Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A More Robust Conception of Truth

Nate Silver tweeted this today:

This is similar to the point I was trying to make in an earlier post. We (rightly) expect that news stories will be factually accurate. A news organization that reports false stories deserves opprobrium. (This is to be distinguished from human error, which inevitably leads to some mistakes requiring corrections.) But what about a news organization that scrupulously reports the facts, but does so in a way designed to mislead its audience?

To state what should be obvious, the epistemological status of that kind of reporting is highly suspect. It is analogous to "publication bias" in science, in which positive results are widely broadcast while negative results get little attention. This is what I think Nate Silver was getting at with his tweet. "Literal" honesty is necessary but not sufficient. This is why, for instance, Rule 10b-5 under the Securities Exchange Act is phrased this way (emphasis added):

It shall be unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly, by the use of any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce, or of the mails or of any facility of any national securities exchange,

(a) To employ any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,

(b) To make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading, or

(c) To engage in any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person,

in connection with the purchase or sale of any security.

The problem is that "literal" truth is much easier to police than a more robust version. On top of that, the more robust version often isn't measurable at the level of a single story. If there's a brutal murder of a white person by a black person, it's not inherently wrong to report it. It's just wrong to report nothing but black-on-white crime. That has to be measured over time, and that's nearly impossible to do in a rigorous or objective way. (It's easier for the SEC because the securities markets are held to a fairly high standard of honesty, and also because investors care about a much smaller set of facts than news consumers do.)

I should also point out, as I did in my earlier post, that I think cherry-picking can be done honorably as long as it is clear what is going on. Advocacy organizations are there to push a narrative. Humans may be poorly equipped to discount reporting sufficiently when it comes from a known biased source, but it's hard to blame the advocacy groups for doing what they do (as long as they are transparent about it).

The other point I would make about this is that there is no clear line to be drawn between responsible news organizations and partisan ones, unless it is based on something like subjective intent. You can think of each person as struggling to accumulate information, with each news source presenting its own biases, conscious and unconscious, that the individual has to navigate to come to a satisfactory idea of the world. Maybe this needs to wait for another blog post.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Factual Error Theory

Quick random thought, not meant to be fully developed.

There's this whole debate about moral realism, and one theory is called "moral error theory," which supposes that people delude themselves into thinking that there are moral truths. When these people articulate moral positions, they take themselves to be talking about real things, but in reality moral statements should be understood as emoting or affiliating with a particular viewpoint.

My random thought is that you could characterize a lot of factual debates the same way. I don't want to go full nihilist here, but it strikes me that we might live in a world of practical nihilism, where large areas of factual disagreement are not resolvable in practice, and where arguments about them take the same form that moral error theorists believe moral arguments do.

I think this is probably a trivial observation, but maybe it helps capture some of what is going on with modern politics.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Our Renewable Future

A quick post about global warming, energy use, etc., inspired by this Bloomberg article about negative electricity prices.

What's going on here is that the supply of renewable energy is highly variable, since it often depends on whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and at times there is more energy being supplied to the grid than there is demand. At that point, the only choice is to take plants offline. (The article doesn't mention it, but another alternative is to store the excess energy somehow, perhaps by pumping water up to a reservoir behind a hydroelectric plant. However, my understanding is that this is not generally an efficient approach.) The article states that traditional coal and nuclear plants are sometimes the ones that shut down for the duration of the excess, which is understandable (why use fuel when there is no need to do so?), but not ideal (the expenses of starting and stopping a traditional plant are high).

This is probably a temporary state of affairs. As the article notes, utilities will seek to get more of their power from small gas-fired plants that are cheap to start and stop. They will also probably give traditional plants some credit for supplying power that is available at all times, offsetting the expense of starting and stopping on short notice.

But maybe most importantly, utilities will try to induce their customers to use energy flexibly. The key problem is aligning production with demand, and the demand side of the equation can play a big role. For instance, buildings can install air conditioning units that operate at night when electricity is cheap, cooling down a glycerol solution. Then during the day the HVAC system only needs enough electricity to operate fans that move air through the glycerol and out through vents in the building.

My bigger picture thought is that as these changes are implemented, and the electricity supply gets greener and greener, it might have some big effects on how we live our lives. In a lot of situations we face tradeoffs between using energy and using other resources. For instance, disposable diapers use a lot of landfill space, but the water and energy needed to wash reusable diapers make it a close call in environmental terms. In a hypothetical society with 90% clean energy, that calculation probably shifts in favor of reusable diapers, at least in areas with plenty of water resources.

Of course another application is electric cars. And generally, activities that are presently considered wasteful will deserve to be reevaluated. For instance, why not have an air conditioner if it's mostly powered by solar energy? Why not use hot water to do your laundry? Etc. etc.

We're definitely not there yet, but it feels as though we are a lot closer than we were 10 years ago, and these weird price movements in the electricity industry are essentially growing pains as the renewable industry matures.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

The Medium Is the Massage

A quick note on the appointment of Sarah Jeong to the editorial board of the New York Times and the controversy over her previous tweets, which have been unearthed in a campaign against her. Some people are taking the position that this is a Twitter mob, that Twitter mobs are bad, and that therefore she should keep the job, just as Kevin Williamson should have kept his job at the Atlantic in the face of criticism on Twitter. It's hypocrisy, though, to call for Williamson to be fired while supporting Jeong or vice versa.

To me this elevates form over substance. Twitter mobs are right when they're right, and they're wrong when they're wrong. The problem with them is not that they are never right, but that they are so often wrong or disproportionate in their offense (which amounts to the same thing). I don't think it often makes sense to fire someone for a joke, for instance. What happened to Justine Sacco was stupid and unfair. But if Sacco had tweeted something truly horrible, as opposed to a misguided joke, then sure, I can see firing her. Why not? You would fire someone for saying something horrible, or writing it in a book. The only difference with tweets is that they are so easy to take out of context.

So the question, really, is how Jeong's tweets should be understood in context. My view is that they are at most insensitive tweets requiring some explanation (which she has given), but that's the discussion that should be taking place, not a discussion about whether Twitter is an appropriate medium to communicate complaints to someone's employer.


Here's a similar example.

In case you can't see it, here's the underlying tweet Sullivan is quoting:

The context here is that Johnson was fired from his job at Buzzfeed after more than 40 instances of plagiarism were discovered. Jeong, by contrast, is accused of having posted some insensitive tweets.

Sullivan's gambit here is to imply that these infractions should be weighed equally. Actually, I think his gambit is more cynical than thatβ€”I think he is counting on the vast majority of people who see his tweet to assume that the underlying infractions were similar. (I had to look it up myself, most people won't go to that effort.) Either way, it is terribly stupid, and it's a good example of how idiotic most of the commentary has been.