Asking Questions Correctly

This news item happened in April of 2018, but since MLK is so connected to this issue and its sad repercussions, I figured it would be better to wait for his “week” rather than do it right away.

Martin Luther King is worth remembering.

Basically, an 8th grade teacher asked the kids to list the “good” aspects of slavery.

And the internets erupted.  Probably justifiably so.

 

Point the First, let’s not judge the teacher, the school, or the textbook they were using.  All of them may be implicated in this, but let it go for the moment.

Point the Second, consider some facts concerning slavery.

  • The southern US used slaves for almost 200 years before Lincoln asked them to stop.
  • These states didn’t invent slavery.  They probably learned all about slaves from two sources:
    • European colonial powers who used them almost everywhere,
    • and from many native sources as well.
  • Slavery has been with humans as long as we know.
    • It was prevalent in Africa during the European invasion,
    • Medieval Europe used it in many forms, even if they didn’t call it by the same name, and
    • Ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians all had it as part of their society.
  • Finally, and most sadly of all, forms of slavery exist to this day.  This can be a whole post in itself, but consider exhibit one: trafficking in young women as prostitutes.

Point the Third, let’s agree that slavery is something that should be studied.  We should study it so that it never becomes part of our civilization again.

We need to understand why it started.  We need to know why it lasted for so, so very long.  We need to figure out who benefited from slavery.  And most importantly of all, we need to be able to prove, once and for all, to everyone living today, why exactly slavery is bad for everyone.

Where do we start?  We have to start somewhere.  And this is where that poor teacher fumbled.  Because in any competitive relationship, some people “win” and some people “lose.”

So this is what our poor teacher should have done.

  • What was it about slavery that caused it to last for so long?
  • What is it that forces people to put up with being slaves?
  • Does any form of slavery exist today?
  • And my favorite, the most basic of them all: What is a good definition of slavery?

Keep in mind, as students of behavior, we shouldn’t call anything “good” or “bad.”  Everything people do is natural, it just is.  At the same time, we should be able to agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of slavery.  Understanding it properly so that it never happens again (or even today) is what we should be doing.

Good luck, and Happy MLK week!

 

FUN Science time

Did you know science could be fun?  Yes, science.

Fun for everyone!

Archimedes did it.  Einstein did it.  Now we can do it, too.

I’m talking about doing a thought experiment.

In fact, not only a thought experiment, but a thought present for YOU.

Let’s make you rich.  Really really rich.

No, not as rich as Gates, or Buffet.  Richer.

Not as rich as Bezos or Zuckerberg.  Richer.

Not even as rich as the entire USA.  Richer.

This is a thought experiment.  We can go where it’s impossible to go.  We can go to the very extremes of possibilities.

YOU

OWN

EVERYTHING.

As of this moment, there is no income, no particle of wealth, absolutely nothing of value that you don’t own.  The queen’s jewels?  Yours.  The queens toilet and toilet paper?  Yours.

That donkey raised from a pup by that Himalayan monk no one has seen for several decades?

Yours.

The question for us behavioral scientists is this.  What happens next?

If economists were any good at what they did, they could answer this.  But they can’t.

In reality, you’re going to spread the wealth.  After all, you’re going to want to eat.  You might even want a companion.  All of that costs something.

People who have “your stuff” might feel that you are far enough away that they don’t have to pay you for it.  That Himalayan monk?  Chances are you’re never going to meet him.  Good luck getting that donkey back.

Of course, the incentive for anyone else to work will be diminished.  But they have to eat as well, so there’s a chance that a shadow economy will emerge, based on bartering and some other items considered valuable.  Your items of course, but how will you know?

Slowly, surely, your own wealth will be spread around, so that some kind of work will begin again.  But how quickly?

The problem is that you also own everyone’s assets.  So even if someone works in a restaurant to feed you and others, you will receive the profits.  Which means, ultimately, you get even richer.

Enough fun.  How about comparing our experiment to today?

Today’s world does have a Gates, Buffet, Bezos and Zuckerberg.  These people do have incredible levels of wealth and income compared to select individuals of the past.

How does this impact the rest of society?  Is it a good thing?

There are those who tell me that rich people are good for the rest of us.  But in the beginning there were no “rich” people.  What does that mean?

It means we need to think about this, more, better, and deeper.  And it means we need to do more thought experiments.

Careful though.  They can be too much fun!

 

Family Measures

When Dad died, some surprising family dynamics emerged.  My youngest brother disowned me, vowing to never return.  My “older” brother (I’m the oldest) was executor, and blocked me from understanding what was going on.

Later on, the older brother gave me a lecture.  He declared our family dysfunctional and decried the ineffectiveness of holding a grudge.  He was diplomatic enough so that I couldn’t be sure who he was accusing, if anyone.  I sat there attempting to be a calming influence given that he had a lot on his shoulders, even though I found his words inconsistent and insulting.

Months later, my younger brother returned to our fair city.  His wife has cancer, and our hospitals are world famous.  We learned they’d come and gone too late to visit or offer support.  But this event did trigger a discussion among our little family about what it means to be a family.

Here’s my take.  More importantly, it’s something that you can measure and record.  It’s one small step towards making all those soft sciences a little bit harder.

Sharing information.  Let’s not worry about what’s true or false, what’s gossip and what’s important.  In a tight-knit family, information is shared quickly.  In today’s age, it can be shared among everyone instantly.  It doesn’t matter if it’s about Mom’s breakfast or sis-in-law is town for chemo.  Who knows what and when, among the family, is very important.  In our case, we found out through a very roundabout non-family member.

Mi casa, su casa.

Many times in the past my older brother came to town, sometimes with his wife, but never notified me, and never stayed with us.  They could have, but generally I didn’t find out that they’d arrived until they’d always booked accommodations.  Yes, we extended an invitation every time.

In the case of the sis-in-law, they also booked rooms.  In fact, their hotel wasn’t too far from us.  In both cases, they could have stayed with us.  The comforts of home, more time to spend with each other, more time to share experiences and give emotional support.

I know of families that always stay with each other, even if they live in trailers.  They can’t stand it for too long, after all they are human.  But they try.

You might argue that it’s a money thing, or a culture thing.  You’re partially right.  But you can ignore those factors and look at the willingness of people to be together, to be close.

My older brother lectured me that families are comprised of people who are different.  That’s a given, everyone is different.

What defines a family is the willingness of “different” people to be together, argue politely together, and support each other.

Measuring how fast they share information, how closely they spend their limited time together when able, how open their homes are to each other, that’s a great measure of family integrity.

My extended family scores fairly low, but our nuclear family is tight.

How about yours?

 

Space isn’t big enough for Philosophers

The easiest academic job is in mathematics.  If you’re lucky enough to land a tenured job in that ivory tower in math, your life will be filled with joy.  At that point you’re required to be creative, and the work you do is measured by an absolute standard that everyone in your discipline understands.  There is no ambiguity, there is no room for personality or psychology.  If your work is published, then you can contributed.  Congratulations.

The further we look, the more galaxies we find.Not so for other types of academics.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are supposed disciplines of Philosophy and Economics.  In these, almost nothing that is published can be considered as improving the human condition.  It’s rare enough that a small group of them agree with definitions or methods, but impossible for the entire community to agree on anything.

Example: Go to any symposium filled with some large number of economists or philosophers, and see if they can even agree as to when coffee hour should be called, or where the next meeting is held.  And then hold your breath.

The implications for space colonization should be clear.  If there is ever going to be a virtual ivory tower built on the moon, the first line of academics must be in mathematics and the HARD sciences.  Results count, at every stage.  Slackers are NOT welcome.

Philosophy and Economics, on the other hand, must STAY OUT.  Until those academics learn how to communicate using common language, simple concepts, and consistent definitions, there’s no need for the confusion they would sow.

Ask a philosopher what his discipline means for the world, and prepare to sleep.  The correct answer is that they “think about thinking.”

Don’t even bother asking the economist, even for fun.  It can get ugly.

So the next time you watch a space show, be on the lookout for any academics in the cast.  If they teach philosophy or economics, you’ll know you’re watching a fantasy show that’s light on science.

 

 

Bad Sex

Alright guys, another article that’s not what you think.

This is inspired by a woman named Germaine Greer.  What she says is thought provoking.  And since I like provoking thoughts, I’m going to repeat her words.

Rape is bad sex.

She’s written a book about it, but the summary is simple.  Lets stop treating rape as a hugely incredibly terrible event that puts ALL the responsibility upon the victim instead of the perpetrator.  Instead of having this ridiculous standard of proof, lets lower that standard, and lower the penalty.  You raped someone?  Pay the fine.  Make it a big fine.

Was there injury involved?  Then the fine is increased.

Did she say no?  Or was she incapacitated on her own?  Then even more fine.

Did YOU incapacitate her?  Increase the fine yet again.

Get the picture?  It’s like a speeding ticket.  Break it down into its respective components and penalize each of them.  Faster justice.  More impact upon the perps.  Easier to prove.

Are these thoughts controversial?   Oh yes.

Is there a right and a wrong here?  Absolutely not.

I’m not a proponent of following them.  However, I’m a big fan of discussing them.  Unless we start tackling all of our social problems head on in rational manners, we’re not going to be going anywhere.  If anything, we are slipping backwards.

So, consider the words, ponder the thoughts, and think through what we’re trying to achieve as a society.  There has to be a solution in there, somewhere.

Or else…

 

Waves and Particles

Ever hear the story about the blind naturalists and the elephant?

If you haven’t, check it out.  Nice lesson in how only seeing a part of the picture is nowhere near as interesting as seeing the whole picture.  Makes sense.

Fast forward to this century.  Physicists have a problem.  A big problem.  It all starts with  phenomena like lightning or superconductors.  In order to understand these things, physicists like to think of the charges making lightning work as “particles.”

Meanwhile, there are other phenomena like sticky molecules (van der Waals forces) and tunneling.  And in order to understand THESE things physicists think of the charges as “waves.”

Making it even more complicated are some experiments that show the same charges can be BOTH things at the same time.  In a double-slit demonstration, these charges can act like waves, until the very instant YOU try to measure something.  At which point the charges act like particles.

That’s not even the weirdest part.  The weirdest part is the fact that these charges KNOW you are measuring them.

What does this have to do with our blind naturalists?

They had names for each part they measured, but not the whole thing.  They couldn’t.  But in their discussions, they could only focus on what they knew.  “It’s a rope!” “Nope, it’s a trunk!” “Bunk, it’s a flappy leaf!”

If they came up with a new name, it would start them on the process of realizing their new “thing” consisted of all those elements.

The same is true with our physicists.  The electron, the photon, perhaps even quarks are not particles, they are not waves.  We could call them, fordims.

A new word, a new understanding.  Fordims are something new, something very different.  They can act particle-like, but are not particles.  They can act wave-like, but are not waves.  They can occupy the same (3 dimensional) space, but not the same higher dimensions.

This may sound trite, even silly, but sometimes it takes a silly step in a new direction to find the correct path.  Many many smart people have been working on this problem for over a century, without luck.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time to call this “rope-trunk-leaf-bone-tongue-wall” but a new name.

After all, it is the elephant in the room.

 

Killing Assumptions: Billionaires Create Jobs

A friend wants me to read his favorite book, part of a series that has to do with “Killing” the character of both people and countries.  This one is entitled Killing England.

I’m not looking forward to reading it, because the supposed writer (probably a true background writer) isn’t known for rigor.  I’ll review it here, soon enough.  But it got me to thinking.  We should focus on killing other things besides someone’s character.

For instance, we should reveal “economics” for what it truly is, economombo.  Mumbo jumbo.  Statements and constructs that are invalid, irrelevant, and counter-productive to society and science.

Let’s start with something very simple.  It’s a statement I’ve heard many times, even repeated by my Aunt as a fundamental truth.  And she’s as far from being an academic as you can imagine.  Here it is:

Billionaires create jobs.

Her logic follows this path.  A billionaire buys a business or industry.  The value goes up.  Everyone gets richer.  Therefore all the employees and shareholders are better off.  Profits go up.  So there’s more investment, and this creates new businesses, new industries, and therefore … MORE JOBS.

First off, why would my aunt say something like this to begin with?  I may have observed that some billionaire was trying to consolidate an industry (there are many examples, here’s one), and she retorted with her statement, essentially justifying why government shouldn’t stand in the way.

Of course, she’s forgetting why anti-trust laws were put into place way back when.  She’s also very enamored of wealth in general, even though she doesn’t personally benefit.  But let’s focus on her stated assumption.

First of all, the “value” of a company is usually given in terms of the market value.  In theory, the people trading stocks do so perfectly, only looking at the long term profitability of the company.  In reality, there are a lot of people trying to make money on stocks, willing to sell them if they need the money.  So the stock market value is a good measure of people’s willingness to bet on something.

Secondly, just because the value goes up doesn’t mean there are more jobs.  In fact, one of the reasons a company’s stock price goes up is because they eliminated jobs.  This is particularly easy when you consolidate an industry.  If you buy four companies, each of which has a president, an accounting department, R&D, and a factory floor, how can you save money?  Eliminate 3 presidents, 3 accounting departments, all four R&D departments, and think about consolidating those 4 factories into less space.

Third, what about that billionaire’s willingness to take on new investment?  Certainly that creates jobs.  Except for one small thing.  Billionaires are famously averse to risk.  They like betting their billions on sure things.  That’s why they buy companies, and don’t invest in R&D.  That’s one of the reasons they stay billionaires.

Next time you meet an economist, see what she says.  And have fun.

 

Husband

We all are.

I’ve always wondered about this word.

No, not always.  Only since I’ve been married.

Before I was married, I thought the “man of the house” called the shots and made all the decisions.  The “little woman” would take care of him, the kids, and listen attentively.

Then I got married.

Before marriage, “husband” meant the person taking care of the house and wife.  Similarly, the shepherd is the one who herds sheep; but we also say that the shepherd “husbands” the sheep.

In much the same way, back when the word was invented, the husband was the one who took care of and nurtured the household.  This definition goes way back, like 5,000 years back.

After marriage, I learned three things.  First, women are smart.  Really smart.  Like smarter than me smart.

Second, I was lucky to marry someone smart and sensitive and patient, so she waited for me to figure out numbers one and three.

Third, letting her make most of the decisions makes my life much easier.

Which brings us back to husband.  The idea of it being the person taking care of the house and the bonds within it didn’t mean only men back then.  But the English decided to mess with it, and replaced the word “wer” (the person married to the “wife”) with “husband.”

I’m fairly sure that the highly caste-oriented English meant the word to mean that the man was the master.  But in today’s environment, I’m not so sure.

So, what does it mean today?  Is the man, the “husband,” the master of the house?  Or does the word mean that he is the one that the wife has to take care of, the one to be “husbanded?”

 

Ivory Tower Easy Street

Why does anyone want to get a PhD?

It’s TONS of hard work.  Usually means NO social life until your mid 30s.  Your ONLY friends are similar masochists who are NOT competing with you in your field.

Finally, IF you manage to get through the feudal slave system called graduate work, and are “awarded” your higher degree of philosophy, are your dreams realized?

NO.

The nightmare begins.

No matter what the discipline, you must now scamper for funding, for post-doc work, for anything related to your dream, your passion.

Yes, it’s why you started this crazy process back when you were SO YOUNG.  You dreamed.  You had a passion.  A passion for learning.  A passion for a subject.

WHY?

For a select few, the highest of the high, the luckiest of the luck, they land some form of academic job.  Not just any academic job, but a “tenured” job.  Of course, publishing and researching to the point of making tenure is yet another stressful round.  But once they make that benchmark, that holy grail, that nirvana, what does that academic do?

They can (mostly) relax.

And that’s the vision misleading our young, passionate, intensely curious dreamer who strives for the PhD.

And of all the PhD in academia, who has it the easiest?

Go ahead and guess.  I’ll wait.

…….

Mathematicians.

You never would have guessed, would you?

Of all the academic professions, mathematicians are allowed to operate in the realm of pure creativity.  No, not the creativity of oil paints or clay.  Not even the creativity of “post-reconstructionist-logical-positivism” or “economic drivers in the mid-level artificial carbon credit markets.”  No, their creativity is pure, and focused.

For in math, there is no ambiguity, there are no loopholes in logic or proofs that are allowed, as in every other possible profession.  In this sense, it makes things harder because you can’t get by merely by the force of your personality.  Mostly.

Your papers might take years before they are approved.  Or rejected.  And the only thing worse than having your enemies find a flaw in your work (and they will) is having your FRIENDS find them first.

But the work you do, the progress you make, and how you contribute to the sum total of knowledge that is Science will be solid.  That is something very difficult to do in any of the hard sciences, much harder in the biological sciences, and virtually impossible in ANY of the social “sciences.”

In sum, if you’re a dreamer who loves learning and wants to make a difference, but also wants to live on easy street the rest of your life, then math is your path.  Yes, it’ll be hard, and you will leave many bodies behind as you prove yourself, but that’s life.

But in the end, isn’t that much better than getting a PhD in, well, ANYTHING else?

Good luck!

 

E Pluribus Unum

Out of many, one.

The antics in the White House press room have angered many.

The ejection of CNN’s Jim Acosta has become a lawsuit, one that CNN will most likely win.

But let’s learn something from this.

No matter which side you take, it’s easy to agree that there is one speaker, and many reporters.

When a reporter asks a hard question, and receives an answer that many deem insufficient, what happens?

The speaker moves to another reporter.

Divide and Conquer.

The hard questions never get answered.  The statements are never fully challenged.  The slowly unfolding tragedy that is politics in the USA continues.

United we Stand.  Divided we Fall.

Consider this, those of you in the briefing room.

Choose.  Choose to stand as one.  Or choose to be a mass of competing voices, each of whom goes away unsatisfied, and used.

Choose a single member to become your spokesperson.  Choose them to represent all of you, to ask your questions (submitted beforehand), and to not allow the President or his shills to divide you.

Choose to stand away from the limelight and televised publicity, so that all of us can stand for what is most important.

Choose truth.  Choose dignity.  Choose honor.

Remember.

Choosing not to choose, is also a choice.

Please, choose wisely.  For all of us.