In a theme connected with one argument in Dawkins’ The God Delusion, The New York Time just published a piece on the 20th anniversary of the debate between Carl Sagan and Ernst Mayr about the likelihood of the apparition of intelligent life. While 20 years ago, there was very little evidence if any of the existence of Earth-like planets, the current estimate is about 40 billions… The argument against the high likelihood of other inhabited planets is that the appearance of life on Earth is an accumulation of unlikely events. This is where the paper goes off-road and into the ditch, in my opinion, as it makes the comparison of the emergence of intelligent (at the level of human) life to be “as likely as if a Powerball winner kept buying tickets and — round after round — hit a bigger jackpot each time”. The later having a very clearly defined probability of occurring. Since “the chance of winning the grand prize is about one in 175 million”. The paper does not tell where the assessment of this probability can be found for the emergence of human life and I very much doubt it can be justified. Given the myriad of different species found throughout the history of evolution on Earth, some of which evolved and many more which vanished, I indeed find it hard to believe that evolution towards higher intelligence is the result of a basically zero probability event. As to conceive that similar levels of intelligence do exist on other planets, it also seems more likely than not that life took on average the same span to appear and to evolve and thus that other inhabited planets are equally missing means to communicate across galaxies. Or that the signals they managed to send earlier than us have yet to reach us. Or Earth a long time after the last form of intelligent life will have vanished…
Archive for The New York Times
Just like after the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappearance, the current Ebola virus outbreak makes me feel we are sorely missing an emergency statistical force to react on urgent issues… It would indeed be quite valuable to have a team of statisticians at the ready to quantify risks and posterior probabilities and avoid media approximations. The situations calling for this reactive force abound. A few days ago I was reading about the unknown number of missing pro-West activists in Eastern Ukraine. Maybe statistical societies could join forces to set such an emergency team?! Whose goals are somewhat different from the great Statistics without Borders…
As a side remark, the above philogeny is taken from Dudas and Rambaut’s recent paper in PLOS reassessing the family tree of the current Ebola virus(es) acting in Guinea. The tree is found using MrBayes, which delivers a posterior probability of 1 to this filiation! And concluding “that the rooting of this clade using the very divergent other ebolavirus species is very problematic.”
While I thought the series run by The Stone on the philosophy [or lack thereof] of religions was over, it seems there are more entries. This week, I read with great pleasure the piece written by Tim Maudlin on the role played by recent results in (scientific) cosmology in refuting theist arguments.
“No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us.” T. Maudlin
What I particularly liked in his arguments is the role played by randomness, with an accumulation of evidence of the random nature and location of Earth and human beings, which and who appear more and more at the margins of the Universe rather than the main reason for its existence. And his clear rejection of the argument of fine-tuned cosmological constants as an argument in favour of the existence of a watchmaker. (Argument that was also deconstructed in Seber’s book.) And obviously his final paragraph that “Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry”. This may be the strongest entry in the whole series.
A few weeks ago, I reported reading a dismal New York Times blog entry on atheism. The Stone has continued publishing entries on the topic of religions and atheism, with mostly poor tribunes (maybe because the interviews were with philosophers from various religious stands rather than philosophers of religion). The third one on deconstructing religion almost sounds like a joke made by a follower of Sokal and Bricmont!
“Religion at its best (…) focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values.”
The sixth in the series is however more interesting, with an interview of Philip Kitcher, professor at Columbia. It is entitled the case of soft atheism and defends a separation between religious doctrines that are incredible (as a non-native speaker [and as an unbeliever], I am surprised by this use of incredible and would have instead used unbelievable) and religious commitment that the author sees as a mild form of humanism. This “refined religion” puts value on people without referring to a specific ritual or doctrine. I find the arguments of Kitcher quite interesting, even though they seem to stray from philosophy towards sociology, i.e. about why religion is an important social vector that may bring cohesion and inclusion in this soft version. As exemplified in the above quote. This is somewhat representative of the whole series, that again I find lacking in philosophical depth. (I also think Kitcher’s `refined religion’ is not very representative of the current conglomerate of religious believers. Who stick to their own doctrine as the only expression of truth.)
In the latest Sunday Review of the New York Times, the Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo has a tribune on revenge against misdeeds and law as institutionalized revenge. Somewhat hidden in the current justifications of the legal system(s). (As an aside, he mentions the example of the Icelandic Alþingi where justice was dispensed once a year, resulting in beheadings, stake burnings, and drowning in the pond depicted above…) This came a few days after another tribune on a similar topic by Charles Blow, following the “botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett”, entitled “Eye-for-eye incivility” (an understatement if any!), and arguing about the economic inefficiency of the death penalty. Besides the basic moral quandaries of taking someone else’s life, perfectly summarised by Franquin in the following dark strip:
This sequence of tribunes links to one of my pet theories, which is that imprisonment is the most inadequate way of addressing crime and law breaking in (modern?) societies. Setting fully aside the moral notions of revenge and punishment, which aim more at the victim or victim’s relatives than at the perpetrator, and of redemption and remorse, which are at best hypothetical and inspired by religious considerations, I do wonder why economists have not tried to come up with more rational and game-theoretic ways of dealing with law-breakers than locking them up all together and expecting them to behave forever after the end of their term. More globally, I find it quite surprising that no one ever seems to question the very notion of sending people to jail. Indeed, it does bring any clear benefit to society as a whole. One of the usual arguments I receive in those occasions is that imprisonment keeps dangerous people away. But that seems a fairly weak notion: (i) most violent offenders are not dangerous in an absolute berserker sense but only because local circumstances made them violent at a given occurrence in space and time, (ii) those offenders are only put away for a while (in most civilised countries), (iii) they are not getting any less dangerous while in prison, and (iv) it does not apply to the vast majority of people jailed. Furthermore, from a pure offer-versus-demand perspective, this may be counterproductive: e.g., putting some thieves away in jail for a while simply gives an opportunity to other thieves to take advantage of the “thieving market”.
The Freakonomics blog has some entries on the topic—somewhat supportive of my notion that most criminals act in an overall rational way for which incentives and decentives could be considered—, but still fails to address the larger picture… I showed this post to Andrew who pointed me (of course!) to his blog, as several entries therein also consider the issue, like this one on the puzzles of criminal justice. Or prison terms for financial fraud? But I would push the argument further and call for an ultimate abolishment of the carceral system, seeking efficient and generalised alternatives to imprisonment. As detailed in this U.N. report I just came across. As I think a time will come when imprisonment will be seen as irrational as witch-burning is considered today.
Throughout my recent trip to Canada, I read bits and pieces of Clockers by Richard Price and I finished reading it last Sunday. It is an impressive piece of literature and I am surprised I was not aware of its existence until amazon.com suggested it to me (as I was checking for recent books by another Richard, Richard Morgan!). Guessing from the summary it could be of interest and from comments it was sort of a classic, I ordered it more or less on a whim (given a comfortable balance on my amazon.com account, thanks to ‘Og’s readers!) It took me a few pages to realise the plot was deeply set in the 1990’s, not only because this was the high of the crack epidemics, but also since the characters (drug dealers and policemen) therein are all using beepers, instead of cellphones, and street phone booths).
“It’s like a math problem. Juan got whacked at point X, he drove away losing blood at the rate of a pint every ninety seconds. He was driving forty-five miles an hour and he bought the farm two miles inside the tunnel (…) So for ten points, [who] in what New Jersey town did Juan?” Clockers (p.272)
The plot of Clockers is vaguely a detective story as an aging and depressed homicide officer, Rosso, hunts the murderer of a drug dealer, being convinced from the start that the self-declared murderer Victor did not do it. In parallel, and somewhat more closely, the book follows the miserable plight and thoughts and desires of Victor’s brother, Strike, who is head of a local crack dealing network, under the domination of the charismatic and berserk Rodney Little… But the resolution of the crime matters very little, much less than the exposure of the deadly economics of the drug traffic in inner cities (years before Freakonomics!), of the constant fight of single mothers to bring food and structure to their dysfunctional families, to the widespread recourse to moonlighting, and above all to the almost physical impossibility to escape one’s environment (even for smart and decent kids like Victor and, paradoxically enough, the drug-dealing Strike) by lack of prospect and exposure to anything or anywhere else, as well as social pressure, early pregnancies and gang-related micro-partitioning of cities.
When I mentioned Clockers to Andrew, he told me that he also liked it very much but that the characters were not quite “real”. I somewhat agree in that, while the economics, the sociology and the practice of drug-dealing sound very accurately reproduced (for all I know!), the characters are more caricaturesque or picturesque than natural. The stomach disease of Strike sounds too much like an allegory of both his schizophrenic split between running the drug trade and looking for a definitive quit, while the sacrifice of his brother makes little sense, except as a form either of suicide or of escape from an environment he can no longer stand. What is most surprising is that Richard Price (just like Michael Crichton) is a practised screenwriter (who collaborated to Spike Lee’s 1995 Clockers). So he knows how to run an efficient story with convincing characters and plot(s). Hence my little theory of a picaresque novel… (Here is Jim Shepard’s enthusiastic review of Clockers. With the definitely accurate title of “Sympathy for the dealer”.)
Another breakfast read of the New York Times that engaged enough of my attention to write a post (an easily done feat!): besides a lengthy introduction, Edward Frenkel, the author of the column, considers the Platonic issue of whether or not “mathematical entities actually exist in and of themselves”, an issue also central to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. And suddenly switches to another philosophical debate, realism versus idealism, the later view being that reality only exists in the mind. And seriously (?) considers the question of whether or not we live in a computer simulation… Uh?! There is actually research going on with this assumption, as shown by the arXiv paper the column links to. This is also called the Matrix Hypothesis on Wikipedia. While I understand the appeal of arguing that we cannot distinguish between living in a real world and living in the simulation of a real world (this is a modern extension of Plato’s cave), I do not get the point of addressing the issue in a Physics paper. Seems more appropriate for science-fiction literature. Like Philip K. Dick‘s…