Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dennis Mangan's dangerous ideas

Mangan links to an article by Richard Thaler at The Edge which asks,
The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?

Mangan provides excerpts from the following Edge contributors:
Greg Cochran answers:

I would guess that most basic anthropological doctrine is false — for example. the 'psychic unity of mankind'. but then most practitioners don't really pretend to do science.

The doctrine is, of course, gnostic in that it presumes a mind/body dichotomy, a non-corporeal, uniform human 'essence' which justifies equality of outcomes. Edge contributor Judith Harris takes a related stab:
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In other words, people tend to resemble their parents. They resemble their parents not only in physical appearance but also, to some degree, in psychological characteristics.

The question is: Why? Two competing answers have been offered: nature (the genes that people inherit from their parents) and nurture (the way their parents brought them up). Neither of these extreme positions stood up to scrutiny and they eventually gave way to a compromise solution: nature + nurture. Half nature, half nurture. This compromise is now an accepted belief, widely held by scientists and nonscientists alike.

But the compromise solution is wrong, too. Genes do indeed make people turn out something like their parents, but the way their parents brought them up does not. So nature + nurture is wrong: it's nature + something else.
As one of Mangan's commenters points out, we know that brain development is greatly affected by early sensory inputs. Abandoned animals and children are mentally stunted. However, we also know that different people respond to the same environment in different ways, so Harris's hypothesis seems to have some merit.

Mangan then lists his own examples of currently held beliefs he predicts will be proven erroneous.
I haven't read all the contributors' answers, but I'll throw out the lipid hypothesis (or cholesterol hypothesis) of heart disease, although the belief is still widely held by many. I'm certain that it's wrong, and put my money where my mouth is by living accordingly.

I'm less certain about HIV as a cause of AIDS, but I do believe that the theory will have to be at least seriously modified.

Another one: exposure to solar radiation is unhealthy, and that one should avoid it to prevent cancer. Still widely held.

The theory of anthropogenic global warming: nothing but a fad.

To the extent that economics is a science - that is, to not a great extent - Keynesian economic theory is wrong, the Austrians are right.
This strikes me as a pretty good list. Low carb has withstood everything the USDA has thrown at it. AIDS appears 'sticky' to unhygienic practices that put a heavy load on the immune system, and people who do not engage in those practices remain resistant to HIV despite dire warnings that 'we all are at risk.' Has HIV actually been isolated?

With respect to solar radiation/skin cancer, I think Mangan is overlooking the pretty obvious evolutionary adaptation of melanin content.

Global warming: How can a compound, CO2, which comprises 0.039% of the atmosphere and which retains less heat than more abundant water vapor be responsible for global warming? We are told that the glaciers and polar ice caps are melting which means they are absorbing heat, like a cold turkey placed in a hot oven. Do the numbers balance? Is there that much 'excess' heat, and again, how can it be due to a trace atmospheric compound? The AGW hypothesis reminds me of the astrologer's fallacy: the movements of celestial bodies light-years away are believed to exert more influence on human development than, say, the actions of the obstetrician. Why is CO2 and not solar activity or urbanization the object of inquiry?

Keynesian theory: In 1990, the world saw the essential, inevitable failure of Marxism. Keynesian policies are not far behind. Deficit spending, money printing, suppression of interest rates, all efforts to 'prime the pump' during recessions are, at bottom, just loans taken out against future productivity. Eventually you run out of future.

The larger social trend that merits comment is how the alleged anti-science of the Roman Catholic theocracy has been adopted by the secular humanist establishment.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The North American future

From Victor Davis Hanson at National Review:
... We hear about the tough small-business regulations that have driven residents out of the state, at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a week. But from my unscientific observations these past weeks, it seems rather easy to open a small business in California without any oversight at all, or at least what I might call a “counter business.” I counted eleven mobile hot-kitchen trucks that simply park by the side of the road, spread about some plastic chairs, pull down a tarp canopy, and, presto, become mini-restaurants. There are no “facilities” such as toilets or washrooms. But I do frequently see lard trails on the isolated roads I bike on, where trucks apparently have simply opened their draining tanks and sped on, leaving a slick of cooking fats and oils. Crows and ground squirrels love them; they can be seen from a distance mysteriously occupied in the middle of the road.

At crossroads, peddlers in a counter-California economy sell almost anything. Here is what I noticed at an intersection on the west side last week: shovels, rakes, hoes, gas pumps, lawnmowers, edgers, blowers, jackets, gloves, and caps. The merchandise was all new. I doubt whether in high-tax California sales taxes or income taxes were paid on any of these stop-and-go transactions.

In two supermarkets 50 miles apart, I was the only one in line who did not pay with a social-service plastic card (gone are the days when “food stamps” were embarrassing bulky coupons). But I did not see any relationship between the use of the card and poverty as we once knew it: The electrical appurtenances owned by the user and the car into which the groceries were loaded were indistinguishable from those of the upper middle class.

By that I mean that most consumers drove late-model Camrys, Accords, or Tauruses, had iPhones, Bluetooths, or BlackBerries, and bought everything in the store with public-assistance credit. This seemed a world apart from the trailers I had just ridden by the day before. I don’t editorialize here on the logic or morality of any of this, but I note only that there are vast numbers of people who apparently are not working, are on public food assistance, and enjoy the technological veneer of the middle class. California has a consumer market surely, but often no apparent source of income. Does the $40 million a day supplement to unemployment benefits from Washington explain some of this?

Do diversity concerns, as in lack of diversity, work both ways? Over a hundred-mile stretch, when I stopped in San Joaquin for a bottled water, or drove through Orange Cove, or got gas in Parlier, or went to a corner market in southwestern Selma, my home town, I was the only non-Hispanic — there were no Asians, no blacks, no other whites. We may speak of the richness of “diversity,” but those who cherish that ideal simply have no idea that there are now countless inland communities that have become near-apartheid societies, where Spanish is the first language, the schools are not at all diverse, and the federal and state governments are either the main employers or at least the chief sources of income — whether through emergency rooms, rural health clinics, public schools, or social-service offices. An observer from Mars might conclude that our elites and masses have given up on the ideal of integration and assimilation, perhaps in the wake of the arrival of 11 to 15 million illegal aliens...

Interestingly, this was linked by Christopher Manion at the scrupulously "you can't see borders from space" crowd at Manion asks, "...there are over two billion people in the world who live on less than two dollars a day. How many, I wonder, do we want to invite in?"

Most libertarians argue loud and long that borders are tyranny, nobody owns them, people have a right to travel (actually, they don't), ad nauseum. When reality catches up with their ideal, it appears they don't like what they see.

So, to answer Mr. Manion's question, "Not so many that you have to live with the consequences."