Archive for September, 2010

Monty Python and scientific discoveries

September 30, 2010

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a British comedy series of the early 1970s that is one of my favorite shows of all time. The series was clearly an influence on sketch comedy shows that came decades later such as HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David of the mid-1990s, another one of my favorites. Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the Pythons’ influences. The absurdity of their skits was wholly a product of their vivid and wild imaginations, or so it seemed.

One of the Pythons’ most famous sketches was the “Dead Parrot sketch.” In the bit, John Cleese has just bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop, only to find out later that the parrot is dead. He returns to the pet shop to complain, but the owner, Michael Palin, will hear none of it. Palin puts forward all manner of silly explanations for the bird’s behavior, claiming that it is “resting,” or “stunned” or even that it is “pining for the fjords.”

Cleese is taken aback by the shop owner’s patently false characterizations, and launches into a tirade about the bird’s true state of health.

John Cleese: It’s not pining, it’s passed on…It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.

After doing some investigation on the Internet, I learned that the Dead Parrot sketch was inspired by a sketch the Python gang performed a year earlier for a different program, called “How to Irritate People.” In the earlier incarnation, future Python cast member Graham Chapman takes his brand new car back to the dealership after discovering numerous problems with it. The salesman, played by Palin, refuses to admit there is anything wrong with the car, even as it comes apart before his eyes. This sketch was itself inspired by an experience Palin had with a car salesman in real life.

Learning the history of the Dead Parrot sketch reminded me of a seemingly unrelated story in the history of science. If you asked people around here, “Who invented the light bulb?” I think most of them would say Thomas Edison, who invented it in 1880. And that is correct, at least if you live in the United States. If you ask that question in Britain, the answer you’ll get is Joseph Swan, and if you ask it in France, you’ll hear the name Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, while the Russians will tell you it was A. N. Lodygin. In some sense they are all correct, depending on what counts as a “light bulb.”

In the 19th century, scores of researchers in several countries were producing ever better vacuum seals and carbon filaments. The light bulb was not produced by a single person sitting in a room for hours on end, but through the exchange of ideas (and patents) among many experimenters. I’ve found that is true in the world of comedy, too. Funny skits do not usually spring into existence after an epiphany or Eureka-moment. They’re often the result of a long succession of refinements, just as a carpenter makes finer and finer cuts from a block of wood until his masterpiece is finally revealed.


Bentham is turning in his grave

September 29, 2010

Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics that is difficult for non-utilitarians to understand. Apparently, the lack of comprehension extends even to self-identified utilitarians!

Take the economist Scott Sumner, a self-described utility-maximizer who teaches economics at Bentley University in Massachusetts. In a response to Bryan Caplan’s post about double standards in war, Sumner wrote:

Scott Sumner: Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender. Would the act have been morally justified? I’d say yes, but only because we were fighting the ”bad guys.” On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified. They were fighting the “good guys” (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad guys.”)

There is no such concept of “good guys” or “bad guys” in utilitarianism. Units of utility are judged equally regardless of the being who holds them. Moreover, utility is not dependent upon a being’s prior acts. Jeffrey Dahmer did not forfeit his moral worth after he became a serial killer – in fact, it stayed the same. Call him a “bad guy” if you will, but such classification is irrelevant to a utilitarian.

What is relevant to utilitarians is future probabilities based on past data. Forcing Germany and Japan to surrender would produce a different amount of utility than if America were to surrender (has al Qaeda ever demanded a US “surrender”, as in turning over the Capitol building to bin Laden?). If the expected outcomes differ in utility amounts, it is not hypocritical to support one but not the other.

Sumner posts a second reply to Caplan, and digs himself a deeper hole.

Scott Sumner: It’s true I haven’t seen any occasions when I thought foreigners would have been justified in killing lots of Americans. But I’m not sure that means I have a double standard. I don’t recall many occasions (in the past few decades) where I thought a country would be justified in killing lots of Estonians, or Thai people, or New Zealanders, or Canadians, Portuguese, or people from lots of other countries.

It’s funny he mentions Portugal as if the country hasn’t been in a war since the 1600s.

I suspect that Sumner’s unease at American deaths has more to do with group serving bias than historical facts. How was it not justifiable for Iraqis to shoot at Americans who had shot at them first? Is that really a difficult question?

Immigration control: solution in search of a problem

September 28, 2010

I interviewed a candidate for national office earlier today. I sped through a litany of questions about subjects as diverse as military tribunals to health care to biofuels. I saw on this candidate’s website that she has a page devoted to immigration and her opposition to giving “amnesty” to illegal aliens (i.e. a path to legal status).

Immigration is an issue I’ve written about many times before, and my feeling is the recent call for a crackdown on illegal immigration is a solution in search of a problem. To see if my feeling was correct, I bluntly asked the candidate, “What problems do illegal immigrants cause?” I was expecting a response that detailed the crime wave they’ve induced, or the drugs they smuggle in, or the jobs they steal. Instead, the candidate retorted with what struck me as a transparent tautology, which was that illegal immigration is a problem because it is illegal.

My thoughts exactly!

To be fair, the candidate was in favor of more liberalized legal immigration and a more streamlined path to citizenship for those who entered legally, and I applaud her for that. But she needs to remember, as we all do, that enforcing laws is costly, especially to the person against whom it is enforced. Sometimes, enforcement is even more costly than the crime it seeks to prevent. And if you can’t think of any real costs the crime imposes on others, maybe you should reconsider enforcing the law against it.

The trolley victim

September 23, 2010

One of the most famous thought experiments in ethics is known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem is as follows: an unmanned trolley is heading down a track. A mad philosopher has tied five people to the track who will be killed if the trolley continues on its course. However, there is an alternate track on which the trolley could run if a switch were flipped, and on this track is tied a single person. You have the power to flip the switch. What do you do?

The problem is designed to bring out the differences in competing moral theories. Some ethicists suggest it is worse to kill someone than to let him die. They say that flipping the switch makes you an active participant in the killing in a way that you are not if you just let the trolley run its course. Other ethicists do not see the sharp distinction between action and inaction, and argue that refusing to flip the switch is itself an action. The problem then becomes whether we think five lives are more valuable than one.

If you think flipping the switch is the obvious choice, consider this variation of the trolley problem: a doctor is treating five patients, all of whom will die without an organ transplant. A healthy man walks into the hospital for a routine check-up. The doctor looks at the man and sees two lungs, two kidneys and a heart.

There are countless variations of the problem; each one intended to elicit a different combination of intensely emotional and coolly rational responses. It may seem like a trivial observation, but the easiest way to prompt an emotional response to the trolley problem is to move your listener from the switch to the track. Instead of looking at the problem as an unaffected third party, imagine that it is your life on the line.

When you put yourself in the shoes of the person on the alternate track, it doesn’t seem so obvious that flipping the switch is the best decision. If you were the one tied up, and you saw someone flip the switch, how would you react? Would it matter how many people were on the other track? If you saw 100 people on the other track, would you say to yourself, “Well, it looks like I have to be the one to die.”? I suspect that most people would be horrified of being run over by a trolley, and would have a hard time calmly rationalizing someone else’s decision to kill them with it.

I think this insight has wider application than just hypothetical ethical problems. I think it can be applied to warfare. No matter how obviously just an invasion is to a third party, it’s almost never seen as just by those who are victims in the invaded country.

Analogy of the War on Terror

September 10, 2010

Today is September 11. The day is significant not just for the terrorist attack that occurred but the counter-terrorism effort it begat. I’ve never before expressed my opinion on this wider “War on Terror” and have hitherto confined my commentary to specific pieces of it. But I think it’s time we try to understand the War on Terror as a whole, and I think the best way to do that is through an analogy.

Think of terrorism as a disease like gangrene. Imagine that the president learns of an outbreak of gangrene in New York City. He orders doctors to round up people who have discolored toes and amputate their feet. However, the doctors sometimes guess wrongly and amputate the feet of non-infected people.

Later, it turns out that not only did the doctors amputate many healthy people, but that they did not wash their knives, and have given gangrene to people who did not previously have it. To correct this, the president orders a second round of amputations, but somehow the doctors forget to wash the knives, so the problem reoccurs and gangrene continues to spread.

Doctors learn that gangrene may be caused by diabetes and long-term smoking, and that efforts to prevent these maladies will diminish the likelihood of future gangrene outbreaks. The president dismisses these explanations as “blame-the-patient” propaganda and declares that gangrene is in reality caused by other-worldly demons. He said there is no way for an earthly being to reason with the demons or control them in any way other than to amputate the limbs they inhabit.

Back to the real world now. My position on terrorism is that the government will have to put some people in prison and may even have to kill some people, just like in our example in which some people really do need amputations. However, the government has killed a lot of people with nothing to do with terrorism, just like our doctors amputated the limbs of uninfected people.

Secondly, much of the terrorism since 9/11 has come as a result of US counter-terrorism and would not have occurred without it. The Fort Hood Shooter is just one of many people who became a murderer because of counter-terrorism operations, just like the patients in our example who became infected only after the first round of amputations.

Lastly, the real president of the US (George W. Bush for most of this War) really did say things about terrorism as stupid as those in our example, where the fictitious president blames the disease on supernatural forces. And just like in our analogy, efforts to understand the disease were dismissed in real-life as “blame-America-first.”

How can we expect to cure a disease when we’re not even interested in its causes?

The deep structure of sports

September 8, 2010

Americans enjoy a panoply of sports as diverse as ice hockey and sand volleyball. While it is true that we partake in a wide variety of games, the apparent variation between games masks just how similar they are. It may not be obvious to the naked eye, but games as dissimilar as soccer and basketball share the same deep structure.

It’s not just basketball and soccer that share an abstract outline. Football, rugby, hockey, handball, water polo and lacrosse use the very same skeleton. Notice that all of these games can be summarized as follows: A rectangular playing area is divided into two halves; on either end lies a goal, which belongs to one of the two competing teams; each team attempts to place a ball into its opponent’s goal while also preventing its opponent from placing the very same ball into its own goal; the match is timed, and the team with the most goals when time expires is declared the winner.

As you can see, that is a detailed framework but it is by no means limiting. It allows for sports that require kicking such as soccer and sports that forbid it such as basketball. It accommodates surfaces from hardwood floors to grass to ice and to water. And yet, as accommodating as this “goal” framework is, there are still many games that lie outside it.

Another category of popular games can be described as “alternate shot” games, and they include volleyball, tennis, badminton and racquetball. The structure of some of these games bears a superficial resemblance to goal games in that the playing area is rectangular, the pitch is often divided into two equal halves and each team is assigned a half to defend. While that is true for tennis and volleyball, that is not true for racquetball, which has very little in common with the goal games.

The alternate shot games differ from the goal games in that the players are not attempting to put a ball in a goal but rather to prevent their opponents from returning the ball when it is in the opponent’s “court.” These games do not use time as the goal games do. The matches end when one side has scored the requisite number of points, which is different from the goal games in which it doesn’t matter if the winner scores one goal or 100 goals, so long as it scores more goals than its opponent.

Mysteriously absent from this taxonomy is the game of baseball. Baseball, its sister, softball, and its cousin, cricket, appear wholly different from all other games, and I will call them the “bat” games. The teams do not attempt to defend portions of the field as they do in the goal games. Instead, they take turns trying to score on the same goal. Also unlike the goal games, the defensive side handles the ball most of the time it is in play.

The bat games are also different in that they do not progress by the passage of time, as in the goal games, nor by the tallying of points, as in the alternate shot games. Bat games progress via “outs,” which are recorded by the defense, a concept that is alien to the other games.

The lesson we can take away from this analysis is that we are far from exhausting the range of possible games that can be invented. The goal framework is just one of many outlines a game can take, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of other frameworks.