William Stuntz died in 2011, before this book could be published. Since then, the high rates of incarceration & crime for which he indicts our criminal justice policy continued to decline (there was a brief uptick attributed to “the Ferguson effect”, but it’s gone back down since then). Many of the fundamental defects he points to remain though, and as with Mark Kleiman’s “When Brute Force Fails” it suggests that we could have much less of both. (more…)

The sub-title of Jim Manzi’s “Uncontrolled” is “The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society”, but multiple passages of the book actually consists of caution how small such payoffs can be. The sociologist Peter Rossi formulated the “Iron Law of Evaluation“: The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero. Manzi’s background is in consulting for business rather than social policy, but the same logic applies in that there are abundant ideas undertaken because they sounded good when an evaluation would show them to have little effect. Manzi phrases things differently: he says questions of human behavior are plagued by high “causal density“, in contrast to the simplicity of questions in physics which can be controlled in a lab. Mencius Moldbug would claim this is why one must then rely on “wisdom” rather than the “cargo cult science” found in academia, but I find Manzi more persuasive. Reality is one and our methods of obtaining knowledge can work in other fields, even if it is more difficult (as Manzi phrases it: “The experimental revolution is like a huge wave that has lost power as it moved uphill through topics of increasing complexity and holism”). This book isn’t an in-depth introduction to epistemology & the philosophy of science, but it does provide a bit of an intro so a layman can understand that such issues exist. (more…)

Agnostic has a post up in which he uses the GSS to look into some stats on gun-ownership, which inspired me to do the same to investigate some questions he might be interested in. The variables are OWNGUN and MARRIED, with SEX as the control variable. (more…)

There’s an unfinished draft of a post I last updated in 2010 intended to be a review of Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”. Reading Mark Koyama today made it concrete that I’m certainly never going to bother converting the notes I wrote into something coherent or checking the book out again to revisit anything, since I can just link to others. A book by a certain Irish farmer/economist is another story since it’s obscure enough I still feel some sense of obligation and probably won’t find anything worth just linking to instead. Pseudoerasmus might be the best person to link to, but he’s more occupied critiquing Polanyi’s descendants.

I don’t normally review fiction on this blog, but Starship Troopers is enough of a “novel of ideas” that this seemed the best venue to discuss it. Set aside all the scifi trappings, and the core of the book can be found in a later speech he gave which is sometimes reprinted under the title “The Pragmatics of Patriotism“. Because that speech was made much later when civilian-military relations were at a different point, the tone was more defensive, whereas a book published in the 50s might share Hans Morgenthau’s sense that WW2 vindicated cynical “realism” about the persistence of war over idealist pacifism. I noted when reviewing Morgenthau that the modern world actually does bear a lot of resemblance to that hoped for by idealists. Perhaps some kind of small military on the part of an economically dominant first-world will always be necessary to prevent anyone else from fulfilling a power-vacuum, but war between states (whether due to “dirt theory” or something else) seems to be on decline. (more…)

Jared Diamond framed “Guns, Germs & Steel” around “Yali’s question”: why “cargo” came from the West and not places like New Guinea. In response Diamond is only able to make an argument about Eurasia vs the rest of the world, but Eurasia is the largest landmass and has the highest population. In “After Tamerlane” John Darwin (who brings up GG&S at the end in comparison) talks about the divergence of western Europe from the rest of Eurasia, already home to civilizations in the near & far east. As the title suggests, he begins around 1405, when (he argues) there were few indications that western Europeans would soon explode outward and politically dominate most of the world. He doesn’t give any simple answer, and there’s a sense in which his whole approach is to go against that by de-emphasizing any sense of historical inevitability which can come with hindsight. This could be frustrating for those who want a simple thesis rather than history as “one damned thing after another” (even if these things all accumulate to a known endpoint before dissipating), but if you’re not an expert on all of Eurasian history over that stretch of centuries, you will probably find it enlightening. It’s organized by chronology, with each chapter going over a certain period of time, each time bouncing around various parts of Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, China & Japan, which can get a little repetitive.

I’ve previously blogged Broadberry’s critique of Acemoglu & Johnson’s “Why Nations Fail”. The discussion at Greg Cochran’s review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs & Steel” got me googling, which is how I found this more formal writeup from Broadberry.

I was planning on reading this years ago, but it was in too much demand for the local library system to have many available copies, and my reading habits drastically dropped after I stalled on blogging about one book. Perhaps over that time I continued reading enough of the “heuristics & biases” literature that too much of it was already familiar. Or worse: I came in knowing that the “replication crisis” had already devastated much of the priming literature which Kahneman declares we “have no choice” but to believe. (more…)

Cochran’s post is here, the direct link is here although this file may be more listenable.

Since I highlighted the last time, it only seems right to do so again. Greg’s post is open for comment here, the direct link is here, and an annotation of the interview for those who don’t feel like listening for 2+ hours is here.

Just as Greg looked askance at one of my favorite bloggers (Robin Hanson) last time, he delivers a similar verdict on Scott Alexander this time, and by extension all of Less Wrong. Speaking of which, the Chicago Less Wrong meetup group (which I intermittently attend) is inviting the 100 or so Slate Star Codex readers in the city who wanted a meetup. It will be on the University of Chicago campus, on the assumption that anyone who might be interested already lives in Hyde Park. And you don’t need to respond by bringing up Schelling Points, I know.

Other people have spent plenty of time on it. I don’t have any particular expertise, as I disliked both major presidential candidates and couldn’t be enthusiastic about either winning and didn’t invest much time on the subject prior to the election. But I was predicting (along with the polls, prediction markets and many people who’ve been accurate in the past) that Clinton would win, and I’ve even made multiple bets on the subject. Here is one I made online, which I unsuccessfully attempted to replicate. So I was wrong about this election and his odds in the primary, although I could without any dishonesty excuse some of that by noting that it was very close (Trump seems like he still lost the popular vote) and it could have gone the other way with a slight fluctuation, so one shouldn’t update too drastically either way (Scott Alexander wrote that shortly before the election, further back I was considering linking to this from him on Trump rather than giving my own thoughts). Now that my poor track record of prediction has been established, feel free to discount my further prediction that he will be a run-of-the-mill bad president more along the lines of George W Bush than Nixon (the latter being more interested in governing after a long career of struggle in politics without being able to rely as much on a famous name). This will be exacerbated by unified government, which I had been worried about happening in Dem form. His supporters who had high hopes in him will be disappointed, as Trump himself has less interest in many of their goals than they do, and many will require the cooperation of people who will not be forthcoming with it. Coordination is hard, as Robin Hanson likes to say. That’s enough from me, and I hope to not have to talk about politics for a while.

UPDATE: I recommend both Scott Alexander’s followup, and Matthew Yglesias on one of the angles Scott would regard as neglected. Hat-tip for both from Tyler Cowen.

Earlier this month James Miller interviewed Greg Cochran, but I only listened to it recently. James reports that the full interview was about 6 hours long, but he edited it down to about a third of that. Greg makes frequent digs about the foolishness of smart people today, including economists, a class which Miller is a member.

Among those economists he would consider fools is Robin Hanson, who recently had a diavlog with sociologist* James Hughes on the predictions in Robin’s book “Age of Em”. In response to James’ critique, Robin justifies his approach to futurism here.
*Even more foolish than economists, perhaps somewhere near today’s cultural anthropologists who voted against anthropology calling itself a science. Not that Greg would consider sociology a science if any of them voted to do so.

Years ago I griped about the unavailability of this member of Mencius Moldbug’s canon. It was published shortly after copyright started to become serious business and had not yet had its “public domain day”. However, I found it is now hosted at archive.org. I have not yet read any of it, nor am I really all that eager to.

Years back I criticized Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, specifically on the subjects of Greenland and Easter Island, and gave an update when new evidence on Greenland supported my critique. I had less criticism for his take on Haiti (or the other places discussed in the final section of the book). The more recent the history, the less we have to rely on Diamond’s often implausible speculation. But now it appears that by relying on the conventional wisdom, Diamond also exaggerated the environmental plight of Haiti. Hat-tip to Marginal Revolution.

I’ve talked a little about the hierarchy of the sciences and what kinds of evidence are convincing. Greg is an actual scientist who has worked in both “hard” and “soft” fields. I’ve copied the following from here:
Obviously not. Jefferson said ‘error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.’ Milton said ‘who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? ‘ – but I’ve seen it put to the worse time and time again.

Jefferson and Milton were both wrong. Or, more exactly, they were in the ball park when talking about certain kinds of people working certain sorts of problems, but not in general. The truth game works best if your errors can be rapidly and unambiguously detected, as in mathematics. People who like to bullshit don’t even go into math: they’ll never get away with it.

Helps if the topics don’t inherently invoke lots of emotion: ultimately easier to think straight about electrons than than people, even though we’re pre-adapted to understanding people. And to be fair, electron behavior is simpler. One equation to rule them all. Also having strong practical applications is good at sorting out the bullshit: you can argue that there’s really a place for cavalry in modern warfare, but it’s hard to continue to do so after the machine guns have spoken, especially if you’re dead. And, for various reasons, certain cultures, in certain times and places, have been more inclined in this direction that the general run of humanity.

So, why isn’t sociology science? There is no logical reason why it couldn’t be – but it’s not. Reasons? several. Experiments are harder than in chemistry:bullshitters aren’t immediately flushed. And the topics rouse emotions. So most of the people who enter the field aren’t inclined to play the science game, and they don’t. Which is the problem with social psychology: the sort of people who go into it aren’t budding Hari Seldons, and there is no way to change them. (or is there? Brain surgery? electroshock?) Naxalt? Sure, but there aren’t enough. The field as a whole is unsound.

How could you fix the unscientific sciences? You would have to control entry, screen admission, so that only people who liked – needed!- to play the game could enter. Not just brains – people with the sort of personalities you find in astronomers or physicists – maybe even exaggerated versions of such personalities, since the temptations to go off the rails are so much greater in the social sciences. That for starters.

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