Isonkokoisia ajatuksia

Olen lueskellut viime päivinä vastauksia Edge.orgin vuoden kysymykseen "What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?" Löysin koko Edge-sivuston Andrew Sullivanin linkittäessä Daniel Dennetin vastaukseen. Pitänee lukea aikaisempien vuosien kysymyksiä ja vastauksia joskus. Tein hieman poimintoja noista vastauksista (niitä on paljon, 192 kappaletta). En ainakaan keksinyt, miten yksittäisiin vastauksiin voi linkata, joten ne pitää löytää ihan perinteisellä ctrl-f-tekniikalla sieltä.

Vastaukset keskittyvät aika pitkälti luonnontieteisiin, enkä voi sanoa ymmärtäväni niitä kauhean hyvin. Monet niistä eivät edes puhu selityksistä, vaan pikemminkin huomioista ja tieteellisistä elämänohjeista. Tässä joka tapauksessa omat nostoni, toivottavasti ne ilahduttavat jotakuta. Kommentoin vain paria ekaa ja senkin teen ihan vain siksi että saan hieman Kydland-Prescott-hehkutusta sydämeltäni.

Seuraavat kaksi sitaattia assosioituivat jotenkin siihen, kuin luin tuossa taannoin (viimeinkin) kunnolla Kydland & Prescottin klassikkoartikkelin Rules Rather than Discretion: the Inconsistency of Optimal Plans. [pdf] Artikkelissa on suuresti siisteyttä, mutta yksi pointti, jonka se tekee hyvin voimallisesti on se, että huonoissa lopputulemissa ei ole välttämättä kyse pahoista intentioista.

Richard H. Thaler:

It is a fundamental principle of economics that a person is always better off if they have more alternatives to choose from. But this principle is wrong. There are cases when I can make myself better off by restricting my future choices and commit myself to a specific course of action.


Mahzarin Banaji:

From these bounds on rationality generally, we can look also at the compromise of ethical standards—again the story is the same; that it is not intention to harm that's the problem. Rather the explanation lies in such sources are the manner in which some information plays a disproportionate role in decision making, the ability to generalize or overgeneralize, and the commonness of wrong doing that typify daily life. These are the more potent causes of the ethical failures of individuals and institutions.


Vilayanur Ramachandran:

After his triumph with heredity, Crick turned to what he called the "second great riddle" in biology—consciousness. There were many skeptics. I remember a seminar Crick was giving on consciousness at the Salk Institute here in La Jolla. He'd barely started when a gentleman in attendance raised a hand and said, "But Doctor Crick, you haven't even bothered to define the word consciousness before embarking on this." Crick's response was memorable: "I'd remind you that there was never a time in the history of biology when a bunch of us sat around the table and said, 'Let's first define what we mean by life.' We just went out there and discovered what it was—a double helix. We leave matters of semantic hygiene to you philosophers."


Amanda Gefter:

Thankfully, we don't have to resort to miracles. Newton may have gotten the physical interpretation of gravity wrong, but he got a piece of the math right. That's why, at weak masses and small velocities, Einstein's equations reduce to Newton's. The problem, Worrall pointed out, was that we mistook an interpretation of the theory for the theory itself. The fact is, in physics, theories are sets of equations, and nothing more. "Quantum field theory" is a group of mathematical structures. "Electrons" are little stories we tell ourselves.


Koko Dan Sperberin tarina Eratostheneksesta on hieno. Tarina löytyy näemmä suomenkielisestä Wikipediastakin.


Virginia Heffernan:

Richard Rorty's transformation of "survival of the fittest" to "whatever survives survives" is not in itself my favorite explanation, though I find it immensely satisfying, but it enacts a wholesome return to language away from the most rococo fantasies of science. In this case, a statement that looks to describe history and biology—controversially, no less—drops into a foundational locution, a tautology. Back to the beginning, the mere Word. Anytime an explanation, for anything, returns us to language, and its dynamics, I'm satisfied. Exhilarated.

Nicholas Humphrey:

On reading "The Origin of Species" Erasmus Darwin wrote to his brother Charles in 1859: "The a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won't fit in, why so much the worse for the facts."

Rudy Rucker:

Disgruntled scribes sometimes fantasize about a utopian marketplace in which the naturally arising inverse power law distribution would be forcibly replaced by a linear distribution, that is, a sales schedule that lies along a smoothly sloping line instead of taking the form of the present bent curve that starts at an impudently high peak and then swoops down to dawdle along the horizontal axis.

But there's no obvious way that the authors' sales curve could be changed. Certainly there's no hope of having some governing group try and force a different distribution. After all, people make their own choices as to what books to read. Society is a parallel computation, and some aspects of it are beyond control.

The inverse-power-law aspects of income distribution are particularly disturbing. Thus the second-wealthiest person in a society might own half as much as the richest, with the tenth richest person possessing only a tenth as much, and—out on in the burbs—the thousandth richest person is making only one thousandth as much as the person on the top.


Is there some reason why the top ranks do so overly well, and the bottom ranks seem so unfairly penalized?

The short answer is no—there's no real reason. There need be no conspiracy to skew the rewards. Galling as it seems, inverse power law distributions are a fundamental natural law about the behavior of systems. They're ubiquitous.

Inverse power laws aren't limited to societies—they also dominate the statistics of the natural world. The tenth smallest lake is likely to be a tenth as large as the biggest one, the hundredth largest tree in a forest may be a hundredth as big as the largest tree, the thousandth largest stone on a beach is a thousandth the size of the largest one.

Whether or not we like them, inverse power laws are as inevitable as turbulence, entropy, or the law of gravity. This said, we can somewhat moderate them them in our social context, and it would be too despairing to say we have no control whatsoever over the disparities between our rich and our poor.

But the basic structures of inverse power law curves will never go away. We can rail at an inverse power law if we like—or we can accept it, perhaps hoping to bend the harsh law towards not so steep a swoop.


Timothy D. Wilson:

My favorite is the idea that people become what they do. This explanation of how people acquire attitudes and traits dates back to the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, but was formalized by the social psychologist Daryl Bem in his self-perception theory. People draw inferences about who they are, Bem suggested, by observing their own behavior.


In short, we should all heed Kurt Vonnegut's advice: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

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