Give or take a billion

by Eszter Hargittai on September 26, 2005

Inspired by this post on Digg, I started running searches on Google to see what would yield a really high number of results. A search on “www” yields results “of about 9,160,000,000”. This is curious given that according to Google’s homepage, the engine is “Searching 8,168,684,336 web pages”. Perhaps they are extrapolating to sites that they are not searching. Or perhaps those “of about” figures are not very accurate. In general, those numbers are hard to verify since Google won’t display more than 1000 results to any query. The figures may be helpful in establishing relative popularity, although it’s unclear whether the system can be trusted to be reliable even to that extent.

States, firms and the Internet

by Henry on September 26, 2005

“David Kopel”:http://www.insidedenver.com/drmn/news_columnists/article/0,1299,DRMN_86_4105129,00.html argues, rightly, that there is something very nasty about the willingness of companies like Google and Yahoo! to knuckle under to authoritarian regimes such as China by banning words from search engines, snitching out democracy activists and so on. He’s also correct when he “claims”:http://www.volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_09_25-2005_10_01.shtml#1127700874 that “the greedy and immoral policies of these corporations directly endanger Americans.” However, his claim that “[p]erhaps only consumer and shareholder pressure can persuade the American companies to change their evil ways” seems to me to be quite mistaken. Consumer and shareholder pressure simply isn’t likely to have much of an impact, when measured against the power of the Chinese government to ban these companies from access to a quite enormous and important marketplace. Nor does it seem likely to me that many large shareholders are likely to raise a fuss in any event. More generally, when firms weigh the power of consumers to use exit and protest against the ability of powerful states to impose heavy sanctions, and completely block access to important markets, they are usually going to do what the state(s) want them to do. The only solution that would have some chance of biting would be if the US passed legislation requiring US-based firms not to cooperate with Chinese government authorities on pain of substantial penalties, and enforced this regulation vigorously, transforming it into a battle between powerful states with big markets.

We’re going to see more and more of these problems cropping up. People used to think that the Internet would empower firms and other private actors against the state, helping the spread of democracy, free markets and all that. What we’re seeing instead is that firms and private actors have an interest in keeping powerful states happy, regardless of the impact on global prosperity, freedom and so on. This has always been the case – but it’s being exacerbated by the Internet. I’ve just written a “paper”:http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=799269 which talks about what this means for international politics (although it doesn’t discuss the particulars of the Yahoo! case).

Van Inwagen’s laugh test

by Chris Bertram on September 26, 2005

I’ve been engaged in some correspondence which began around the question of whether or not “Mark Steyn rejects Darwin”:http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/mark_steyn_space_dwelling_robot_brain/ , but which has switched into a discussion of the views of philosopher and metaphysician, “Peter van Inwagen”:http://www.nd.edu/~ndphilo/faculty/pva.htm . Specifically, the following passage from Van Inwagen’s essay “Quam Dilecta”:

bq. I remember reading a very amusing response made by David Berlinski to Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that modern science was rapidly removing every excuse that anyone had ever had for thinking that we were much different from our closest primate relatives. Berlinski pointed out that you can always make two things sound similar (or “different only in degree”) if you describe them abstractly enough: “What Canada geese do when they migrate is much like what we do when we jump over a ditch: in each case, an organism’s feet leave the ground, it moves through the air, and it comes down some distance away. The difference between the two accomplishments is only a matter of degree.” I am also put in mind of a cartoon Phillip Johnson once showed me: A hostess is introducing a human being and a chimp at a cocktail party. “You two will have a lot to talk about,” she says, “–you share 99 percent of your DNA.” I’m sorry if I seem to be making a joke of this, but…well, I am making of joke of this. I admit it. Why shouldn’t I? The idea that there isn’t a vast, radical difference, a chasm, between human beings and all other terrestrial species is simply a very funny idea. It’s like the idea that Americans have a fundamental constitutional right to own automatic assault weapons: its consequences apart, it’s simply a very funny idea, and there’s nothing much one can do about it except to make a joke of it. You certainly wouldn’t want to invest much time in an argument with someone who would believe it in the first place.

I’m not a scientist (or a metaphysician for that matter), but I’m not shy to ask the advice of those who are. So comments are open for general observations on the passage. I’d be interested to know, though, whether anything as unvarnished as that can actually be pinned on Gould (van Inwagen provides no reference). I can well imagine him saying that chimpanzees and humans have a great deal in common compared what they share with, say, sharks or spiders (but that’s a different claim). The other thing that occured to me is that it is rather rich for someone to propose a laugh test to rule out counterintuitive scientific generalization when they themselves believe that “only human beings and elementary particles exist”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000189.html . My correspondent has corrected me to say that my characterization of van Inwagen’s view is inexact and that he holds that not only human beings by anything else with a “unified consciousness” can exist. So God and the angels are in too. That doesn’t really diminish my sense that when it comes to claims that are, on the face of it, laughable, van Inwagen may be a man throwing stones in a glasshouse.