Sunday, 1 August 2021

More Good News about Bad News

    In a recent argument about alternative medicine, someone showed me the link to this article, about how medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. My opponent in this debate was trying to make the point that we shouldn't trust modern medicine so much, because doctors make so many mistakes. Now, this is an infuriatingly common strategy, screaming and hollering about how often science has been wrong and therefore we shouldn't trust those scientists and so by default we should turn to whoever is screaming and hollering as if mistakes not screamed and hollered about don't exist. 

    But I'm not going to rant about that particular rhetorical ploy now. Instead, I want to talk about why it's actually amazingly good news, if more deaths are attributable to medical errors. Indeed, I would want to argue that the best possible case would be if 100% of deaths were caused by medical errors.

    Consider. If 100% of all deaths were caused by medical errors, that would mean that nobody ever died of anything else. In other words, there would be no circumstance in which a doctor could sadly tell a grieving family, "I'm sorry, we did everything we could, but the injuries were just too severe" or the disease had no cure or whatever. Every potential cause of death could be cured if only no errors had been made. If 100% of all deaths were the result of medical error, that would mean that medical science had advanced to a point where we were in principle immortal, because medicine applied without error could always save us. 

    Statistics are tricky. It's really easy to misinterpret what they mean, especially if you don't look at the full context. A similar argument can be made about rising cancer mortality rates, which is also potentially good news overall, depending on what is happening with average lifespans. Cancer is one of those things that you can, as a rough approximation, associate with old age: the older you get, the more opportunities there are for oncogenic mutations, and the more time there is for tiny proto-tumours to develop into life-threatening ones. (You, yes you, actually have several of these tiny prototumours right now, but they may take longer than your natural lifespan to become dangerous.) So if it's reported that more people are dying of cancer than they used to, that can actually be evidence that we're getting better at preventing earlier deaths from other things. The more people die of old age related illnesses like cancer, the more successful we have been at helping people live longer. It's not that cancer is becoming a bigger threat; it's that all the other threats are getting smaller.

    So obviously, if doctors are becoming more careless and making more mistakes, that's a bad thing, and naturally we want them to make fewer mistakes than they are, no matter how many or how few they're making. But statistically, pointing out that a larger proportion of deaths are due to medical error doesn't mean medicine is untrustworthy. It may actually mean the very opposite.

Saturday, 24 July 2021

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing, if You Think It's a Lot

     Before I went to law school, I thought I knew a little something about the law. And I had every justification for thinking so. I mean, I'd finished an M.A. in philosophy, and written my thesis on principles of rule enforcement, basically a philosophy of law topic. I'd read H.L.A. Hart on the Concept Of Law, and I had a strong grasp of ethics and epistemology. So I did really have a bit of a head start on understanding what law was all about. How hard could it be?

    And in fact, it wasn't really that hard. I did have a head start, and a pretty good foundation to build on. There wasn't an awful lot in the little something I knew about law before law school that turned out to be flat out wrong. But it was underdeveloped and incomplete to a degree that is kind of amazing to me now. the little something I thought I knew was akin to knowing that force is equal to mass times acceleration and thinking I knew physics. Because it's true that a LOT of physics follows from Newton's three basic laws, but you really have to put in the effort to understand exactly how that explains gyroscopes and hydraulics and the gas laws. 

    So three years of classes and writing papers and exams and arguing in moot court competitions taught me a whole heckuvalot of stuff I didn't realize was out there to learn, such that when it came time to actually practice law I found myself thinking I still didn't really know enough, but the fact is I did know what I needed to know, which was how to find out. I now knew enough of the vocabulary and basic concepts of law and how they related to each other than I knew where to look for the answers, and how to think about questions and try to solve them myself if they hadn't been addressed directly by someone else.

    I'm mentioning this now not to present myself as an expert on law (I'm not practicing, and let my license to do so lapse, back around the time of that cancer adventure), but rather to emphasize how I know I'm most decidedly not an expert in other things. The little something I thought I knew about law before law school wasn't nothing, but it was nowhere near what I knew after earning my LLB and practicing for a few years. And after having actually studied the subject, I would often run into people without law degrees who would confidently lecture me about the little something they knew about law as if it was all there was to know. And then I knew how ridiculous I must have sounded, talking to lawyers about the law back when I only knew a little something about it. 

    And that's the point I want to make here. I also know a little something about science, and a little something about technology, and a little something about medicine, and a little something about history and literature and a whole lot of topics. I may even know more than the average layperson about many of these. I can feel fairly confident about the little something I know, but then I remember how underdeveloped and incomplete my little something about law turned out to be. Now, my son is studying molecular biology at university, and while I'm glad that the little something I know about science is (barely) enough to make his talking to me about these things not be a complete waste of time, it reminds me just how underdeveloped and incomplete my understanding of genetics is. I can ask intelligent questions, and it's good exercise for him to try to make the answers intelligible to me, but I am painfully aware of how much not and never will be an expert I am in this stuff.

    It is important to be aware of this, because it's so easy to feel like you're an expert in a subject just because you know a little something about it. A little something is more than nothing, but it's just enough to know it's more than nothing, and not enough to know it's less than everything. Maybe the most useful thing I gained from law school was not knowing the law, but an appreciation of just how much work goes into understanding other subjects well enough to become a licensed professional. Know enough to ask intelligent questions of the experts and understand the answers, and don't be afraid to challenge things that seem inconsistent with the little something you know, but never forget that it's only a little something.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Render unto Caesar

     There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew in which some Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is right to pay taxes, and he asks them to identify whose head is pictured on a coin. It's Caesar, of course, and Jesus famously tells them therefor to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.

    Now, Matthew frames this as Jesus cleverly avoiding a trap. As he tells it, the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him in trouble with the authorities, and he just outsmarted them. Personally, I don't pretend to know what the historical Jesus actually meant here or whether this episode every actually occurred, but there is a pretty important point that "Render unto Caesar" makes about the nature of money: it belongs to the sovereign.

    I mean that very literally. Not merely that the coinage might display a likeness of Her Majesty, but that the money system itself is created and maintained by the state and its laws, and that the value of money only has meaning within that system. This is especially true with fiat money, but it was still the case for the most part with precious metal coinage, because even though precious metals have some intrinsic value (in that they can be used to make goods people want), most people only use them for trade, i.e. because they know everyone else will accept them as valuable, so in practice the value of those coins is a result of social convention. And insofar as the sovereign state should be understood as representing the people of that society generally, the state is the entity with ownership/responsibility over the money system. 

    Think of it like the chips you use in a casino. They are provided by the casino for use according to their rules, within the system of games they operate. And within that system, you can use them to play the games, or transfer them to other people if you want, or use them pretty much however you like. But all the value they have derives completely from the fact that everyone understands they can be cashed in for "real" money as you leave the casino. Maybe you're allowed to take them with you when you leave, maybe they're cancelled when you do, but the only value they have is within the casino, and because it is understood that the casino operators will redeem them for "real" money as you leave.

    Similarly, within the economic system of the sovereign state, its currency is "yours" to play all the various games we call markets, to facilitate various transactions, to settle debts in tort or contract, and otherwise participate in the economic life of the society. But just like the casino tokens, the dollars you're transacting with are in a very real sense the property of the society generally, subject to the rules that society makes just like the rules of the various casino games you might play with casino tokens. 

    And among the rules that society can make for the use of its currency tokens is the rule that you have to pay taxes. Those taxes can, in principle, be 100%, because ultimately the state owns all of them, but of course that would utterly defeat the purpose of issuing the tokens in the first place because no one would accept them in trade knowing they would all be confiscated immediately. So in practice, a responsible government will need to design its taxation policy in such a way to preserve the function of the tokens, to keep the games playable and rewarding. 

    So the upshot of all this is that there is a right way and a wrong way to advocate for tax policy. Complaining that the gubmint shouldn't be allowed to take MY money dammit is the wrong way, because it's all the gubmint's money. The right way is to argue that this or that tax rate is better policy, because it better serves the interests of society in some way or other. You might argue that tax rates should be low to encourage private enterprise. You might argue they should be higher to fight inflation. You might argue they should be progressive to limit inequality. And we can have those debates. But your property rights to "your" money do not and should not enter into it, because it's ultimately not your money in the final sense. 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Arguing with Authoritarians

    There are a few themes that come up again and again whenever I find myself arguing certain subjects with people on the internet and elsewhere, and I think I have finally figured out what ties them all together: authoritarianism. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, because many of these people present themselves as very much anti-authoritarian, rejecting the advice of those elitist academics and urging you to "do your own research". But what makes them authoritarian isn't that they necessarily respect any particular authority; it's that they tend to approach things with what I'm calling an authoritarian epistemology, one that's more concerned with power than with truth.

    To start, it seems to me that the model of knowledge and how it is acquired works something like this: One person knows something, and then tells it to another person, and now that other person knows it too. This isn't a bad theory as far as it goes, a decent first approximation for a many simple interactions. Its chief failing is that it's incomplete, but I'll get to that later. For now, the point is that to the authoritarian, this is how it works: someone who knows (an authority) transmits knowledge to someone who doesn't.

    So why do I say the authoritarian is about power? Because in this model, the authority isn't just sharing knowledge; they're actually telling someone what to think. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that the other person has to believe them, because of course people give orders they're not authorized to give all the time, and people disobey orders all the time too. All I mean here is that the authoritarian tends to regard most or even all interactions this way, as attempted exercises of power by either an authority or someone aspiring to authority.

    And this explains why the "do your own research" crowd so bitterly resents people whose job it is to tell us stuff: the news media and scientists/experts. Because they see the transmission of knowledge in terms of power hierarchies, they take it as an affront when someone tries to tell them something. After all, who are these "experts" to tell me what to think? They're not the boss of me!

    Hence the sneering contempt if you happen to mention something that comports with the Official Story: "Hah! you believe the mainstream media?" See, when you regard every utterance as an assertion of power, then believing what people tell you is a sign of weakness, and conversely, refusing to believe what you are told is strength. It's a year-round form of April Fools Day skepticism, that sees discourse as a childish game of tricking other people into believing falsehoods while trying to avoid believing anything anyone might tell you.

    When you approach discourse this way, any argument becomes a personal attack, an attempt to exploit your perceived weakness. One may peacefully "agree to disagree", but by golly if someone tries to force me to change my mind about something, I need to defend myself, right? So it's almost inevitable that someone with this mindset will come to identify with their opinions.

    Which is another aspect of this authoritarianism that I've been troubled by for some time, the tendency to think of opinions as a matter of identity rather than the result of deliberative process. Ideally, describing yourself as a liberal or a conservative should just be shorthand for "my opinions on issues tend to be more [liberal/conservative]" but very often I find people saying things like, "I'm a conservative, so I'm against abortion" as if being conservative is the cause of the opinion, rather than a description of it. And just as often, I find that regardless of whether they consciously identify themselves with a group or movement, the authoritarians I argue with will try to pigeonhole me as belonging to whatever group it is they happen to identify as their opposition. 

    That's psychological projection, obviously, and of course we all do it to some extent. Indeed, it was projection of my own presumptions about what knowledge is and the purpose of debate that kept me so baffled about the authoritarian mindset for so long. I assumed they were arguing to provide evidence and logic that would lead me to adopt their view as my own, or to gain sufficient understanding of my own position so as to make a better informed decision as to whether to reject or adopt it. And so I was regularly astonished at the sorts of arguments they would make and what to me seemed like brazen hypocrisy.

    For example, I was recently arguing with someone who recited some mortality numbers she claimed were from Statistics Canada, intended to show that the pandemic wasn't real because there was no significant change over previous years. Since she hadn't provided a link or reference to the original source, I went and googled for some appropriate keywords, and found that Stats Can had in fact published a report on excess deaths related to the pandemic. Yet when I cited this source back, with a link, my opponent dismissed it as government propaganda that couldn't be trusted. Note that this was the very same government agency she had cited to prove her position, which she glibly dropped as not credible the instant it went against her. What could possibly be more hypocritical?

    But that hypocrisy disappears when you understand the authoritarian mindset, which values power and doesn't really consider "truth" except as the set of beliefs that distinguishes us (the good guys) from them, and which considers debate to be a kind of assault, a struggle to maintain one's own beliefs/identity against attacks while trying to weaken the resolve/identity of one's attackers. It's not about truth for them, but strength and determination, and all the little rhetorical devices we use in argumentation are just weapons to be used against the enemy, and to be deflected or dodged when they are used against us. There is, after all, nothing in the least bit hypocritical about trying to stab you with my epee while trying to parry your attempts to stab me. My opponent wasn't really making the claim that Stats Can is or isn't a reliable authority; she was simply trying to protect herself from having her Deeply Held Belief weakened by attempting to demoralize and discredit any belief/person (remember they tend to blur together beliefs and identities) that might appear to threaten it.

    I think this is why they use so many basic logical fallacies in argument, and why it doesn't bother them in the least to do so. If you call them on it, pointing out "That's an ad hominem fallacy", they don't pay any real attention to the substance of why ad hominem is a form of non sequitur because the conclusion ("you're wrong") does not follow from the antecedent ("you're stupid"). Rather, they just pick up the term "ad hominem", dimly aware that it has something to do with calling someone stupid, and use it as a weapon against you any time they perceive you to be calling them stupid. And there are countless other examples of terms with legitimate meanings that get coopted this way, stripped of nuance and wielded as cudgels not to prove any substantive point but to wear down and humiliate those perceived as attackers. 

    I'm not sure how best to deal with the authoritarian mindset. They aren't arguing to convince you they're right; they're just arguing to prevent you from convincing them they're wrong, and so all they need to do is spread doubt. (Same strategy as the tobacco companies "questioning" the link between cigarettes and cancer, or the oil industry "questioning" global warming, or creationists' "teaching the controversy", etc.) The sad irony in all this is that, to the non-authoritarian, doubt is already in plentiful supply, and it isn't a weakness but a core assumption about everything. You can't win an argument with me by making me doubt my position if you don't do something to reduce the doubts I have about your position.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Flat Earth Economics

    Say you're trying to navigate around your neighbourhood and you want to keep the total distance travelled to minimum. Let's pretend you're not limited to roads, and can always travel in a straight line to any particular destination. You go 4 km to your first destination, and then turn 90 degrees to your left to go 3 km to the next destination, and then you can go home. By the Pythagorean Theorem, the straight-line distance to get home is the square root of (3 squared + 4 squared), or 5 km.
    That's the correct answer, or close enough for any practical purpose. In reality the world is not a flat surface, but the curvature is so big that for distances of only a few kilometres we can just treat it as flat without any significant error in calculation. Or, to put it another way, the 40,000 km circumference of the Earth is so big compared to 5 km that we might as well treat it as infinite, which is what it would be if the Earth were in fact a truly flat surface.
    Of course, the math breaks down when you start dealing with bigger portions of the whole planet. If you go 10,000 km on a flat surface, turn right and go another 10,000 km, you'll be about 14,000 km from your starting point, but on the Earth you'll still only be 10,000 km away. And if you travel 20,000 km from your starting point, the next step you take, in any direction, will take you closer to your starting point. The farthest you can possibly be from any other point on the planet is 20,000 km. (I am assuming all distances are measured along the surface, rather than taking a shortcut through the mantle...)

    Scale makes a difference. It's fine to approximate small portions of the planet's surface as flat, but it's a mistake to apply those assumptions to the whole. And the same principle applies to economies.
    When I sit down to balance my household budget, the total number of dollars I have anything to do with is a negligible fraction of all the Canadian dollars circulating around out there. For my purposes, I might as well treat the dollars that aren't mine as infinite in quantity. If I spend $100, it'll take me $100 of income to get back where I started. Simple, straight, flat-plane geometry. 
    And that's more or less true for most businesses and even local municipal governments or individual government agencies. If you spend X dollars, you generally need at least X dollars in revenue to cover it. 
    But that's when the dollars you have anything to do with are a negligible fraction of the sea of dollars sloshing around out there. At the level of a national government with a sovereign currency, that's no longer the case. The federal government of Canada has something to do with literally every Canadian dollar in circulation anywhere, because every Canadian dollar is a creation of the Bank of Canada. To continue with our analogy, the Canadian government operates at a scale that encompasses the entire globe of the Canadian economy. 

    There's a lot more to this than I've described here, and I don't mean to suggest that national governments are completely immune to the sorts of considerations that apply to private individuals and corporations. Nor am I making specific claims here about the mathematics of government debt and deficits and how much spending and taxation is appropriate. All I'm saying at this point, in this post, is that the common rhetoric about government spending is based on an inappropriate comparison. Yes, it's completely reasonable to worry about revenue and expenditures at the scale of the individual household or business, just as it's completely reasonable to use Pythagorean calculations while navigating around your neighbourhood. It's just that the math is different when you get to global scales; you have to take into account curvature if you don't want to get lost.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Rhetorical Heavy Lifting

      I get into a fair number of arguments, and I daresay I'm reasonably good at it. I tend to "win" more often than I lose, if you define it in terms of persuading people that you're more likely to be right. (I actually think it's counterproductive to think of argument that way, as I elaborate on here.) I prefer to think of it as a process leading to greater understanding of the issue by all parties, a discussion rather than a debate, but there is usually some adversarial element, and I can usually hold my own pretty well when that's the case.

    So one thing that sometimes happens when I appear to be "winning" a debate is this: my opponent expresses some frustration that I'm only winning because I happen to be skilled at rhetoric, and if only they were better able to express their ideas more clearly, they'd be able to convince me. And that's certainly a possibility; there are many subtle concepts that are very difficult to express clearly but which turn out to be true (or at least, to have great explanatory/predictive power). But often difficulty in communicating an idea isn't so much due to a lack of rhetorical ability as it is due to the idea itself just not being as well-formed and coherent as it feels. That is, the feeling of being right or of knowing something to be so isn't identical with actually being right. (Like when I dreamed I came up with a mathematical proof of the immortality of the soul.) Goshdarnit, I know I'm right, but I just can't put it into words!

    A metaphor I've found useful for the way debates like that go is that it's like a rock-lifting contest. I choose a rock and you choose a rock, and the winner is the one who can lift their rock the highest. Now, you might think that what you need to win such a contest is to be very strong, but in fact, most often the winner is the person who is able to choose the lightest rock. 

    Now, skill at rhetoric is like being very strong in that it allows you to lift bigger argumentative rocks higher than you would otherwise be able to lift them. But the bigger impact is that it makes you a better judge of the weight of rocks. So much of the time, when someone tells me they'd be winning this argument if only they were better at rhetoric, I want to say hey, don't feel bad. I couldn't lift that rock, either.

    And to do that, I have to make a good faith effort to try to lift their rock.


Monday, 29 March 2021

Not All Humans

     When I was very young, my feelings were hurt when the cute little squirrel ran away from me, when all I wanted to do was pat it. Why was it scared of me? Why did it think I was mean? 

    In time, I understood that in the eyes of a squirrel, I was just a big non-squirrel animal, in a world where squirrels are often eaten by big non-squirrel animals. And so I wished I could talk to animals and they could understand me, so I could tell them that I was a nice human and I just wanted to be their friend. Not all humans are mean!

    But then I learned about lying, and understood that even if I could tell squirrels not to be afraid of me, that's exactly the sort of thing a human would tell a squirrel to make it easier to catch and eat. And so a smart squirrel shouldn't believe me when I said I wasn't going to eat them. And that, too, hurt my feelings, to understand not only that there were bad people who told lies, but that because there were bad people who told lies, I should not expect people (or squirrels) to trust me by default, however earnestly I might believe myself to be worthy of trust.

    I also came to understand that, if I genuinely cared about the well-being of squirrels, I should not want them to trust humans (including me) too easily. It is in their best interest to be wary of potential predators, even if the majority of us larger animals have no interest whatsoever in eating a squirrel. And if I still really want to befriend a squirrel, at the very least I should expect to have to earn their trust.

    This applies to my fellow human beings as well, though obviously with somewhat different parameters, since humans are a social species and live in communities where a certain amount of default trust is essential, but where there is always potential for betrayal. And so there are appropriate boundaries. It's no big deal if a stranger at a bus stop asks you what time it is, but unsettling if even a fairly close friends asks to look through your smartphone. The very attempt to take shortcuts across these boundaries is itself deeply creepy; there aren't many bigger redder flags than "What's the matter, don't you trust me?" 

    And protesting #notallmen! whenever someone talks about misogyny or #metoo or anything of the sort is exactly that kind of red flag. Just as you shouldn't take it personally that a squirrel doesn't trust humans, you shouldn't take it as a personal affront that you're not immediately assumed to be one of the good ones, and you're not entitled to the benefit of the doubt. No one is, and it's childish to expect otherwise.