Defending economics (again)

From time to time I read one of those articles that attack economics and economists. The latest article of this type has appeared in the Australian edition of the Guardian: if economics is a science, why isn’t it being more helpful? It is frustrating to reply to them but it this one was too bad to pass the opportunity.

The article argues that economists do not agree on anything–they do not agree on what efficiency means, what allocation means, what scarcity means. You get the idea. Take the following claim: “And some people refuse to believe that renewable electricity is a substitute for coal-fired electricity. Like everything else in economics, there is no right answer.

Well, there is a right answer. We might not know it at the moment–or the consensus might not be there–but there is. There is a right answer to whether we can use electricity only from renewable energy, and if possible at which price, and also if not possible how much it would cost to augment the capacity.  There are right answers to all of these questions. People sometimes refuse to believe science, even when they practice it themselves. “God does not play dice with the universe” is a famous quote by Albert Einstein that shows his difficulties in accepting quantum mechanics. Should we say that there are no right answers in physics because some people refuse(d) to believe quantum mechanics?

This brings us to the author’s comparison of economics to other sciences: “If physicists can agree on how to make an object move and physiologists can agree on how to resuscitate a heart that’s stopped beating, why can’t economists agree on how to boost Australia’s flagging wage and GDP growth?” Why didn’t he asked about whether physicists agree with the interpretation of quantum theory? Or the multiverse? Again, we do not define science with respect to how certain we are about our predictions. Weather forecasting is a science that gets it wrong many times. Because there is a high degree of uncertainty associated to it: the outcome depends on many factors, and small deviations can lead to big impacts. Exactly like economics–and especially macroeconomics.

The author admits that sometimes “There is no doubt that economists can sometimes use scientific methods to develop some conclusions to some questions, based on replicable and repeatable methods” But then he says that “Similarly, when it comes to decisions about increasing unemployment benefits or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is absurd and unhelpful to suggest that an economist – or any economic model – can determine what we “should” do.” He seems to suggest that economics is a positive science rather than a normative one. But then it is a science. In order to decide what we should do, we need to understand the consequences of our actions. The fact that there is disagreement about these consequences, again, does not mean economics is not a science. There are right and wrong answers to these questions.

What a lazy article. It closes with this claim: “Economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Values are entirely up to us.” But what are the values that he is referring to? Does he mean, for instance, values such as a desire to increase unemployment benefits? But are these values orthogonal to the consequences that they might create? To the extent that they are not, economics is necessary. To the extent that we need to understand the mechanisms at play in the economy when we raise unemployment benefits, we need economics.

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Reality is not what it seems, by Carlo Rovelli

I have been fascinated by astrophysics for a while. When I was younger, I used to read Stephen Hawking’s books as soon as they hit the stores. There is something fascinating in imagining the structure of the universe, defying common sense perceptions—time and space are relative, for instance. There is something incredible as well in the fact that us, limited just slightly intelligent apes, are leaving aside many of the tools given to us by evolution in order to improve our knowledge. And in this setting, Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, has written a wonderful book that goes from the evolution of the way we think about the universe to his particular stance on how to reconcile relativity and quantum physics.

The theory of relativity, developed by Albert Einstein, shows, among other things, that mass curves space-time. If I were to travel close to a black hole, and then come back, I would find that time on Earth has happened much faster than for me. When Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway come back from the first planet, which is near Gargantua—a black hole—the other passenger is much older than when they descended.

Quantum physics is much harder to explain. As Richard Feynman put it: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Particles are no longer thought of as small balls in space; they are now defined as a set of probabilities and possible (discrete) positions—each position with an attached amount of energy. While intuitively hard, quantum mechanics has been so successful that it is the leading (by far) theory on particle physics.

In most cases, these two theories—the most important developments in the field in the XXth century—do not overlap. Inside an atom, particles barely have any mass to “curve” space-time. And massive objects like planets and stars, where relativity matters, are too big to “suffer” the quantum effects. Yet there are situations in which both theories should be important, such as the case of microscopic black holes or the big bang. Situations where mass is compressed in very small spaces. The problem, however, is that both theories, as they stand, are incompatible. And looking for ways to reconcile them has been a huge endeavour for decades now in the field.

The main working unifying theory has been string theory—the idea that particles can be thought of as strings, and that what makes them different from one another how they vibrate. Any attempt on my part to go into more detail is surely to get many things wrong, so I will not make it. Suffice to say that Rovelli—and others—have put forward an alternative theory, called quantum loop gravity. And more or less the second half of the book is devoted to it.

What is quantum loop gravity? Well, I am going to give my understanding of it. In quantum mechanics it is understood now that the forces that operate in it—electromagnetism, for instance—are the result of the interaction of fields—electromagnetic fields in this case. According to quantum loop theory, we should understand space (and time) in the same way: they are fields and the way they interact at subatomic level is what generates gravity. Sounds simple (and convincing) enough to me, but, you know, Dunning-Kruger effect.

But there are some reasons to support this theory versus string theory. First, many theoretical physicists have been working on string theory for decades without a huge success. (A remark here: I am not making any claim about the value of their contribution—with hindsight is very easy to say what works and what does not.) Not only that, but the experiments in the LHC at CERN have failed to generate (so far) some particles theorised from some versions of string theory that require super-symmetry. And quantum loop gravity does not treat gravity as something different: it brings the current state of quantum physics—quantum field theory—into space.

What does that mean? Well, among other things, space is not continuous but discreet. The same way a particle can only take some states (quanta), space can only take some forms. This happens in a very small scale, of course; this scale is called Planck’s distance. We cannot divide this distance in half; that’s it, that is a building block of the universe. This is also true for time. Planck’s time, which is just the time it takes a photon at speed light to cover Planck’s distance, is the building block of time. It cannot be further divided. Space and time as we know and experience them do not exist at that level.

This is extremely fascinating. Carlo Rovelli does a good job explaining the intuition of these theories, but it is slightly technical in some parts. I appreciate that, but readers less versed in physics might not. But it is without a doubt the best book on the topic I have read in ages. Rovelli has another book, more basic, titled Seven brief lessons in physics, that might be a better starting point for many. A special mention should be given to the way he links these ideas to pre-Socratic Greek thinkers. The first half of the book, less technical and focused on describing the evolution of the thinking about the universe, is simply outstanding.

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Post-Truth, by Lee McIntyre

The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.

—George Orwell

The book Post-Truth, by Lee McIntyre, opens with the above quote by George Orwell. Orwell, in fact, opens almost every chapter (although not chapter 5, which starts with a famous quote by Thomas Jefferson: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet”). And one can almost see McIntyre as a scientific counterpart of the British essayist, trying to understand why we are nowadays in a situation where facts seem to be subordinate to our political point of view.

After introducing the concept of post-truth, the book discusses science denials, as they appear to be interesting groups to understand how post-truth survives. Doubt, he argues, is key. But not doubt in the sense that a skeptic might refer to. Doubt as a shield to keep your beliefs, your identity, protected from evidence. Take major tobacco companies, for example, and their effort to maintain that there was no conclusive link (i.e., no proof) of smoking leading to cancer. Funding junk research to cast doubt was all they needed to keep the truth from doing its job. Something clearly imitated in the recent years by climate change deniers.

But note that this is not reasonable doubt. One can be presented with plenty of scientific evidence—which most likely one won’t understand—suggesting that smoking causes cancer; but one needs just some uncertainty about this link to fall back to the complacent status quo position. Remember the debates on climate change, or creationism vs evolution? They are presented with two sides of the story, as if both had similar empirical validity. One is, then, ready to choose the most comfortable of the two. Yet only one is true.

The book goes in some detail about cognitive biases that can explain this propensity. Motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, the “backfire effect” and the “Dunning-Kruger effect” are some of the concepts linked to post-truth. It also discusses how the decline of traditional media and the rise of social media are key phenomena to understand how post-truth can thrive as it is doing nowadays.

McIntyre also mentions Postmodernism. This is a tricky topic, and it has been caricatured by the likes of Jordan Peterson. It is tricky because most of the Postmodernist movement was on the left, made up of progressives, yet the use of post-truth has mainly been on the right. But McIntyre does an excellent job—to be honest, the best I have ever read—in summarising the idea, how it evolved towards other disciplines, and how it relates to the conclusion that there is no such thing as truth.

A common criticism of linking Postmodernism to science denials and Trump is the fact that the supporters of the latter groups do not tend to read philosophy too much. They don’t know who Foucault, Derrida, or Rorty are. This is true. But, surprisingly, some of the ideologues behind these movements are wonderfully versed on Postmodernism. The idea that there are no truths but narratives resonates very well with the concept of alternative facts.

Lee McIntyre finishes discussing how to fight against post-truth. There is a lot of advice. One that I found particularly obvious but for some reason had overlooked. We have all heard this idea that one has to be aware of their own biases and try to correct them. There is no more powerful bias than confirmation bias. Residing in an echo chamber, rejecting to read or listen to certain opinions because you despise them is not only not neutral to the bias, but is actually reinforcing it. Reading broadly is, hence, key to combat post-truth. As it is, by the way, reading this excellent book.

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Hitch 22, by Christopher Hitchens

The man had more wit, style, and substance than a few civilisations I can name” (Sam Harris remembering to Christopher Hitchens)

I don’t think I have ever read an autobiography (or memoirs, which is more precise in this case) in my life. They usually start slow, documenting the origins of the parents, grandparents, and even earlier generations. Yet obviously one is reading a memoir for what the author has done later in life. Impatience, most likely, has made me abandon most of them—Margaret Thatcher’s stares at me very time I sit on my desk.

That is, of cause, until Hitch 22, the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens. I have read it and listen to it—narrated by him—at the same time, which is a wonderful experience. Hitch wrote it when he was turning 60, just before being diagnosed with a cancer that would finally take his like a year later. He opens with the anecdote of a magazine that shows his picture and calls him “the late Christopher Hitchens”. We are so lucky that he decided to write his memoirs then and not when it was already too late.

It is difficult to convey how good the book is. His life is incredibly interesting. His trips to Cuba, Ireland, Irak, and more places right at the time of the political and violent turmoil depict a journalist with a strong desire to see things for himself to form his own view. He reflects on his experiences, wondering sometimes why he acted the way he did. Not regretting, but wondering. He talks about the important friends in his life—James Fenton, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie—his realisation that he was Jewish, later in life, aligning with neo-cons in the war against Irak… No major part of his life is left untouched.

I do think that I have especially enjoyed it since I feel I know him after reading many of his essays and books as well as watching his interventions in many debates. Once you know the public persona well, I can see how the memoirs—if interesting, of course—provide an extra satisfaction.

Let me leave you with a fragment that caught my eye. He is reprimanded while in Cambridge for engaging in homosexual activities, although he is not expelled since he is a promising student (“Oxford material”). He describes the reaction of her mother when he came back home after the ‘incident.’ I find the reference to the cocktail party pure genius.

My mother wisely said nothing and wrote nothing… When I finally did get back, not having advertised my arrival time in advance, I was lucky to find my mother alone in the kitchen. She brilliantly rose and greeted me as if I’d been expected for some brittle and glamorous cocktail party of the sort that she always planned and never quite gave“.

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Leaving the LibDems

After the Brexit referendum, back in June 2016–I remember the moment when I realised that Leave was going to win: I was in a restaurant in Lima, Peru, with my wife’s family, following the news thanks to their Wi-Fi–I felt to urge to be more involved in politics. I had followed politics for a while, but the anger from the result of the referendum–I could almost hear people saying “we don’t want you here”–demanded more. Needless to say this initial reaction was unfair and imprecise, and I feel somehow proud of realising that those that voted for Brexit are not simply “racist” earlier than most people I know (someone I know asked for a different cab driver once he realised that he had voted for Leave). Yet I became a member of the Liberal Democrats Party.

Why the LibDems? At the moment, it seemed like they were the only party empowering the values of reason and rationality; the values of the Enlightenment. They were in the right side of legalising gay marriage, they seemed sensible in terms of economic policies–I might be found more to the right but barely dogmatic on that front,–and they were, obviously, unambiguously pro-remain. For  three years I have been a member, even though I did not share part of the strategy in the Brexit topic. I happen to believe that Brexit has to occur, and the only way it should be stopped is if there are elections and a party promising to stop the departure from the European Union wins most seats; in other words, I don’t share the idea of a second referendum. But this was not my reason to leave the party. The reason was my commitment to secularism.

I see secularism as a key foundation of any liberal democracy. Religion cannot be granted any special right in the public sphere. There are no greys here–granting religion any concession (for instance, shielding it from criticism) is a defeat of reason. I should have maybe paid more attention to it when I joined the party: Tim Farron, its leader back then, ended up resigning because he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.” It turns out that your beliefs do influence your politics after all! But, as I said, he resigned, which seems a good development. But in the last months the party has shown, again, that its commitment to secularism is fading.

What is Islamophobia? Going with the Wikipedia page, it is the “fear, hatred of, or prejudice against the Islamic religion or Muslims generally.” The term conflates two different things: hatred / prejudice of Islam and hatred / prejudice of Muslims. The term is, hence, not very useful. Is someone who hates religion in general Islamophobic? According to the definition, yes. Yet I would hypothesise that this is not what people refer to when using this adjective. But recently an all party parliamentary group studying this issue has proposed a new (or complementary) definition for the government to adopt: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.

This seems a clear case of setting up the stage for the logical fallacy that if A implies B, then B implies A. It is true that those that hate Muslims (and this is, crucially, what we want to combat) also hate “expressions of Muslimness”, such as the hijab. But it does not follow that those that hate the hijab, for instance, also hate Muslims. A hatred towards certain religious practices need not be rooted in racism. In a secular society, the freedom to criticise especially religious practices is, yes, sacred–obviously not sacred in the religious sense, but in the sense that it is a defining block of such society. Attacking religious practices is foundational in a secular society.

The LibDems, among other parties, adopted the definition and urged the government to do the same. This is, by all means, a departure of its Enlightenment values. An open letter asking the government not to adopt the definition can be found here. It explains in more detail the dangers of such definition. It saddens me, really, to see elements of the left–in this case, by far its best party–capitulating to religious ideologues like this. I think that this explains my early-20s attraction towards a more libertarian position; I have always suspected that part of the left is less committed to individual rights that what they claim to be. Good examples of this can be found in the cases of Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

I attended a recent gathering of atheist and ex-Muslim Youtubers (I am technically a millennial so I am allowed to do these things). Someone (white and with no Muslim background) asked an ex-Muslim in the panel what he could do to help given the fact that charges of Islamophobia were sure to follow any criticism of the religion, especially by a white person. The answer was illuminating: white people are not special on this regard either. The charge of Islamophobia is also levied against ex-Muslims or even Muslim liberals who criticise certain practices of the religion. My conviction that I did the right thing cancelling my membership to the LibDems was strongly reinforced.

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Free will

“Do you believe in free will?”

“Yes, I have no choice”

Christopher Hitchens

What is free will? Free will is the ability to choose between different courses of action unimpeded (wikipedia). But what does it mean to be unimpeded? Unimpeded by what? This topic is fascinating to say the least, as it goes to the core of our identity. What are we? Let us go through the concept of free will with a simple example: tea or coffee?

We have the feeling of free will. When I woke up this morning, I could have chosen tea for breakfast. No one was there to impede it. Yet I did not. I chose coffee. The “strong” version of free will, libertarian free will, claims that nothing other than myself caused this choice. If I went back in time, in exactly the same situation a millisecond before the choice, I could have chosen otherwise.

This is, actually, not true. Our decisions to act start in the unconscious part of our brain, and it is only after the action has been initiated that we become aware of it. When I stared at my kitchen today, my unconscious brain “decided” to go for coffee; when I became aware of this, I thought: ok, coffee it is.

This is what Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) showed in their experiment. They asked participants to move their fingers whenever they decided to do so. The idea is to study which parts of the brain activate before the movement. The key bit, however, is awareness. When do they become aware that they have decided to move? Previous studies (most famously Libet and co-authors in the 80s) relied on the subject to report the time of awareness. Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) introduced random signals and asked the subjects to cancel the movement whenever they heard one of these signals. The idea here is that you can only consciously cancel the movement whenever you are aware of its initiation. By analysing these patterns, one can estimate how in advance one becomes aware of the movement. It turns out that there is more than a second between our brain starts the process to move the finger and the moment we become aware of it.

True, the decision seems to come from the unconscious me, but how can I claim freedom in this instance? Imagine that I have a tumour in my brain that craves for coffee. Would I call this freedom? Is the tumour “me”? It seems unlikely. It would be something else, the tumour, deciding for me. But the processes that start my desire for coffee are equally, if not more, mysterious–and therefore I cannot claim any freedom.

One can see the link here with determinism. Is everything determined? If yes, then free will cannot exist. But note that even if there is room for indeterminism, free will does not necessarily follow (a classic “A then B does not imply No A then No B”). A usual source of indeterminism in the universe is quantum physics–but this introduces randomness. Randomness is not freedom–If I had tossed a coin to decide whether to go for tea or coffee (and had to obey the outcome), I would still not be free.

But we have this sense that, if we had known the future–for instance, if I had known that coffee would give me stomachache during the day–I would have chosen otherwise. This is true. In this sense, we can make different choices. But this relies on new information, which means that our brains are different–i.e., different than when we did not have the information–and hence we are not just rewinding time, we are changing the initial conditions. I am, therefore, in a different situation.

Libertarian free will, hence, does not exist. An argument against this claim is that if it does not exist, then nobody is responsible for their actions, and hence punishment is unfair. For instance, if I do not have free will, rather than deciding between tea and coffee in the morning I could have decided to rob a car. Should I be punished if I did? (I did not, by the way).

This argument is flawed to begin with because it claims that, since we do not like to consequences of the non-existence of free will, it has therefore to exist. But I would argue that there are other shortcomings. It highlights a religious concept of guilt and responsibility. Why should we punish someone who steals a car? Because he deserves it; he is evil; he’s committed a sin and has to be cleansed; thou shalt not steal. If he is, however, not free–this all breaks apart.

But this is not the reason to punish him; or, better yet, it is not the reason we should have to punish him. We punish him to deter this action–absent punishment, people would steal more. We also do so to deter him from doing the same. Because it was a conscious decision, we know that whatever process in the brain led to this action, it can be repeated in the future.

It is important to overcome this concept of libertarian free will. A lot of suffering comes from this flawed concept. But it cannot exist, and it does not exist. Our views of morality, justice, and the making of the good society need to be based on this reality.

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Abortion

Abortion is a great example of a topic where the two sides argue from completely different perspectives. One side—pro-choice—argues that abortion is a private matter, and hence it is up to the woman to decide. The other—pro-file—claims that a fetus is a human life, and hence abortion is akin to murder. Is it possible to have a discussion about abortion that overcomes these positions? I would argue that there is. But, also, I would argue that this issue combines two moral biases, or bugs, that we face: our need for categorical answers and the role of purity.

The issue at hand is to identify when a human life starts. And here we run into the first problem: this question makes no sense. A human life gradually appears from the moment the egg is fertilised. We seek a discrete function, but it is continuous. Therefore, we have to define an arbitrary threshold—and that is OK. Notice that the two extremes of this debate have defined a threshold as well: one at conception (week 0) and the other one at delivery (week 40 or when the baby is born). In fairness, the pro-choice stance is generally against late-stage abortions absent medical reasons; yet slogans such as my body my choice are not so nuanced.

We need to define a threshold so that it can be written into law. But the difficulty on defining this threshold comes from our flawed moral intuitions. A key insight from The Moral Landscape is to view morality as one views health. Our moral intuitions, as our health intuitions, can be, and often are, wrong. These moral intuitions are an evolutionary trait. As is our desire for sweet food. Yet this desire can be bad for our health. In this case, a usual reaction for any given abortion threshold X would be to argue that someone whose pregnancy is at X + 1 is basically the same as someone at X. Sure, but we still need the X.

An arbitrary threshold needs to be defined, and we need to be comfortable even if X + 1 is almost the same as X. But some people would not accept this, as they see abortion as a sin. The concept of purity—sin can be seen as the destruction of this purity—is ingrained in the psychology of an important part of the population. The figure below, from Haidt and Graham (2007), shows that liberals and conservatives differ substantially in this point.

GrahamHaidt2007

This, again, appears to be a failure of our moral intuition. Some people might argue that purity appeared as a way to enforce social norms. For instance, stealing is probably bad for the survival of a tribe. Hence, as years pass, and as the tribe punishes these actions, those with strong moral intuitions against stealing are more likely to succeed. This could be an explanation, but as mentioned earlier it is no different than our desire for sweet food. Put it differently, one could also use an evolutionary rationale for racism. Yet we (well, most of us at least) understand that it is morally wrong.

I find the topic of abortion to be a showcase of many of the failures of our moral intuitions, and a clear example of how much more we need to think about morality from an objective perspective. Or, at least, how much more we need to reduce the presence of religious concepts—purity, sin, commandments—when discussing about it.

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