Archive for January, 2013

In this entry, unless otherwise noted, humanism will refer to the belief that humans have special status (i.e., superiority) among species (in the same spirit as the way sexism refers to views about the sexes, and racism refers to views about races).

Science has gradually chipped away at humanism.  Evidence for heliocentrism, evolution, the cognitive map of bees, super organisms, the evolution of culture, and evidence against dualism and free will, to name some examples, have had a big impact.   However, humanism still persists in various ways throughout our culture.

Consider language.  Here are some humanist words/concepts:

  • natural‘ – If humans build a skyscraper it’s unnatural, but if bees build a beehive it’s natural.  If humans clean a new environment with antibacterial soap, it’s unnatural, but if Jewel Wasps do it it’s natural (note: ants also make antibiotics).  And so on.
    All living and non-living things affect the environment around them.  Humans have their own niches in that regard (in terms of how we do it), but so does everything else.
  • ‘humanist’ / ‘humanism’ – Sometimes people use the word ‘humanism’ as a synonym for being nice.  That definition of humanism is itself humanist (the bad kind), because it suggests that humans have some special ability for kindness.
  • ‘animals’ – The word ‘animals’ often implies only non-human animals.

Humanist thinking also includes greatly overestimating how many things are uniquely human.

It’s great to see people like Neil Shubin trying to get people to see the evolution of living things as a small part of the evolution of the universe.  Humanism will be difficult to defeat, however, because we have egos interacting with paradigm shift resistance.

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Doomsday argument

Yvain (of lesswrong fame) stated that he’s “never heard anyone give a coherent argument against” the anthropic doomsday argument.  I was surprised to read this, because I think the doomsday argument can easily be dismissed.   I’ll briefly argue against it.

First, I’ll quote wikipedia on what the doomsday argument is:

Simply put, it says that supposing the humans alive today are in a random place in the whole human history timeline, chances are we are about halfway through it.

Denoting by N the total number of humans who were ever or will ever be born, the Copernican principle suggests that humans are equally likely (along with the other N − 1 humans) to find themselves at any position n, so humans assume that our fractional position f = n/N is uniformly distributed on the interval [0, 1] prior to learning our absolute position.

The problem I have with this argument is that the assumption is bad.  We have plenty of reasons to believe that humans are not randomly placed somewhere in the human history timeline.  In fact, not only is it not true, but it would be hard for me to imagine a process less random than this.  I only exist because the specific humans that came before me existed in exactly the way that they did.  There is a gene-culture co-evolution, with each change being dependent on the previous change.

Why do a bunch of mathematics based on an assumption that we know isn’t even approximately true?

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The gun control debate has been irritating.    Here are some examples of things that have bothered me.

Example 1:  “your policy did not perform better than anyone expected it to or claimed it would, and therefore it was a failure”

I recently heard someone from the NRA say that the assault weapons ban (AWB) didn’t work because the Columbine shooting occurred during the 10 year period in which the ban was in place.   Picture yourself in September of 1994, arguing in favor of a federal AWB.  You were arguing that we should: do(AWB).  Denote by Y the number of mass shootings in the next 10 years.  If your claim was that there would be no mass shootings if the AWB passed, i.e.,


then the NRA guy was right.    In reality, your claim would probably have been more like this:

E{Y|do(AWB)}<E{Y|do(no AWB)},

i.e., that there will likely be a reduction in mass shootings if there is an AWB.  In that case, neither you nor the NRA guy knows who was right.  It’s possible that there would have been a dozen more mass shootings during that 10 year period, had there been no AWB.  It’s also possible that the AWB increased mass shootings.

Example 2:  the highest risk products should be the most regulated

“Many more kids die per year in a swimming pool than from mass shootings, so why not ban pools?”

Whether it’s rational or not, if a total of 20 kids die in swimming pools in different locations and times, the public will not have as strong of a reaction as they would have 20 kids were shot at a single school on a single day.  Mass shootings, especially when kids are the victims, have a large negative impact on the public.  Millions of people feel sad and scared.  Whether they should or shouldn’t doesn’t seem very important.  More harm is done in mass shootings.  Because of the shooting at the movie theater last year, I’m sure many people are a little worried when they go to a movie theater (again, it doesn’t matter whether that is rational or not).  Many parents now worry every day when they send their kids to school.  With a pool, you have a feeling of security (whether false or not).  You can watch your kids while they swim.  However, if someone with 30 round clips starts firing into a crowd, there isn’t much you can do.

So, you can either base policy on how much harm you think each death should have caused the public, or you can base it on what actually happens.  An alternative, of course, is to try and convince the public and the media to care the same amount about each death.  To be successful, you’d just have to get people to change what they respond to emotionally.  That can’t be too hard, right?

(there are also other reasons why pool deaths differ in important ways from mass shootings, but this example was long enough)

Example 3: exaggerating the differences in opinions

I’ve heard many people say that they are against gun control because of the 2nd amendment.  The debate appears to then be between people who want to ban guns and people who want no restrictions.  However, this is an exaggeration of the differences in opinions.  Everyone** has a weapons control line, and the question should be about where to place it.  For example, I do not think most people would be comfortable if Walmart was selling surface-to-air missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons, grenade launchers, or tanks.  So, people agree that there should be a line.  Similarly, I haven’t heard many people say that all weapons should be banned.  Thus, the debate should simply be about where to draw the line.

*I’m making the assumption that people are attempting to communicate about actual policy implications, not just cheerleading

**usual caveat about everyone not literally meaning everyone

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