Noise: dinosaurs, syphilis, and all that

Back in the 90s, I spend a fair amount of time reading books about the Cretaceous extinction, including several by paleontologists arguing that the Alvarez impact hypothesis was a snare and a delusion, people like Charles Officer, Gerta Keller, and Dewey McLean. More recently, Donald Prothero, in After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals.

Generally speaking, I thought the paleontologists were a waste of space: innumerate, ignorant about evolution, and simply not very smart.

None of them seemed to understand that a sharp, short unpleasant event is better at causing a mass extinction, since it doesn’t give flora and fauna time to adapt.

Most seemed to think that gradual change caused by slow geological and erosion forces was ‘natural’, while extraterrestrial impact was not. But if you look at the Moon, or Mars, or the Kirkwood gaps in the asteroids, or think about the KAM theorem, it is apparent that Newtonian dynamics implies that orbits will be perturbed, and that sometimes there will be catastrophic cosmic collisions. Newtonian dynamics is as ‘natural’ as it gets: paleontologists not studying it in school and not having much math hardly makes it ‘unnatural’.

One of the more interesting general errors was not understanding how to to deal with noise – incorrect observations. There’s a lot of noise in the paleontological record. Dinosaur bones can be eroded and redeposited well after their life times – well after the extinction of all dinosaurs. The fossil record is patchy: if a species is rare, it can easily look as if it went extinct well before it actually did. This means that the data we have is never going to agree with a perfectly correct hypothesis – because some of the data is always wrong. Particularly true if the hypothesis is specific and falsifiable. If your hypothesis is vague and imprecise – not even wrong – it isn’t nearly as susceptible to noise. As far as I can tell, a lot of paleontologists [ along with everyone in the social sciences] think of of unfalsifiability as a strength.

There were lots of examples. In his book, Donald Prothero argued that the rudistid clams – the main reef builders in the Cretaceous – had gradually declined and finally disappeared a half million years before the K-T extinction: but that was noise. When people looked harder, they found that those rudistid clams were around until the Earth got walloped. He did this a bunch: every error or missing piece of data was evidence against the Alvarez hypothesis.

People do the same thing with conspiracy theories. X is impossible, so the standard account must be an elaborate lie, or at least wrong. You construct a chronology of the crime and prove that you [Edgar Smith] couldn’t have (quite) gotten from here to there and strangled the girl in the time available. Of course the time accounts contains errors – real life accounts usually do – and the author of Brief Against Death was, shall we say, motivated. Not motivated enough to avoid another kidnapping and attempted murder upon his release, though.

When people argued that the Black Death couldn’t really have been caused by Yersinia pestis – their models suggested that it spread too rapidly in rural areas to have that cause – well, they were relying on models built of sand. We’ve dug up bodies from mass graves in London and sequenced the pathogen DNA – Y. pestis, all right. When people claimed to have seen the marks of prebirth exposure to syphilis in skeletons carbon-dated to a bit before Columbus [ruling out a New World origin], they didn’t realize that those skeletons came from a fishing community, and that fish often incorporate carbon from upwelling deep water, carbon that’s been hanging out downstairs for 20,000 years: pretty low in C-14. But the idea was silly from the beginning: syphilis spreads like wildfire: coming from America could explain why it never spread over the Old World before 1494.

There are cases in which a single ‘fact’ can sink a theory, for example when you violate a conservation law, but you have to think hard and, usually, check it several times. it needs to be a situation that we understand well enough to say what’s impossible, or close to – fairly common in physics, not so common in most other situations.

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When things changed

Once upon a time, I was arguing with some libertarians, who assuring me that it was impossible to stop people from toking (for example), even if we made sure that they could only obtain the ingredients by crawling over the Himalayas after they had been covered with broken glass. At the same time they were quite sure that you could move mountains via medium-sized changes in the marginal tax rate.

But… I’m pretty sure that in my home town, the fraction taking anything interesting other than alcohol was zero in 1955, 1944, 1925, 1900, 1850… With the possible exceptions of some guys taking opiates after the Civil War because their stump hurt. Many people back-project: they’re sure that any vice common today had to be just as common back in the days of yore. Yet they’re wrong.

In the same way, I have seen people saying that probably there was lots more false paternity back when people were poorer and less educated, say in 1890. Yet we know from Y-chromosome studies that did not happen.

Sometimes things change. As far as drugs other than alcohol, people didn’t use them much [recreationally] for most of the history of the Western world. Of course some hadn’t been invented, but from every bit of evidence I have, the Greeks and the Romans, the Elizabethans and the Founders and Victorians – just didn’t spend much time getting baked. Drunk, sure.

In 1964, there was an inflection point for this and many other things.

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All the time I hear some public figure saying that if we ban or allow X, then logically we have to ban or allow Y, even though there are obvious practical reasons for X and obvious practical reasons against Y.

No, we don’t.

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College as signaling – exceptin’ always Steam

Some economists [like Bryan Caplan] are now arguing that the benefits of college are almost entirely signaling – showing that you can learn and how much crap you can swallow – rather than conferring knowledge that makes you better at doing something people would pay you for. Ideally, something genuinely useful.

This cannot be entirely true, at least if you consider education in the broadest sense. Once upon a time nobody knew how to build a decent steam engine. After James Watt developed one, other people learned about it at some point in their lives – maybe not in college, but somewhere. Acquiring that knowledge increased their human capital.

But it’s mostly true. If you look at college majors, it is easy to see most college instruction is not very useful. 21% business majors, 10% social sciences and history, 7% educational majors, 6% psych majors, 5% in visual and performing arts, 5% in “communication, journalism, and related programs”, 3% English and literature – well over half at first cut. When I looked at a more detailed breakdown, I had a hard time arguing that the useful fraction was as high as 20%. Even when someone studies a subject that is potentially useful, there’s a significant probability that they’ll end up doing something entirely different. And then there’s forgetting – I don’t think most people retain much of what they studied in school, unless they use it in their work or happen to find a subject fascinating.

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National Achievement Scholarship Program

For many years, The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) has given a test aimed at black students, the National Achievement Scholarship Program, originally called the the National Achievement Scholarship program for Outstanding Negro Students. It was a lower-standard version of the National Merit scholarship program, created because few blacks qualified for the National Merit scholarships. You could have defined other groups that were under-represented in National Merit scholarships, but they probably weren’t as numerous or as important a voting block. And racial favoritism was in vogue then, although not in the way it is today.

The program ended last fall: I didn’t notice it at the time because I was under the weather. You might guess that it’s because blacks have caught up and are now winning the ordinary National Merit Scholarships in rough proportion to their numbers, but that’s not the case. The NMSC is replacing it with a program that aids students that graduate from historically black colleges and universities – money that will help them pay off college loans or finance graduate study.

This strikes me as an odd decision. It can’t be that the administrators of the program have renounced racial favoritism in favor of fairness to individuals and utility maximization: we know that decision would be accompanied by one hundred million angels singing, which has not yet occurred. Generally, everyone expects every affirmative action program to last forever, or at least until this country destroys itself.

I wonder if they dropped the program because too many people were gaming it. There was never any test of blackness: as far as I know, anyone could claim it. I remember urging my little brother to check that box many years ago – [He didn’t and won anyhow]. So for all I know people named Magnusson were applying for and winning it, or perhaps the First Born of Mars. Maybe too many Nigerian immigrants were receiving it, probably after promising the administrators ten million dollars….

I guess that they figure that nobody would be crazy enough to attend Grambling or Howard in search of this money, so the new program should avoid the gaming.

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Gout and Nootropics

Important drugs have often originated in some sort of ‘traditional medicine” – witch doctors and such. Even Western medicine, the most baroque and useless of ‘traditional medicines”, has occasionally yielded a useful therapies. But maybe we should look at traditional diseases, too. What if some disorder had a beneficial side effect – say, was some kind of mental stimulant?

Many people have had the impression that gout had such an effect. It seems to have a special fondness for men of consequence. Alexander the Great apparently had it. “So did Ben Jonson, Talleyrand, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Henry Fielding, Edward Gibbon, Thomas Gray, Stendhal, Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Johnson, the Pitts (father and son), William Congreve, Francis Bacon, William Harvey, Lord Tennyson, Walter Savage Landor, Charles Darwin, General Winfield Scott, Guy de Maupasssant, and John Barrymore.” And Benjamin Franklin. Havelock Ellis, in A Study of British Genius, said “There is … a pathological condition that occurs so often, in such extreme forms, in men of such preeminent intellectual ability, that it is impossible not to regard it as having a real association with such ability.”

Of course they could all be wrong. But maybe someone should take a look…

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Dead Presidents

That time again: time to contribute. You can send funds via Paypal, by check (to me or to West Hunter Incorporated if you’re after deductibility).

You can also send bitcoins, to 1Jv4cu1wETM5Xs9unjKbDbCrRF2mrjWXr5.

Many people enjoyed my podcast interview with James Miller. If there is enough interest and enthusiasm, I could do more. Thinking of a regular version of this, presumably called “Pod People”.

There are rivals for my time and affections: if one makes the right offer, there might not be much left for you. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Still aiming at the Kwisatz Haderach, nootropics, and resisting the current tide of crazy.

If you know of other people that might enjoy this blog, pass it on. Especially if they are sustaining injuries from rolling around in a vault full of doubloons and triploons: I’d be glad to help.

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