Monday, September 28, 2020

Dependent Rational Animals #1

Dependent Rational Animals is the title of a book by Alasdair MacIntyre. I had heard of him several times and knew he was a virtue ethicist, but had not read any of his books. I enjoyed reading this one. I may try others.

This post will present some key parts of the first chapter.

Two sets of facts – about our vulnerabilities and afflictions and our dependence on others – are so evident that no credible account of the human condition should avoid their importance. Yet the history of Western philosophy suggests otherwise with rare exceptions. When the ill, the injured and the otherwise disabled are presented, it is near always about the benevolence of those who are continuously rational, healthy, and untroubled. Even someone as perceptive as Adam Smith, when recognizing ill health and old age, finds reason to put them on one side. This is true of philosophy in general.

It is similar with dependence. Dependence on others is most obvious in childhood and old age. Philosophers have recognized it in a general way, but the full extent of it is generally absent. When Aristotle discusses the need for friends in times of adversity and loss, he insists that manly men differ from women in being unwilling to have others saddened by their grief. They do not want to share it or let it affect others. Aristotle says the magnanimous man is forgetful of what he has received, but remembers what he has given.

Thus Aristotle anticipated Adam Smith and others the standpoint of those who feel self-sufficiently superior. Modern moral philosophy has understandably and rightly placed great emphasis on individual autonomy and making independent choices. MacIntyre will argue that the virtues of independent rational agency need accompanied by the virtues of acknowledged dependence and a failure to understand this is apt to obscure some features of rational agency.

MacIntyre only mentions the dependence of children in Chapter 1, but does cover that in later chapters. He says little about dependency in the workplace – which one might prefer to call interdependence – anywhere. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A socialist’s view of the self-employed

I don’t know if this article is typical for a socialist. I suspect it is at least common. Anyway, the author has a low opinion of the self-employed. He calls them the “petty bourgeoisie” who “exploit themselves.” Socialists are obsessed with “exploitation,” i.e. victimhood. Socialists ignore entrepreneurship almost entirely.

The initiative, courage, grit, risk-taking, and exercise of thought needed to succeed in self-employment have no place in the author's narrative. The thought needed to decide what products or services will attract customers, the time and expense spent on marketing, getting and satisfying customers, and the riskiness of being self-employed are all ignored. 

Suppose SE is an excellent young tradesman (electrician, carpenter, etc.) who works for someone else. His employer pays him a steady income, keeps him busy finding work for him, and provides “fringe” benefits like health insurance and paid vacation. Of course, per a socialist he is only an “exploited wage slave.” Yet SE believes he could do better in the long run by becoming self-employed and maybe in a few years employ others. He knows what his employer charges customers for his work significantly exceed what he gets paid. He might wish to specialize in specific sorts of work or customers. There could be other reasons. In any case, SE would like to “be his own boss.”

If he chooses to do so, then SE will incur the time and expense of finding customers himself and/or pay somebody for this. He might get a few among customers he did work for with his ex-employer; maybe not. He will have to buy his own health insurance and he foregoes paid vacations. If he doesn't have enough savings, he will have to rely on some financial help from others for a while until he attains a steady supply of customers.

This is not to say all who become self-employed do so for the same reason as SE. They may do so while in more desperate circumstances, like being laid off during a tight job market.

All this is totally ignored in the socialist’s narrative Little joy in being your own boss. I have never seen an advocate of socialism acknowledge any worker's choice between (1) a more certain, reliable income as an employee and not having to spend time or money to find their own customers, and (2) an iffy income that comes with being self-employed. And of course, if the time comes when SE employs others and pays them wages, a socialist will regard SE as a “despicable” capitalist “exploiter.” 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Coronavirus - how much infected? #2

Since about early April I have wondered: Doesn't it matter to what extent a person is infected by the coronavirus? I posted about it on August 11

Recently I read this article which is relevant to my question. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Teen: "Math isn't real"

A teenager, Gracie Cunningham, posted a video on TikTok of herself talking about math. In this video she says she doesn’t think math is real, then next says the math she learned in school is real. She was obviously confused.

She received a lot of flack about it and made a second video.

A mathematician came to her defense and called the teen’s questions “profound.”

I wouldn’t call her questions profound or stupid, but do call them naive.

Three related questions the teen asked are: 1. How did people come up with algebraic formulas? 
2. How did they know what they were looking for?  3. How did they know they were correct? 

Maybe Gracie could answer these herself if somebody asked her leading questions the way Socrates did the slave boy about geometry in Plato’s Meno.  I won’t do that here, but what follows could guide the leading questions.

I’ll take the second question first. Why does she believe somebody has to be looking for something in order to find it? Suppose Gracie is walking on a sidewalk and she sees a $5 bill that somebody else (no longer present) dropped. Did she need to be looking for a $5 bill in order to find it? 

Suppose she walks further and finds a $1 bill that was also dropped by somebody else (no longer present). She may have been more on the lookout for money this time, but was she looking for $5 + $1 = $6? 

The roots of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians. It was formalized later, especially by the Greek mathematician Diophantus and Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi. Both men have been regarded as "the father of algebra" (link).  

I suspect some people before Diophantus and al-Khwarizmi were implicitly doing algebra. Maybe they used a question mark, not X. Suppose a farmer acquired some more land and wonders what amount of wheat seeds he needs to plant. Suppose he  knows he used four 50-lb sacks per acre last year and he has 80 acres now. His neighbor just gave him 300 pounds of seeds to pay him for something. So how many more 50-lb sacks of seed does he need this year for planting? 50*X = 200*80 – 300. So X = (200*80 – 300)/50 = 26. That is an answer to question #1. After he plants all the seeds and finds he had the correct amount, he has an answer to question #3.

An Australian math or stats lecturer says Gracie’s questions are “insightful” (link). 

There are some good reasons for questioning the reality of math. For example, imaginary numbers aren’t real numbers. Maybe Gracie will make a video about imaginary numbers some day. i2 = −1 looked pretty unreal to me when I first saw it. I later learned it is also a really powerful concept.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Logic of Bell Curve Leftism #3

My last post on this topic will not include quotes from Andrew Sullivan’s article. Of course, income and IQ are partly correlated, but not near as much as argued by Sullivan and DeBoers.

This article shows a graph of lifetime income based on AFQT (Armed Forces Qualifying Test) score. Note the degree of dispersion above and below the gray line. The article includes the following.

But a lot of other things also predict income. So, what’s the unique contribution of AFQT scores? More precisely, how much of the variability in income can they explain? Statisticians often answer this question by reporting a statistic called r-squared that varies from zero to one. In this analysis, zero means AFQT has no predictive power, while one would mean that someone’s income can be perfectly predicted by knowing their AFQT score. An r-squared of 0.5 would mean that half of the variation in income could be explained by knowing someone’s AFQT scores (or, less scientifically, half the time you can predict someone’s income by knowing how they did on the AFQT).

The data show that AFQT scores explain 21% of the variation in income between survey respondents. That translates to a correlation coefficient of 0.46.

Is that a large correlation? It depends upon your perspective. If your cup is half full, you can correctly point out that 0.46 rivals the largest observed correlations in social psychology, sociology, and other relevant fields. But if your cup is half empty, you’ll say that many things determine how much money people make, and smarts is only one of them.

In fact, the true contribution of AFQT to income is probably smaller. That’s because AFQT is serving as a proxy for other attributes correlated with earnings. People with high AFQT scores probably stayed in school longer, and most likely had more successful parents. These and other correlates of intelligence factor into the aforementioned 21 percent.

A reader might wonder how the 0.46 and 0.21 are related. Two statistical metrics are the correlation coefficient, r, and the coefficient of determination, r^2 (link).  The range of r is [-1, +1] while the range of r^2 is [0, 1]. 0.46^2 = 0 .2116.

Two other oft-used statistical metrics of dispersion, standard deviation σ and variance σ^2, are similarly related.

Related: 10 Jobs Where Employees Tend to Have the Highest IQs

Friday, September 18, 2020

The Logic of Bell Curve Leftism #2

Again I will put excerpts from Andrew Sullivan’s article in all italics followed by my comments.

Freddie [DeBoer, author of The Cult of Smart] notes that “if the average white student sits at 50 percent of all students at a given academic task, the average black student lies somewhere between 15 and 30 percent,” which is not a minor difference. DeBoer doesn’t explain it as a factor of class — he notes the IQ racial gap persists even when removing socio-economic status from the equation. Nor does he ascribe it to differences in family structure — because parenting is not that important. He cites rather exposure to lead, greater disciplinary punishment for black kids, the higher likelihood of being arrested, the stress of living in a crime-dominated environment, the deep and deadening psychological toll of pervasive racism, and so on: “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it in our investigations of the racial achievement gap.”

DeBoer’s collectivist, victimhood, and oppressor/oppressed mindset is patently clear. He makes culture and individual character, attitude, and effort irrelevant, too.

Sullivan: I suspect that many smart people have mistaken their own unearned gift for some kind of moral virtue, which is why they are so reluctant to note that others may not be so smart, and if they do so, think less of them. Remove the elites’ vanity, and self-love, and you can see their irrationality for what it is.

Heh. What about the elites at the vanguard of leftism, critical race theory, and people like Sullivan? Are none of them irrational or smart?

My big brain, I realized, was as much an impediment to living well as it was an advantage. It was a bane and a blessing. It simply never occurred to me that higher intelligence was in any way connected to moral worth or happiness.

In fact, I saw the opposite. I still do. I don’t believe that a communist revolution will bring forward the day when someone like my grandmother could be valued in society and rewarded as deeply as she should have been.

A high IQ doesn’t guarantee its being used well or wisdom, either. Sullivan seems like a good example. Value to whom for what? There must be plenty of other uneducated grandmothers as good or better than his. Does he value any of them as much as his own? He seems to want a communist revolution, but is too cynical to believe that people in general are good enough for it.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Logic of Bell Curve Leftism #1

Andrew Sullivan is a popular political commentator. He recently resigned from New York magazine – not to be confused with The New Yorker magazine or The New York Times magazine – and started his own publication The Weekly Dish

His 9/11/2020 edition included The Logic of Bell Curve Leftism, much of it based on a recent book The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer. I haven’t read the book, but Sullivan’s article and reading a few reviews on Amazon is enough to get the book’s gist. When writing for The New Republic magazine in 1994 Sullivan wrote about the controversial book The Bell Curve, about race and IQ, which resulted in a lot of controversy for him. 

My comments that follow will be mostly based on Sullivan’s article. I will put excerpts from his article in all italics followed by my comments.

DeBoer proclaims. “It is the notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth. It is pernicious, it is cruel, and it must change.”

Sullivan doesn't disagree. However, academic value is not the only value, nor intelligence the only true measure of human worth. The high incomes of pro athletes, movie and tv stars, popular singers or musicians, many business executives, and some politicians have a strong basis in other values – rarer kinds of ability, creativity, and hard work. Politicians obviously value political power and use it.

Also, neither academic value nor intelligence imply a high income or wealth. How many Nobel Prize Winners are in the Forbes 400 richest people? Physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, college professors, and some other professions rank high in IQ, but that doesn’t entail a high income.

“Critical theory leftists insist that everything on earth is entirely socially constructed, that all inequality is a function of “oppressive systems”, and that human nature itself is what John Locke called a “white paper, void of all characters” — the famous blank slate. Freddie begs to differ: “Human behavioral traits, such as IQ, are profoundly shaped by genetic parentage, and this genetic influence plays a larger role in determining human outcomes than the family and home environment.”

This shows a big misunderstanding of John Locke’s “white paper, void of all characters” or “blank slate.” Locke was an Empiricist, which means he held that all knowledge is based on experience. He was arguing against innate ideas, which were claimed to exist by Rationalists. This puts the emphasis on “void of all characters” and “blank.” It does not mean everyone’s paper or slate is identical. There are nature-given capacity differences – e.g. intelligence, athleticism, and musical.

What Freddie is arguing is that, far from treating genetic inequality as a taboo, the left should actually lean into it to argue for a more radical re-ordering of society. They shouldn’t ignore genetics, or treat it as unmentionable, or go into paroxysms of fear and alarm over “eugenics” whenever the subject comes up. They should accept that inequality is natural, and construct a politics radical enough to counter it.

For DeBoer, that means ending meritocracy — for “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?” It means a revolutionary transformation in which there are no social or cultural rewards for higher intelligence, no higher after-tax income for the brainy, and in which education, with looser standards, is provided for everyone on demand — for the sake of nothing but itself.

This implies that becoming a doctor – with all the time, effort and often a lot of debt – should not be rewarded with a high income. If an equal income could be made in work that requires less effort, fewer hours, less stress, or gives more personal enjoyment, why become a doctor? In other words, lower pay to doctors would also reduce the supply of doctors and patients’ access to them. DeBoer wants to have the cake and eat it, too. He wants doctors' income confiscated -- "no higher after-tax income for the brainy" -- but still wants the services they provide. 

What DeBoer endorses to end meritocracy is far more political power, the power to coerce others one envies or doesn’t like.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Coronavirus -- NY Times biased statistic #2

I received another email daily briefing after Sep. 2 from David Leonhardt including the following.

In his latest column, Ross Douthat of The Times Opinion pages took issue with a recent item in this newsletter. He suggested that it was unfair for me to compare the U.S. share of official coronavirus deaths around the world (22 percent) with the U.S. share of global population (4 percent).

The U.S. is simply too different from much of the world — like Asia, Africa and Oceania — for global comparisons to be meaningful, Ross argued. To him, the better comparisons are the countries closest or most similar to the U.S., like big countries in Western Europe and the Americas.

When you compare deaths as a share of population within that group of peer countries, the U.S. starts to look more mediocre and less uniquely catastrophic,” he wrote. Germany has done better, for instance, while Britain, Spain and Italy have done worse. I encourage you to read Ross’s full column.

I still think the evidence points to the U.S. being an outlier. It has a per capita death rate 80 percent higher than all of Europe’s and more than twice as high as Canada’s. In many of those other countries, the virus is also well enough under control that more parts of normal daily life — like in-person school and indoor restaurant dining — have returned.

What do you think? Send us an email at

Mr. Douthat regarded Leonhardt's comparison as unfair, but he did not challenge Leonhardt's statistic as flawed. I sent an email to the address above with a link to my Sep. 2 post that showed it as flawed. No response yet. 

Friday I received another email daily briefing including the following.

The virus is a marathon

Last week’s newsletter comparing the U.S. coronavirus death toll to the global average helped spark a continuing debate: What’s the fairest expectation of how bad the pandemic should have been in this country?

Your answer to that question guides your judgment of the Trump administration’s response. Ross Douthat of The Times has argued that it was merely mediocre, while Vox’s German Lopez and The Atlantic’s David Frum consider it to have been far less effective than other countries’ responses.

One of the people who’s weighed in — via email — is Donald McNeil. By now, you may know him as the Times science reporter who has frequently appeared on “The Daily” podcast to talk about the coronavirus.

Donald makes a fascinating point: Don’t look only at snapshots, like a country’s per capita death toll. “It’s not fair to pick one point in time and say, ‘How are we doing?’” he writes. “You can only judge how well countries are doing when you add in the time factor” — that is, when the virus first exploded in a given place and what has happened since.

The pandemic, he adds, is like a marathon with staggered start times.

The virus began spreading widely in Europe earlier than in North America. Much of Europe failed to contain it at first and suffered terrible death tolls. The per capita toll in a few countries, like Britain, Italy and Spain, remains somewhat higher than in the U.S. But those countries managed to get the virus under control by the late spring. Their caseloads plummeted.

In the U.S., the virus erupted later — yet caseloads never plummeted. Almost every day for the past six months, at least 20,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the virus. “Europe learned the hard lesson and applied remedies,” as Donald says. “We did not, even though we had more warning.”

This chart makes the point:

By The New York Times | Sources: Johns Hopkins University and World Bank

The earlier email says the U.S. has a “per capita death rate 80 percent higher than all of Europe’s.”

Estimating the rightmost plotted numbers on the above chart, I get 584 for the U.S. and 432 for Western Europe. 584/432 implies the U.S. death rate is about 35% higher, not 80% higher. How does he make such inconsistent numbers? The graph still shows what Leonhardt wanted, and it doesn't show the countries - Belgium, Spain, UK -- that do have higher death rates per million population than the U.S.