The War On (some kinds of) Theory

by Daniel on December 15, 2003

The excerpt from Ophelia Benson’s article which Chris posted below got me thinking about a few particularly egregious examples of the phenomenon I’ve seen over the years. The one which sticks out in my mind was of a teacher proudly boasting that he’d spent half of a class ignoring the subject matter that was meant to be discussed and instead talking about technical arcana which added nothing to our understanding of the subject, made the discussion incomprehensible to the layman, but fitted the students to carry on a discussion among people working in the same field, according to the rules of a trivial formal game.

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Trollbait

by Henry on December 15, 2003

A couple of the trolls from Chris’s “thread on Sen”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000987.html might like to check out the most recent issue of the “Onion”:http://www.theonion.com/3948/news1.html; I reckon that “economist Harold Knoep” provides a fairly precise encapsulation of their biases.

Sample bias

by Henry on December 15, 2003

I’ve been meaning to blog this ever since I read about it a few days ago on “Marginal Revolution”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2003/12/how_to_conserve.html; it’s one of the neatest ideas that I’ve seen in a while. Given endemic shortages in the availability of some vaccines (viz. flu shots this year), how should one allocate shots so as to prevent the spread of the disease in the general population? Tyler Cowen points to an “article”:http://ojps.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=PRLTAO000091000024247901000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes&jsessionid=1910211071503525338 by Reuven Cohen, Shlomo Havlin, and Daniel ben-Avraham that suggests how best to do this. It’s fairly well established that some individuals are a lot more likely to spread viruses than others; these ‘super spreaders’ are exceptionally gregarious people, who have a wide and varied circle of friends with whom they share time, conversation, and unpleasant infections. This means that virus diffusion can be “modelled nicely”:http://xxx.lanl.gov/PS_cache/cond-mat/pdf/0107/0107420.pdf using scale free networks with power law distributions of linkages. Some individuals are much more ‘connected’ than others, and these highly connected individuals are much more likely to be the vectors of contagion. If you can vaccinate these individuals, who are the ‘hubs’ of the network, you can do an awful lot to limit the spread of the disease. The problem is that it’s often hard to figure out who the hubs are. Cohen, Havlin and ben-Avraham have figured out a very clever way of doing this. You randomly sample the population, and ask each person who you sample to nominate one of their acquaintances. You then vaccinate _not_ the initial person who has been sampled, but instead their acquaintance. Because ‘super spreaders’ are likely to know far more people than the average member of the population, they will be heavily over-represented among the ‘acquaintances’ – and thus will be far more likely to be vaccinated. According to Cohen, Havlin and ben-Avraham’s model, you may be able completely to halt the spread of the disease by sampling some 20% of the population, and then vaccinating their acquaintances. This is very clever indeed – insights into the topology of social networks can be used to stop the spread of viruses. It goes to show that the study of power-law distributions may have more uses than securing your bragging rights in the blogosphere.

Can’t get no satisfaction

by Maria on December 15, 2003

I hope we all savoured yesterday’s sweet taste of success. Because as far as Saddam is concerned, it may be the only satisfaction we get.

Saddam quickly followed his craven capitulation with an unleashing of the barely lucid, self-aggrandising rhetoric we’ve come to expect of him and his ilk. Defiant words and cowardly acts – nothing new there. But Saddam being captured alive means that now that the party is over, the U.S. has to figure out what to do with him. Tricky.

It seems obvious that the next steps are to question Saddam for intelligence purposes and then submit him to a tribunal where he will be made accountable for his deeds. President Bush signalled as much when he said that Saddam would “face the justice he denied to millions.” But the conduct of the war on terror, which blends law enforcement and intelligence gathering in a way that undermines due process, will make forcing Saddam to take responsibility for his actions more difficult than one might expect.

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Can’t get no satisfaction

by Maria on December 15, 2003

Just can’t get no satisfaction

I hope we all savoured yesterday’s sweet taste of success. Because as far as Saddam is concerned, it may be the only satisfaction we get.

Saddam quickly followed his craven capitulation with an unleashing of the barely lucid, self-aggrandising rhetoric we’ve come to expect of him and his ilk. Defiant words and cowardly acts – nothing new there. But Saddam being captured alive means that now that the party is over, the U.S. has to figure out what to do with him. Tricky.

It seems obvious that the next steps are to question Saddam for intelligence purposes and then submit him to a tribunal where he will be made accountable for his deeds. President Bush signalled as much when he said that Saddam would “face the justice he denied to millions.” But the conduct of the war on terror, which blends law enforcement and intelligence gathering in a way that undermines due process, will make forcing Saddam to take responsibility for his actions very difficult indeed.

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I think you think I think

by Daniel on December 15, 2003

So, with reference to the weekend’s big news story, Norman of Normblog writes that a particular pleasure has been

“The sight of some people trying to say ‘hooray’ through gritted teeth.”

If I understand this correctly, Norm is expressing his pleasure in some other people’s displeasure in having to express their pleasure in yet a third group of people’s expression of their pleasure in a separate individual’s displeasure. I don’t know what to think about this at all. Which is just as well, I suppose because at least it means that the chain of meta-levels ends here. I tell, you, this is why expected utility theory will never catch on ….

Implications

by John Quiggin on December 15, 2003

Saddam’s capture has all sorts of implications.

The biggest is that it will greatly accelerate the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This is obvious enough if the resistance fades away and large numbers of troops aren’t needed. But suppose this doesn’t happen. It’s hard to see the US public putting up with a continued stream of casualties when the main objectives on which they were sold the war have either been achieved (get Saddam) or proved illusory (WMDs). The instant reaction Good. Can we go home now, is going to be fairly widely shared as time goes on.

On the Iraqi side, as Juan Cole points out, this will only strengthen the Shia demand for proper elections and a US withdrawal. Now that the fear of Saddam’s return is gone, the dependence of a future Iraqi government on the US is significantly reduced. Shias might well judge that they could do a better (because more ruthless) job of suppressing the insurgency on their own.

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Ozymandias

by John Quiggin on December 15, 2003

From almost any viewpoint, including that of opponents of the war such as myself, the capture of Saddam Hussein, represents good news, made better by the ignominy of his surrender. When the Iraq war and its justifications , spurious and otherwise, are forgotten, the image of the great dictator being dug out of the hole in which he had hidden will remain, along with the inglorious ends of Mussolini, Hitler, Ceausescu, and others, as a warning to those who might plan to follow the same path.