Saturday, January 28, 2017

I Am Puzzled

My son was watching some scientific videos on YouTube when he came across a story on climate change. As a skeptic, I told him why I believe the theory is flawed, though I did tell him it is probably best not to argue the point with teachers, since skeptics tend to get labelled as "anti-science deniers", and I also urged him to look at the science and decide for himself, though I would be happy to help him evaluate various arguments.

However, this particular video, though adopting a (mostly) objective tone -- excepting a few claims about the current cabinet being filled with "anti-science deniers" and oil executives* -- puzzled me with one claim. Among various figures -- invariably the most extreme examples possible -- there was a claim that CO2 levels had risen 450 ppm in the last century. Now, as far as I know, CO2 generally hovers around the 350-450 ppm level more or less (I may be going too far one either end, actually, but it usually falls in that range). So, if this claim is correct, at the start of the First World War there was no atmospheric CO2?

This is a bit baffling, as I seem to recall trees existing in the period, not to mention that without CO2, the temperature of Earth would likely be slightly below freezing, which I think they would have noticed. I know there was a very cold period in the 19th century, but I did not think it was quite that cold, not to mention that I think someone might have noticed the lack of vegetation.

Obviously, the person making this video simply has no idea of what he speaks, and picked up a number either from someone equally ignorant, or copied a number incorrectly. But that points out a problem not just with YouTube, but with popular science reporting as well. They simply parrot numbers and claims without any evaluation. 97% of scientists, 7 inches of sea rise, x degrees in the past century and so on... They do not bother checking if the numbers even make sense. They have such faith in their beliefs they simply parrot them. And, sadly, many readers and listeners just accept them. No mention of all the skeptics who had argued against these theories, the many petitions signed by equally large numbers of scientists, and the many problems trying to make these models match reality. No discussion of the secretiveness about how the "hockey stick" was generated, or that it omits the Medieval Warm Period or Little Ice Age. No mention of the earlier panic over global cooling. Or the many who pretend that panic never happened.

Until we get some better reporting, I am afraid real debate over AGW will not exist and we will simply have this foolish close minded situation where any skeptic is dismissed as anti-science.


One thing I never quite figured out. Historically, CO2 drops during ice ages, and rises afterward, however, overall, each ice age seems to generally deplete CO2 somewhat. That is why some few scientists argue we need to increase CO2, as the next ice age could drop levels below that needed for vegetation. But, ignoring that, what I cannot figure out is that, historically, CO2 has been very much higher, as high as 2200 ppm in the Ordovician. Yet the globe did not boil over as many AGW models predict at MUCH lower concentrations. How do AGW proponents explain the lack of global meltdown in thee past eras?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Risk and Freedom

I just heard my governor is thinking of passing a law limiting prescriptions of opiate drugs to only one week of medicine. Since I suffer from chronic nerve damage and depend on opiates to be able to work and raise my son, this harms me directly. Even now I need to go to my doctor every two months, since the feds are not fond of longer prescriptions, but if this law passes, I will likely be unable to work, since my job is not letting me take off part of a day every week to see my doctor. In short, a nominally Republican governor, in the name of "stopping drugs"1 is forcing me to become "disabled" when I could lead a normal life if only I had normal access to medication. Nor is it even achieving what it sets out to do, as I could take $10 or $20 and find opiates in Baltimore, or even Annapolis, within an hour or less. So all it does is inconvenience the ill, while doing nothing to stop drug use2.

I have often discussed the drug laws under which doctors operate with friends, and find it a terrible policy. Until I found my current doctor, I often found myself in pain because stopping my pain would take "too much medicine", or forced to go through withdrawal when a doctor decided he had prescribed too much and cut off my medication. (In two years I underwent withdrawal three times.) All this because the federal government does not trust doctors' judgment and worries some people may either get "too many" drugs or get drugs they "do not need". Well, let us think about this. We have two choices. We can allow people in pain to get medication that alleviates that suffering, or maybe even allow people to function who are currently called disabled, but would have to accept that maybe some people would get drugs that are not strictly necessary, and maybe even a few people who have no pain might get pain killers. The alternative is to try to stop people from getting drugs they don't "need" (by whatever definition3), but as a consequence, people in pain will be inconvenienced by frequent doctor visits, and many will either get too little pain relief or maybe get none4.

This argument points out one troublesome aspect of true liberty, akin to the one I discussed in "The Right to Be Wrong -- An Uncomfortable Argument". Freedom often mean accepting things that you may not like. And just as freedom means accepting people may say things you don't like, run businesses in discriminatory ways, and so on, freedom also means accepting risk. And that goes contrary to our modern philosophy. Just look at the argument about drugs. We would rather make sick people suffer with too little relief than run the risk that people may get drugs we find unacceptable. We cannot live with the risk people may behave in unacceptable ways.

But it is not just behavior. Risk is very real as well. Our current government is, at its heart, risk averse. We pass law after law based upon the worry that some problem may occur. All our laws are intended to change the world to make life "safe", to make it "fair" to ensure none suffer any hardships. Why do so many call it a "nanny state"? Simple, because it seems more and more our state is willing to curtail our freedoms out of fear that we might suffer some hardship, physical, financial or emotional. And not just content to protect us, the law goes even farther, trying to channel our behavior into "proper" behavior out of fear that we might make a "wrong" choice, or be led into "improper" behavior.

We need to eliminate this belief. Government cannot prevent all hardship, nor can it make life free of risk. All it can do is eliminate opportunities and reduce overall happiness. Freedom, true freedom, means accepting that life may bring hardships, and others may suffer as well. If you worry about risk, in a truly free state, you will prepare for it yourself, you will not force others to live by your level of risk aversion, and cut off their choices to match the fear you feel. Freedom means allowing others to run risks, and preparing personally for the threats you might face. Freedom means risk, and others acting in ways we may not like, but it also means opportunities, and the ability to behave as we wish, whether others like it or not.

And that is what we need to understand. When we strive for elimination of risk, "fairness" and "right" behavior, it means we lose our liberty, we eliminate our ability to choose and little by little allow ourselves to be enslaved, and we still do not gain the supposed benefits. It is a process of selling off our freedom to gain nothing but illusory benefits.


1. He also has an emotional appeal, as he lost a family member to drug overdose. However, that is a poor guide for policy. I thought conservatives were led by reason, not emotion. Yes, it is sad that people suffer tragedies, but that does not mean government is the tool to prevent those incidents. Trying to make life perfect via government is a prescription for misery and totalitarianism. ("Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights", "The Road to Violence", "The War of All Against All", "In Loco Parentis", Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Arbitrary Choices")

2. I admit up from, I believe in decriminalizing drugs. For that matter I believe in eliminating the prescription drug system, and allowing free purchase of medicine. (See "Drug Legalization", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "Guns and Drugs", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "Guns and Drugs", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Guns and Drugs", "Nonsensical Regulation", "The Free Market Solution", Medical Regulations" and "Medical Regulation II")

3. I am not sure exactly what "need" means, as it is a meaningless word. If a stressed person gets valium from a psychiatrist it is valid and "needed", if he does it himself, or uses an illegal depressant,  he does not "need" it. And exactly how much pain relief is "needed"? Can the government tell how much pain I have or how well a drug suppresses it? Even doctors admit they cannot, but a bureaucrat making a singular rule for all can? For that matter, if an individual gets benefit from recreational drugs, who is to say he does not "need" them? By that definition, your books, your television, your church and anything beyond bread and water could be made illegal, as you don't "need" it. People decide what is or is not beneficial for them, "value" is subjective, just because one says drugs have no benefit does not mean some do not find benefit in them. ("Rationality, Drug Use and Laws", "Luxury and Necessity", "Putting My Cards on the Table", "Arbitrary Choices", "Addicts?", "Standing By My Principles", "Who Does it Harm?", "It Doesn't Matter to ME...")

4. Once, when forced to go through withdrawal while suffering horrific pain, I tried to change doctors. The doctor I saw, being a pillar of compassion told me I was a "drug seeker", and scolded me for "going through withdrawal" (which I told him was the case). The fact that I had discolored hands and feet, medical history of nerve damage and other documentation (though at the time no diagnosis, as it took doctors six years to figure it out -- cf "Morbus non Gratus"). That is the sort of behavior the current system favors, judgmental doctors denying treatment (and often insulting -- it happened more than once) to those in pain for fear of being prosecuted.


UPDATE (Later the Same Day): I am not sure if the initial description I heard of the law is entirely accurate or not. I am getting multiple, conflicting descriptions. On the other hand, since people who require pain killers are routinely treated as potential criminals and "guilty until proven innocent" of moral turpitude, I am inclined to always expect the worst when it comes to drug laws. You would not think to call a diabetic who came in to ask for insulin a "drug seeker", but those of us who need pain killers cannot actually ask for them or risk being called the same. We have to routinely pretend we do not want drugs we need, try over and over to substitute other drugs that often fail to work (I have had to try over a dozen drugs that had horrible side effects, did not relieve my pain, and sometimes had to do it more than once for the same drug), and accept doses far below what we need, waiting two or three visits before hinting obliquely that our continued excruciating pain might demand a tiny increase. If we treated, say, heart medications the way we treat painkillers, we would have people dying left and right of coronaries as they waited to suggest to the doctor that maybe that erratic heartbeat might suggest they need a little more medicine. But since pain does not kill, only disables, and our prohibitionism history and war on drugs demand over the top hostility to any opiate, those suffering from pain must continue to suffer lest someone,somewhere may receive some illicit pleasure from opiates.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Grammar Nazi Comment of the Day (Cliche Nazi?)

I am surprised to realize that I failed to cover one of my favorite malformed cliches. I have covered a number  in past posts ("I could care less", "it takes two to tangle", "mix and mash") but I failed to cover what is likely the most common mistake, "free reign".

I suppose, superficially, this almost makes sense. After all, "reign" involves rulership and control, and thus "free reign" would seem to suggest unlimited power, but on a deeper level it really does not. After all, reign already incorporates the concept of power and rulership, and thus "free" is an unnecessary modifier.

No, the cliche does not come from the concept of rulership, but rather from horse riding.To give a horse "free rein" is to stop directing its motions, and allow it its own head, let it lead where it will. And that is the analogy being made here. To give someone "free rein" is akin to allowing a horse to direct itself, and thus it is properly spelled "rein" not "reign".

Sorry, not as amusing as most of my rants about cliches and misused words, but one I felt I had to mention.


My past grammar and spelling nazi posts can be read at "Off-Topic: How Many Dimensions Should a Character Have?","I Don't Know What to Say", "Sex and Gender","The Most Unnecessary Neologism", "Biggest Spelling Nazi Laugh of the Day", "Quick Grammar Nazi Note", "Return of the Grammar Nazi: Faux Latin Plurals", "Always Something Worse", "Crimes Against Language and Logic", "Try and Listen to the Grammar Nazi", "A Brief Visit From the Grammar Nazi", "Beyond Grammar and Spelling", "The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas", "Ye Olde Grammar Nazi", "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time", "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards", "Short Grammar Nazi Post" and "The Spelling Nazi Begs to Differ".


It is hardly worthy of a post of its own, but I have noticed another spelling mistake that has appeared a few times. It is a silly misspelling, but it differs enough from the pronunciation, I wonder how it ever came into use. This is the spelling "luckluster" for "lackluster"/"lacklustre". It is hardly as common as "rediculous", but it is one to watch, as I have seen it appear a few times.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Difference Between Biased and Lying

Though it hurts to say this, I am afraid conservatives, even those deeply opposed to Trump and all he stands for (whatever that might be at the moment), had a hand in providing Trump with one of his favorite all purpose excuses, and the one most popular among his followers*. It is an excuse which, logically, should only work in a few select circumstances, and yet I have seen it used to deny factual reports from neutral parties, court records, decades old newspaper accounts and even Trump's own words. And that excuse, the all powerful mantra which insulates him against all blame is "biased media". And, sadly, it seems to me that many conservatives helped to create this multipurpose excuse for him.

It is not unusual when visiting conservative sites to see any number of comments critical of "the MSM", calling it "biased"** and dismissing it entirely, even going so far as to refuse to credit factual reports if they appeared on CNN or NBC or one of the other "mainstream media" sources, and this attitude, common as it is, feeds into Trump's narrative and helps him and his more cultish followers to dismiss almost any allegations about him.

There are many problems with this behavior. It may arise from a legitimate complaint, but it takes that complaint, and from a pair of mistaken ideas, distorts it terribly, creating Trump's all purpose excuse.

The truth is, yes there is media bias -- I would even argue some amount of bias is unavoidable*** -- and for many media outlets that bias does tend to the left. There are a handful that have a right leaning bias, but by and large, the interpretation given to events for most events, at least that seen by much of the public at large, tends to be left leaning. However, that simple fact is a far, far different one than the claims made by Trump.

First, we need to realize there is a tremendous difference between biased interpretation,or even bias in which events one chooses to report, and actual lies. The media may sometimes fail to report certain events, or may slant the interpretation they give events, but that is nothing like fabricating a story. The bias displayed by media is of the former form, while Trump -- and sadly many current conservatives -- tend to claim it is of the latter.

The second mistake explains why. While the right loves to speak of "the MSM", there is no single "media", there are a host of competing media outlets, without any single controller or singular goal. Thus, were a media outlet to fabricate a story -- such as happened during the Texas National Guard story and others -- as soon as the fabrication became evident, other outlets would report it as such to gain advantage. There is no single media, no single source of "biased news", and thus, thanks to competition there is no way for "the media" to push lies. It is conspiracy theory type thinking to imagine some single monolithic "media" is making up stories.

And yet, unfortunately, many conservatives have adopted such an attitude. Thanks to the "us vs them"perspective fostered by the idea of a "biased media" out to "get" conservatives, they have managed to jump from individual outlets with predominantly liberal editorial staffs imparting a liberal spin to stories to the idea that some single "MSM" is putting out outright lies in some conspiracy to destroy conservatives. And that distortion of the truth has allowed Trump to claim that everything from his bankruptcies to his actual recorded statements are just "biased reporting" and can be safely ignored.

Thus, much as it pains me to say it, I am afraid we conservatives, by pushing this tale of "biased media" and allowing others to exaggerate it into the idea of "lying media" have set the stage for Trump's victory.


* Perhaps second favorite, as they still seem inordinately fond of excusing any action by Trump using the excuse "But imagine what Hillary would have done."

** I admit at times I have said the media is biased as well, but I like to think I never completely dismissed media reports and kept in mind the limits I am about to list.

*** Newspapers tend to be a little more open about this than broadcast media, but both tend to keep up the myth of unbiased reporting. This is relatively new, and limited to the US (and perhaps beginning to appear in a few other lands). At one time we were quite comfortable accepting that editorial policy biased reporting, even of straight news, but in recent times the myth of unbiased reporting has taken hold, and so we have the pretense that editorial policy is limited exclusively to the opinion pages and has no effect on what is reported elsewhere or how it is reports. See "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", "The Best Remedy to Media Bias", "Some Thoughts on the Media", "The Press Versus the Nation", "The Death of Impartial Media", "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting", "The Failure of Peer Review", "Intellect and Politics", "The Path of Least Resistance" and "The Rebirth of Skepticism".

Welcome to National Socialism

I know all about Godwin's law ("Sick of Godwin's Law") and the like, but I cannot help saying it, as it is true, Trump is inaugurating national socialism, and the GOP is following along. Of course, this is not precisely a surprise. Within the GOP "big tent" there has always been a nationalist element ("The Problem With the Big Tent", "Why We Have RINOs"), and even mainstream conservative have some nationalist elements in their immigration polices and some in their anti-Islam rhetoric ("No More Double Standards") Nor is the GOP uniformly opposed to big government and socialism. Social conservatives have often promoted big government solutions to social problems, and the mainstream GOP has often followed along as the Democrats pushed big government, so maybe it was inevitable the GOP would eventually become the party of national socialism, but it is still disappointing.

Of course, for some, this seems natural. Those who believe in the absurd political spectrum we were taught in school ("The Political Spectrum") see conservatism as a step on the way to national socialism, and so see this move as natural, just like the Democrats becoming close to communism. But the truth is, socialism, or big government authoritarianism of any sort, is not unavoidable, and certainly is not the anchor at either end of some political spectrum. There are other positions, and at one time the GOP was (in name, at least) endorsing one of them, being for free trade, small government and federalism.

But that is now done.

And thus, for those of us who believe in small government, individual liberty, free trade and localized power, there remains no party. Even the third parties supposedly calling for freedom have their issues (cf "Why I am not a Libertarian"). I keep hoping one day a new party will arise which will represent my beliefs, but for now we are left with a two party system where national socialism vies with international socialism.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Were We Too Loyal?

Today, while discussing an unrelated topic, I think I may have discovered at least part of the reason the GOP was willing to essentially ignore the conservatives in this recent election.

I was discussing racial politics on a news and commentary site,  and returned to an old, familiar theme. Discussing black voters, I argued that they did themselves terrible political harm. By voting reliably as a block, with relatively immutable and uniform beliefs, they allowed Democrats to ignore them, to treat them as "safe votes", and only periodically need to throw them a bone to convince them they were important. In short, by being such loyal voters, they reduce their political influence.

At which point it struck me, conservatives were doing the same thing prior to this election.

When the Trump campaign said it did not need conservative votes, and the GOP squelched any dissent at the convention, I argued they had turned their backs on the most reliable voters, most consistent small donors and most frequent volunteers, and predicted it would harm the GOP in the long run.

But, perhaps the GOP saw things a little differently. In any number of recent elections they had rejected candidates favored by the conservatives in favor of more "electable"moderates. Similarly, their platform, though offering a few concessions to specific factions (such a pro-life voters) who were notorious for sitting out elections, did not provide a lot for consistently small government, federalist voters. And yet, again and again conservatives returned to the GOP, trying to "reform from within", arguing there was no other alternative*.

And perhaps that led to the GOP to see conservatives the way the Democrats see minorities. They had mistreated us before, largely ignored us, and we came back time and again. So perhaps they imagined that we would come back no matter what, that we had nowhere else to go, and so they could ignore us in favor of Trump voters and still get our support.

Sadly, it may even work. I know a number of small government, free trade, federalist voters are looking for new parties, but many are not. Some still hope to regain the GOP, some think no third party can win, or it will take too long, some hope for a Cruz presidency, and so on.Yet, in so doing, they may actually be defeating themselves. By being so loyal, they may be turning us into the GOP equivalent of the minority voting block. And thus, in the end, are making it less likely the GOP will listen to us.

So, we are left with two options. I favor a third party ("Why We Have RINOs"). Even if it takes a long time,it means we can start fresh, eliminate the "big tent"problems of the GOP ("The Problem With the Big Tent") and establish a true small government party. But, if you fear how long it may take, or worry it will fail, then I suggest a second option. If you must stay in the GOP, take a lesson from the pro-life segment of the party. Do not be afraid to let the party lose, do not fear sitting out an election. Make sure they do not count you as a safe vote. If they can rely on you, they can ignore you. Be unreliable, ironically it is the only way to make sure the party listens to you.

Off-Topic: How Many Dimensions Should a Character Have?

It is a small annoyance of mine, but I wish as a society we could agree exactly how many dimensions characters in fiction should possess. When I was younger, I generally heard "two dimensional" as a compliment, while possessing only one dimension meant a character was flat and stereotypical. However, in more recent times, I am starting to to hear "two dimensional" as an insult, with a character needing a full three dimensions to seem realistic. It would not be a problem, normally, but since the dimension counts overlap, with two being good or bad depending upon the speaker, that it can leave one confused whether something having two dimensions is being praised or insulted.

I can see arguments for both sides.

The original version seems pretty self-explanatory. It is not so much based on the real world measurements, but rather uses "dimensions" as a description of aspects of a character. A character with but a single attribute, having but one dimension, is a flat, lifeless character, while possessing additional attributes, that is having two or more dimensions, makes them more lifelike.

The newer version, like most modern misunderstandings of cliches (eg replacing "rein" with "reign" in "free rein") is the result of failure to understand a word. Seeing "dimension" purely in terms of physical measurements, in terms of length, breadth and depth, it imagines a character must have "three dimensions" to seem lifelike. This is probably reinforced by the tendency to use terms like "flat" to describe characters that are not compelling. And so, it is assumed "two dimensions" would mean unrealistic, while three dimensions would be good.

Personally, I favor the original, as its use of dimensions seems more relevant, but in the long run I don't really care. I just hope we eventually decide as a society to settle on one or the other, as the present mixture of cliches can be quite puzzling. (Given the tendency toward adopting the more stupid version -- eg "I could care less" -- I assume three dimensions will eventually win.)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Concept of Genius

I have written before (in "Revival of an Old Romantic Folly") that there is one idea, still current despite being centuries old, that troubles me more than many others, that being the fallacy -- popularized by the Romantics, though it predates them by many many centuries -- that genius is in some, uncertain way connected to madness. That is, that there is some sense in which genius is but another form of madness, or that one touched by genius is especially prone to insanity. We see this concept repeated constantly, from the "mad scientists" of the 50s who "tampered in God's domain", to the recent films showing troubled geniuses and their descent into madness. Even the stereotype of the socially inept, awkward and uncommunicative geek owes something to this concept, the idea being that genius, in whatever form, be it artistic or scientific, somehow separates one from other men, and leads to eventual collapse.

I was reminded of this concept recently while watching a YouTube video demonstrating a turbine developed by Nikola Tesla*.

Before moving on, I suppose I should comment on Tesla, as such a massive body of nonsense has accumulated about the man. I imagine the average Tesla web site has slightly less nonsense than your average truther site, but just barely. And what nonsense it does have is much more varied and far fetched. From tales of death rays confiscated by the FBI to absurd theories about his misbegotten Wycliffe monstrosity, it seems people want to believe just about anything about Tesla, when in truth, he was not a brilliant theoretician, rather a clever, but somewhat inconsistent, engineer.

I guess a statement like that needs qualification. And, since it will lead into my discussion of genius, it is a good place to start. Thus, allow me to start by explaining my, likely controversial, position that Tesla was neither a scientist nor a genius.

The first is probably the less controversial. "Scientist" is a term used pretty loosely, describing everything from theoretical physicists to amateur inventors, and now with "social sciences" entering the fray, it can even be loosely used to describe the doing quit smoking sessions in the local mall. However, I tend to use "scientist" in a relatively narrow sense, keeping it for those who either extend or clarify our understanding of the laws governing the natural world**. Thus, I do not include engineers in the category of scientists, unless they do some theoretical work outside of their engineering discipline. The reason is simple. Engineers, though they can quite brilliant in devising solutions, do not extend our knowledge of the universe, nor do they apply the scientific method. They do not develop and test hypotheses, they do not establish or refute general laws, they simply apply those laws to problems, and thus, though working in a scientific field, they are not scientists.

And this is why I do not consider Tesla a scientist. I grant, he did do some theoretical work, but, not much, and most of what he did do was later proved wrong. (Eg His belief radio wave transmission had to move in a straight line and could not go beyond the horizon. Or the theory of transmission underlying his Wardenclyffe fiasco.) On the other hand, he was quite a clever inventor and engineer, and developed a number of ingenious devices utilizing known principles***. He was undoubtedly a very intelligent man, and quite an innovator, and he was also willing to take chances -- which is why he was so often wrong -- an attribute many do not have, which limits their ability to innovate. But whatever he was, it is hard to say his work did anything to advance our understanding of natural laws.

Now, on to the second term, and one even more broadly defined than "scientist", that being "genius". Genius is used to describe everything from someone with an IQ of 101 or greater to people who truly change the scientific or artistic paradigms. That last also points out another problem, since genius is used in so many diverse areas, from science to arts to everyday life, it is often used in different ways in different contexts, leading to even more confusion.

For my purposes, I tend to view genius in a very narrow sense, but I believe it is probably the closest we can come to a universally acceptable definition, since it  is part of every other definition I have seen, and, for the most part, I know of few who would truly object to narrowing the definition, but many who would hesitate to make it broader. Thus, for our purposes, let us say a genius is one who introduces a true innovation, a new discovery, a new paradigm, a new approach totally different from those that were in use before, which proves to provide valuable new means of working within his discipline. Einstein, for example, created new theoretical approaches with his work.

On the other hand, many men who are both famous, and credited as geniuses, probably do not fit this definition, even if they were extremely intelligent and produced incredible work. Shakespeare, for example, though producing beautiful works, was not truly a break with past approaches, the work he produced was not that different from Jonson and Marlowe and other contemporaries.

Of course, there are also some cases where it is hard to decide. For example, Leibniz and Newton both developed their theories of physics and systems of calculus nearly simultaneously, which suggests they were ideas "in the air" at the time. But those two seem to actually be the only ones working in precisely those areas. Which makes it arguable whether they were both simply creatures of their time, or two geniuses who happened through chance to work on similar fields at the same time.

Obviously, any decision whether or not one is a genius will be somewhat subjective, as no one builds a truly independent theory, every idea builds upon existing knowledge, so even the most innovative discovery is still rooted in the ideas of its time to some degree****. Thus, in every case, we are asked to make a judgment call, is the innovation enough of a break from contemporary thought that it qualifies as a true stroke of genius? Or is ti simply a very clever development of existing concepts? However, with those limitations in mind, I still think it is safest if we limit the term "genius" to describe those who truly developed a new way to approach their discipline, whatever it might be.

And in that respect, Tesla was not a genius. As I said above, he was an engineer rather than a theoretician, for the most part, and even if we look at engineering, what he created was brilliant at times, but was not a tremendous deviation from the work of his most intelligent contemporaries. It is easiest to see in the case of his mistakes. For example, his belief radio waves were limited to line of sight, was a common belief among engineers of the time, and thus led many to seek solutions akin to those Tesla worked on. Likewise, his ideas about wireless transmission were clearly not innovative, as Marconi and others did much work on exactly the same problems, even producing many similar solutions. No, Tesla was very intelligent, a brilliant engineer in some cases, but he was neither a scientist nor a genius.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, and that is a slight correction to my earlier essay.

In "Revival of an Old Romantic Folly", and even the introduction to this essay, I argued I thought the Romantic association of madness and genius was entirely wrong, without foundation and led to misleading ideas. I still believe that last point, that associating the two often leads to wrong-headed beliefs, but I must slightly modify the other two, as I have had a slight change of heart.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about genius, especially about the working definition above, it struck me that a true genius has one very specific attribute. When considering problems, a genius tends to make connections other cannot see, at least not until someone points them out. That is what makes a genius a true genius, the capacity to find novel connections total unrelated to the previous ways of thinking about a topic. The genius finds truly novel approaches through associating concepts not previously seen a related, at leas tin a given context.

And, in that, I suppose one could argue, though it is a bit misleading, that genius and madness are related.

You see, one of the attributes of many types of madness, perhaps of most, is the tendency to make incorrect connections, to read extra meaning into events, or the statements of others, to imagine a given action implies motives it does not and so on. In a very distorted way, this mirrors the thought process of a genius, in that both make connections other are not prone to making.

However, that realization, while true, also tends to lead one to incorrect conclusions. Just because both have some superficial commonality, it does not mean they are in any way related. Where a lunatic makes unusual connections in a random, unfounded fashion, a genius builds upon an existing understanding and make novel, but true, connections. The two are not related in any substantive way, there is still no real relationship between genius and madness, nor does possessing one attribute imply one is more prone to the other. Both auto races and arsonists by petroleum, but that does not imply any other similarities. Likewise, professional swimmers and shark both enjoy the water and eat fish, but that does not mean you should fear swimmers or cheer on sharks. No, this sort of superficial similarity, though likely part of the reason the Romantics believed their idea correct*****, still tells us nothing. But, as it did occur to me that, while it is truly a trivial resemblance, that such a connection exists, I felt I had to point it out, if only to dismiss it.


* I actually started the day by looking up essays on the daVinci "tank", as I had noticed the design had a number of potential flaws (lack of view ports, the cranks seemed terribly inadequate to move the great mass, the cannon placement seemed prone to flip the relatively top heavy structure, and so on). I found a number of critics who pointed out even more flaws I missed (the impossibility of mass production, the narrow wheels tendency to bog down, and one I am shocked I missed, that as drawn the gears would rotate one of each wheel pair the wrong way!). But, in the course of searching for commentary, I happened upon a number of Tesla fan sites, and happened to be drawn in by the turbine, as I was curious how it was supposed to be an improvement on other designs. (It really was not much of one, as it was efficient only in a relatively small range of rpms, below that it was relatively unstable and wasteful, which makes it seem less useful than more flexible designs.)

** I allow that some social sciences may fall under this rubric, but only a more loose sense, as human behavior will never be as fully quantifiable or mechanistic as the laws of the inanimate elements of the universe.

*** Much of the belief in his scientific genius rests upon theories that his fans attribute to him, without much evidence, such as the supposed superscience behind his death ray and various supposed perpetual motion machines some attribute to him.

**** Stanislaw Lem made light of this realization by writing of a character who sought out truly innovative geniuses by looking for those who were considered madmen and cranks, since an idea truly ahead of its time would appear insane to contemporaries. In a way, he may be right, but then again, if an idea were truly divorced from all contemporary ideas, it would be impossible to tell it from simple insanity, at least until new ideas were developed which provided the foundation it is missing. (I suppose, if it had a practical application, it MIGHT be possible to distinguish true genius from madness, but if the idea is that far divorced from all current knowledge, implementing it using current technology might prove difficult or impossible as well.)

***** Of course the original concept did not come from this similarity of approach, but rather from the Romantic notions of inspiration, and their ideas about the primacy of emotions and passions. If they did notice the similarity in working habits (for lack of a better term) between the madman and the genius, the doubtless saw it as little more than confirmation of a preexisting idea. (See "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" , "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Faux "Realism"", "Faux "Maturity"", "Disturbing Entertainment, Ethnic Quotas and Distorted Views of Pop Culture - A Potpourri of Post Topics", "Reflexive Medium Goes Mainstream", "Cranky Old Man?", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Mapping the Changes in Hollywood", and "Inversion of Traditional Values".)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Follow Up to "Intellect and Politics"

I have made the point before, most fully in "Intellect and Politics", but it is one that is worth repeating, as I hear it restated so often in so many different ways. Most recently, on IMDB I saw a variation in a dispute about why so many successful cartoonists were atheists. One response struck me in particular. Here are the relevant parts:
-Reaching the highest level in your craft (getting a show on a national TV network means that you're at the top) means that you're very talented and intelligent. Those people tend to not be that religious.
-Artsy people in general tend to not be very religious and lean towards liberalism.
-Religious people start with a fixed idea in their head and look for convenient arguments to justify it. To be a satirist you need to be open minded and not see one set of ideas as sacred.
Since it is IMDB, I am not sure it was worth crafting a thorough response, but I can't help myself. I responded as follows:
You show a very contemporary bias. Until fairly recently educated people tended to be more religious. I think a more true statement would be "educated people tend to follow whatever beliefs are current in educated circles". German professors in the late 19th century tend toward authoritarianism, in the early 19th century much less so. neither says one or the other is more correct, just that you tend to follow those beliefs other educated people hold In short, educated people follow the pack just like the less educated.

In addition, satirists are not inherently atheist or even given to lack of belief. In times when skepticism is the popular belief they tend to be (say today, or the age of reason), when it is not, satirists often make fun of those lacking belief. Again, it is a fallacy to assume atheism is inherently more amenable to parody. The USSR was officially atheist, yet not known for either free thinkers or satirists.

It is akin to the sometimes heard argument "educated people are liberal" or "creative people are liberal" offered as evidence for the superiority of liberal views. It may be true today, but in other eras and places educated people were often quite conservative, even reactionary. And creators have been all over the place. Dostoyevsky went from 19th century liberal (think Jeffersonain type, not modern liberal) to royalist, but produced his best known works while holding the most traditional beliefs. Knut Hamsun also comes to mind, or Jack London.

In short, it is a mistake to assume a given belief is conducive to a certain practice, or a sign of intelligence, just from contemporary patterns.
I could probably leave it at that, and simply end the post, but as that would go against my compulsion to be as verbose as possible, let's take one more moment, to look at this argument in its most general terms, and recognize the most important piece of what I wrote above.

The main point, at least as far as I am concerned, is made in the very first paragraph, and it can be used to dismiss not just the arguments that intelligent people are liberal, or atheist, but almost any argument that involves proving some particular viewpoint is superior by the number of "educated" or "intelligent" or "creative" people hold that view. The fact is, educated people, intelligent people, and creative people, like their mundane counterparts, are herd animals, and tend to hold the views of those they consider peers. Thus, when academia is liberal, they are liberal, when royalist, they are royalist, and so on. Yes, there are those who buck the trend, but, for the most part, intelligence, creativity and all the rest is no cure to conformity. In general, whatever idea is held to be true by the majority of those around them will also be held by artists, or the educated, or whatever group you selected.

And thus, not to put too fine a point upon it, polling a given group is no way to establish truth, no matter how erudite or educated they may be. Recall all those funny beliefs held by educated men in the past? Well, they were not true, were they? Yet they were the consensus of the educated and intelligent. So why should today be any different? Ideas are proven true by evidence and testing that evidence, not by consensus. (Cf "Inquisition to Galileo - 97% of Scientists Support Geocentric Theory of the Universe", "A Bit of Support from Skeptics", "My Irritation with Supposed Skeptics", "Dismissive Skeptics", "To Be Fair") And thus, even if 100% of educated men agree something is true, it can still be wrong. Polls are not a substitute for proof.