The death of social democracy: greatly exaggerated

by Henry Farrell on July 19, 2007

Vernon Bogdanor has a “review”:,,25346-2647303,00.html of Sheri Berman’s _The Primacy of Politics_ (which we ran a “seminar”: on last year) in the TLS, Large parts of the article are good and perceptive, but Bogdanor also seems to be using the book to make his own, rather odd claims.
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Rediscovering Intelligent Design

by Kieran Healy on July 19, 2007

Here is a likely poorly-specified question for biologists, prompted by wanting to buy Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us and then reading a story about genetically modified mice. Weisman’s book asks how the world would change and what of us would survive if humans were all wiped out overnight or just disappeared by something (a virus, the Rapture). The premise is unlikely (something that kills people — all people — but leaves the rest of the world standing) but intriguing.

So I wondered, what if, long, long after our disappearance, some other species arose on earth at least as intelligent as us and eventually started doing evolutionary and molecular biology. Let’s say they have a working theory of evolution much like our own. Now say for the sake of argument that a bunch of transgenic organisms produced by humans have survived and prospered in the interim. So our future biologists find things like a bacteria that produces insulin, or a plant that secretes insecticide, or rice that is high in beta carotene, or more exotic stuff as needed.[1]

I’m wondering, would such organisms even present themselves as empirical anomalies? (That is, how much would you have to know about genomes and evolution for them to seem odd?) And if they did seem odd, how would they be explained? That is, would the evidence of their intelligent design by a previous, now-extinct species be clear? You can see that I’m just irony-mongering here. Would some Arthropod-staffed functional-equivalent of the Discovery Institute point its claw at some of these organisms, saying they were anomalies that could only be explained by the intervention of a divine intelligence? Would Charles Crustacean find a story that could account for their evolution by natural selection? I’m particularly interested in whether the artificial provenance of transgenic organisms would be clear on internal evidence alone. I don’t know anything about this stuff, so probably the answer is “Yes” for reasons obvious to experts. But if it weren’t …

From the sound of Weisman’s book, though, internal evidence wouldn’t be all that was available. Our putative Arthropod successors would likely be able to conjecuture as follows: “The lost civilization who did this is probably the same one responsible for leaving those giant goddamn piles of steel-belted rubber rings and miscellaneous plastic items piled around the place.” To which someone would no doubt reply, “Come off it, no organism that spent its time making rubber tubes and piling them up in giant mountains would have ever been smart enough to figure out genetic engineering.”

[1] It occurs to me that rice requires a lot of cultivation to prosper, but there aren’t any humans to take care of it. Hence, “insert example as needed.”

Worst job ever?

by Eszter Hargittai on July 19, 2007

Unclear why exactly:), Michael Froomkin asks the question:

What would be the most unattractive job in the regular economy? I’m not talking about the objectively least-well paid or statistically most dangerous, or most unpopular (car salesman?). I mean, what job would you least like to have. No fair saying subsistence farmer in Darfur either — I mean in the US (or other developed economy).

His response: toll booth attendant.

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The question of disciplinary boundaries seems to be coming up a lot lately, and Brian’s post on Gott’s Copernican principle provides yet another instance. Gott, an astrophysicist, is interested in the question of whether you can infer the future duration of a process from its present age, and this issue seems to received some discussion in philosophy journals.

It may be beneath the notice of these lofty souls, but statisticians and social scientists have actually spent a fair bit of time worrying about this question of survival analysis (also called duration analysis). For example, my labour economist colleagues at ANU were very interested in the question of how to infer the length of unemployment spells, based on observations of how long currently unemployed people had actually been unemployed. The same question arises in all sorts of contexts (crime and recidivism, working life of equipment, individual life expectancy and so on). Often, the data available is a set of incomplete durations, and you need to work out the implied survival pattern.

Given a suitably large sample (for example, the set of observations of Broadway plays, claimed as a successful application of Gott’s principle) this is a tricky technical problem, and requires some assumptions about entry rates, but raises no fundamental logical difficulties. The problem is to find a distribution that fits the data reasonably well and estimate its parameters. I don’t imagine anyone doing serious work in this field would be much impressed by Gott’s apparent belief that imposing a uniform distribution for each observation is a good way to go.

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