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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Homunculi

A truly astounding series of German condom advertisements are making the rounds this morning—each features a sketch of a sperm made to look like Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden or Mao Zedong. Their not so subtle message being, “Better wrap it up… unless you want to bring evil into the world!”

On one hand, these ads make perfect sense due to their exploiting the potent Schuldgefühl–or guilty feeling–that is such an important part of German culture. On the other hand, Schuldgefühl was borne out of WWII and the Holocaust, and is one reason why joshin’ about that silly vegetarian painter called Hitler just doesn’t play in Germany even now.

Even scooping Hitler out of the pool, however, the ads pronounce an inscrutable message. Are sperm inherently evil, or just the sperm contributing to unplanned pregnancies? If someone is impregnated with these seeds of destruction, is it game over right then, or will some extra hugs in childhood purge the perversity? What is the cost to humanity of sheathing the good sperm? And most importantly, does the fact that sperm can be mustachioed or sport a turban indicate the prescience of Nicolaas Hartsoeker?

HT: Paul, who surprises me with his interest in prophylactics of the world

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Bringing Order to Chaos

About a year ago when I read Richard Dawkin’s explication of Darwin in The Blind Watchmaker, I was stuck by how analogous the basic mechanisms of natural evolution and economics were. Now I can be sure it was no coincidence:

Ideas evolve by descent with modification, just as bodies do, and Darwin at least partly got this idea from economists, who got it from empirical philosophers. Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament.

(…)

Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. In his last year at Cambridge in 1829, he reported in a letter, ‘My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke’.

Having gone to a private religious school from kindergarten through high school, I never studied evolution in an academic setting. When I began reading Dawkin’s book, however, his description of evolution made intuitive sense due to my economics study. Where economics is based on the invisible hand and innovation, I realized, evolution is based on natural selection and random variation .

This is my favorite excerpt from the article:

Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the Right, Darwin by the Left. In the American South and Midwest, where Smith’s individualist, libertarian, small-government philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is reviled for his contradiction of creation. Yet if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer? Conversely, in the average European biology laboratory you will find fervent believers in the individualist, emergent, decentralised properties of genomes who prefer dirigiste determinism to bring order to the economy.

I love inconsistencies like these. If I can appreciate the economics notion that order can emerge spontaneously “as the product human action but not of human design,” surely I can appreciate evolution’s notion that nature’s complexities can emerge without a designer (and vice versa). Yet many, even vaunted members of the scientific academy, accept one and not the other.

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A Negative Relationship

As identified by The Economist:

[A]cross the world, the less students know about science, the more optimistic they are about the chances of solving the planet’s environmental problems.

This is, of course, a key explanation behind Americans’ bubbling idealism.

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‘The forecaster is like an entrepreneur,’ says Roman Frydman. ‘He uses quantitative methods, but he also studies history, and relies on intuition and judgment. He is not a scientist.’

The quote refers specifically to economics forecasters, but it applies just as well to any forecaster of complex systems, such as those who forecast climate changes.

Predictions are not science. No way, no how. And unfortunately, bad predictions (which are more common than good ones) come with little cost. As a result, they’re dreadfully oversupplied. This doesn’t mean that predictions should be ignored, but nor should they be elevated to anything more than they are: guesses–and often very crude ones at that.

On a semi-related note, one way to increase the accuracy of a forecast is through the use of prediction markets. More on that later, perhaps.

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Stumbled upon this article and found it an interesting and informative study of German culture. The following sentence is particularly delightful:

Cutting open any human head to appreciate and learn its anatomy is a unique opportunity for reflection on our humanity…[h]owever, this opportunity, especially for a Jewish surgeon, takes on a different cast when surrounded by the murmur of German voices and accompanied by the smell of burning flesh…

Fellow CBYXers may be interested to note how the good doctor describes the casual work environment.

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