A great explanation for why incorrect scientific theories can sometimes lead to fruitful results:
Originally posted on The Renaissance Mathematicus:
There is a type of supporter of gnu atheism and/or scientism who takes a very black and white attitude to the definition of science and also to the history of science. For these people, and there are surprisingly many of them, theories are either right, and thus scientific, and help the progress of science or wrong, and thus not scientific, and hinder that progress. Of course from the point of view of the historian this attitude or stand point is one than can only be regarded with incredulity, as our gnu atheist proponent of scientism dismisses geocentrism, the phlogiston theory and Lamarckism as false and thus to be dumped in the trash can of history whilst acclaiming Copernicus, Lavoisier and Darwin as gods of science who led as out the valley of ignorance into the sunshine of rational thought.
I have addressed this situation before on more than one occasion…
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Tom Woods had a podcast out recently in which he gave the Austrian explanation of the effect of maximum hours legislation:
Let’s take maximum hours legislation because that seems harmless enough. We don’t want people working too long so we will have maximum hours legislation. Who could possibly be against that? Well, I want to think through the logic of this here. Think about you yourself today. Think about you and the number of hours that you work. Now, you, no matter how much you work . . . could be working more. . . you could get a second job, a third job, you could work an extra two hours a week as a tutor, whatever. . .
Why aren’t you doing it? Because you value the leisure. Because you’ve gotten to a point and society and the economy have gotten to a point where we are physically productive enough that we can produce enough goods that you would be physically satisfied, after, say a 40 or 50 hour week. . .
What if we said a 40 hour week was inhuman, it’s just too much? . . . And we impose on you, a limit. We have a law saying, you can’t work more than 30 hours a week.
Woods goes on to say that because you’ve already balanced your preference for work vs. leisure, the law clearly makes you worse off. If you now are forced to work 30 hours, sure, you’ll have more time for leisure, but you won’t be able to get as much money and buy as many goods as you did before. And you’ve already shown (through your allocation of time before the enactment of the law) that you value the extra income you receive over extra time for leisure.
The problem with this argument is that there are all sorts of situations in which someone might value their work/leisure balance after the law higher than their balance before it. For example, it is entirely possible that you did not limit yourself to working 30 hours prior to the law because in those circumstances, you could not find any 30 hour jobs in your local area and would have to commute between two jobs (which you highly dislike). Or perhaps the 30 hour jobs you could find didn’t pay enough. After the law is enacted, though, you might actually be happier with your new configuration because the situation has now changed. Since every employer is now forced to hire each employee for a maximum of 30 hours/week, the number of job opportunities goes up and you’re able to stick with your old job or find a new single job that pays well in your area.
It’s important to clarify what this means for Austrian economics. Woods’s argument makes complete sense within the Austrian framework. It is true that if we keep everything constant, a person’s action shows he prefers that action over his alternatives. However, when applying this argument to reality and making policy prescriptions, we have to take care not to go too far and make our claims too strong. Preferences or (in this case) situations might change over time, and therefore the actual effect may differ from the one Austrians have theoretically.
The number of other examples where this can happen is probably very large. I do not think Austrians can make policy prescriptions without adding certain empirical claims as well. However, what’s particularly pernicious about my example is that the situational effect is present within the law. It would be more accurate to say the law benefits you than to say the law would have harmed you, if not for the situational change – because the situational change is itself one of the law’s effects!
I considered not making this post since I got to writing about the issue so late, but the topic continues to be brought up in the media with the occasional new case here and there or the conclusion to an old one. This is not an actual defense for the behavior or beliefs of Christians (I am not arguing for the truth of their beliefs), but rather an attempt to relate to them and realize their behavior is not as inane as many make it out to be.
The recent controversy over religious freedom laws in Indiana left many Americans shocked and outraged by the continued discrimination against homosexuals. I was shocked as well, but for quite a different reason: I found the reaction by LGBT supporters to be overblown, excessively belligerent, and in some cases, downright harmful.
Shortly after Indiana’s law had made national headlines, a reporter visited a pizzeria owned by a Christian family in the state. The couple was asked whether they would cater a gay wedding, to which they answered no, since it would go against their religious values. As the two later clarified, they didn’t mind serving homosexuals generally; the issue was serving them if it meant participating in their marriage. The Internet’s “justice” vigilantes were quick and furious to jump on the case (how dare these bigots not sell pizza to someone!?). Masses of individuals swarmed the company’s yelp page with negative reviews, leaving it in ruins. The owners simultaneously received nasty e-mails and letters, some including death threats. To top it off, someone managed to grab the company’s name as a URL, listing dick pizzas on the menu and creating false quotes by the owner in order to harass the company.
All of this. Because of what? Let’s take a more detailed look at the belief the owners verbalized and bring some clarity to their statements. The owners stated they would not cater a gay wedding, but they had no problem serving gays on normal occasions. Immediately we can see from this distinction that the Christian owners are not discriminating against people but against actions of people. They don’t want to directly assist in what they consider to be immoral actions. For an analogy, consider you own a shop that sells sharp knives, and a person comes in saying he wants to murder someone, requesting the best knife for the job (What!? You’re comparing gay sex to murder?? Yes, on very limited grounds, so stick around so you understand my reasons for the comparison). You would be completely justified in such a situation not to sell any of your knives, because you wouldn’t want to directly assist in the immoral activity of attempted murder. This is how Christians view sexual acts and marriage between same-sex couples: as sinful behavior. Clearly, the degree is vastly different for those that believe it(it’s actually annoying I have to point that out, but too many people do not make the distinction between degree and principle and recklessly dismiss analogies just for a difference in degree), but just as most people consider murder immoral, Christians consider the latter acts wrong. As such, they do not want to directly assist in those behaviors.
Now that we have a proper analogy, we can easily dismiss some of the poor ones many have been making. For example, in a separate case in Georgia, a Christian flower-shop owner who said she would not sell flowers for a gay wedding was asked whether she would serve an adulterer, since the Bible also speaks about how such behavior is sinful. When she answered in the affirmative, she was instantly accused of hypocrisy. However, the question in this case does not properly mirror that regarding gay weddings. The relevant question would instead be “would you sell to someone who you knew was cheating on his wife and purchasing the flowers for a mistress?” Again, Christians are not choosing to discriminate against anyone who is a sinner (hilariously enough, according to their beliefs, that would mean they could not sell to literally anyone, a reductio that should make people who believe Christians hold this view pause and rethink that), they are choosing to discriminate against people in cases where the seller would be directly assisting in behavior they believe to be immoral. Another poor analogy people like to make is that of discrimination against African Americans in the south in the post-civil war era. The problem with this is the same (not gays in general, but gays in the immediate process of certain actions).
So people are sending death threats and publicly harassing others over a relatable, albeit not agreed upon, belief system, that when put into action, leads to a gay couple temporarily not getting a cake, or flowers, or pizza, etc. for their wedding. Homosexuals aren’t starving to death, they aren’t being physically harmed, and in fact, the direct consequence of not getting [insert item here] is easily handled by walking across the street to some non-Christian establishment where the owners will have no problem selling the item. The worst consequence seems to be that some individuals are offended. Yet people think it’s completely proportionate to put someone’s livelihood (the business could have been seriously damaged) under threat when the owners also have a family and employees depending on them.
If you still aren’t with me, consider some opposing beliefs that people hold where similar outrage never occurs. Let’s take Obamacare for example. If you believe Obamacare is bad for the country, you might believe that it will lead to worse health care outcomes, longer wait periods, and even death for some. Alternatively, if you believe the opposite, that Obamacare is good for the country, you might believe that the lack of it (or the lack of single payer, etc.) will lead to worse health care outcomes and again, even death. Yet, regardless of which belief you hold, have you ever considered threatening someone who disagreed with you on this issue? Did you ever consider publicly harassing them or trying to destroy their reputation? The consequences are clearly, undeniably far worse in this disagreement. For other examples, think of the Iraq war, or any war. Even if outrageous reactions move a step up here compared to Obamacare, they rarely get to the same point as that that occurred with the Indiana pizzeria. My purpose is of course, not to argue that people should be so outraged in these circumstances as well, but rather that they are correct in not going off the edge. These can be confusing and complicated issues, and there are millions of arguments in favor and against them. Rather, people should look at the issue of Christian discrimination in the market against homosexual marriage and properly place it on the spectrum of outrage where it makes sense: very low.
EDIT: Made a misstatement; changed it so it wouldn’t be a distraction.
Last year in August, I signed up for a Student Prime membership with Amazon. There was a free trial for 6 months, after which I would be charged a yearly fee of $60.00.
I unfortunately cannot remember whether I was aware of the payment scheme (the $60 charge part) at the time. I was certainly aware of the free trial (that’s why I signed up for it!) but I don’t think I knew that after 6 months, I would be automatically charged. It’s possible Amazon made the deal clear as day, and it’s possible that it was in small font or not easily noticeable. But the point I will be making here is that, regardless of which was the case, the company policy is an immoral one.
What I think it boils down to is that a company (by the way, although I used Amazon as an example here, I think they handled my situation extremely well, giving me a refund without any issues. This is not a hate piece directed toward them, but a discussion of the policy), in having such a policy, takes advantage of its customers. There is going to be a group of people that either are unaware of the payment scheme at the time, or are aware at the time but forget to cancel the program after 6 months.While I (being in the first camp) was fortunate enough to have found out about the $60.00 charge, and motivated enough to act on it and ask for a refund, that is not the case for everyone. Some people will not notice the charge because they are not careful enough with their finances. Others who notice the charge may not ask for a refund, instead thinking they’ve made a mistake that’s too late to fix. As such, companies with this policy are taking advantage of customers who don’t really want to pay for the product.
One might argue that it’s these people’s own fault that they are being taken advantage of. I would certainly agree, but that doesn’t make the company’s choice to enact this policy a morally acceptable one. If someone leaves their door unlocked, it is not acceptable to go into their house and take their possessions. If a woman is out at night dressed meagerly in a known dangerous part of town, it does not make it okay to rape her. Likewise, just because someone does not pay enough attention to their finances, it does not make it fine for a company to take advantage of that and surreptitiously take money from them.
Another argument might run: as long as a person agreed or signed a contract with the company, such a policy is okay. But even this isn’t true. For one, there can be issues with the fine print: few customers have the time or energy to read entire terms of agreements. Secondly (since the first may not be applicable to this policy), taking advantage of a person just because they have agreed to something is not necessarily right either. If someone agrees to purchase an addictive substance from you for their consumption use, it is not necessarily moral to give it to them and then profit from their situation.
What I think companies with free trials should do instead is send an e-mail near the end of the trial period to allow the customer to decide whether he or she wants to continue the service and start paying for it. An explicit approval or disapproval at that time takes care of the problem, and it does so in an easy way: a simple click of a button.
What do you think about this? Am I missing some clear advantages of the current system that benefit customers considerably? Or is this a net-bad policy that companies need to get rid of?
The word ‘happiness’ in present times refers to an emotional state where a person is at least mildly elated. This emotion is usually visualized as a person smiling or laughing. Meanwhile, the word ‘contentment’ has two different meanings, both closely associated with each other. The first meaning (let’s called this ‘strict’ contentment) refers to a person in a state of affairs where he is satisfied. There are no demands on him or hurdles he must overcome: he has achieved whatever ends he has and does not have any others (or any significant others). The second meaning (let’s called this emotional contentment) refers to an emotional state at neutrality or somewhere in between neutrality and happiness. To clarify the difference between the two types of contentment, we can understand that feeling satisfied is not the same thing as being satisfied, although the two are often (and for good reason) correlated.
The reason I bring up these distinctions is because I am currently reading The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, in which the differences between happiness, emotional contentment, and strict contentment are muddled, possibly misleading readers. The pair argue in the first chapter that the purpose of life is happiness:
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness . . . [emphasis added]
It is true that we are all seeking something better in our life. All our purposeful actions are directed to change a state of affairs that would have occurred in the future into an alternative, better state of affairs. However, this doesn’t mean that in seeking a better state of affairs we are necessarily seeking an emotional state of happiness. For example, if I take the purposeful action of putting some food into my mouth, I am doing so to satisfy my hunger. This may or may not make me happy. I might in fact be annoyed and angry because I know the food will taste bad, but eat it anyway so I don’t starve. Therefore, my purpose in eating poor-tasting food isn’t to make myself elated emotionally, but to simply quell my hunger. So here, happiness and emotional contentment are not the goals, but strict contentment is.
Another example: suppose you have had huge goals for several years and you’ve finally accomplished all that you set out to accomplish. At first you may be ecstatic, but if as time goes on, you fail to add any other monumental goals to your life, you may end up being depressed. In this example, while your initial end was to accomplish your goals and satisfy yourself for strict contentment, you ended up upset as a result.
So while strict contentment, which is what really follows from D.C.’s (Dalai Lama + Cutler) argument, is occasionally associated with happiness and emotional contentment, it is not always, and is sometimes even associated with depression. Happiness is not the purpose of life, and even if it was, this argument would not be a good one for it.
The reason the criticism I have made is important is that readers of this book may come to agreement (with the flawed argument) that the purpose of life is happiness and, as a result, constantly seek out an elated emotion that is not always possible to achieve. Human beings are not perpetually jubilant creatures. With this in mind, then, having a purpose of happiness can ironically lead to its opposite. Since it is not always possible to attain, individuals who have it as their purpose will instead be sad when they realize they just don’t feel the way they want to feel.
This post is inspired by Gene Callahan’s on scientific presuppositions. I did a bit of my own thinking, however, and started wondering “what would it even mean for someone to believe in both determinism and science?”
If the universe is deterministic, then all our actions are no different, other than perhaps in the degree of complexity, from those of atoms and molecules. This means that the scientist, too, is predetermined. He does not choose to do science, he simply does science. As such, if we want to hold the knowledge gained from science as truthful, we must say that the scientist is predetermined to do science correctly. He must both be predetermined to follow the scientific method and “think” he is following the scientific method. He must be predetermined to “pick” the correct conclusions rather than the incorrect ones.
But then what occurs is that the determinist is no longer merely saying the universe is deterministic: he’s actually proposing specific content for his determinism, namely, at least, that the scientist is predetermined to follow the scientific method and pick conclusions correctly. What reason we would have to expect this, I have no idea. It instead seems like something one would have to take up on faith.
Perhaps one would counter that the applications of technologies we eventually achieve through science clearly practically work, and that validates it. For example, the validation of certain scientific research on electricity could be shown through its application in functional electric vehicles. But if that’s the case, then couldn’t we also be predetermined to (falsely) think that there are practical applications of science? If one is going to propose something as inane as that we are predetermined to follow a particular method correctly to achieve true knowledge, then I don’t see how this other possibility is any more ridiculous.
Nope – I wouldn’t and here’s why:
- I’m selfish. Going back in time and changing something means I might have an impact on people’s decisions – even my own parents. Maybe they won’t meet. Maybe they’ll meet and not get married. Maybe they’ll meet, get married, but choose to have babies at a different time. If any of these happen, I won’t be born.
- Using the same logic, millions, perhaps even billions of people that now exist might not exist in a world where I kill Hitler. (I don’t find this hard to believe since WWII and the Holocaust were such world-changing events.) If this is true, isn’t this, in essence, a mass murder of millions of people? Sure, in a way, you’re “making up for it” by leading to the creation of a million new people (hopefully, at least), but I don’t think that really makes it right.
My usual answer to these sort of questions is that if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t go back in time. And for this question, I’m sticking to that. Because despite the size of the calamity you want to stop, your impact will always be even greater.
I started doing some research into poverty this semester when I ran into the concept of “relative poverty.” I wrote down my immediate thoughts, stating:
I find an absolute poverty line approach (for identification) to make more sense than a relative approach (the latter being some fraction of the income standard). Although I am not well read on this topic, it seems to me the latter [confuses] poverty with inequality (I guess you could call it an inequality line instead).
I decided to do some more research and found a post on the same topic at the blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”
The blogger first quotes Charles Moore in an article at The Spectator. Moore writes:
If poverty comes to be defined relatively for all purposes of public policy — households with less than 60 per cent of the median income, says the government — then poverty and inequality become the same thing.
If we measure poverty as something relative to someone else’s income, by definition it is already inequality. And this is Moore’s point. If we say “person A is poor because he has less than person B’s income,” we are not talking about poverty, but inequality (between person A and person B). And if we add in a proportion, now saying “person A is poor because he has less than 60% of person B’s income,” nothing has changed: we are still talking about inequality. Person A has less income than person B, and at least a certain quantity less. But that doesn’t mean he’s poor; it only means his income is unequal with B’s. Let’s say B makes $100 million a year. If A makes 59 million a year, then by this definition of “relative poverty,” A is poor, but ridiculously so. One might respond that we could simply make the proportion less than 60%, perhaps something like .1% in this situation. Unfortunately, this is a weak response: the changing of the numerical proportion in our measurement of “relative poverty” here is due to the fact that we really believe in some absolute standard which forces us to change it.
The Stumbling and Mumbling blogger (let’s called him S.M. from now) thinks otherwise and thinks it is obvious why Moore is wrong to anyone who goes beyond the surface of the issue. But rather than defining poverty and inequality, S.M. jumps straight into a numerical example. His logic is as follows: he uses the Gini coefficient as a measure of inequality and compares it with a measure of “relative poverty” as less than 60% of the median income. He shows that, even when there is an increase in the former, there can be a decrease in the latter. Therefore, the latter is not a measure of inequality.
His math is correct and I have no issue there. The problem I have is with his interpretation. His point is that, in his example, when inequality in the society increases, relative poverty in that society goes down. However, what Moore (probably, at least) and what I really think is not that relative poverty is a measure of inequality in the entire society. It is a measure of inequality comparing individuals who have less than the median income with those who have the median income. In other words, it is “a measurement of inequality in the lower half of the income distribution,” as Lane Kenworthy states here.
Let me restate this in a different way for clarity. While those in “relative poverty” decrease from society A to society B in S.M.’s example, the “relative poverty” line created still has to do with inequality. Because it is comparative to someone else’s income, by definition, it has to do with inequality, not poverty. The reason “relative poverty” goes down even when inequality in the entire society goes up is precisely because the median income has not increased. Increase that median income, keep the rest the same, and wallah! “Relative poverty” has increased and so has, quite clearly, inequality in the bottom half of the distribution.
There is a common argument in favor of the minimum wage. It goes something like this:
If we raise the minimum wage, workers will have higher wages. Thus, they will spend more on goods, and this demand will stimulate the economy.
There are a few problems with this line of thinking.
1) This assumes that the economy should be shifted toward consumption from investment. Since investment is geared toward the future, it is possible such a policy, if correct, could have the consequence of lowering the amount of goods in the future.
2) Even if the minimum wage is raised, for any sense to be made of this argument, the aggregate amount going to workers in wages has to be increased. If the basic argument against the minimum wage is right, that a price control on wages creates unemployment, then it is not necessarily the case that aggregate wage payments will initially go up, which is what is needed to “stimulate the economy.”
3) Ok, what if we drop, for the sake of argument, the claim that unemployment will cause aggregate wage payments to go down (or stay at the same level)? We have to immediately recognize that an increase in aggregate wages is still hard to stipulate. For example, if business A decides to increase wage payments, that’s less money it can spend on other factors of production, such as capital. In other words, it has to decrease payments to its suppliers, and these other businesses will end up reducing their own workers’ wages.
4) For aggregate wages to go up, then, it seems, that this money has to ultimately be taken out of payments to natural resources. Aggregate payments to natural resources has to go down. But an arbitrary allocation of money away from natural resources toward labor hampers the market’s function in economizing and allocating resources to their most highly valued ends. The resulting allocation will be inferior to the market allocation, and goods of lesser value will be produced since a less efficient combination of resources will be employed in creating those goods. The minimum wage will have the unintended consequence of producing lower quality goods for the very people who want it, even if it increases their wages.
#4 is my own line of thinking – as far as I know, I have not seen it in other Austrian works I have read (I might simply not be very well read though!). What do you guys think about this?