One Man's Modus Ponens

‘One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens’ is a saying in Western philosophy encapsulating a common response to a logical proof which generalizes the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ and consists of rejecting a premise based on an implied conclusion. I explain it in more detail, provide examples, and a Bayesian gloss.
philosophy, Bayes, insight-porn
2012-05-012020-03-23 finished certainty: highly likely importance: 6

A log­i­cal­ly-­valid argu­ment which takes the form of a may be inter­preted in sev­eral ways; a major one is to inter­pret it as a kind of , where by ‘prov­ing’ a con­clu­sion believed to be false, one might instead take it as a which proves that one of the premises is false. This “Moorean shift” is aphorized as the , “One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tol­lens”. The Moorean shift is a pow­er­ful coun­ter-ar­gu­ment which has been deployed against many skep­ti­cal & meta­phys­i­cal claims in phi­los­o­phy, where often the con­clu­sion is extremely unlikely and lit­tle evi­dence can be pro­vided for the premises used in the proofs; and it is rel­e­vant to many other debates, par­tic­u­larly method­olog­i­cal ones.

In syl­lo­gis­tic log­ic, 2 of the sim­plest argu­ment pat­terns used in valid rea­son­ing are the modus ponens and the modus tol­lens. Both modus ponens and modus tol­lens are ‘log­i­cally valid’, as they use uni­ver­sally accepted rules of infer­ence to pro­ceed from given premises to a con­clu­sion, and are equiv­a­lent via a .

Dia­grammed respec­tive­ly, modus ponens:

  1. A
  2. A → B
  3. ∴ B

and modus tol­lens:

  1. A → B
  2. ¬B
  3. ∴ ¬A

These argu­ments are log­i­cally cor­rect, but whether any given argu­ment using a modus is true is an entirely dif­fer­ent ques­tion: an argu­ment could be wrong because it mis­ap­plies the rules of infer­ence (and the con­clu­sion does not actu­ally fol­low), or because the premises them­selves are wrong. (Logic is like pipes: a good set of pipes moves water around with­out let­ting the water within out, or let­ting things with­out in—but it only moves water around, and can­not cre­ate water out of noth­ing.) Cer­tain con­tentions coun­te­nance nei­ther con­tra­dic­tion nor con­vic­tion.1

Given a modus ponens proof of some­thing like the skep­ti­cal claim that there is no exter­nal world (solip­sis­m), one can, rather than sim­ply reject­ing it out of hand while refus­ing to dis­cuss it fur­ther, or attempt­ing to find a flaw in the appli­ca­tion of infer­ence rules which ren­ders the argu­ment a non sequitur (which usu­ally isn’t there2), or strug­gling to find spe­cific strong evi­dence against any of the premises (which can be extremely dif­fi­cult for abstract points), one can instead flip the argu­ment on its head: given that one knows there is an exter­nal world (solip­sism is not true), by modus tol­lens, the skep­ti­cal argu­men­t’s premises about knowl­edge must then be false.3 As a proof is merely truth-p­re­serv­ing machin­ery, it can­not cre­ate out­puts which are more true than its inputs (GIGO); if the out­put is clearly false, then inputs must be false. This response is closely related to the , by putting atten­tion on the whole argu­ment, and it can be con­sid­ered a flaw in uses of proofs by con­tra­dic­tion or the —how does one know the con­clu­sion really is absurd and to reject one of the premises instead of per­haps ? Peo­ple may dis­agree greatly about some­thing being ‘absurd’, and pre­sent­ing an argu­ment might ‘back­fire’.4

The Eco­nomic Argu­ment (XKCD #808): ‘Even­tu­al­ly, argu­ing that these things (re­mote viewing/dowsing/auras/homeopathy/prayer/astrology/tarot/crystal energy/curses) work means argu­ing that mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism isn’t that ruth­lessly prof­it-­fo­cused.’

Prob­a­bly the most famous philoso­pher to use this spe­cific argu­ment, and the rea­son it is called a “Moorean shift”, is ” argu­ment against var­i­ous skep­ti­cal argu­ments (“Proof of an Exter­nal World”/“A Defence of Com­mon Sense”): as WP sum­ma­rizes it,

Moore argues against ide­al­ism and skep­ti­cism toward the exter­nal world on the grounds that skep­tics could not give rea­sons to accept their meta­phys­i­cal premises that were more plau­si­ble to him than the rea­sons he had to accept the com­mon sense claims about our knowl­edge of the world that skep­tics and ide­al­ists must deny. In other words, he is more will­ing to believe that he has a hand than to believe the premises of what he deems “a strange argu­ment in a uni­ver­sity class­room.”

Am Islamic ver­sion goes (, The Sub­lime Trea­sures):

Noth­ing can be soundly under­stood
If day­light itself needs proof.

, con­sid­er­ing the skep­tic deny­ing truth with his argu­ments, asks what would make us believe any argu­ments more than our own senses (William Ellery Leonard trans­la­tion)?

Thou’lt find
That from the senses first hath been cre­ate
Con­cept of truth, nor can the senses be
Rebutted. For cri­te­rion must be found
Wor­thy of greater trust, which shall defeat
Through own author­ity the false by true;
What, then, than these our senses must there be
Wor­thy a greater trust? Shall rea­son, sprung
From some false sense, pre­vail to con­tra­dict
Those sens­es, sprung as rea­son wholly is
From out of the sens­es?—­For lest these be true,
All rea­son also then is fal­si­fied.

described the con­flict of skep­ti­cal argu­ments with “com­mon sense” & bur­dens of proof this way:

Has­n’t com­mon sense been wrong before? Of course. But how do peo­ple show that a com­mon sense view is wrong? By demon­strat­ing a con­flict with other views even more firmly grounded in com­mon sense. The strongest sci­en­tific evi­dence can always be rejected if you’re will­ing to say, “Our senses deceive us” or “Mem­ory is never reli­able” or “All the sci­en­tists have con­spired to trick us.” The only prob­lem with these fool­proof intel­lec­tual defenses is… that… they’re… absurd.

Since every­thing we learn about ‘logic’ or ‘meta­physics’ or ‘neces­sity’ itself derives from expe­ri­ence, it is dif­fi­cult to see how one could ever be more con­fi­dent in the abstract claims and argu­ments which make up a dis­proof of the exter­nal world than in the premise that the exter­nal world exists, or other claims like the Eleatic dis­proofs of time/motion/change. (This has an easy inter­pre­ta­tion, in what one might call Bayesian infor­mal logic, as reflect­ing dif­fer­ent prior prob­a­bil­i­ties in a Bayesian net­work.)

“Moorean shift” is not the most mem­o­rable phrase5, and at some point some­one coined the max­im, “One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tol­lens.”, which is more self­-­ex­plana­tory and has entered wider cir­cu­la­tion.

The maxim ver­sion is use­ful because it reminds us of the ambi­gu­ity of any given argu­ment, and that for pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion, it is not enough to sim­ply pro­duce a log­i­cally valid argu­ment, but we must con­sider to what extent other peo­ple would agree with the premises. This point isn’t always appre­ci­at­ed: when you have 2 con­tra­dict­ing claims or argu­ments, only 1 can be cor­rect but the con­tra­dic­tion does­n’t tell you which one is cor­rect. You need to step out­side the argu­ment and find addi­tional data or per­spec­tives. From :

A para­dox arises when two seem­ingly air­tight argu­ments lead to con­tra­dic­tory con­clu­sion­s—­con­clu­sions that can­not pos­si­bly both be true. It’s sim­i­lar to adding a set of num­bers in a two-di­men­sional array and get­ting dif­fer­ent answers depend­ing on whether you sum up the rows first or the columns. Since the cor­rect total must be the same either way, the dif­fer­ence shows that an error must have been made in at least one of the two sets of cal­cu­la­tions. But it remains to dis­cover at which step (or steps) an erro­neous cal­cu­la­tion occurred in either or both of the run­ning sums. There are two ways to rebut an argu­ment. We might call them ‘coun­ter­ing’ and ‘inval­i­dat­ing’.

  • To counter an argu­ment is to pro­vide another argu­ment that estab­lishes the oppo­site con­clu­sion.
  • To inval­i­date an argu­ment, we show that there is some step in that argu­ment that sim­ply does not fol­low from what pre­cedes it (or we show that the argu­men­t’s premis­es—the ini­tial step­s—are them­selves false).

If an argu­ment starts with true premis­es, and if every step in the argu­ment does fol­low, then the argu­men­t’s con­clu­sion must be true. How­ev­er, inval­i­dat­ing an argu­men­t—i­den­ti­fy­ing an incor­rect step some­where-­does not show that the argu­men­t’s con­clu­sion must be false. Rather, the inval­i­da­tion merely removes that argu­ment itself as a rea­son to think the con­clu­sion true; the con­clu­sion might still be true for other rea­sons. There­fore, to firmly rebut an argu­ment whose con­clu­sion is false, we must both inval­i­date the argu­ment and also present a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment for the oppo­site con­clu­sion.

In the case of a para­dox, inval­i­dat­ing is espe­cially impor­tant. Whichever of the con­tra­dic­tory con­clu­sions is incor­rect, we’ve already got an argu­ment to counter it—that’s what makes the mat­ter a para­dox in the first place! Pil­ing on addi­tional coun­ter­ar­gu­ments may (or may not) lead to help­ful insights, but the coun­ter­ar­gu­ments them­selves can­not suf­fice to resolve the para­dox. What we must also do is inval­i­date the argu­ment for the false con­clu­sion-that is, we must show how that argu­ment con­tains one or more steps that do not fol­low.

Fail­ing to rec­og­nize the need for inval­i­da­tion can lead to frus­trat­ingly cir­cu­lar exchanges between pro­po­nents of the con­flict­ing posi­tions. One side responds to the oth­er’s argu­ment with a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment, think­ing it a suf­fi­cient rebut­tal. The other side responds with a coun­ter-­coun­ter­ar­gu­men­t—per­haps even a rep­e­ti­tion of the orig­i­nal argu­men­t—­think­ing it an ade­quate rebut­tal of the rebut­tal. This cycle may per­sist indef­i­nite­ly. With due atten­tion to the need to inval­i­date as well as coun­ter, we can inter­rupt the cycle and achieve a more pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion.

The dan­ger of the Moorean shift is that it becomes a license for fanati­cism; as (“A Philoso­pher Defends Reli­gion”) describes attempt to save reli­gion from fal­si­fi­ca­tion:

An athe­ist famil­iar with biol­ogy and med­i­cine has no rea­son to believe the bib­li­cal story of the res­ur­rec­tion. But a Chris­t­ian who believes it by faith should not, accord­ing to Planti­nga, be dis­suaded by gen­eral bio­log­i­cal evi­dence. Planti­nga com­pares the dif­fer­ence in jus­ti­fied beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very con­vinc­ing evi­dence, but you know that you did­n’t do it. For you, the imme­di­ate evi­dence of your mem­ory is not defeated by the pub­lic evi­dence against you, even though your mem­ory is not avail­able to oth­ers. Like­wise, the Chris­tian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavail­able to the athe­ist, is not defeated by the sec­u­lar evi­dence against the pos­si­bil­ity of res­ur­rec­tion. Of course some­times con­trary evi­dence may be strong enough to per­suade you that your mem­ory is deceiv­ing you. Some­thing anal­o­gous can occa­sion­ally hap­pen with beliefs based on faith, but it will typ­i­cally take the form, accord­ing to Planti­nga, of a change in inter­pre­ta­tion of what the Bible means. This tra­di­tion of inter­pret­ing scrip­ture in light of sci­en­tific knowl­edge goes back to Augustine, who applied it to the ‘days’ of cre­ation. But Planti­nga even sug­gests in a foot­note that those whose faith includes, as his does not, the con­vic­tion that the bib­li­cal chronol­ogy of cre­ation is to be taken lit­er­ally can for that rea­son regard the evi­dence to the con­trary as sys­tem­at­i­cally mis­lead­ing. One would think that this is a con­se­quence of his epis­te­mo­log­i­cal views that he would hope to avoid.

Nev­er­the­less, this is an impor­tant argu­ment to be famil­iar with, as it is widely used, cor­rect in many cas­es, and is at the core of many method­olog­i­cal dis­cus­sions.



  • a Cre­ation­ist argu­ment against evo­lu­tion runs:

    If a ratio­nal God is not respon­si­ble for human minds, and instead they were cob­bled together by unguided evo­lu­tion­ary process­es, we should not expect them to be trust­wor­thy. Since our minds are gen­er­ally trust­wor­thy, though, the evo­lu­tion­ary world­view must not be cor­rect.

  • on : “the mad dog nat­u­ral­ist: Alex Rosen­berg inter­viewed by Richard Mar­shall”

    3AM: “In the rather heated response to Jerry Fodor’s provo­ca­tions about nat­ural selec­tion your response was one of the few that rec­og­nized that he was onto some­thing. I want to quote you: ’ His modus tol­lens is a biol­o­gist’s and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist’s modus ponens. Assum­ing his argu­ment is valid and the right con­clu­sion is not that Dar­win’s the­ory is mis­taken but that Jer­ry’s and any other non-­Dar­win­ian approach to the mind is wrong. That puts Jerry in good com­pa­ny, of course: Ein­stein’s.’ I don’t know if you’d agree, but it struck me that many of the responses to Fodor’s argu­ment got it wrong about why he was wrong (if he was). Why do you think Fodor wrong but in an inter­est­ing way?”

    Alex Rosenberg: “When Ein­stein devel­oped the objec­tion to quan­tum mechan­ics in the’30s (the EPR thought exper­i­men­t), he had no idea he was actu­ally for­mu­lat­ing the idea of entan­gle­ment and that his objec­tion when tested would vin­di­cate quan­tum mechan­ics 40 or 50 years lat­er. When Fodor argued that nat­ural selec­tion can’t see prop­er­ties, and can’t pro­duce organic sys­tems, for exam­ple brain­s—that respond to, rep­re­sent, reg­is­ter prop­er­ties, he thought he was pro­vid­ing a reduc­tion ad absur­dum of Dar­win­ian the­ory (the way Ein­stein thought he was pro­vid­ing a reduc­tion ad absur­dum of quan­tum the­o­ry.) The con­fir­ma­tion of the­o­rem by D’es­pag­nat’s exper­i­ments turned Ein­stein’s reduc­tio into a modus tol­lens. I believe that Fodor’s attempted reduc­tio of Dar­win­ian the­ory is a modus tol­lens of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al­ist the­o­ries of the mind, the­o­ries that accord to the wet stuff, to neural states what Searle calls orig­i­nal inten­tion­al­i­ty. It’s an argu­ment for about inten­tional con­tent. So Fodor is totally wrong abut Dar­win­ian the­o­ry, but his argu­ment shows that we Dar­wini­ans (and all the physi­cists if I am right that Dar­win’s the­ory is just the 2d law in action among the macro­mol­e­cules) have to go elim­i­na­tivist about the brain.”

  • Derek Parfit, dis­cussing the ques­tion of why the uni­verse exists rather than noth­ing, men­tions of the that:

    Of the range of pos­si­ble ini­tial con­di­tions, fewer than one in a bil­lion bil­lion would have pro­duced a Uni­verse with the com­plex­ity that allows for life. If this claim is true, as I shall here assume, there is some­thing that cries out to be explained. Why was one of this tiny set also the one that actu­ally obtained? On one view, this was a mere coin­ci­dence. That is con­ceiv­able, since coin­ci­dences hap­pen. But this view is hard to believe, since, if it were true, the chance of this coin­ci­dence occur­ring would be below one in a bil­lion bil­lion.

    Oth­ers say: “The Big Bang was fine-­tuned. In cre­at­ing the Uni­verse, God chose to make life pos­si­ble.” Athe­ists may reject this answer, think­ing it improb­a­ble that God exists. But this prob­a­bil­ity can­not be as low as one in a bil­lion bil­lion. So even athe­ists should admit that, of these two answers to our ques­tion, the one that invokes God is more likely to be true. This rea­son­ing revives one of the tra­di­tional argu­ments for belief in God.

    Leav­ing aside the issue of to what extent like­li­hoods of bil­lion bil­lions hap­pen and how many bits of evi­dence it would take, William Flesch sim­ply notes that

    Parfit seems to think that the prob­a­bil­ity that God exists is greater than one in a bil­lion bil­lion, so that the exis­tence of God is more likely to be true than the acci­den­tal exis­tence of a life-­sup­port­ing uni­verse. But his stip­u­la­tion that he’s assum­ing that the claims of cur­rent cos­mol­ogy are true gives the game away. For even if you think that the odds that God exists are greater than one in a bil­lion bil­lion, it’s dizzy­ingly more prob­a­ble that cos­mol­ogy has it wrong. (After all, sim­i­lar sorts of error are not unprece­dented in the his­tory of physic­s.) In fact, Parfit’s argu­ment ought to embar­rass cos­mol­o­gists, not athe­ists. To para­phrase Parfit: cos­mol­o­gists may reject this answer, think­ing it improb­a­ble that their the­ory is wrong. But this prob­a­bil­ity can­not be as low as one in a bil­lion bil­lion. So even cos­mol­o­gists should admit that, of these two answers to our ques­tion, the one that invokes sci­en­tific error is more likely to be true.

  • An exam­ple from math­e­mat­ics by (“Vivid­ness in Math­e­mat­ics and Nar­ra­tive”, in Cir­cles Dis­turbed: The Inter­play of Math­e­mat­ics and Nar­ra­tive), focus­ing on the dif­fer­ing cases of ratio­nal num­bers vs imag­i­nary num­bers:

    …a sug­ges­tion was made that are the math­e­mati­cian’s ver­sion of . I’m not sure I agree with that: when we give a proof by con­tra­dic­tion, we make it very clear that we are dis­cussing a coun­ter­fac­tu­al, so our words are intended to be taken at face val­ue. But per­haps this is not nec­es­sary. Con­sider the fol­low­ing pas­sage.

    There are those who would believe that every poly­no­mial equa­tion with inte­ger coef­fi­cients has a ratio­nal solu­tion, a view that leads to some intrigu­ing new ideas. For exam­ple, take the equa­tion x2 - 2 = 0. Let be a ratio­nal solu­tion. Then , from which it fol­lows that . The high­est power of 2 that divides p2 is obvi­ously an even pow­er, since if 2k is the high­est power of 2 that divides p, then 22_k_ is the high­est power of 2 that divides p2. Sim­i­lar­ly, the high­est power of 2 that divides 2_q_2 is an odd pow­er, since it is greater by 1 than the high­est power that divides q2. Since p2 and 2_q_2 are equal, there must exist a pos­i­tive inte­ger that is both even and odd. Inte­gers with this remark­able prop­erty are quite unlike the inte­gers we are famil­iar with: as such, they are surely wor­thy of fur­ther study.

    I find that it con­veys the irra­tional­ity of √2 rather force­ful­ly. But could math­e­mati­cians afford to use this lit­er­ary device? How would a reader be able to tell the dif­fer­ence in intent between what I have just writ­ten and the fol­low­ing super­fi­cially sim­i­lar pas­sage?

    There are those who would believe that every poly­no­mial equa­tion has a solu­tion, a view that leads to some intrigu­ing new ideas. For exam­ple, take the equa­tion x2 + 1 = 0. Let i be a solu­tion of this equa­tion. Then i2 + 1 = 0, from which it fol­lows that i^2 = −1. We know that i can­not be pos­i­tive, since then i2 would be pos­i­tive. Sim­i­lar­ly, i can­not be neg­a­tive, since i2 would again be pos­i­tive (be­cause the prod­uct of two neg­a­tive num­bers is always pos­i­tive). And i can­not be 0, since 02 = 0. It fol­lows that we have found a num­ber that is not pos­i­tive, not neg­a­tive, and not zero. Num­bers with this remark­able prop­erty are quite unlike the num­bers we are famil­iar with: as such, they are surely wor­thy of fur­ther study.

    Indeed, how would a reader show the dif­fer­ence—why do we apply modus tol­lens when we accept √2 must be irra­tional but then apply modus ponens and accept as being real in some sense? Do we sim­ply appeal to the util­ity of using i, and say with Wittgen­stein, “If a con­tra­dic­tion were now actu­ally found in arith­metic—that would only prove that an arith­metic with such a con­tra­dic­tion in it could ren­der very good ser­vice; and it would be bet­ter for us to mod­ify our con­cept of the cer­tainty required, than to say it would really not yet have been a proper arith­metic.”6

  • if or argu­ments sug­gest that it is moral to give away all one’s money to save many lives, does that refute altru­ism in gen­er­al? What about a rejec­tion of empa­thy?

    For exam­ple, in response to the clas­sic demon­stra­tion of using a dilemma of sav­ing birds from an oil slick, a com­men­ta­tor wrote:

    Scope insen­si­tiv­ity exists, and to avoid the mis­takes caused by it, LWers say to shut up and mul­ti­ply—to take how much you’d do for one instance of what you care about, then mul­ti­ply the expected util­ity even when the con­clu­sion may be coun­ter­in­tu­itive. For exam­ple, if you’d be will­ing to pay $3 to have the oil scrubbed off one nearby salient bird suf­fer­ing from an oil spill, you should be will­ing to pay more to have the oil scrubbed off >1 birds. But why not rea­son in the other direc­tion? Instead of shut­ting up and mul­ti­ply­ing, why not shut up and divide? Sup­pose you’re not will­ing to donate any amount of money to save thou­sands of far­away birds. Then it would be irra­tional for you to pay $3 to have the oil scrubbed off one salient bird. It’s true that it’s irra­tional to both be will­ing to pay $3 to save one bird and not be will­ing to pay the same or more to save more birds. But from that alone, it does­n’t fol­low that you should donate >$3 to save more birds.

    Sim­i­lar­ly, ‘tor­ture vs dust specks’.

  • Peter Van Inwa­gen (“Is It Wrong Every­where, Always, and for Any­one to Believe Any­thing on Insuf­fi­cient Evi­dence?”) argues that it is morally fine to believe in things (like gods) on insuf­fi­cient evi­dence, because if it was­n’t, that would mean that many non-re­li­gious beliefs (with inad­e­quate evi­dence) would be morally wrong as well

  • Spencer Case, “Bear­ing Wit­ness: My Jour­ney Out of Mor­monism”:

    I con­tin­ued to dis­cuss my doubts with my dad and with my new bish­op, Bishop Olson, both of whom admon­ished me to go on a mis­sion. At that point my depar­ture would have been immi­nent. I recall one phone con­ver­sa­tion with Bishop Olson in which he inad­ver­tently nudged me to part ways with the church. He said the fact that I was still in the church hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions with him, seek­ing the truth, was proof that I really did know that it was true. Oth­er­wise, what was the sense in my still going to church? Why would I con­tinue seek­ing? He had a point. He ended the phone call with “See you in church this Sun­day.” I never went back.

  • if it is bad for Kore­ans to kill & eat dogs because dogs can suf­fer and are intel­li­gent, does that mean it’s also bad to kill & eat pigs and many other ani­mals and young human infants?

  • if the exis­tence of God/souls means arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is impos­si­ble, then since arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence increas­ingly looks pos­si­ble, does AI dis­prove gods/souls?

  • if it is imper­mis­si­ble to attempt to make health­ier babies by genetic selec­tion or engi­neer­ing (‘eugen­ics’), is it then imper­mis­si­ble to use vac­ci­na­tion? What about PGD for genetic dis­or­ders, or abor­tion of fetuses with Down’s?

    “If we con­sider inclu­sion and diver­sity to be a mea­sure of soci­etal pro­gress, then IQ screen­ing pro­pos­als are uneth­i­cal,” says Lynn Mur­ray of Don’t Screen Us Out, a group that cam­paigns against pre­na­tal test­ing for Down’s syn­drome. “There must be wide con­sul­ta­tion.”

  • /: Ted Kaczyn­ski made many obser­va­tions about tech­nol­ogy & civ­i­liza­tion that most would agree with, such as the even­tual takeover of Nature (), and con­cluded that as Nature is more valu­able than any­thing else, includ­ing human well-be­ing, technology/civilization must be destroyed, rather than improved or accel­er­ated

  • if, as argues (Quan­tum Com­put­ing since Dem­ocri­tus, “Fun with the Anthropic Prin­ci­ple”), some highly con­tro­ver­sial ver­sions of weird s go poorly with Bayesian sta­tis­tics, does that dis­prove Bayesian sta­tis­tics?

  • , along with , argued (in an anthropic vein) that human­ity must be of recent orig­in, given all the recent inno­va­tions and the lack of recorded his­to­ry, con­sid­er­ing the absurd alter­na­tive

  • slav­ery:

    • Some argu­ments given by et al 1853 in The Pro-Slav­ery Argu­ment are strik­ing when quoted/paraphrased:

      “Females are human and ratio­nal beings. They may be found of bet­ter fac­ul­ties, and bet­ter qual­i­fied to exer­cise polit­i­cal priv­i­leges, and to attain the dis­tinc­tions of soci­ety, than many men; yet who com­plains of the order of soci­ety by which they are excluded from them?” He says we have to func­tion with gen­eral rules that are good for soci­ety even if they vio­late the rights of indi­vid­u­als (i.e., one 18 year old might be capa­ble to hold polit­i­cal office but we still don’t allow 18 year old­s).

      He goes on to list a bunch of ways in which soci­ety already restricts rights and lib­erty (in­clud­ing ani­mals) and why we think that’s fine and why it’s super nec­es­sary, and why are you sud­denly get­ting mad about slav­ery?

      …he weirdly argues against util­i­tar­i­an­ism by say­ing how can you com­pare the plea­sure and suf­fer­ing of a man with cul­ti­vated and nuanced taste to a man with dull and sim­ple taste?

      …“Who but a dri­v­el­ing fanatic has thought of the neces­sity of pro­tect­ing domes­tic ani­mals from the cru­elty of their own­ers? And yet are not great and wan­ton cru­el­ties prac­tised on these ani­mals?”

      …“[whip­ping] would be degrad­ing to a free­man, who had the thoughts and aspi­ra­tions of a free­man. In gen­er­al, it is not degrad­ing to a slave, nor is it felt to be so. The evil is the bod­ily pain. Is it degrad­ing to a child?”

    • was usu­ally employed to jus­tify Amer­i­can slav­ery, point­ing to their docil­i­ty; but phre­nol­o­gist & abo­li­tion­ist argued that phrenol­ogy proved that this proof of docil­ity showed that slav­ery could be abol­ished with­out the repeat of prob­lems like the . (As no “war of exter­mi­na­tion” took place after the Civil War when the slaves were freed, Combe appears to have been cor­rect, if per­haps for the wrong rea­son­s…)

  • is crit­i­cized on the grounds that it is a highly expen­sive way of cre­at­ing another pet cat or dog, while there are many ani­mals that could be adopt­ed; one dog clon­er, Amy Vange­mert offers an inter­est­ing defense of her choice by anal­ogy to human (non) adop­tion:

    She said: “I have had some seri­ous back­lash from peo­ple. A cou­ple of acquain­tances said I was wrong and it was inhu­mane and there were so many dogs out there that need to be adopt­ed. But that’s like telling a mother that she should­n’t have her own child when there are chil­dren out there who need par­ents.”

  • Anto­nio Gar­cía Martínez crit­i­cizes the use of sta­tis­tics in Face­book adver­tis­ing, not­ing that mod­els will inevitably pick up cor­re­lates of var­i­ous sta­tuses like SES or race, and ‘dis­crim­i­nate’ based on this; he fol­lows the logic and notes that, since , the same facts which make Face­book adver­tis­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory will make all other forms of adver­tis­ing dis­crim­i­na­to­ry, such as adver­tis­ing in only one mag­a­zine and not all pos­si­ble mag­a­zi­nes, and hence adver­tis­ing must be even fur­ther banned or reg­u­lat­ed:

    It’s worth not­ing that if this reg­u­la­tory trend becomes well estab­lished and more gen­er­al­ized, it could have impli­ca­tions way beyond Face­book. Con­sider a mag­a­zine adver­tiser who chooses to pub­li­cize senior exec­u­tive posi­tions in male-ori­ented but not in female-ori­ented . Since mag­a­zine pub­lish­ers com­monly flaunt their spe­cific demos in sales pitch decks, it’s easy for adver­tis­ers to seg­ment audi­ences. Is that adver­tiser vio­lat­ing the spirit of the law? I would say so. Should the gov­ern­ment enforce the law as they do with Face­book? Again, I would say so.

  • Is it immoral to train self­-­driv­ing cars on pub­lic roads when (as of 2019) they appear to be only as safe as teenager or geri­atric car dri­vers?

    , who lives in test­ing hotspot Sun­ny­vale, fre­quently sees the cars on the road. He worked on them, too, as part of Google’s self­-­driv­ing car project roughly a decade ago. Most experts in the field say real-­world test­ing is need­ed, he says, some­thing he agrees with. Tem­ple­ton says a small num­ber of crashes are accept­able when con­sid­er­ing the even­tual over­all improved safety when human dri­vers are off the roads. He com­pares it to teenagers learn­ing to dri­ve. “We accept them dri­ving, with very high risk, because it is the only way to turn them into safer mid­dle-aged dri­vers. And all we get out of that is one safer dri­ver,” he said. As autonomous vehi­cles are trained, “we get a mil­lion safer cars from a pro­to­type fleet of hun­dreds.”

    But John Joss, 85, does­n’t think the robot dri­vers are that mature. “They drive like either geri­atrics or 17-year-olds who have very lim­ited expe­ri­ence of dri­ving,” said Joss, a mag­a­zine writer.

  • Reces­sions, sur­pris­ing­ly, ; does that mean reces­sions are good, or that decreases in total mor­tal­ity are bad (and the increase in deaths dur­ing boom times is good)?


  • Noriko: “Wow, you must have a real knack for it!”
  • Kazumi: “That’s not it, Miss Takaya! It takes hard work in order to achieve that.”
  • Noriko: “Hard work? You must have a knack for hard work, then!”7
  • Prob­a­bly the most famous cur­rent exam­ple in sci­ence is the stil­l-­con­tro­ver­sial , where sev­eral premises lead to an exper­i­men­tal­ly-­fal­si­fied con­clu­sion, there­fore, by modus tol­lens, one of the premises is wrong—but which? There is no gen­eral agree­ment on which to reject, :

    • : rejec­tion of the assump­tion of sta­tis­ti­cal inde­pen­dence between choice of mea­sure­ment & mea­sure­ment (ie. the uni­verse con­spires so the exper­i­menter always just hap­pens to pick the ‘right’ thing to mea­sure and gets the right mea­sure­ment)
    • : rejec­tion of assump­tion of local vari­ables, in favor of uni­verse-wide vari­ables (ie. the uni­verse con­spires to link par­ti­cles, no mat­ter how dis­tant, to make the mea­sure­ment come out right)
    • : rejec­tion of the speed of light as a lim­it, allow­ing FTL/superluminal com­mu­ni­ca­tion (ie. the uni­verse con­spires to let two linked par­ti­cles com­mu­ni­cate instan­ta­neously to make the mea­sure­ment come out right)
    • : rejec­tion of there being a sin­gle mea­sure­ment in favor of every pos­si­ble mea­sure­ment (ie. the uni­verse takes every pos­si­ble path, ensur­ing it comes out right)
  • [Stephen Hawk­ing] tested the on 2009-06-28 by throw­ing a party & announc­ing it later; he reported no one else attend­ed.8 Hawk­ing con­cluded that no time trav­el­ers attend­ed, that this was evi­dence for time trav­ellers not exist­ing, and time travel being impos­si­ble (con­sis­tent with ).

    How­ev­er, one could also con­clude that time trav­el­ers do not exist because humans go extinct before invent­ing time trav­el, or that time trav­el­ers did attend the party invis­i­bly, or that they did because Stephen Hawk­ing was a time trav­el­er!

  • ran­dom­ized con­trolled exper­i­ments (RCTs), par­tic­u­larly with blind­ing or pre­reg­is­tra­tion, espe­cially larger repli­ca­tions of small famous cor­re­la­tional results, typ­i­cally turn up much smaller or zero effects in med­i­cine, psy­chol­o­gy, and soci­ol­o­gy; the more rig­or­ous the exper­i­ment, the smaller the effect. The response to this is often to not explain how merely flip­ping a coin can make gen­uine effects dis­ap­pear, but to attack the entire idea of RCTs/replication:

    • Rossi 1987 notes that a com­mon reac­tion in soci­ol­ogy to the fail­ure of many wel­fare or edu­ca­tion pro­grams, which ‘suc­ceeded’ when stud­ied at small scale or using cor­re­la­tional data and then failed when tested with large ran­dom­ized exper­i­ments, is to deny that ran­dom­iza­tion or quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment are valid9

    • the Replication/Reproducibility cri­sis in psy­chol­ogy: Jason Mitchell argues that the inabil­ity of repli­ca­tors to con­firm the ‘stereo­type threat’ effect means that repli­ca­tion does­n’t work (and should­n’t be pub­lished):

      The recent spe­cial issue of Social Psy­chol­o­gy, for exam­ple, fea­tures one paper that suc­cess­fully repro­duced obser­va­tions that Asian women per­form bet­ter on math­e­mat­ics tests when primed to think about their race than when primed to think about their gen­der. A sec­ond paper, fol­low­ing the same method­ol­o­gy, failed to find this effect (Moon & Roed­er, 2014); in fact, the 95% con­fi­dence inter­val does not include the orig­i­nal effect size. These oscil­la­tions should give seri­ous pause to fans of repli­cana. Evi­dent­ly, not all repli­ca­tors can gen­er­ate an effect, even when that effect is known to be reli­able. On what basis should we assume that other failed repli­ca­tions do not suf­fer the same unspec­i­fied prob­lems that beguiled Moon and Reoder? The repli­ca­tion effort plainly suf­fers from a prob­lem of false neg­a­tives.

    • Mina Bis­sell, like­wise crit­i­ciz­ing repli­ca­tion ini­tia­tives because biol­ogy research is so frag­ile that they will not get the same results (Gel­man com­men­tary):

      Many sci­en­tists use epithe­lial cell lines that are exquis­itely sen­si­tive. The slight­est shift in their microen­vi­ron­ment can alter the result­s—­some­thing a new­comer might not spot. It is com­mon for even a sea­soned sci­en­tist to strug­gle with cell lines and cul­ture con­di­tions, and unknow­ingly intro­duce changes that will make it seem that a study can­not be repro­duced. Cells in cul­ture are often immor­tal because they rapidly acquire epi­ge­netic and genetic changes. As such cells divide, any alter­ation in the media or microen­vi­ron­men­t—even if minus­cule—­can trig­ger fur­ther changes that skew results. Here are three exam­ples from my own expe­ri­ence…

    • Trish Green­halgh endorses a ban on RCTs because of the null effects they keep find­ing:

      Here are some intel­lec­tual fal­lac­ies based on the more-re­search-is-needed assump­tion (I am sure read­ers will use the com­ments box to add more exam­ples).

      • Despite dozens of ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als of self­-­ef­fi­cacy train­ing (the ‘expert patient’ inter­ven­tion) in chronic ill­ness, most peo­ple (espe­cially those with low socio-e­co­nomic sta­tus and/or low health lit­er­a­cy) still do not self­-­man­age their con­di­tion effec­tive­ly. There­fore we need more ran­dom­ized tri­als of self­-­ef­fi­cacy train­ing.
      • Despite con­flict­ing inter­pre­ta­tions (based largely on the value attached to ben­e­fits ver­sus those attached to harms) of the numer­ous large, pop­u­la­tion-wide breast can­cer screen­ing stud­ies under­taken to date, we need more large, pop­u­la­tion-wide breast can­cer screen­ing stud­ies.
      • Despite the almost com­plete absence of ‘com­plex inter­ven­tions’ for which a clin­i­cally as well as sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant effect size has been demon­strated and which have proved both trans­fer­able and afford­able in the real world, the ran­dom­ized con­trolled trial of the ‘com­plex inter­ven­tion’ (as defined, for exam­ple, by the UK Med­ical Research Coun­cil [3]) should remain the gold stan­dard when research­ing com­plex psy­cho­log­i­cal, social and orga­ni­za­tional influ­ences on health out­comes.
      • Despite con­sis­tent and repeated evi­dence that elec­tronic patient record sys­tems can be expen­sive, resource-hun­gry, fail­ure-prone and unfit for pur­pose, we need more stud­ies to ‘prove’ what we know to be the case: that replac­ing paper with tech­nol­ogy will inevitably save mon­ey, improve health out­comes, assure safety and empower staff and patients.

      Last year, Rodger Kessler and Russ Glas­gow pub­lished a paper argu­ing for a ten-year mora­to­rium on ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als on the grounds that it was time to think smarter about the kind of research we need and the kind of study designs that are appro­pri­ate for dif­fer­ent kinds of ques­tion.[4]

    • “Build­ing an evi­dence base for IVF ‘add-ons’”, Mack­lon et al 2019, like­wise echoes it:

      Despite these chal­lenges, major and laud­able RCTs address­ing clin­i­cal ques­tions in our field reach pub­li­ca­tion in top jour­nals. How­ev­er, in addi­tion to shar­ing the nec­es­sary major finan­cial and man­power invest­ment to per­form, their clear ten­dency to pro­duce neg­a­tive find­ings means that they are pri­mar­ily serv­ing to remove treat­ment options from the clin­i­cian and their patient. This can of course rep­re­sent an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion. How­ev­er, when such tri­als test empir­i­cal treat­ments (which many IVF ‘add-ons’ are), they risk increas­ing con­fu­sion rather than clar­i­ty.

  • Scan­di­na­vian pop­u­la­tion reg­istry stud­ies, which are able to link life­long gov­ern­ment data on medical/tax/school/employment/military/IQ on the entire pop­u­la­tion of a coun­try to per­form retroac­tive lon­gi­tu­di­nal stud­ies, are some­times crit­i­cized as not being applic­a­ble to other coun­tries; the irony is that the true Scandinavian/American dif­fer­ence on any research ques­tion is likely smaller than the total sys­tem­atic biases + sam­pling error in the non-pop­u­la­tion-reg­istry Amer­i­can stud­ies one would have to use to try to esti­mate what that dif­fer­ence is.

  • dual n-back: on IQ and other ‘far trans­fer’ con­sis­tently find that stud­ies with weak method­ol­ogy like ‘pas­sive’ con­trol groups10 get stronger effects than ‘active’ con­trol groups; does this mean that DNB works?

  • pub­lished an analy­sis of mul­ti­ple exper­i­ments fol­low­ing stan­dard psy­chol­ogy pro­ce­dures & sta­tis­tics demon­strat­ing the exis­tence of ESP/psi; Bem believes this proves psi, but does this prove psi or instead ? (See also Jaynes on ESP.)

    • inci­den­tal­ly, a psi enthu­si­ast states:

      Given para­psy­chol­o­gy’s chronic under­fund­ing (it has been cal­cu­lated that ALL the fund­ing that has ever been received by para­psy­chol­o­gists would fund aca­d­e­mic psy­chol­ogy for ONE mon­th) it is sur­pris­ing the amount that has been learnt so far.

      …Stu­art said: ‘the exper­i­menter’s skep­ti­cal atti­tude meant his psi inter­fered with the psi of the par­tic­i­pants’—it does­n’t take exper­i­menter psi to inter­fere with the sub­jects per­for­mance. Sim­ple exper­i­menter atti­tudes and other sub­tle cues are picked up by the sub­jects and this affects their per­for­mance. Skep­tic Wise­man ran a study with Mar­i­lyn Schlitz inves­ti­gat­ing dis­tant inten­tion. He got noth­ing, she found sig­nif­i­cant evi­dence. Exactly the same set-up. Atti­tudes make a dif­fer­ence, and no spe­cial plead­ing to exper­i­menter psi is required.

      This has long been a stan­dard psi response to the obser­va­tion that psi exper­i­ments get much smaller or nil effects when con­ducted by non-­be­liev­ers: it does­n’t indi­cate prob­lems with the psi exper­i­ments, but rather the skep­tics are unable to mea­sure psi because their very skep­ti­cism emits an anti-psi field destroy­ing psi.

  • helio­cen­trism vs geo­cen­trism: Greek helio­cen­trism famously pre­dicted , which was not observ­able at the time; helio­cen­tris­m’s req­ui­site implied dis­tance to stars was then used as a modus tol­lens.

  • Before the dis­cov­ery of the tim­ing error, the 2011 was an excel­lent place to apply this ‘I defy (that par­tic­u­lar) data’ rea­son­ing, as are such errors in gen­er­al: Steven Kaas puts it nice­ly:

    Accord­ing to [the 2009 blog post] “A New Chal­lenge to Ein­stein”, Gen­eral Rel­a­tiv­ity has been refuted at 98% con­fi­dence. I won­der if it would­n’t be more accu­rate to say that, actu­al­ly, 98% con­fi­dence has been refuted at Gen­eral Rel­a­tiv­i­ty.

  • given the fail­ure of per­son­al­ity GWASes and GCTAs indi­cat­ing near-zero SNP her­i­tabil­i­ty, does a genet­ics paper claim­ing to iden­tify genes pre­dict­ing almost all of per­son­al­ity her­i­tabil­ity using only n~4k merely demon­strate that their method ?11

  • does the mean that much of the pop­u­la­tion was retarded a cen­tury ago (or does that merely prove that the effect is ‘hol­low’)?

    • more specif­i­cal­ly: does the Flynn effect mean that the death penalty has been unjust in exe­cut­ing those we would now con­sider men­tally retard­ed?12
  • on a pos­si­ble cor­re­la­tion between hor­mone and Obama/Romney vote-shares (highly likely to be spu­ri­ous):

    “There is absolutely no rea­son to expect that wom­en’s hor­mones affect how they vote any more than there is a rea­son to sug­gest that vari­a­tions in testos­terone lev­els are respon­si­ble for vari­a­tions in the debate per­for­mances of Obama and Rom­ney,” said Susan Car­roll, pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence and wom­en’s and gen­der stud­ies.

  • Group dif­fer­ences:

    James H. Bor­land, a pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion at Teach­ers Col­lege, said that look­ing at the gifted land­scape in New York City sug­gests that one of two things must be true: either black and His­panic chil­dren are less likely to be gift­ed, or there is some­thing wrong with the way the city selects chil­dren for those pro­grams. “It is well known in the edu­ca­tion com­mu­nity that stan­dard­ized tests advan­tage chil­dren from wealth­ier fam­i­lies and dis­ad­van­tage chil­dren from poorer fam­i­lies,” Dr. Bor­land said…That changed in Sep­tem­ber 2008, when the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion ush­ered in admis­sion based only on a cut­off score on two high­-s­takes tests given in one sit­ting—the Otis-Len­non School Abil­ity Test, or Olsat, and the Bracken School Readi­ness Assess­ment. The over­haul was meant to stan­dard­ize the admis­sions process and make it fair­er. But the new tests decreased diver­si­ty, with chil­dren from the poor­est dis­tricts offered a smaller share of kinder­garten gifted slots after those were intro­duced, while pupils in the wealth­i­est dis­tricts got more.

  • -boost­ing inter­ven­tions:

    And indeed, they’ve got­ten dra­matic results. In one of the best-­known stud­ies, low-per­form­ing black mid­dle school stu­dents who com­pleted sev­eral 15-minute class­room writ­ing exer­cises raised their GPAs by nearly half a point over two years, com­pared with a con­trol group. Such aston­ish­ing results have struck some observer­s—­par­tic­u­larly nonpsy­chol­o­gist­s—as nearly mag­i­cal, and pos­si­bly unbe­liev­able. But a grow­ing body of evi­dence is show­ing that the inter­ven­tions can work, not only among black mid­dle school stu­dents, but also for wom­en, minor­ity col­lege stu­dents and other pop­u­la­tions.

    “When this was first described to me, I was skep­ti­cal,” says physics pro­fes­sor Michael Dub­son, PhD, of the Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado-Boul­der, who worked with psy­chol­o­gists there on a study with women physics stu­dents. “But now that I think about it, we all know that it’s pos­si­ble to dam­age a stu­dent in 15 min­utes. It’s easy to wreck some­one’s self­-es­teem. So if that’s pos­si­ble, then maybe it’s also pos­si­ble to improve it.”

  • if a sur­vey of Mensa self­-re­ported diag­noses indi­cates that high­-IQ indi­vid­u­als are at rel­a­tive risks of phys­i­cal & psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders as high as RR = 223, con­tra­dict­ing almost all pre­vi­ous research, does that indi­cate that research was wrong or that Mensa sur­veys are not use­ful?

  • sup­pos­edly was tested as a child by his school with an IQ score in the 130s; given his accom­plish­ments, this is highly doubt­ful and a closer look at the source of the anec­dote reveals many rea­sons why the score is either false or unre­li­able

  • if an analy­sis claims that there is only a 1 in ten tril­lion chance that William Shake­speare wrote Shake­speare’s plays…

  • if the FDA uses com­pu­ta­tional mod­el­ing of chem­i­cals to argue that a has “high poten­tial for abuse”, a plant which has been used by hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans for decades with­out a known addic­tion epi­demic, does that estab­lish an impend­ing threat to Amer­i­can pub­lic health, or refute their com­pu­ta­tional mod­el­ing?

    And if a mouse model shows some dopamin­er­gic effects of —which has been used by mil­lion of Amer­i­cans over the past 2–3 decades—­does that indi­cate modafinil is at risk of seri­ous drug addict abuse, or ?

  • if Freudian psy­chother­apy works as well as (CBT), does CBT not work? More gen­er­al­ly, if the is true, do any of these psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ments work or are their the­o­ries true?

  • if and a review can be writ­ten propos­ing using it for sports, does that debunk reviews or sug­gest that nico­tine might be use­ful?

  • When Seth Roberts argues that one’s sub­jec­tive mem­o­ries about sleep con­flict with the sleep data recorded by one’s EEG sleep­-­track­ing device, does that con­sti­tute a dis­proof of the Zeo’s accu­ra­cy? No: estab­lish­ing con­tra­dic­tions between one’s memories/subjective impres­sions and the Zeo merely tells us that one (or both) are wrong; it does­n’t tell us that the Zeo is wrong unless you have addi­tional data or argu­ments which say that the Zeo is less reli­able than the mem­o­ries. One could take the Zeo con­tra­dict­ing mem­o­ries as just proof of the fal­li­bil­ity of sleep­-re­lated mem­o­ries (eg Feige et al 2008)13! (The fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of epis­te­mol­o­gy: “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”)

    For exam­ple, if some­one is caught on cam­era sleep­-walk­ing, and denies stren­u­ously that he was sleep­-walk­ing, do you take modus ponens and say his mem­o­ries prove he was not sleep­-walk­ing and reject the cam­era footage; or modus tol­lens and say that the claim his sleep mem­o­ries are reli­able imply he could not have been caught on cam­era, but he was, there­fore we can reject the claim his sleep mem­o­ries imply no walk­ing? But extra­or­di­nary claims require extra­or­di­nary evi­dence, so you choose to take modus tol­len­s—be­cause you have pri­ors which say that mem­o­ries are mal­leable and untrust­wor­thy, while cam­era footage is much harder to fake.

  • model check­ing & uncer­tainty: if a sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis assumes that hav­ing an extremely high IQ is nor­mally dis­trib­uted (rather than a ) and that the impli­ca­tion of a head­count of high IQ types at Har­vard implies that >90% of high IQ peo­ple are fail­ures & dis­crim­i­nated against by soci­ety, does that show that almost every smart per­son is doomed, or that the sta­tis­ti­cal model is incor­rect?

  • if obe­sity and Inter­net use are addic­tive in sim­i­lar ways, should we take Inter­net usage much more seri­ous­ly?

  • Christo­pher Ryan:

    What I’m say­ing is that to argue that our ances­tors were sex­ual omni­vores is no more a crit­i­cism of monogamy than to argue that our ances­tors were dietary omni­vores is a crit­i­cism of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism.

  • if the Civil War wiped out most of the wealth of many rich fam­i­lies, but their chil­dren grad­u­ally recov­ered in SES despite being raised poor with no inher­i­tance, does that show the impor­tance of genet­ics to human cap­i­tal, or that actu­al­ly, all inter­gen­er­a­tional trans­mis­sion is thanks to “the impor­tance of social net­works in facil­i­tat­ing employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties and access to credit”?

  • the exis­tence of stars, when cal­cu­lated his (earn­ing a Nobel fully 48 years lat­er); appar­ently also real­ized the impli­ca­tion, but “con­cluded that quan­tum laws might be invalid for stars heav­ier than 1.5 solar mass.”, while balked at the impli­ca­tions entirely:

    Dr. Chan­drasekhar had got this result before, but he has rubbed it in in his last paper; and, when dis­cussing it with him, I felt dri­ven to the con­clu­sion that this was almost a reduc­tio ad absur­dum of the rel­a­tivis­tic degen­er­acy for­mu­la. Var­i­ous acci­dents may inter­vene to save the star, but I want more pro­tec­tion than that. I think there should be a law of Nature to pre­vent a star from behav­ing in this absurd way!

    If one takes the math­e­mat­i­cal deriva­tion of the rel­a­tivis­tic degen­er­acy for­mula as given in astro­nom­i­cal papers, no fault is to be found. One has to look deeper into its phys­i­cal foun­da­tions, and these are not above sus­pi­cion. The for­mula is based on a com­bi­na­tion of rel­a­tiv­ity mechan­ics and non-rel­a­tiv­ity quan­tum the­o­ry, and I do not regard the off­spring of such a union as born in law­ful wed­lock…

  • is the life span of the old­est per­son to ever live, ,

  • which is more like­ly, that can destroy 95% of a human brain with­out nec­es­sar­ily reduc­ing intel­li­gence & pos­si­bly even increas­ing intel­li­gence in reported cas­es—or that this con­flates brain vol­ume with brain mat­ter, and the hydro­cephalus cases in ques­tion are ?

  • in defend­ing the exis­tence of the Pyg­malion effect, Rosen­thal & Jacob­son 1968 invoke an ear­lier ani­mal exper­i­ment of theirs (done to crit­i­cize ): “If ani­mals become ‘brighter’ when expected to by their exper­i­menters, then it seemed rea­son­able to think that chil­dren might become brighter when expected to by their teach­ers.” How­ev­er, the Pyg­malion effect has been debunked; so, if chil­dren do not become brighter when expected to by their teach­ers, then surely that casts doubt on their claim that the ani­mals became brighter too…?

  • Bio­log­i­cal cells build up waste-prod­ucts like as they age, which they can­not or do not dis­pose of. Chemist Johan Bjork­sten noted of such , to quote Mike Dar­win’s descrip­tion14:

    He had noticed that as organ­isms age, they tend to accu­mu­late insol­uble, often pig­mented mat­ter inside their non-­di­vid­ing cells. Lipo­fus­cin, which accu­mu­lates most promi­nently in brain and car­diac cells, is one such “age pig­ment.”…Bjork­sten deter­mined that this insol­u­ble mate­ri­al, which could occupy as much as 30% to 40% of the vol­ume of non-­di­vid­ing cells in aged ani­mals, con­sisted largely of cross linked mol­e­cules of lipids and pro­teins. So mol­e­c­u­larly cross linked, com­pact and tough was this mate­r­ial that it was com­pletely resis­tant to diges­tion by trypsin and other com­monly avail­able “diges­tive” bio­log­i­cal enzymes.

    This posed a puz­zle for Bjork­sten, because if no liv­ing sys­tems could decom­pose this mate­ri­al, it was so sta­ble that it would nec­es­sar­ily remain as indi­gestible debris after each organ­ism died. Thus, the earth should be cov­ered in such debris by now! Clear­ly, this is not case, and so this implied to Bjork­sten that there must, in fact, be liv­ing organ­isms with spe­cial­ized enzymes capa­ble of break­ing down this mate­ri­al…He set out to find enzymes in nature which could reverse these cross links and thus, he thought, reverse aging.

    This obser­va­tion has been broad­ened to the “micro­bial infal­li­bil­ity hypoth­e­sis” of : “microor­gan­isms will be found to degrade every chem­i­cal sub­stance syn­the­sized by any liv­ing organ­ism.” Later geron­tol­o­gist applied the same rea­son­ing in look­ing for enzymes to break down , specif­i­cal­ly, in 2007 (“Upgrad­ing the Bio­log­i­cal Incin­er­a­tors”, pg121):

    …what was needed was a bio­med­ical super­fund pro­jec­t…There were actual land sites all over the planet that should be very badly con­t­a­m­i­nated by lipo­fus­cin, because their soil has been seeded with the stuff for gen­er­a­tions. I speak, of course, of grave­yards…there was no accu­mu­la­tion of lipo­fus­cin in ceme­ter­ies—and if there was, we cer­tainly ought to be aware of it, because lipo­fus­cin is flu­o­res­cent. Months lat­er, when I was dis­cussing the issue with fel­low Cam­bridge sci­en­tist John Archer, he would put the dis­con­nect suc­cinct­ly: “Why don’t grave­yards glow in the dark?”

    …Sci­en­tists became inter­ested in this phe­nom­e­non in the 1950s, when it was noted that the lev­els of many hard-­to-de­grade pol­lu­tants at con­t­a­m­i­nated sites were present at much lower lev­els than would have been expect­ed. A big part of the expla­na­tion turned out to be the rapid evo­lu­tion of quickly repro­duc­ing organ­isms like bac­te­ria. Any highly ener­gy-rich sub­stance rep­re­sents a poten­tial feast­—and thus, an eco­log­i­cal niche—­for any organ­ism pos­sess­ing the enzymes needed to digest that mate­r­ial and lib­er­ate its stored ener­gy.


  • if the head injury rates for cars and bicy­cles are sim­i­lar (or var­i­ous sports, or for show­ers, or walk­ing, espe­cially in the elder­ly), and one would­n’t wear a hel­met inside a car, should one not wear a bicy­cle hel­met as well?

  • if a soda has the equiv­a­lent of two Cad­bury choco­late eggs of sugar or 6 donuts, per­haps one should feel less guilty about eat­ing candy

  • if ter­ror­ism is less of a mor­tal­ity risk than bath­tub acci­dents, and we spend much more on fight­ing ter­ror­ism than on house­hold acci­dents, should we spend less on ter­ror­ism or more on acci­dent reduc­tion?

  • On Swe­den, Tyler Cowen has said:

    Q: “…And then they look at Canada, or Scan­di­navia, which are less cap­i­tal­ist than the US, and that looks pretty good to them. And so they blame cap­i­tal­ism. Do you think that they’re wrong? Which part of that story is wrong?”

    Tyler Cowen: “Peo­ple do look at Swe­den, but they rarely point out that per capita income in West Vir­ginia right now is about the same as that in Swe­den. The state that’s sup­posed to be our biggest train wreck is about as rich as Swe­den. I’m not say­ing the qual­ity of pub­lic goods is always as high in West Vir­ginia, but I think that fact is not nearly widely enough known.”

  • : are mass bomb threats to Jews in Amer­ica evi­dence of lurk­ing white suprema­cists empow­ered by the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, or merely hoaxes by a socio­pathic Israeli Jew?

  • does Euro­pean immi­gra­tion into Amer­ica and the Native Amer­i­cans imply that Amer­ica should have an Open Bor­ders pol­i­cy?

  • in the ‘social­ist cal­cu­la­tion debate’, that cen­tral­ized plan­ning would incur infea­si­ble com­pu­ta­tional demands; now that both com­put­ers & plan­ning algo­rithms have advanced by many orders of mag­ni­tude, does that mean social­ism is pos­si­ble?

  • On Por­tuguese invest­ments: “Por­tuguese busi­ness lead­ers say that Angolan invest­ments unfairly attract the kind of scrutiny that money from else­where, includ­ing Chi­na, does not.”

  • the visual novel relies on a “treach­ery of images” twist in order to deceive the read­er; one reader praises the writ­ing for being so bad that the reader should be able to deduce this twist from the begin­ning:

    Look­ing at this scene now, it’s pretty amaz­ing that I never fig­ured out that Kinzo was dead from the begin­ning. Every­thing about not being able to meet him directly and Nan­jo’s hedg­ing is so ridicu­lously sus­pi­cious. Ryuk­ishi was prob­a­bly bank­ing on peo­ple using that to fig­ure out that not every scene could be taken lit­er­al­ly.

  • the log­i­cal inver­sion can be used for comedic effect: many Oglaf (NSFW) and SMBC comics in par­tic­u­lar draw on this


Jaynes on ESP

Bayesian , in “Chap­ter 5: Queer uses for prob­a­bil­ity the­ory”, dis­cusses the prob­a­bilis­tic gen­er­al­iza­tion of the rea­son­ing we are engaged in when we choose whether to modus ponens or modus tol­lens, with early ESP exper­i­ments as an exam­ple, point­ing out that from a Bayesian per­spec­tive, all claims are being eval­u­ated in a larger Bayesian-­mod­el-­com­par­i­son con­text where issues like exper­i­menter error or bias are always pos­si­bil­i­ties:

What prob­a­bil­ity would you assign to the hypoth­e­sis that Mr. Smith has per­fect extrasen­sory per­cep­tion (ESP)? He can guess right every time which num­ber you have writ­ten down. To say zero is too dog­mat­ic…We take this man who says he has extrasen­sory per­cep­tion, and we will write down some num­bers from 1 to 10 on a piece of paper and ask him to guess which num­bers we’ve writ­ten down. We’ll take the usual pre­cau­tions to make sure against other ways of find­ing out. If he guesses the first num­ber cor­rect­ly, of course we will all say “you’re a very lucky per­son, but I don’t believe it.” And if he guesses two num­bers cor­rect­ly, we’ll still say “you’re a very lucky per­son, but I don’t believe it.” By the time he’s guessed four num­bers cor­rect­ly—well, I still would­n’t believe it. So my state of belief is cer­tainly lower than −40 db. How many num­bers would he have to guess cor­rectly before you would really seri­ously con­sider the hypoth­e­sis that he has extrasen­sory per­cep­tion? In my own case, I think some­where around 10. My per­sonal state of belief is, there­fore, about −100 db. You could talk me into a ±10 change, and per­haps as much as ±30, but not much more than that.

But on fur­ther thought we see that, although this result is cor­rect, it is far from the whole sto­ry. In fact, if he guessed 1000 num­bers cor­rect­ly, I still would not believe that he has ESP, for an exten­sion of the same rea­son that we noted in Chap­ter 4 when we first encoun­tered the phe­nom­e­non of res­ur­rec­tion of dead hypothe­ses. An hypoth­e­sis A that starts out down at −100 db can hardly ever come to be believed what­ever the data, because there are almost sure to be alter­na­tive hypothe­ses above it, per­haps down at −60 db. Then when we get aston­ish­ing data that might have res­ur­rected A, the alter­na­tives will be res­ur­rected instead. Let us illus­trate this by two famous exam­ples, involv­ing telepa­thy and the .

…on the basis of such a result [as Mrs. Stew­art’s exper­i­men­tal results in _ Mod­ern Exper­i­ments In Telepa­thy_, Soal & Bate­man 1954], ESP researchers would pro­claim a vir­tual cer­tainty that ESP is real. …it hardly mat­ters what these prior prob­a­bil­i­ties are; in the view of an ESP researcher who does not con­sider the prior prob­a­bil­ity par­tic­u­larly small, is so close to unity that its dec­i­mal expres­sion starts with over a hun­dred 9’s. He will then react with anger and dis­may when, in spite of what he con­sid­ers this over­whelm­ing evi­dence, we per­sist in not believ­ing in ESP. Why are we, as he sees it, so per­versely illog­i­cal and unsci­en­tific? The trou­ble is that the above cal­cu­la­tions (5-9) and (5-12) rep­re­sent a very naive appli­ca­tion of prob­a­bil­ity the­o­ry, in that they con­sider only Hp and Hf; and no other hypothe­ses. If we really knew that Hp and Hf were the only pos­si­ble ways the data (or more pre­cise­ly, the observ­able report of the exper­i­ment and data) could be gen­er­at­ed, then the con­clu­sions that fol­low from (5-9) and (5-12) would be per­fectly all right. But in the real world, our intu­ition is tak­ing into account some addi­tional pos­si­bil­i­ties that they ignore.

…When we are deal­ing with some extremely implau­si­ble hypoth­e­sis, recog­ni­tion of a seem­ingly triv­ial alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­ity can make orders of mag­ni­tude dif­fer­ence in the con­clu­sions. Tak­ing note of this, let us show how a more sophis­ti­cated appli­ca­tion of prob­a­bil­ity the­ory explains and jus­ti­fies our intu­itive doubts.

Let Hp, Hf, and Lp, Lf, Pp, Pf be as above; but now we intro­duce some new hypothe­ses about how this report of the exper­i­ment and data might have come about, which will surely be enter­tained by the read­ers of the report even if they are dis­counted by its writ­ers. These new hypothe­ses range all the way from inno­cent pos­si­bil­i­ties such as unin­ten­tional error in the record keep­ing, through friv­o­lous ones (per­haps Mrs. Stew­art was hav­ing fun with those fool­ish peo­ple, with the aid of a lit­tle mir­ror that they did not notice), to less inno­cent pos­si­bil­i­ties such as selec­tion of the data (not report­ing the days when Mrs. Stew­art was not at her best), to delib­er­ate fal­si­fi­ca­tion of the whole exper­i­ment for wholly rep­re­hen­si­ble motives. Let us call them all, sim­ply, “decep­tion”. For our pur­poses it does not mat­ter whether it is we or the researchers who are being deceived, or whether the decep­tion was acci­den­tal or delib­er­ate. Let the decep­tion hypothe­ses have like­li­hoods and prior prob­a­bil­i­ties . There are, per­haps, 100 dif­fer­ent decep­tion hypothe­ses that we could think of and are not too far-fetched to con­sid­er, although a sin­gle one would suf­fice to make our point. In this new log­i­cal envi­ron­ment, what is the pos­te­rior prob­a­bil­ity of the hypoth­e­sis Hf that was sup­ported so over­whelm­ingly before? Prob­a­bil­ity the­ory now tells us: (5-13)

Intro­duc­tion of the decep­tion hypothe­ses has changed the cal­cu­la­tion great­ly; in order for to come any­where near unity it is now nec­es­sary that: (5-14)

From (5-7), is com­pletely neg­li­gi­ble so (5-14) is not greatly dif­fer­ent from: (5-15)

But each of the decep­tion hypothe­ses is, in my judg­ment, more likely than Hf, so there is not the remotest pos­si­bil­ity that inequal­ity (5-15) could ever be sat­is­fied.

There­fore, this kind of exper­i­ment can never con­vince me of the real­ity of Mrs. Stew­art’s ESP; not because I assert dog­mat­i­cally at the start, but because the ver­i­fi­able facts can be accounted for by many alter­na­tive hypothe­ses.

…In­deed, the very evi­dence which the ESPers throw at us to con­vince us, has the oppo­site effect on our state of belief; issu­ing reports of sen­sa­tional data defeats its own pur­pose. For if the prior prob­a­bil­ity of decep­tion is greater than that of ESP, then the more improb­a­ble the alleged data are on the null hypoth­e­sis of no decep­tion and no ESP, the more strongly we are led to believe, not in ESP, but in decep­tion. For this rea­son, the advo­cates of ESP (or any other mar­vel) will never suc­ceed in per­suad­ing sci­en­tists that their phe­nom­e­non is real, until they learn how to elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of decep­tion in the mind of the read­er.

It is inter­est­ing that per­ceived this phe­nom­e­non long ago. His Essai Philosophique sur les prob­a­bil­ités (1819) has a long chap­ter on the , in which he calls atten­tion to “the immense weight of tes­ti­monies nec­es­sary to admit a sus­pen­sion of nat­ural laws”. He notes that those who make recitals of mir­a­cles, “decrease rather than aug­ment the belief which they wish to inspire; for then those recitals ren­der very prob­a­ble the error or the false­hood of their authors. But that which dimin­ishes the belief of edu­cated men often increases that of the une­d­u­cat­ed, always avid for the mar­velous.”

We observe the same phe­nom­e­non at work today, not only in the ESP enthu­si­ast, but in the astrologer, rein­car­na­tion­ist, exor­cist, fun­da­men­tal­ist preacher or cultist of any sort, who attracts a loyal fol­low­ing among the une­d­u­cated by claim­ing all kinds of mir­a­cles; but has zero suc­cess in con­vert­ing edu­cated peo­ple to his teach­ings. Edu­cated peo­ple, taught to believe that a cause-­ef­fect rela­tion requires a phys­i­cal mech­a­nism to bring it about, are scorn­ful of argu­ments which invoke mir­a­cles; but the une­d­u­cated seem actu­ally to pre­fer them. [see also David Hume’s “”]

Slavery and Phrenology

(1788–1858) appears to have made this phreno­log­i­cal argu­ment (that African docil­ity implies abo­li­tion) in 3 places—a mar­ginal note on a let­ter from a pro-slav­ery advo­cate in 1839; his Notes on the United States of Amer­ica, 1841; and his Sys­tem of Phrenol­ogy, 1843:

  1. Cald­well’s long let­ter on the ‘ani­mal organs’ reached Combe in Sep­tem­ber 1839; as repro­duced & sum­ma­rized by Pos­kett 2016:

    It did not mat­ter, as most whites agreed, that Africans pos­sessed infe­rior brains. What mat­tered was whether they could be entrusted with free­dom. Fill­ing the space to the side of Cald­well’s first sheet, Combe com­pared the char­ac­ter of Africans and Native Amer­i­cans. Draw­ing on Cald­well’s own ani­mal com­par­ison, he wrote that Native Amer­i­cans were ‘indomitable, fero­cious sav­ages. They are not tame­able. They are not slaves because they are not tame­able’. With the still rag­ing in Flori­da, this argu­ment appealed directly to south­ern fears of the Native Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion. In con­trast, Combe argued, ‘Africans are mild, docile & intel­li­gent, com­pared with them. They are slaves because they are tame­able’. Here Combe first expressed an idea in note-­form which he would later return to in print. Sto­ries of vio­lent slave rebel­lions in Vir­ginia and Jamaica fuelled white fears of imme­di­ate abo­li­tion through­out the 1830s. Cald­well him­self argued that ‘strife and blood­-shed would soon become the daily occu­pa­tion’ of the free African. Combe responded to these con­cerns, argu­ing that phrenol­ogy in fact showed African char­ac­ter to be essen­tially placid, writ­ing that ‘the qual­i­ties which make them sub­mit to slav­ery are a guar­an­tee that if eman­ci­pated & justly dealt with, they wd [sic] not shed blood’.51 Combe later repeated this argu­ment in the 1840s, first in his Notes on the United States of North Amer­ica and then in the fifth and expanded edi­tion of his Sys­tem of Phrenol­ogy.52 But he first worked it out in the mar­gins of Cald­well’s let­ter.

  2. Notes:

    Mr. Clay regards it as cer­tain, that if slav­ery were abol­ished, a war of exter­mi­na­tion would ensue between the races, which would lead to greater evils than those gen­er­ated by slav­ery. This is the argu­ment of the white man, of the mas­ter, in whose eyes his own losses or suf­fer­ings are pon­der­ous as gold, and those of three mil­lions of Negroes light as a feath­er. Ask the Negroes their opin­ion of the mis­eries of the exist­ing sys­tem and weigh this against the evils antic­i­pated by the Whites from eman­ci­pa­tion, and then strike the bal­ance. Before I had an oppor­tu­nity of study­ing the Negro char­ac­ter and Negro brain, I enter­tained the same opin­ion with Mr. Clay, that a war of exter­mi­na­tion would be the con­se­quence of imme­di­ate free­dom. More accu­rate and exten­sive infor­ma­tion has induced me to change this view. I may here antic­i­pate a state­ment which belongs, in chrono­log­i­cal order, to a more advanced date, name­ly, that I have stud­ied the cra­nia of the North Amer­i­can Indi­ans and of the Negroes in var­i­ous parts of the United States, and also observed their liv­ing heads, and have arrived at the fol­low­ing con­clu­sions. The North Amer­i­can Indi­ans have given bat­tle to the Whites, and per­ished before them, but have never been reduced either to national or to per­sonal servi­tude. The devel­op­ment of the brains shows large organs of Destruc­tive­ness, Secre­tive­ness, Cau­tious­ness, Self­-Es­teem, and Firm­ness, with defi­cient organs of Benev­o­lence, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, and Reflec­tion. This indi­cates a nat­ural char­ac­ter that is proud, cau­tious, cun­ning, cru­el, obsti­nate, vin­dic­tive, and lit­tle capa­ble of reflec­tion or com­bi­na­tion. The brain of the Negro, in gen­eral (for there are great vari­eties among the African race, and indi­vid­ual excep­tions are pretty numer­ous), shows pro­por­tion­ately less Destruc­tive­ness, Cau­tious­ness, Self­-Es­teem, and Firm­ness, and greater Benev­o­lence, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, and Reflec­tion, than the brain of the native Amer­i­can. In short, in the Negro brain the moral and Reflect­ing organs are of larger size, in pro­por­tion to the organs of the ani­mal propen­si­ties now enu­mer­at­ed, than in that of the Indi­an. The Negro is, there­fore, nat­u­rally more sub­mis­sive, docile, intel­li­gent, patient, trust­wor­thy, and sus­cep­ti­ble of kindly emo­tions, and less cru­el, cun­ning, and vin­dic­tive, than the other race.

    These dif­fer­ences in their nat­ural dis­po­si­tions throw some light on the dif­fer­ences of their fates. The Amer­i­can Indian has escaped the degra­da­tion of slav­ery, because he is a wild, vin­dic­tive, cun­ning, untame­able sav­age, too dan­ger­ous to be trusted by the white men in social inter­course with them­selves, and more­over, too obtuse and intractable to be worth coerc­ing into servi­tude. The African has been deprived of free­dom and ren­dered “prop­er­ty,” accord­ing to Mr. Clay’s view, because he is by nature a tame man, sub­mis­sive, affec­tion­ate, intel­li­gent and docile. He is so lit­tle cru­el, cun­ning, fierce, and vin­dic­tive, that the white men can oppress him far beyond the lim­its of Indian endurance, and still trust their lives and prop­erty within his reach; while he is so intel­li­gent that his labor is worth acquir­ing. The native Amer­i­can is free, because he is too dan­ger­ous and too worth­less a being to be valu­able as a slave; the Negro is in bondage, because his native dis­po­si­tions are essen­tially ami­able. The one is like the wolf or the fox, the other like the dog. In both, the brain is infe­rior in size, par­tic­u­larly in the moral and intel­lec­tual regions, to that of the Anglo-Saxon race, and hence the foun­da­tion of the nat­ural supe­ri­or­ity of the lat­ter over both; but my con­vic­tion is, that the very qual­i­ties which ren­der the Negro in slav­ery a safe com­pan­ion to the White, would make him harm­less when free. If he were by nature proud, iras­ci­ble, cun­ning and vin­dic­tive, he would not be a slave; and as he is not so, free­dom will not gen­er­ate these qual­i­ties in his mind; the fears, there­fore, gen­er­ally enter­tained of his com­menc­ing, if eman­ci­pat­ed, a war of exter­mi­na­tion, or for supremacy over the Whites, appear to me to be unfound­ed; unless, after his eman­ci­pa­tion, the Whites should com­mence a war of exter­mi­na­tion against him. The results of have hith­erto borne out these views, and I antic­i­pate that the future will still far­ther con­firm them.

  3. A Sys­tem of Phrenol­ogy, sim­i­lar­ly:

    I have stud­ied the cra­nia and liv­ing heads of North Amer­i­can Indi­ans and of Negroes in var­i­ous parts of the United States, and, after con­sid­er­ing their his­to­ry, I sub­mit the fol­low­ing remarks. The North Amer­i­can Indi­ans have given bat­tle to the Whites, and per­ished before them, but have never been reduced either to national or to per­sonal servi­tude. The devel­op­ment of their brains shews large organs of Destruc­tive­ness, Secre­tive­ness, Cau­tious­ness, Self­-Es­teem, and Firm­ness, with defi­cient organs of Benev­o­lence, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, and Reflec­tion. This indi­cates a nat­ural char­ac­ter that is proud, cau­tious, cun­ning, cru­el, obsti­nate, vin­dic­tive, and lit­tle capa­ble of reflec­tion or com­bi­na­tion. The brain of the Negro, in gen­eral (for there are great vari­eties among the African race, and indi­vid­ual excep­tions are pretty numer­ous), shews pro­por­tion­ately less Destruc­tive­ness, Cau­tious­ness, Self­-Es­teem, and Firm­ness, and greater Benev­o­lence, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, and Reflec­tion, than the brain of the native Amer­i­can. In short, in the Negro brain the moral and reflect­ing organs are of larger size, in pro­por­tion to the organs of the ani­mal propen­si­ties now enu­mer­at­ed, than in that of the Indi­an. The Negro is, there­fore, nat­u­rally more sub­mis­sive, docile, intel­li­gent, patient, trust­wor­thy, and sus­cep­ti­ble of kindly emo­tions, and less cru­el, cun­ning, and vin­dic­tive, than the other race.

    These dif­fer­ences in their nat­ural dis­po­si­tions throw some light on the dif­fer­ences of their fates. The North Amer­i­can Indian has escaped the degra­da­tion of slav­ery, because he is a wild, vin­dic­tive, cun­ning, untame­able sav­age, too dan­ger­ous to be trusted by the white men in social inter­course with them­selves, and, more­over, too obtuse and intractable to be worth coerc­ing into servi­tude. The African has been deprived of free­dom and ren­dered “prop­erty”, because he is by nature a tame man, sub­mis­sive, affec­tion­ate, intel­li­gent, and docile. He is so lit­tle cru­el, cun­ning, fierce, and vin­dic­tive, that the white men can oppress him far beyond the lim­its of Indian endurance, and still trust their lives and prop­erty within his reach; while he is so intel­li­gent, that his labour is worth acquir­ing. The native Amer­i­can is free, because he is too dan­ger­ous and too worth­less a being to be valu­able as a slave: the Negro is in bondage, because his native dis­po­si­tions are essen­tially ami­able. The one is like the wolf or the fox, the other like the dog. In both, the brain is infe­rior in size, par­tic­u­larly in the moral and intel­lec­tual regions, to that of the Anglo-Saxon race, and hence the foun­da­tion of the nat­ural supe­ri­or­ity of the lat­ter over both; but my con­vic­tion is, that the very qual­i­ties which ren­der the Negro in slav­ery a safe com­pan­ion to the White, will make him harm­less when free. If he were by nature proud, iras­ci­ble, cun­ning, and vin­dic­tive, he would not be a slave; and as he is not so, free­dom will not gen­er­ate these qual­i­ties in his mind; the fears, there­fore, gen­er­ally enter­tained of his com­menc­ing, if eman­ci­pat­ed, a war of exter­mi­na­tion, or for supremacy over the Whites, appear to me to be unfound­ed; unless after his eman­ci­pa­tion, the Whites should com­mence a war of exter­mi­na­tion against him. The results of eman­ci­pa­tion in the British West India Islands have hith­erto borne out these views, and I antic­i­pate that the future will still far­ther con­firm them.

  1. If I may be per­mit­ted to try to improve on David Hume’s eval­u­a­tion of Berke­ley’s ide­al­ism (An Enquiry Con­cern­ing Human Under­stand­ing, part 1): “This argu­ment is drawn from Dr. Berke­ley; and indeed most of the writ­ings of that very inge­nious author form the best lessons of skep­ti­cism, which are to be found either among the ancient or mod­ern philoso­phers, Bayle not except­ed. He pro­fess­es, how­ev­er, in his title-­page (and undoubt­edly with great truth) to have com­posed his book against the skep­tics as well as against the athe­ists and free-­thinkers. But that all his argu­ments, though oth­er­wise intend­ed, are, in real­i­ty, merely skep­ti­cal, appears from this, that they admit of no answer and pro­duce no con­vic­tion. Their only effect is to cause that momen­tary amaze­ment and irres­o­lu­tion and con­fu­sion, which is the result of skep­ti­cism.” Or as Mencken puts it: “Meta­physics is almost always an attempt to prove the incred­i­ble by an appeal to the unin­tel­li­gi­ble.” (p238, Minor­ity Report, H. L. Menck­en’s Note­books, 1956) Imag­ine being Neo in The Matrix and hear­ing that the machines use humans as energy sources and object­ing, along with so many of the view­ers, that this is absurd given ther­mo­dy­nam­ics; but where did Neo learn about ther­mo­dy­nam­ics?↩︎

  2. Although in math­e­mat­ics, many proofs have turned out to be incor­rect not because of the premises (which are typ­i­cally axiomatic and dif­fi­cult to say whether or not they are ‘true’), but because of incor­rect infer­ence; this poses a to the total reli­a­bil­ity of any claims based on math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els in addi­tion to the unre­li­a­bil­ity of their empir­i­cal inputs. As says, “One can’t pro­ceed from the infor­mal to the for­mal by for­mal means.”.↩︎

  3. Not that all skep­tics are nec­es­sar­ily upset by this. For exam­ple, aims at under­min­ing ‘dog­ma­tism’ & faith in abstract rea­son­ing, elim­i­nat­ing absurd beliefs to pro­duce .↩︎

  4. Although before con­nect­ing this to the “back­fire effect” in psy­chol­o­gy, one should be aware that the back­fire effect has failed to repli­cate. There are, how­ev­er, sit­u­a­tions in which Bayesian rea­son­ers can draw dia­met­ri­cally dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions from the same obser­va­tion based on their models/priors which can look like a ‘back­fire effect’: eg Bul­lock 2007, Jern et al 2009.↩︎

  5. Appar­ently coined by in his 1979 “The Prob­lem of Evil and Some Vari­eties of Athe­ism”.↩︎

  6. What then would be the point of show­ing a con­tra­dic­tion in arith­metic? Well, it would clar­ify the rea­sons why we use it, per Kripke (pg 66–67, , 1982):

    A skep­ti­cal solu­tion of a philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem begins… by con­ced­ing that the skep­tic’s neg­a­tive asser­tions are unan­swer­able. Nev­er­the­less our ordi­nary prac­tice or belief is jus­ti­fied because—­con­trary appear­ances notwith­stand­ing—it need not require the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion the scep­tic has shown to be unten­able. And much of the value of the scep­ti­cal argu­ment con­sists pre­cisely in the fact that he has shown that an ordi­nary prac­tice, if it is to be defended at all, can­not be defended in a cer­tain way.

  7. , episode 1↩︎

  8. For a sim­i­lar null result from Inter­net-wide tests of future-­knowl­edge, see .↩︎

  9. Rossi 1987 (em­pha­sis added):

    …A pos­si­bil­ity that deserves very seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion is that there is some­thing rad­i­cally wrong with the ways in which we go about con­duct­ing eval­u­a­tions. Indeed, this argu­ment is the foun­da­tion of a revi­sion­ist school of eval­u­a­tion, com­posed of eval­u­a­tors who are intent on call­ing into ques­tion the main body of method­olog­i­cal pro­ce­dures used in eval­u­a­tion research, espe­cially those that empha­size quan­ti­ta­tive and par­tic­u­larly exper­i­men­tal approaches to the esti­ma­tion of net impacts. The revi­sion­ists include such per­sons as Michael Pat­ton (1980) and Ego Guba (1981). Some of the revi­sion­ists are reformed num­ber crunch­ers who have seen the errors of their ways and have been reborn as qual­i­ta­tive researchers. Oth­ers have come from social sci­ence dis­ci­plines in which qual­i­ta­tive ethno­graphic field meth­ods have been dom­i­nant. Although the issue of the appro­pri­ate­ness of social sci­ence method­ol­ogy is an impor­tant one, so far the revi­sion­ist argu­ments fall far short of being fully con­vinc­ing. At the root of the revi­sion­ist argu­ment appears to be that the revi­sion­ists find it dif­fi­cult to accept the find­ings that most social pro­grams, when eval­u­ate for impact assess­ment by rig­or­ous quan­ti­ta­tive eval­u­a­tion pro­ce­dures, fail to reg­is­ter main effects: hence the defects must be in the method of mak­ing the esti­mates. This argu­ment per se is an inter­est­ing one, and deserves atten­tion: all pro­ce­dures need to be con­tin­u­ally re-e­val­u­at­ed. There are some obvi­ous defi­cien­cies in most eval­u­a­tions, some of which are inher­ent in the pro­ce­dures employed. For exam­ple, a pro­gram that is con­stantly chang­ing and evolv­ing can­not ordi­nar­ily be rig­or­ously eval­u­ated since the treat­ment to be eval­u­ate can­not be clearly defined. Such pro­grams either require new eval­u­a­tion pro­ce­dures or should not be eval­u­ated at all…

  10. Con­trol groups who merely do pre/post-tests and don’t oth­er­wise do any­thing; an ‘active’ con­trol group is given an activ­ity to do which is believed to have no par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fit. Active con­trol groups help reduce ‘expectancy’ effects, wherein mem­bers of a pas­sive con­trol don’t try hard as they could on the post-test because they “should­n’t” improve.↩︎

  11. This is a par­tic­u­larly com­mon use of modus tol­lens in statistics/genetics/psychology/machine learn­ing: many results are ‘too good to be true’.↩︎

  12. Bryan Caplan, Book Review: Are We Get­ting Smarter?:

    Other sec­tion­s—­most notably Mr. Fly­n­n’s attack on the death penal­ty—are also tainted by seri­ous left­-wing bias. He is eager to argue that the “com­pe­tent” mur­der­ers of 1960 were “men­tally retarded” by mod­ern stan­dards. You could just as eas­ily con­clude, how­ev­er, that the “men­tally retarded” mur­der­ers of today are “com­pe­tent” by the stan­dards of 1960. Mr. Flynn briefly con­sid­ers this argu­ment, and objects that while IQ has risen, “prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence”—the “abil­ity to live autonomous lives”—has­n’t. If so, the “Flynn effect” has no effect on this debate: Can’t we sim­ply use unad­justed IQ scores as a proxy for prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence?’

  13. That sleep affects con­scious­ness & mem­ory is an uncon­tro­ver­sial claim; eg in the WSJ:

    One lit­tle known aspect of insom­nia is that the seem­ingly sleep­-de­prived often under­es­ti­mate (or over­es­ti­mate) how much shut-­eye they’re get­ting, says Matt Bianchi, direc­tor of the sleep divi­sion at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal in Boston. “They could sleep seven hours in the sleep lab and they would say they did­n’t sleep one min­ute,” says Bianchi, adding that many patients also wake up mul­ti­ple times with­out remem­ber­ing it. That dis­con­nect has sparked numer­ous apps and gad­gets that offer to help peo­ple gauge how much sleep they’re get­ting.

  14. A par­tial Bjork­sten bib­li­og­ra­phy (see also Dean 2014):