How Do We Know?

17 Aug

How can fallible creatures like us know something? The scientific method is about answering that question well. To answer the question well, we have made at least three big innovations:

1. Empiricism. But no privileged observer. What you observe should be reproducible by all others.

2. Open to criticism: If you are not convinced about the method of observation, the claims being made, criticize. Offer reason or proof.

3. Mathematical Foundations: Reliance on math or formal logic to deduce what claims can be made if certain conditions are met.

These innovations along with two more innovations have allowed us to ‘scale.’ Foremost among the innovations that allow us to scale is our ability to work together. And our ability to preserve information on stone, paper, electrons, allows us to collaborate with and build on the work done by people who are now dead. The same principle that allows us to build as gargantuan a structure as the Hoover Dam and entire cities allows us to learn about complex phenomenon. And that takes us to the final principle of science.


7 Jan

Limited Time Only

Lifespan ~ 80 years*52 weeks/year ~ 4k weeks

If you are 40: 2k weeks to go.

If you are 70: another 500–700 weeks.

Interpolate for rest.


If you read a book a week for 50 years, you will read ~ 2500 books.

Approximately 130M books have been published.


India’s PPP adjusted median per capita income was $1,497/yr in 2013. So ~ 550M people < $1500/yr.

  • Since it is PPP wage, think about living on $1500/year in the US
  • Another way to think about it:
    Wage of median American working for a year ($26,964) > wage of 18 Indians working for a year
  • Yet another way to think about it:
    Avg. career ~ 35 years (30–65)
    What median American will earn in 2 yrs = lifetime earning of an Indian earning median income
  • Yet another way to think about it:
    median CEO/median worker wage ~ 4x
    median US Worker/median Indian worker ~ 18x
  • Yet another way to think about it:
    From a company’s perspective, median American has to be more than 45x productive (where shipping 0, as in lots of digital products) than median Indian or outsourcing or automation makes more sense.

Capuchin Monkeys and Fairness: I Want At Least As Much As The Other

1 Dec

In a much heralded experiment, we see that a Capuchin monkey rejects a reward (food) for doing a task after seeing another monkey being rewarded with something more appetizing for doing the same task. It has been interpreted as evidence for our ‘instinct for fairness’. But there is more to the evidence. The fact that the monkey that gets the heftier reward doesn’t protest the more meager reward for the other monkey is not commented upon though highly informative. Ideally, any weakly reasoned deviation from equality should provoke a negative reaction. Monkeys who get the longer end of the stick, even when aware that others are getting the shorter end of the stick, don’t complain. Primates are peeved only when they are made aware that they are getting the short end of the stick. Not so much if someone else gets it. My sense is that it is true for most humans as well – people care far more about them holding the short end of the stick than others. It is thus incorrect to attribute such behavior to an ‘instinct for fairness’. A better attribution may be to the following rule: I want at least as much as the others are getting.

Fairly Random

15 Mar

The lottery is a way to assign disproportionate rewards (or punishments) fairly. Procedural fairness “equal chance of selection” provides legitimacy to this system of disproportionate allocation.

Given the purpose of a lottery is unequal allocation, it is important that informed consent is sought from the participants, and that it is only used in important areas when necessary.

Fairness over the longer term
One particular use of lottery is in the fair assignment of scarce indivisible resources. For example, think of a good school with only hundred open seats that receives a thousand applications from candidates who are indistinguishable (or only weakly distinguishable)—given limitations of the data —from each other in matters of ability. One fair way of assigning seats would be to do it randomly.

One may choose to consider the matter closed at this point. However, this means making peace with disproportional outcomes. Alternatives to this option exist. For example, one may ask the winners of the lottery to give back to those who didn’t win – say by sharing the portion of their income attributable to going to a good school, or by producing public goods, or by some other mutually agreed mechanism.

Fair Selection
Random selection is a fair method of selection over objects where we have no or little reason to prefer one over the other. When objects are observably (as much as data can tell us) same, or similar, same within some margin, random selection is fair.

One may extend it to objects that are different but for no discretionary action of theirs, say people with physical or mental disabilities, though competing concerns, such as lower efficiency etc., exist. More generally, selection based on some commonly agreed metric – say the maximal increase in the public good – may also be considered fair.

As is clear, those who aren’t selected don’t deserve less, and indeed adequate compensation ought to be the formal basis of selection, unless of course rewards once earned cannot be transferred (say lottery to get a liver transplant, which leaves others dead, and hence unable to receive any compensation, though one can imagine rewards being transferred to relatives, etc.).

Structural Inequality

27 Nov

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, recently spoke about social mobility. He said,

My particular focus is on inter-generational social mobility – the extent to which a person’s income or social class is influenced by the income or social class of their parents. Social mobility is a measure of the degree to which the patterns of advantage and disadvantage in one generation are passed on to the next. How far, if you like, the sins of the father are visited on the son.

There is, of course, plenty of argument within the social science community about precise measures, international comparisons, and preferred metrics. But I think intergenerational social mobility speaks to most people’s definition of fairness.

Fairness means everyone having the chance to do well, irrespective of their beginnings. Fairness means that no one is held back by the circumstances of their birth. Fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did, but your ability and your ambition.

In other words, fairness means social mobility.

Social mobility is only half-imagined — as movement from lower rungs to upper rungs, not vice versa. Society, currently constructed, offers a relatively fixed (likely declining) number of upper shelf jobs, and it thus reasons that for every n transitioning to the upper echelon, a similar ought to transition to the lower rungs. Now a politician wouldn’t sell his idea — that he wants a certain number of rich people to make way for the poor and in turn take their place — but then we all expect such diplomacy from politicians.

Fairness as a level playing field or a fair lottery is widely accepted as an ideal. Wide acceptance is no insurance against fundamental problems. To help illustrate the problems, here’s an example.

Imagine a fair marriage in which at the beginning husband and wife flip a coin — heads the wife does all chores for the entire tenure of the marriage, tails the wife never has to do chores. Of course, marriages based on this fair coin toss don’t seem fair to us — we would ideally want all couples to share the unpleasant chores equally, or by some such equitable arrangement arrived at by mutual agreement.

Carrying over the analogy to society — we would want everyone to take part in unpleasant chores, and everyone to take part in more pleasant activities, equally; we simply don’t want everyone to just have an equal shot. Of course, such lack of specialization makes for a very inefficient system. So perhaps one can prorate the wage to the unpleasantness of work, with people stuck doing unpleasant work being provided wages at higher rates, greater leisure time, etc. exactly opposite the system we have in place now.

Summarizing, the current society is unfair not only because not everyone has a similar chance of success, but also because there are only a few good opportunities — mandating that there be a large set of losers, and a small set of winners.

Discussion on education and economic equality can be accessed here.

Why Not to Think Like a Lawyer

30 Jan

The following article is by Chaste. The article was written as a response to the following two reviews in the New York Review of Books:

I respond to two articles by Ronald Dworkin to illustrate the pitfalls of using lawyerly thinking in our role as citizens. Lawyerly thinking focuses on the controversy as presented, it relies on opinion rather than facts, and it misunderstands the nature of contemporary government and market actions. NYRB published the first a year ago at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy (March); in September, it published a second, which discussed the issue of same-sex marriages among others.

Why not to think like a lawyer

As we remember the Danish cartoons controversy that erupted a year ago, and as the issue of same-sex marriages takes its course, I offer this reflection on the way we often approach marginalization of minorities by markets and by governments. I will frame my reflection as a response to two of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s pieces published in the New York Review of Books. In his March article on the Danish cartoons, he approved the discretion of Anglo-American media, defended the European press’ right to ridicule, and urged an acceptance of the right to ridicule even when constrained by holocaust related exceptions. In the second article published in September, he argues in favor of the legalizing of gay marriages on dignitary and cultural grounds. He declares that these grounds make the issue different from say religious prayer, and make civil unions an inadequate alternative.

I am disturbed by several aspects of Dworkin’s reasoning, which I will characterize as ‘lawyerly’:

  • Dworkin, as in his Danish cartoons piece, is more interested in addressing the problem as offered to him than in framing the problem adequately. This is analogous to the role of an adjudicator who tries to settle only the controversy presented before him. Yet the needs of a fuller understanding and of justice often demand the examination of additional parties and issues.
  • Dworkin at times relies more on opinion than on fact. This tends to produce principled rather than well-informed pragmatic choices. Judges and by corollary, lawyers rely on legal principle and opinion. Even common law judges seldom see themselves as making laws to address the facts. Yet making pragmatic choices informed by facts is precisely the function of citizens. Unfortunately, most of Dworkin’s stands are principled rather than pragmatic; even his pragmatic stand on religion in the pledge of allegiances couched as an exception to principled choices. Principled stands are particularly unfortunate in humanitarian matters: given the scale of injustice in the world and our tacit acceptance of those injustices, principled choices are likely to project hypocrisy rather than conviction.
  • Dworkin’s solutions are sometimes mal-formed because of an unfortunate understanding of markets and of the government as expressions of common intent. With notable exceptions like antitrust, markets appear before the legal system largely as a series of contracts between consenting parties for securing mutual advantages. The government, on the other hand, appears as an instrument of the majority that is capable of imposing constraints on any and all. Such a view prompts a heightened legal scrutiny of government regulations relative to market practices. Yet the consequences of market constraints are no less serious from the market unavailability of abortion facilities to the effects of inane media on the information level of Americans. Therefore, we need to focus on the nature and effect of the constraints themselves, and not overemphasize their source.

Danish Cartoons of the Prophet

Dworkin’s piece on the Danish cartoons shows up the pitfalls of such ‘lawyerly’ thinking. I will begin by laying out the main free speech issues in the order of their priority to the Danish press and government:

  • Holocaust sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten’s cultural editor who commissioned the prophet cartoons was sent on immediate indefinite leave after saying that he might, after review, print Iranian cartoons of the Holocaust. The editor-in-chief said that the paper would in no circumstances publish the holocaust cartoons, and the cultural editor recanted with “I am 100% with the newspaper’s line.”
  • Christian / market sensitivities: The editor of the Sunday edition of Jyllands-Posten turned down cartoons about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that readers would not enjoy the drawings because they would “provoke an outcry.”
  • Danish dairy exports: Within five days of the dramatically successful boycott of Danish dairy exports, Jyllands-Posten apologized. The apology preceded most of the violent protests and was not a response to them.
  • Freedom of expression: Speech affecting the three preceding drew from Jyllands-Posten, suppression and retaliation, suppression, and an apology respectively. Speech affecting the last proved to be no such encumbrance.
  • Muslim sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten made no apology for 3-4 months after Danish Muslims and Muslim nations protested the publication.

Dworkin allows the parties before him to frame the issue rather than framing it himself. The consequence is that he focuses primarily on Muslim sensitivities as a threat to free speech even though it was the only one of the four to be no encumbrance. As for the three that did trump freedom of speech, Dworkin mentions only the one specifically raised by one of the parties, namely, holocaust related sensitivities. This inattention to facts leads Dworkin to the misleading framing of the problem and to the inappropriate principled solution mentioned above.

A fuller attention to facts reveals the problem to be not whether there should be a right to ridicule; rather it is the extent to which large commercial entities can ridicule marginalized groups to seek commercial gain. Recall that Jyllands-Posten was the largest selling Danish newspaper at the time, and had experienced sharper circulation drops in recent years than its competitors. This is not speech that can claim freedom from regulation that it may speak truth to power; such speech is itself an exercise of power. For the minority that constitutes an insignificant market segment, it does not help to know that it is the market and not the government, which has generated the demeaning images swirling around them. There is no good reason why the law should not limit such an exercise of power, much as it limits the actions of other players like the government or of large commercial players in other markets. Such limits on speech would naturally be narrow, and limited to large commercial players. The size requirement will ensure that expression which is not a major exercise of power would stay regulated; the commercial purpose requirement will ensure that such expression is not effectively suppressed by limiting it to minor fringe players. It will safeguard against the abuse of free speech as a commodity to generate profit: a commodity that can evade the usual social cost-benefit analysis based regulations. Dworkin’s tired adherence to a principled position on free speech mixed with calls to marginalized groups to endure unequal legal limits on free speech is as inadequate a solution as his articulation of the problem is misleading. Indeed the only context for which Dworkin’s analysis is appropriate is that of the publication of the cartoons in Muslim countries, a context that he fails to mention.

Same Sex Marriages

Dworkin’s reasoning about same-sex marriages in “Three Questions for America” is similarly unfortunate. After a brilliant discussion of the teaching of evolution controversy, he argues on dignitary grounds for a principled position in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples, and for an understanding (not a justification) of the exception of including religion in the pledge of allegiance on materiality grounds.

I will assume civil unions with full rights as the pragmatic alternative to same-sex marriages. They are politically viable in several states, yet proponents of same-sex marriages like Dworkin dismiss them as inadequate. The assumption also clarifies that Dworkin and other advocates of same-sex marriages object to the law’s embodiment of a cultural detriment even when there is no corresponding legal detriment. This is both startling and impractical. It is startling because the law is not the best arena for renegotiating cultural detriment or privilege. It is impractical because cultural inequities are generally too embedded even in law for such an effort to be little more than picking favorites. Consider the example of July 4th. Americans undertake legally favored celebrations for an event that was to perpetuate slavery for 30 years after the mother country abolished it. Blacks can justly view such legally favored celebrations as a cultural detriment, but there are few moves afoot to replace July 4th with the day that civil rights became effective.

Dworkin’s habits of view regarding the government and the market prevent him from realizing that in the absence of legal detriment, the different unions on offer resemble cultural products on a market, and hence are more akin to a market rather than government constraints. His refusal to view a fuller picture makes him appear oblivious to the fact that his principled position constitutes picking favorites. Indeed civil unions may become a new and more inclusive cultural product: one without the historical advantages/baggage of marriage, but /one capable of adequately competing with it in due course.

Any regulation for mitigating the market constraints imposed by a cultural product should follow the usual social cost-benefit analysis. Unlike the inclusion of religion in the pledge, which mandates expression that may be antithetical to a group’s beliefs, marriage laws only deny a cultural product to particular groups. Whereas an unregulated media may inflict countless fresh detriments on insignificant market segments (minorities), marriage laws only preserve an existing cultural detriment. Therefore, it is not clear to me that same-sex marriages have a compelling case in the current divided and polarized environment.

Dworkin may argue with some justification that principled positions can be useful in the pedagogical framework that his piece invokes. It is not clear to me that an American high school environment and the stage of maturation it represents is the best arena for forming self-defining opinions. Further, it is likely to exacerbate the American habit of forming opinions without much regard to evidence. When based on evidence of the effect of government recognition of same-sex relationships on religious beliefs and practices and on lifestyle choices, there may be some merit to such an experiment since high school is the last structured educational environment for many. Yet neither of Dworkin’s suggested readings, for all their eloquence and careful thinking, contain any evidence that addresses the real or imagined fears of same-sex marriage opponents.