quotations, Science, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Academic programs presumably want people with high ability. The GRE bills itself as an ability test, and under our expanded definition of ability this is a reasonable claim. So let’s talk about what would happen if programs selected based solely on ability as measured by GREs.

This is, of course, not the whole story. Programs also use a lot of other things like grades, interviews, and publications. But these are all correlated with GRE scores, and anyway it’s nice to have a single number to work with. So for now let’s suppose colleges accept applicants based entirely on GRE scores and see what happens. The STEM subjects we’re looking at here are presumably most interested in GRE Quantitative, so once again we’ll focus on that.

Mathematics unsurprisingly has the highest required GRE Quantitative score. Suppose that the GRE score of the average Mathematics student – 162.0 – represents the average level that Mathematics departments are aiming for – ie you must be this smart to enter.

The average man gets 154.3 ± 8.6 on GRE Quantitative. The average woman gets 149.4 ± 8.1. So the threshold for Mathematics admission is 7.7 points ahead of the average male test-taker, or 0.9 male standard deviation units. This same threshold is 12.6 points ahead of the average female test-taker, or 1.55 female standard deviation units.

GRE scores are designed to follow a normal distribution, so we can plug all of this into our handy-dandy normal distribution calculator and find that 19% of men and 6% of women taking the GRE meet the score threshold to get into graduate level Mathematics. 191,394 men and 244,712 women took the GRE last year, so there will be about 36,400 men and 14,700 women who pass the score bar and qualify for graduate level mathematics. That means the pool of people who can do graduate Mathematics is 29% female. And when we look at the actual gender balance in graduate Mathematics, it’s also 29% female.

Vast rivers of ink have been spilled upon the question of why so few women are in graduate Mathematics programs. Are interviewers misogynist? Are graduate students denied work-life balance? Do stereotypes cause professors to “punish” women who don’t live up to their sexist expectations? Is there a culture of sexual harassment among mathematicians?

But if you assume that Mathematics departments are selecting applicants based on the thing they double-dog swear they are selecting applicants based on, there is literally nothing left to be explained.

I am sort of cheating here. The exact perfect prediction in Mathematics is a coincidence. And I can’t extend this methodology rigorously to any other subject because I would need a much more complicated model where people of a given score level are taken out of the pool as they choose the highest-score-requiring discipline, leaving fewer high-score people available for the low-score-requiring ones. Without this more complicated task, at best I can set a maximum expected gender imbalance, then eyeball whether the observed deviation from that maximum is more or less than expected. Doing such eyeballing, there are slightly fewer women in graduate Physics and Computer Science than expected and slightly more women in graduate Economics than expected.

But on the whole, the prediction is very good. That it is not perfect means there is still some room to talk about differences in stereotypes and work-life balance and so on creating moderate deviations from the predicted ratio in a few areas like computer science. But this is arguing over the scraps of variance left over, after differences in mathematical ability have devoured their share.

Scott Alexander, “Perceptions of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-24.

August 12, 2016

Good news! Electricity in Ontario is cheaper to produce than ever before!

The bad news? It’s more expensive to consume than ever before, thanks to the way the Ontario government has manipulated the market:

You may be surprised to learn that electricity is now cheaper to generate in Ontario than it has been for decades. The wholesale price, called the Hourly Ontario Electricity Price or HOEP, used to bounce around between five and eight cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), but over the last decade, thanks in large part to the shale gas revolution, it has trended down to below three cents, and on a typical day is now as low as two cents per kWh. Good news, right?

It would be, except that this is Ontario. A hidden tax on Ontario’s electricity has pushed the actual purchase price in the opposite direction, to the highest it’s ever been. The tax, called the Global Adjustment (GA), is levied on electricity purchases to cover a massive provincial slush fund for green energy, conservation programs, nuclear plant repairs and other central planning boondoggles. As these spending commitments soar, so does the GA.

In the latter part of the last decade when the HOEP was around five cents per kWh and the government had not yet begun tinkering, the GA was negligible, so it hardly affected the price. In 2009, when the Green Energy Act kicked in with massive revenue guarantees for wind and solar generators, the GA jumped to about 3.5 cents per kWh, and has been trending up since — now it is regularly above 9.5 cents. In April it even topped 11 cents, triple the average HOEP.

The only people doing well out of this are the lucky cronies of the government who signed up for provincial subsidies on alternative energy (primarily wind and solar), who reap rents of well over 100% thanks to guaranteed minimum prices for electricity from non-traditional sources.

July 26, 2016

QotD: Natural born killers? Not so much…

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the most dangerous errors of our time is the belief that human beings are uniquely violent animals, barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.

It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.

Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.

It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.

It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).

Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or -flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.

Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

July 22, 2016

QotD: The dating pool

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Yes, you can have it all — a high-powered education, a high-powered career, and the perfect high-powered man to go with. Of course, it helps if you’re willing to relax your standards a little, like by widening your pool of acceptable male partners to include the recently deceased.

[…]

Some feminist academics claim that women only want big bucks/high status men because they lack those things themselves. But, a number of studies by evolutionary psychologists have found that women with big bucks and big jobs want men with bigger bucks and bigger jobs. Even women who are feminists. Dr. Bruce J. Ellis writes in The Adapted Mind that when 15 feminist leaders described their ideal man, they repeatedly used words like “very rich,” “brilliant,” and “genius” (and they didn’t mean “genius with a baby wipe!”).

So, if you’ve become the man you would’ve married in the ’50s, don’t be surprised if your mating pool starts to seem about the size of the one that comes with Barbie’s Dream House. Biology is neither fair nor kind. What those pushing feel-good sociology don’t want to believe or tell you is that you increase your options by being hot — or hotting yourself up the best you can. Obviously, looks aren’t all that matter, but while your female genes are urging you to blow past the hot pool boy to get to the moderately attractive captain of industry, men evolved to prioritize looks in women, so powerful men will date powerfully beautiful waitresses and baristas. As evolutionary psychologist Dr. David Buss writes, “Women’s physical attractiveness is the best known predictor of the occupational status of the man she marries and the best known predictor of hypergamy.”

Amy Alkon, “The Spinster Cycle”, The Advice Goddess, 2012-04-03.

July 12, 2016

QotD: Did our distant ancestors select for intelligence?

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a special case of one of my favorite Damned Ideas, originally developed by John W. Campbell in the 1960s from some speculations by a forgotten French anthropologist. Campbell proposed that the manhood initiation rituals found in many primitive tribes are a selective machine designed to permit adulthood and reproduction only to those who can demonstrate verbal fluency and the ability to override instinctive fears on verbal command.

Campbell suggests that all living humans are descended from groups of hominids that, having evolved full-human mental capability in some of their members, found the overhead of supporting the dullards too high. So they began selecting for traits correlated with intelligence through initiation rituals timed for just as their offspring were achieving reproductive capacity; losers got driven out, or possibly killed and eaten.

Campbell pointed out that the common elements of tribal initiations are (a) scarring or cicatricing of the skin, opening the way for lethal infections, (b) alteration or mutilation of the genitals, threatening the ability to reproduce, and (c) alteration of the mouth and teeth, threatening the ability to eat. These seem particularly well optimized for inducing maximum instinctive fear in the subject while actually being relatively safe under controlled and relatively hygenic conditions. The core test of initiation is this: can the subject conquer fear and submit to the initiation on the basis of learned (verbal, in preliterate societies) command?

Campbell noticed the first order effect was to shift the mean of the IQ bell curve upwards over generations. The second-order effect, which if he noticed he didn’t talk about, was to start an arms race in initiation rituals; competing bands experimented with different selective filters (not consciously but through random variation). Setting the bar too low or too high would create a bad tradeoff between IQ selectivity and maintaining raw reproductive capacity. So we’re descended from the hominids who found the right tradeoff to push their mean IQ up as rapidly as possible and outcompeted the groups that chose less well.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell or his sources, but this theory explains why initiation rituals for girls are a rare and usually post-literate phenomenon. Male reproductive capacity is cheap; a healthy young man can impregnate several young women a day, and healthy young men are instinct-wired to do exactly that whenever they can get away with it. Female reproductive capacity, on the other hand, is scarce and precious. So it makes sense to select the boys ruthlessly and give the girls a pass. Of course if you push this too far you don’t get enough hunters and fighters, but the right tradeoff pretty clearly is not 1-to-1.

Eric S. Raymond, “Selecting for intelligence”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-11-14.

July 10, 2016

QotD: Science isn’t something you “believe in”

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The arguments about global warming too often sound more like theology than science. Oh, the word “science” gets thrown around a great deal, but it’s cited as a sacred authority, not a fallible process that staggers only awkwardly and unevenly toward the truth, with frequent lurches in the wrong direction. I cannot count the number of times someone has told me that they believe in “the science,” as if that were the name of some omniscient god who had delivered us final answers written in stone. For those people, there can be only two categories in the debate: believers and unbelievers. Apostles and heretics.

This is, of course, not how science works, and people who treat it this way are not showing their scientific bona fides; they are violating the very thing in which they profess such deep belief. One does not believe in “science” as an answer; science is a way of asking questions. At any given time, that method produces a lot of ideas, some of which are correct, and many of which are false, in part or in whole.

Megan McArdle, “Global-Warming Alarmists, You’re Doing It Wrong”, Bloomberg View, 2016-06-01.

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