Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bad compatibilism

(Note: Written in February, but I never hit "publish.")

Phil Plait, the author of the Bad Astronomy blog at, is distressed that America has such a major hangup when it comes to evolution: 
Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country. 
“Provably wrong.” A bracing phrase, and an accurate one. But if that’s the case, then why do millions of Americans embrace said belief, why do conservative politicians constantly scheme to have it taught in classrooms? The problem for us rationalists, says Plait, is the messaging: 
The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs. But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. 
Pope John Paul II acknowledged evolution’s reality, Plait notes, so surely religion and evolution can be harmonized. Sadly, many Americans associate evolution with atheism, which they revile. So break that link! More religious people should speak up for evolution, Plait says, and show it’s not a threat:
[I]f we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.
Plait then attempts to show just that ... and falls flat on his face: 
Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. It’s a bit like the Big Bang; we don’t know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation. 
That's what's known in the trade as the “god of the gaps” argument, and it automatically earns you an "F." Tucking God into a couple of early moments in the universe that we can't quite explain might look like an innocuous way of keeping the supposed Omniscient Author of the Universe in business. But consider: What happens if and when we find explanations for those moments, too? Does Plait really think the God's-breath theory of life's origins has a chance of beating out the complex-chemical-reaction theory? 

More to the point, Plait is basically conceding that we don't need God as an explanatory factor for roughly 99 percent of the history of the universe. That's quite a lot, and rather more than a believer is likely to be happy with.

Listen, for example, to the believers cited in this post about the HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin" (my italics in what follows):  
I think a lot of rationalists tend to fall into thinking creationists are just dumbasses. What I really liked about the documentary was that it didn’t hesitate to show how creationists can be articulate and actually quite persuasive, if you accept their premises. Indeed, a lot of them talked at length about how their belief in a loving god who specifically created the universe for them is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory (and other scientific theories based in astronomy, physics, and geology that demonstrate that the universe and our planet are very, very old—Ken Ham at one point tries to argue down the idea that light from stars is millions of years old when it gets to us), and you know what? I found that argument persuasive. Certainly more persuasive than the typical attempt to reconcile the obvious fact that evolution is true with the desire to believe in a loving god, which is usually some variation of, “Well, God created the universe through evolution.”
To believe that, the creationists point out, you have to believe their god is a complete and utter moron, that he spent billions of years spinning out galaxies and stars and let the Earth lay dormant for billions of years before sparking a single-celled life into being and then spending the next billion years carefully guiding evolution until finally he got what he wanted: A human civilization that is literally only a few thousand years old. If you’ve ever been to a museum where they put a piece of paper on top of a rock formation to show how insignificant we are in terms of time—or if you’ve ever pondered how tiny our planet is in the great expanse of space—then this is beyond idiotic. It’s like taking multiple generations of people tending an oven to make a cupcake.
Ex-ACT-ly. Nine times out of 10, if people say they've reconciled science and religion, it's either because they don't understand the former or they've rendered the latter into vague, formless mush. To take Christianity as an example, surely St. Peter, St. Paul and the rest of the church fathers thought their doctrine amounted to more than "be nice to each other and feel a sense of wonder about the world." But allow pretty much any substantive metaphysics into your Christianity — the personal God, the divinity of Jesus, the immortal soul, miracles, the resurrection of the dead — and you bump up against major contradictions with the scientific worldview. Conversely, if you pay attention to what the scientific method tells us about coherence, falsifiability, standards of evidence and so on, theology becomes very hard to take at all seriously. Just wishing these two intellectual disciplines could play nicely with each other, won't make it so. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The apotheosis of the kleptorporation

Not far off.
Comcast is the nation's largest cable provider and it is a notoriously horrible company. Its products are overpriced, and its customer service is barely distinguishable from extortion. It gets away with this because it has de facto monopoly power vis a vis customers and monopsony power vis a vis media companies. It maintains that power by lobbying all levels of government wth feral intensity. Internally, Comcast is a dysfunctional mess. For running this dog's breakfast of a company, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was paid $31.4 million in 2013.

Comcast has honed its modus operandi to a fine point, but its basic strategy is hardly unique, notes Matt Stoller in "Lazy Corporate Monopolies Are Why America Can't Have Nice Things," reposted at Naked Capitalism earlier this month (my emphasis):
Without restraint on behavior, corporate executives will work to grab as much market and political power as possible, because only market power and political power allows them to have pricing leverage without investment, risk, or innovation. ... Since this dramatic shift in antitrust enforcement, corporate power in every industry from cable to railroads to rental cars to banking to health insurance to pipelines has skyrocketed. The result has been inefficiency and price gouging.
The other day, I was reading a New Yorker article about Vladimir Putin that made reference to Russia's reputation as a "kleptocracy." I think it's high time we had an analogous word for companies. I hereby propose "kleptorporation." It's as ugly and clunky as what it refers to, yet clear in meaning. Also, it has "torpor" in the middle, which nicely captures the "lazy" part of the package.

Down with kleptorporatism! Fight the kleptorporocracy! It's a word whose time has come.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Behavioral economics, the coffee edition

Back in January, I received a gift card for my birthday to Cross Keys, a coffee shop about half a block from where I work. They're valid for 15 coffees: You get the card stamped each time, filling up the little grid on the back. It's very good coffee, by the way.

I liked using the card instead of fiddling with cash (I've never gotten into the habit of using credit cards for purchases that small) so after I used it up, I bought another one. And here's the thing: Even though I know perfectly well that I paid for it, it feels like I'm getting a free coffee every time.

It really does. And what a psychological difference there is between giving money and getting a stamp. The latter feels almost like an accomplishment: a coffee merit badge.

I've noticed a similar thing with EZPass: The payment is invisible. When I zip through a tollbooth, I know I should think, "There goes $7.43," or whatever it is, but I don't. Contrast that with feeding quarters into a vending machine to get a $1.75 soda. "Crap, is this thing expensive. @#%& inflation!"

The subjective friction of transactions matters a lot. It's nuts that I get more pleasure out of a gift-card coffee than a cash coffee, but I do. It's nuts that spending $1.75 at a vending machine irks me more than spending $17.50 on a restaurant meal, but pulling out a $20 bill or a credit card is quick and easy, so it does.

This is why I will never set up automatic bill pay, and it is no doubt why the utility companies keep insisting I should.