Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A word on Frum's Patriots

I've just finished David Frum's novel Patriots, which is absorbing, insightful and funny. I might be expected to give it a positive write-up, being a friend and sometime colleague of David's. However, be it noted that if I didn't like the book, I would not hesitate to say so here at Quicksilber, given this blog's fiercely independent tradition of presenting my candid opinions to an indifferent world.

It takes place in an alt-universe America, where the economy is dismal, the military is bogged down fighting insurgents in Mexico, and politics is polarized between "Constitutionalists" and "Nationalists." Walter Schotzke, callow trust-funder, gets sucked into the Constitutionalist movement and encounters fanatical activists, scheming politicos, craven think-tank officials, Machiavellian media moguls and more.

Some people might be irritated by this book, perhaps perceiving unflattering parallels between themselves and certain characters at places like the Constitutionalist Institute and the Wall Street Transcript. Some young readers might respond to the book by hesitating to apply for that congressional internship or op-ed page job for which they were aiming. However, some readers might respond to the nuanced narrative by focusing on its glimmers of hope for American political culture.

I found fascinating the tension between realism and caricature, and the grey areas where it's not clear where one ends and the other begins. It was also quite interesting seeing Schotzke's perspective slowly change, as his experience and sophistication grow. In any event, I laughed out loud. And if I could vote for Sen. Hazen of Rhode Island, last of the moderate Constitutionalists, I would do so.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Manzi's Uncontrolled redux

A few more thoughts now on Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society. This follows the positive review I gave the book at David Frum’s Daily Beast blog and the guest post I later ran here at Quicksilber by my father-in-law Prof. William S. Carter, a chemist and industrial hygienist, who was rather critical of the book. This discussion perhaps should take place over a pint next time the several interested parties are in the same city, but here goes anyway.

I believe some of the differences between Bill Carter and Jim Manzi reflect tensions between working scientists and the much smaller group of “philosophers of science.” Although Manzi is not a professional philosopher, his book draws heavily upon that academic field, with an emphasis on Kuhn and Popper. Manzi’s statement “In science, theory precedes experiment” reflects a strain of thinking in philosophy of science that experiments are “theory-laden” — that scientists’ collection and interpretation of data is heavily influenced by preconceptions.

How much merit there is to that line of thought I don’t know; taken to an extreme, it could generate the sort of postmodern gibberish deflated by Alan Sokal’s famous hoax. But where Bill dismissed Jim’s statement as “false,” I’m inclined to say “debatable.” (I’ll take the liberty of some first-name usage, though I haven’t met Manzi.) While I understand there is back-and-forth in the philosophy of science about this sort of thing, I think it is fair to say that scientists tend to be unimpressed by such philosophizing; and the philosophers reciprocate by thinking scientists don’t take philosophy seriously enough.

Some of Carter’s criticisms emphasize that Manzi’s discussion would be more thorough if he had addressed things he did not delve into (blinding, confidence levels, etc.). Such criticisms are fair enough, though it’s also true that Jim wrote a pretty dense and wide-ranging book as it is. I would’ve liked to see something on some topics Bill didn’t mention, such as why scientists are confident on matters of evolution and climate change that are not generally addressable by controlled experiments. A good answer, I think, is in philosopher Susan Haack’s analogy of science to a “crossword puzzle” with interlocking lines of evidence. Maybe we can all agree there’s material for a second Manzi book.

Lastly, I note that Bill was unimpressed by what he called Jim’s “political rhetoric” and “libertarian statements.” As someone who’s had a lot of exposure to libertarianism (and growing disagreements with it), I would not be surprised if Manzi’s “liberty as means” and defense of the welfare state get him some negative reviews from uncompromising libertarians. We’ll see. In any case, Uncontrolled is a book that provokes some interesting discussions.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Guest post: A dissenting view on Manzi's Uncontrolled

I recently gave a positive review to Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society at David Frum's Daily Beast blog. I then passed the book on to William S. Carter, Emeritus Professor, Environmental Safety and Health at the University of Findlay, who happens to be my father-in-law. Bill was less impressed by the book; his review is below. —K.S.

Jim Manzi's book Uncontrolled is a bold attempt to apply the scientific experimental model to public policy. To complete his application Mr. Manzi should first provide a more complete description of the scientific method. He fails to define the concept of hypothesis, but proceeds to intersperse the use of hypothesis and theory. The scientific method requires the developing of a hypothesis or several hypotheses and then testing those hypotheses with data. Most often in testing a hypothesis the experimenter describes two hypotheses, an affirmative hypothesis and a null hypothesis. The data collected is compared for the experimental group relative to a control group. Either random selected or otherwise carefully selected cohorts are selected to minimize the potential for bias. The results may demonstrate a difference, determined by a statistically significance test.

When determining whether the data sets are significantly different requires that the experimenter to determine, preferably beforehand, what level of significance is acceptable. A 99% significance level may be preferable to a 95% or 90% since there is a greater confidence in the statement that the outcomes are differences. In some situations, and often in pharmaceutical clinical trials, a 95% confidence levels is considered acceptable to proceed to make a professional judgement.

In Mr. Manzi's discussion he fails to explain the difference between correlation and causality. Typically a single experiment only demonstrates a correlation. Additional data obtained from separate experiments are needed to develop a causal relationship. Mr. Manzi references John Mill and Sir Austin Hill on how to determine likely causality. In fact Hill outlines nine criteria that could be employed to determine whether statistical associations are indeed causal associations. Failing to discuss these important aspects weakens Manzi's argument. Regression analysis is a process of showing multiple relationships between possible independent variables and a single dependent variable. Again no causal relationship can be concluded based on the mathematical calculations, as implied by Manzi. Perhaps Manzi is too quick to jump to the same conclusions that imprudent readers jump to in reviewing well constructed scientific papers.

An example of the conclusion jumping occurs on p. 88 where Manzi discusses studies conducted in Ghana. In reviewing the hypotheses put forward as a result of the study, he concludes they are all false. The data does not appear to refute the null hypothesis and therefore no conclusions should be drawn. Researchers would have to either collect more data to demonstrate a statistical difference or reformulate the affirmative hypothesis. With the possibility of many confounding variables (what Manzi calls high causal density) the possibility of the outcome resulting in affirmation of the affirmative hypothesis becomes less likely.

Again on p.159 Manzi's statement "In science, theory precedes experiment" is false. In science initial data encourages development of hypotheses which then need to be tested. Science is a continuous iterative process of attempting to prove or improve on a hypothesis. When there is a large body of information that can be culled together to develop an over arching concept this information is pulled together to form a theory.

There is a limited discussion of the importance of blinding to limit or attempt to control bias. In clinical trials single blinding occurs when the patient does not know whether she is being treated or has received a control or placebo. In double blind, neither the patient nor the direct experimenter knows which cohorts are being treated. In triple blind experiments not only do the patient , experimenter, but also the person(s) doing the statistics not know who has been treated and who is a control.

When Manzi gets to Chapter 13 he wanders off into another world. It is not clear to me whether he chose to enter a political arena to sell the book or whether the gobbledegook that he writes is written to try to tie his arguments into the latter chapters. Whichever, the chapter seems totally irrelevant and leads to a weakness of his credibility in his final chapter 15 recommending "Sustainable Innovation."

Chapter 15 provides a reasoned set of recommendations to improve public policy. Manzi claims his argument is based on his previous chapters. In fact some of his suggestions seem to be disconnected from previous chapters. He states there is a need for decentralized innovation, however his examples argue for innovation with no justification for decentralization. In fact, he argues for strong oversight by a federal authority similar to the FDA for studying public policy issues such a medical delivery, education and criminal justice. Innovation requires some form of supervision of the studies to coordinate and evaluate the study results. All human studies require an Institutional Review Board so that we do not repeat unethical or illegal tragedies such as the famous Tuskegee syphillis study.

Some of the proposals he suggested have merit. He advocates increasing the number of students pursuing science and math. He recommends automatically issuing H-1B visa to international students graduating with appropriate math and science degrees.

However, others have problems. For instance, his suggestion to privatize schools are structured to benefit the stockholders. How is that an improvement over union contracts benefiting the teachers? Establishing a financial mutually funded institutions where the parents (or students) make the investment and reap the benefits. We need a common knowledge bases for upper level learning (high school or college) or else colleges will spend even more time than they do now in remediation education. Funding at a limited number of research institution will only exacerbate an already existing problem. Federal funding that funnels money to a limited number of "successful " institutions restricting innovative thinking. Many good ideas have sprung from smaller institutions and projects started on a shoe string. We need to be able to foster those innovative ideas with a spreading of federal funding, not shrinking the institutions who are considered to be "eligible."

Overall this book would have greater value if the political rhetoric (libertarian statements) would have been left out. A clearer statement of the scientific method and how it could be applied to public policy could turn this book into a useful and more widely read reference source.

— William S. Carter, Ph. D. CIH
Emeritus Professor Environmental Safety and Health
The University of Findlay
Findlay, OH 45840

Next Congress

My latest article for Research magazine is now online: "The Next Congress," focused on how the elections will play out for committees and legislation involving the financial sector. Opening:
This year’s congressional elections hold considerable potential to reshuffle power on Capitol Hill. Neither the Democratic majority in the Senate nor the Republican majority in the House has a secure grip on control of its respective institution. For the financial sector, the stakes include the future of the Dodd-Frank regulatory framework and the composition of the key committees overseeing financial services industries.
Congress, indeed, is one of the few institutions rivaling Wall Street in unpopularity at present. An April average of polls tracked by the website Real Clear Politics showed job disapproval ratings for Congress at 78% and approval ratings at 14%.
Whole thing here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Population transfers

I'm fairly pro-immigration, and I think it's an intriguing idea to let states set different standards for attracting immigrants, but what in the world is Mike Bloomberg talking about here?
The report noted that Canada allows its provinces to set different immigration standards to attract the type of employees each region needs. 
The mayor quickly endorsed a similar proposal for US states — and then some. 
“There’s no reason why you have to have a common immigration policy for all of America,” he argued. “You could let each state do it differently. 
“I would argue the federal government should go one step further. They should deliberately force some places that don’t want immigrants to take them, because that’s the only solution for these big, hollowed-out cities where industry has left and is never going to come back unless you get some people to move there.”
Emphasis added. If that's not a recipe for social strife and disintegration, I don't know what is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Some 1950s semi-nostalgia

This is interesting, both because of what David Frum has to say and because of Joe Posner's creative graphics.

Speaking of the 1950s, I am about two-thirds of the way through Eisenhower in War and Peace, at the point where he's dealing with Quemoy and Matsu. One interesting theme of the book is that, as president, Ike was often at odds with the conservative wing of his party, more so than I would've thought.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Last Lion ending

Good news: The long-awaited last part of a trilogy, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, is coming out later this year (and already available for pre-order). It was completed by Paul Reid, who took over the project after William Manchester's death. Some more info is here, by Steven Hayward at PowerLine.

One point: I don't agree with Hayward's contention that Manchester portrayed Churchill as a Victorian throwback, this being the key to his greatness. Very early on, in the first volume, Manchester quoted Clement Attlee's description of Churchill as like a "layer cake" with nineteenth and twentieth century slices but also earlier ones "and another, curious, layer which may possibly have been the twenty-first."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Third-party fizzle

A few months ago, I wrote about Americans Elect: "The organization’s potential to shake up the 2012 race is considerable." Maybe not.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Manzi's Uncontrolled

Over at David Frum's Daily Beast blog, I review Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society. Excerpt:
Manzi is a software entrepreneur who has made a mark in conservative commentary in recent years at National Review and the Manhattan Institute. This complex book puts him in a tradition, with Friedrich Hayek and Sir Karl Popper, that emphasizes limits to knowledge of how societies work and thus views government intervention and centralization with wariness. I will return to Manzi’s political arguments, but I think a substantial part of Uncontrolled’s value is in its sharp thinking about how various disciplines seek reliable knowledge.
 Physics and chemistry have made great headway, in major part, because they study phenomena that are relatively simple and suitable for controlled laboratory experiments. Astronomy similarly benefits from its subject’s low “causal density,” in Manzi’s apt phrase, with the natural conditions of isolated celestial bodies allowing repeated observations that approximate lab experiments (plus the field has tight linkage to physical laws that have been corroborated experimentally).
Whole thing here.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Brooklyn Dionysium

Todd Seavey, whose Lolita Bar debates I frequently attended and participated in, has a new event series, the Dionysium, located in a bar in Brooklyn. The first event, on May 17, features Brian Doherty discussing his book Ron Paul's rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired. Logistically, my attendance at that event is problematical, and I do look at the libertarian movement with considerable detachment these days, in no small part because of Ron Paul, but nonetheless I'm sure this will be an interesting start to a promising series.