The alleged data drought

Sabine Hossenfelder has written there is a drought of data in physics:

Nothing is moving in the foundations of physics. One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

I agree that there is a real problem here. There is no particular reason to think that building yet another particle accelerator at enormous expense will produce much progress in fundamental physics. Nor is there any reason to think that theories of new symmetries or particles will produce progress. Current ideas in particle physics are solutions searching for problems. There are a bunch of constants with unexplained values, but there is no particular reason to think those values will be explained by symmetries or whatever.

There are other cases of research programs that exist despite the absence of any serious problems or ideas about solutions. The controversy that is commonly said to be about the “interpretation” of quantum mechanics is a result of physicists refusing to take the theory seriously as a description of how the world works. The standard approach is to assume quantum physics is false and then look for another theory that reproduces its predictions, e.g. – hidden variables, the pilot wave theory, spontaneous collapse and so on. There is a lot of theoretical and experimental effort looking for problems with quantum physics without bothering to refute proposed solutions to those problems: the many worlds interpretation and the decoherence research program. “I don’t like this theory” is not a refutation, but it is the substance of all the complaints.

Scientific progress starts with a problem: an incompatibility between existing theories, or between existing theories and experimental data. There are many such problems in physics as it stands now. The lack of a quantum mechanical theory of gravity is one such problem. In cosmology the fact that supernova brightness deviates from standard models of cosmology is another problem. Physicists need to get back to looking for problems of this sort and to considering a wider range of potential solutions.

In addition, academic physics is in need of some institutional change. Elliot Temple has suggested that physicists should have discussion forums open to the public. I also think that part of the uniformity in physics is a result of the economics of government funding of physics. Academia is a cartel that directs money toward particular fashionable projects because they don’t pay any price for indulging their whims. If government funding of academia was eliminated physicists would have to get funding from elsewhere or change jobs. A wider range of projects might be funded, which I think would be an improvement.

Government, taxes and protests

You should use force only to defend your own rights or those of other people against people who are trying to violate those rights, and not otherwise. You have no obligation to defend others whose rights being violated unless you have specifically agreed to do so, but you can do it if you want to. However, there is a problem with defending rights by force. Consider somebody who sees you using force legitimately. The observer has a legitimate reason to be concerned about whether you’re using force properly. If you’re not using it properly, then you’re a dangerous person and he may be your next victim. And an illegitimate use of force is a problem even if it’s targeted at somebody else.

So there can be disputes about the legitimacy of any particular use of force and we need some way of settling such disputes. Settling those disputes itself often involves force because if somebody runs around using force illegitimately then he won’t stop doing this just because you ask him nicely. In Western countries institutions for settling such disputes are mostly provided by the government: police, courts and the military.

Governments currently raise money through taxes and inflation. This money is itself raised by threatening people with force. If you don’t pay your taxes, the government will use force against you. If somebody offers to pay off a debt in government money, then you can’t sue them for non-payment of the debt. So if a debtor tried to pay you in government money and you used force to get payment in a form you found preferable, the government wouldn’t regard that as a legitimate use of force and might punish you. So you can’t avoid government devaluing its currency by simply refusing to accept government money. So government money retains its value in part because of the government’s use of force. The government uses force to raise money. It then uses that money to do X. So part of the means by which the government does X is the use of force. So if X isn’t a purpose for which force can legitimately be used, then the government shouldn’t spend that money on X. No current government even makes much of an attempt to approximate that rule. All governments pay for stuff like bridges, medical care, housing and other stuff that nobody should use force to obtain. However, since tax money is used for some purposes for which the use of force is legitimate, you should pay it.

We should reform in the direction of governments only using force for legitimate purposes. We should also be willing to reform in the direction of governments using means other than force to raise money.

In some countries a lot of people are dissatisfied with governments and they are protesting. In France, some people are protesting over fuel taxes. In the UK, some people are protesting about the government’s refusal to honour the results of the brexit referendum. These protests sometimes block streets and some of them involve the use of force. One protest in the UK blocked an ambulance from getting to a person who was ill, which I think is the use of force. In cases like that the police may be right to stop protesters from blocking the ambulance and using force might be necessary. But in general, if people are protesting in the streets either government policy sucks or it hasn’t been explained well, so the government is at fault.

In the case of the brexit protests, the government has fucked about for two years and tried to appease the EU. The government could and should have delivered the promised policy two years ago. The government is entirely in the wrong on this issue.

In the case of tax protests in general both sides are in the wrong. The protesters generally want the policies the taxes are paying for. Government officials never properly explain the enormous cost of government provision of healthcare, leaflets and meetings about slippers and all the other junk that governments shouldn’t be doing. Both sides are guilty of remaining deliberately ignorant about the costs and consequences of their preferences: both sides are lying. And if they don’t stop lying, then one or both sides will resort to much more serious violence than we have seen so far. If you want to understand where this problem comes from, then read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, especially the first section of Part Two, Chapter X “The Sign of the Dollar”. The same problems will arise soon in other countries. People need to understand individual liberty better or they will lose it.

Homo deus by Harari: a second handed book

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is garbage.

Homo Deus is a second handed book. Ayn Rand pointed out that many people live their lives without having any positions or preferences of their own – they are second handers. They just repeat ideas and express preferences they took from others without thinking critically about whether those ideas and preferences make sense. There is a style of non-fiction writing that is distinctive to second handed writers. It involves writing some factual stuff, then very vaguely repeating some stuff about somebody else’s position and maybe saying that you think that position is plausible or something like that. The writer doesn’t discuss the substance of the ideas because then he would have to think for himself. This sort of writing is boring to read because the writer isn’t addressing any problems.

The second handed style also has another problem. The author doesn’t realise that his worldview is actually a susbstantive set of ideas that might be wrong. So he states his ideas as if they were just facts. And since he hasn’t bothered to criticise those ideas, they are often bad ideas. Here’s a specific example of this problem:

In the middle of the nineteenth century Karl Marx reached brilliant economic insights.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus (p. 65). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Harari drops this sentence into the book and never bothers to discuss its substance as though nobody could possibly object to it. Anyone with any knowledge of history should be sceptical about this claim. The only governments that have claimed to follow Marx’s ideas have murdered tens of millions of people. In reality, Marx’s ideas were inconsistent and so badly mistaken, as pointed by Bohm Bawerk more than a century ago, see also George Reisman’s refutation of Marxism, see also comments by me and Elliot Temple on Time will run back by Hazlitt. Marx had a labour theory of value according to which the value of a commodity depended on how much labour was expended in making it. In reality, a person will buy a good if he prefers that good to the goods he has to give up to get it. The seller offers his goods for sale on the market and if people want to buy them at the offered price he may stay in business. So value is determined by preferences not by labour – the subjective theory of value. Marxists have made many attempts to evade these problems, but they suck. If Harari has somehow managed to refute all the criticisms of Marx, then why does he not present that refutation, or even link to such a refutation? The answer is that Harari has no refutation of the criticisms of Marx. Harari is a dishonest hack and his work is trash.

Tunnelling guess 3

In a previous post I described a simulation of tunnelling I conducted to test a guess I made about quantum tunnelling. David Deutsch had guessed that some of the instances of a particle have energy above the energy of the barrier and they got though the barrier. I guessed that none of the instances of the particle had energy greater than that of the barrier and that tunnelling was just an interference effect. I conducted a simulation to test my guess guess and found that it was wrong. The probability of a particle having energy greater than that of the barrier increased for some energies greater than that of the barrier.

I have a new guess for what’s going on. The barrier reflects the instances of the particle that interact with it with a high probability, so the barrier is like a mirror. An accurate model of the barrier would take into account the fact that it is a finite but large physical system. The barrier would be modelled as having a mixed state with a range of positions and momenta. The interaction with the particle would slightly change the probabilities of those states. There would be a high probability of the before and after states of the barrier being indistinguishable since the probability of detecting it in a state with larger momentum than any of its previous states would be negligible. This is similar to the explanation of why mirrors interacting with photons doesn’t prevent interference in interferometers in The Beginning of Infinity, pp.296-297. Some instances of the particle gain momentum and others lose it as a result of the interaction, but the transmission or lack thereof is due to an interference effect rather than the loss of gain of momentum.

For the reason that makes you afraid of it

The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”

To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, The virtue of selfishness, Introduction

Brett Hall has tweeted a criticism of Ayn Rand’s use of the word selfish:

Hall later writes:

So he would have preferred that Rand use the term ‘rational self interest’ instead of ‘selfishness’. Now, Rand could have used the term ‘rational self interest’. Presumably if she didn’t use it, she had a reason for not using it. She stated her reason for using the word selfishness (The Virtue of Selfishness, Introduction):

It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.

Selfishness is used to mean that you pursue your interests by harming other people. So the only word for pursuing your own interests includes the idea that doing so requires harming other people. This assumption is deeply embedded in many of the ways people think about life. Any policy cutting back the welfare state or even slowing its growth is said to be selfish. CEOs are condemned as selfish for making lots of money. A child is condemned as selfish for having any preference that a parent finds slightly inconvenient at a given moment. Replacing the standard idea of selfishness is necessary for moral progress and skirting the issue isn’t going to help.

Now, what about using the term “rational self interest” instead of selfishness? The problem with calling Rand’s book “The virtue of rational self interest” is that many people would think they know what it’s about without reading it. There are similar terms that stand for bad ideas, like enlightened self interest, which means that if you act to help other people you will somehow benefit. You shouldn’t plan to benefit cuz that would be doing something other than helping other people. Rather, the benefit should magically pop out of nowhere despite you doing nothing to specifically bring it about. So if I sold all my stuff, gave the proceeds to the poor and lived in a cardboard box under a bridge that would somehow benefit me.

The term rational is also used in ways that are anti-rational. The definition of rational in Merriam Webster links to the definition of reasonable, which includes “not extreme or excessive” and links to the definition of moderate. So rational is often seen as not taking a position to extremes, which means you should be willing to have a position that can sometimes lead to bad stuff when you act on it. In reality, if you have a position that won’t work if your pursue it consistently, you should ditch that position because it’s wrong. So many people will read “rational self interest” as “sometimes you should act in your self interest but sometimes you shouldn’t cuz that would be unreasonable”. So if Rand called her book “The virtue of rational self interest” she would have misled many people.

UPDATE For the sake of clarity, I chose to reply to this tweet mostly because I think it expresses a common misconception about Objectivism and how to promote ideas. I didn’t write it as a reply to Brett Hall per se. To be clear I think Brett is in the group of people targeted by Rand’s sentence ‘For the reason that makes you afraid of it.’ He is afraid of advocating Rand’s good ideas clearly, so he would prefer to adopt terminology that muddies the waters. This means he can deceive lefties he is talking to and himself into thinking they agree more than they do. His tactics are doomed to fail as promotion of Rand’s ideas. People who won’t even consider an idea advocated using the word ‘selfishness’ won’t come around to Rand’s views if they are dressed up a little. In reality, the mistakes such people make are much deeper and no terminological change would fix that problem.

The EU and the sanction of the victim

Theresa May has produced a deal that is possibly the worst political document I have seen in a long time. The substance of the ‘deal’ is that the EU keeps making rules for the UK but we have no MEPs. Yes, that’s right is even worse than our current political position, which is already terrible.

The Prime Minister has tweeted about the deal being offered by the EU and how much businessmen allegedly love it. All this tweet makes me think is that some businessmen hope to profit by getting the EU’s boot to stamp on the faces of their competitors. In reality, this advantage would erode the businesses that take “advantage” of it by making them into politicians’ pets who are incapable of surviving without special treatment. And of course, those politicians would quite happily destroy every single one of the businesses in that tweet the second it was convenient.

Things didn’t have to be this way. All Theresa May had to do two years ago was say the following:

We will have no tariffs with the EU and will maintain our current border arrangements with Ireland. We’ll make our own laws and won’t be passing any of your regulations.

Then we just leave the EU to do whatever they want. If the EU choose to raise tariffs with the UK, then we just say:

It’s a terrible shame that EU politicians are so blinded with hatred for people who want their politicians to be accountable that they are willing to stab their own constituents in the back by making mutually beneficial trade more difficult.

In other words, just tell the truth about the EU and don’t take any shit from them. And what are the EU going to do? Nothing. The EU only has power that member states choose to give them. The EU needs the sanction of the victim and if we withdraw it the EU is finished:

I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent. I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was “No.”

MPs and businessmen and everyone else should just say ‘No’ and leave the EU with or without a ‘deal’. We have nothing to gain from a deal with corrupt, unaccountable politicians. They don’t make anything of any value. They don’t do anything of any value. They have nothing to offer. All we have to do is walk away.

Errors of knowledge vs evil

Brett Hall has tweeted about an alleged Ayn Rand quote:

The alleged Rand quote is “It makes a difference whether one thinks that one is dealing with human errors of knowledge or with human evil.” I haven’t been able to find this exact combination of words so I don’t know if Rand actually wrote this quote. I’m not saying she didn’t. I am saying that I haven’t found it. I looked it up to look for context to explain what Rand is saying.

On page 1059 of Atlas Shrugged John Galt explains Rand’s ideas on the difference between errors of knowledge and moral errors:

“Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept any breach of morality. Give the benefit of the doubt to those who seek to know; but treat as potential killers those specimens of insolent depravity who make demands upon you, announcing that they have and seek no reasons, proclaiming, as a license, that they ‘just feel it’—or those who reject an irrefutable argument by saying: ‘It’s only logic,’ which means: ‘It’s only reality.’ The only realm opposed to reality is the realm and premise of death.

This is an important distinction. Somebody who commits a moral breach in the sense described in that passage is a lot more dangerous than somebody who is factually mistaken.

I’ll give an example. there are a couple of kinds of socialists. Some socialists are young people who take ideas seriously and in particular they take seriously the moral ideas preached by their parents, teachers etc. You should be unselfish, the highest virtue is sharing and all that rubbish. If these cliches were actually true, then it would be bad to refuse to give away your stuff to the poor. So why shouldn’t the government make you give away your stuff? So lots of young people who don’t know any better support socialism.

But if you’ve been on the internet for a while, you will find out that there are people who disagree with socialism. Some of those people will mention that socialist governments killed over 100 million people. I’l list some of the options you can take on finding out about these deaths. Option (1): ditch socialism since an ideology that results in so much death must have something wrong with it. Option (2) is to look into this issue until you find out why so many people were killed by socialist governments. The first hit when I look for criticisms of socialism on Google was a wikipedia page that mentions Mises. So there are leads you can follow to find better ideas than socialism. Option (3) is to do neither of those things. Rather, you just call people names like ‘fascist’ when they disagree with socialism.

The person who takes option (3), let’s call him Jim, has some serious moral flaws that make him a lot more dangerous than anyone who takes the first two options – this is a breach of morality. Since he insults and ignores anyone who tries to explain reality, it is difficult for him to improve his ideas. This creates two relevant problems.

The first is that Jim is dangerous. Lots of people are being scapegoated on the internet by people who take option (3). Jim may be willing to try to destroy people who disagree with him. He may try to get critics fired, or kicked off the internet, kicked off payment processors and so on. He doesn’t have a problem with a pile of corpses and he may not have a problem with trying to put your corpse on the pile.

The second problem is that it’s difficult to correct Jim’s errors. He would have to learn better ideas about how to engage with criticism. Trying to get him to change his mind about that issue is a different kind of task than just pointing somebody to Mises to correct his bad ideas about socialism.

Jim’s errors are a result of lack of knowledge, as the quote from BoI claims. But the knowledge he lacks is very different from the knowledge lacked by somebody who has never heard criticisms of socialism. Morally, Jim is a lot worse than somebody who takes options (1) or (2). To pretend he is no different is bad for reasons Rand pointed out.