Good Stuff, and Bad

  • Charles Stross is doing an “IamA” on Reddit right now.
  • Vincent Ostrom died. (Am I wrong to find this kind of quick death following the loss of a spouse and co-researcher seriously romantic? Probably, but there it is.)
  • Children bully an elderly bus monitor. The internet responds with $650,000 in donations. Also, many plot elaborate revenge fantasies for the bullies. Everyone always learns the wrong lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Study: we always think it means that other people are horrible. We ignore the possibility that we might be horrible, too, given the right circumstances. I can’t help thinking that all pubescent boys and girls are potentially sociopathic for the simple reason that their brains are not yet fully formed. We’d all likely do the same thing if nature turned off our capacity for empathy and then society placed us in a setting where peers led us to believe that we should bully or be bullied.
  • There’s a fascinating debate brewing on group selection. Here’s one take, from Steven Pinker. I love the “simple model needlessly complicated” putdown Pinker has, but the conceptual argument is much less important than the empirical one. If his last section is right, there’s no EVIDENCE of real genetic imperatives to sacrifice, only reciprocal cooperation (and rule-following punishment) when reputation matters, except in hive species. That seems to settle the matter. As West et al. note:
  1. “No group selection model has ever been constructed where the same result cannot be found with kin selection theory”.
  2. “The group selection approach has proved to be less useful than the kin selection approach.”
  3. “The application of group selection theory has led to much confusion and time wasting.” It is, as the authors say, “easy to misapply, leading to incorrect statements about how natural selection operates,” it is “not distinct from kin selection”, and it “often leads to the confusing redefinition of terms and the use of confusing jargon.”

The master narrative of High Liberalism is mistaken factually.  Externalities do not imply that a government can do better.  Publicity does better than inspectors in restraining the alleged desire of businesspeople to poison their customers.  Efficiency is not the chief merit of a market economy: innovation is.  Rules arose in merchant courts and Quakers fixed prices long before governments started enforcing them.

I know such replies will be met with indignation.  But think it possible you may be mistaken, and that merely because an historical or economic premise is embedded in front page stories in the New York Times does not make them sound as social science.  It seems to me that a political philosophy based on fairy tales about what happened in history or what humans are like is going to be less than useless.  It is going to be mischievous.


Second Opinions