Solomon T Silbert

My son – Solomon T Silbert – was born on Monday, December 4, 2006 at 10 AM.

Here is a picture of him when he was about one minute old:

More here.


Better Late Than Never?

Bush goes to Vietnam.

The Beauty of the Reductio ad Absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum can be striking, indeed beautiful, in its simplicity. Taking a bad premise to its logical extreme can concisely illustrate just how bad the premise is. Here are my two favorite ‘reductios’.

The first is in response to epistemological relativism in philosophy of science. The basic claim (i.e., the bad premise) is that truth and knowledge are socially determined; I believe what I do because of my contingent history of social, economic, and cultural experiences.

If this assertion is made ‘in good faith’, it eats itself. If its true, then by necessity, the speaker believes it only by virtue of his social history. On the other hand, if the speaker has non-social reasons to believe the assertion, then the assertion can’t be true (at least not in its strongest form).

Clearly personal social histories play some role in what and why people believe what they do. Just as clearly, one’s social history is not the sole determinant of one’s beliefs. If it were, I’d be just as much a socialist, epistemological relativist as the middle-class suburbanites in the typical ‘arts and science’ department. But I’m not. Personal social histories play a role in the formation of belief systems, but they clearly do not determine them.

My second favorite (i.e., the second on my list of favorites, not my slightly-less-favorite) reductio applies to arguments for (raising the) minimum wage. Proponents of raising the minimum wage typically argue that it is necessary in order for poor folks to work their way out of poverty. From the official Democratic platform (p. 30, pdf here):

The dream of the middle class should belong to all Americans willing to work for it. We still have work to do as long as millions of Americans work full-time, fulfill their responsibilities, and continue to live in poverty. We will offer these Americans a ladder to the middle class. That means raising the minimum wage to $7.00,….

Why stop at $7.00? If raising the minimum wage to $7.00 will help people ascend to the middle class, won’t raising it to $7.50 make the ascension quicker? How about $10.00? $20.00? $1000?

The natural, and correct, response to this reductio ad absurdum is to point out that paying someone, say, $1000 per hour when their labor is worth far less than this is ridiculous. But this same logic applies to any stipulated wage floor. If someone wants and is willing to work for $3.00 per hour, why stop them?

Granted, it wouldn’t be easy to pay rent and buy food working for $3.00 an hour, especially if you have to house and feed more than just yourself, but it would be easier to do so at $3.00 an hour than it would at $0.00 an hour. Legislating a lower limit on what members of the labor pool can accept for their services prices the least experienced out of the job market (here’s an old Cato article about it that quotes Walter Williams‘ excellent State Against Blacks [which I first heard about when I read this article about the minimum wage at]). It becomes quickly clear that the issue is less that of raising the minimum wage than it is that of having a minimum wage at all.

Of course, the reductio ad absurdum isn’t the only, or even the most, useful logical tool. The cases against relativism and the minimum wage can be developed a good ways beyond the simple arguments made above. But the reductio‘s beauty is in its ability to allow a lousy premise to imply its own demise. It’s like logical tai-chi.

John Kerry vs. Humor

So, John Kerry botched a joke on Monday. In a speech to some California college students, he said, “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Not surprisingly, reaction was swift, loud, negative, and omnipresent. Despite Kerry’s claim that the barb was aimed at the President, many were offended on behalf of our noble, selfless troops. Putting aside the commonly accepted absurdity that being in the military implies selflessness and nobility of purpose, the most obvious interpretation of the joke is that ‘you’ get stuck in Iraq as a grunt, signing up for military duty only because your lousy performance in school reduced the number of careers available to you to just the one.

It took me two full days to understand that the ‘you’ that gets stuck in Iraq is President Bush. He didn’t do well in school, see, and now he’s stuck in Iraq. That’s almost funny.

Allow me to make a suggestion regarding how to make the joke actually funny. The problem is that the intended interpretation and the most likely interpretation are different. The most obvious solution, then, would be to include some uniquely presidential clue to the identity of the ‘you’ that gets stuck in Iraq.

For example, Kerry could have said, “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get your country stuck in Iraq.”

While this is certainly an improvement on Kerry’s weak effort, it is, perhaps, too subtle. A less subtle possibility: “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you end up President of the United States and get your country stuck in Iraq.”

This makes obvious another, even better option, namely to leave Iraq out of it: “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you end up President of the United States.”

This version has three important qualities: it’s funny (at least, it’s funnier than Kerry’s joke), its intended referent and the most likely referent to be assumed by the listener are the same (you’d have to be truly dense to fail to get who it’s about), and it does what Kerry said he was trying to do in the first place – take a jab at the President.

I know Iraq is ‘topical’, but it’s also a very loaded issue to bring up, especially at the end of an election campaign (granted, it’s only a midterm). Poking fun at the fact that the President cruised through an Ivy League ‘education’ never gets old, though.

As a final aside, I think I have shown that the old adage that ‘a joke always dies on the operating table’ is not necessarily true. If you start with a very unfunny joke, ineptly delivered, you may well be able to analyze your way to a something funny. Funnier, anyway.

I don’t exist. [updated]
Logo There are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

More specifically,


There are 32,997 people in the U.S. with the first name Noah. Statistically the 1003rd most popular first name. (tied with 30 other first names) More than 99.9 percent of people with the first name Noah are male.


There are 510 people in the U.S. with the last name Silbert. Statistically the 48525th most popular last name. (tied with 4686 other last names)

Noah Silbert

There are 0 people in the U.S. named Noah Silbert. While both names you entered were found in our database, neither was common enough to make it likely that someone in the U.S. has that name.

Update: The update should really be a revision of the title to reflect that the more thorough analysis of my name indicates, as Josh points out, not that I don’t exist, but that, as an allegedly attested occurence of a “Noah Silbert”, I am merely extremely statistically unlikely.

Mortality Surveillance

Perhaps appropriately, Josh has a death watch on this blog. He also has a second blog dedicated to a recent fit of self-discipline with regard to algorithm analysis. On his first blog, he describes this second blog as “a daily journal” on his reading of a foundational three volume algorithm analysis book.

Well, it has been some time since he posted to this second blog. In fact, it has been nearly as long as it was between my last post and today’s unexpected flurry of bloggery here at Source-Filter. It is possible, perhaps plausible, that this delay, like the delays in my own posting schedule, indicates that Josh’s secondary blog is terminally ill.

Thus, I could, in theory, return the favor to Josh and commence what I might call an ‘expiration vigil’ for his Knuth blog. I’ll have to think about it for a while before making a final decision…

Medical Research and Signal Detection Theory

On my way home this afternoon, I heard an interesting story on NPR about a new medical study concerning a new and exceptionally effective lung cancer screening technique. The story was interesting for two distinct, though related, reasons: it can be used to illustrate the utility of signal detection theory, and it is a rare example of accurate (and precise) media coverage of scientific research.

Signal detection theory’s utility resides both in its ability to tease sensitivity and decision bias apart and in what it tells us about how they relate. For a given level of sensitivity, making your decision criterion more liberal will increase both the probability of accurately detecting a signal that is, in fact, present (i.e., your ‘hit’ rate) and your probability of inaccurately ‘detecting’ a signal that isn’t (i.e., your ‘false alarm’ rate), while making your decision criterion more conservative will have the opposite effect. Conversely, for a given decision criterion (defined in terms of hit rate), increasing sensitivity will lower the false alarm rate while decreasing sensitivity will increase it.

How does this relate to the study discussed in the NPR story linked above? The study presents a new, more sensitive test for early cases of lung cancer. This higher level of sensitivity will enable doctors to detect many more cases of lung cancer much earlier than they could before, which has two effects. More lung cancer cases caught early could lead to more lung cancer cases treated successfully and more misdiagnosed false alarms and inappropriate, expensive, and stressful treatment.

Now, signal detection theory tells us that, at least in principle, sensitivity and decision bias are independent. In fact, there is a lot of experimental evidence that this is the case. For example, you can systematically shift peoples’ decision criteria around by manipulating the relative frequency of occurence of signal presence versus signal absence or the relative value of each type of response. Nonetheless, in a ‘real world’ situation like this, in which the stakes can be very high, decision bias and sensitivity can interact heavily.

The old (i.e., standard) tests are very insensitive to early lung cancer. Extreme insensitivity to the early stages of lung cancer precludes the utility of an adjustable decision criterion. Only relatively conclusive evidence of lung cancer even offers grounds for making a decision to get treatment or not. Now that a rather sensitive test is available, doctors are, in principle, free to set their decision criteria wherever they want. Hence, understanding the relationship between accurately catching and treating early cases and inaccurately mistreating non-cases becomes very important.

How does this relate to accurate (and precise) media coverage of a research issue? The NPR report does a good job of reporting these issues, which seems to me to be unusual in science reporting. There are those on the ‘pro-hit’ side who take this study to indicate that lung cancer is on par with other forms of cancer that have become very treatable, and there are those on the ‘anti-false-alarm’ side who warn of the danger of, well, false alarms. While I don’t believe that balance for balance’s sake makes for good reporting, in this case balance is appropriate. The relationship between hits and false alarms makes that clear.

The report also does discusses a methodological limitation of the study, namely that the lack of a control group severly limits what this study tells us about the efficacy of early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. Again, this attention to detail with regard to research is unusual in the media.

Whence ‘precision’? All this in less than five minutes of audio.

The British The Office, The American The Office

Prior to seeing it, I heard mixed reviews of the BBC show The Office. Most of these reviews came from friends who were working, or had worked, in offices. They didn’t like it, not one little bit. Someone told me to stick it out, that it would get funny after a few episodes.

I don’t remember who it was, but they were right. Episode one was painful to watch. I quickly learned to cringe every time Ricky GervaisDavid Brent entered a scene. Episode two was excruciating. It was clear why anyone with real office experience would find the show repugnant, at least initially. By episode three, I loved it. I still cringed, and squirmed, winced, and probably moaned. I watched both regular seasons, and the Christmas special hadn’t come out on DVD yet. You may or may not know that the second season ends on a very low note. I had gotten so involved in the emotional lives of the characters, that it was, well, crushing. Thankfully, the Christmas special wraps it all up very nicely without cheapening anything. Before too long, I watched it all again. The (British The) Office is brilliant, in every respect.

Now, this was well after The Office had aired for the first time in Britain. In fact, it was just before the American version began its first season. I was wary of a new version, but Steve Carrell is funny as hell, so I gave it a chance, and I watched the first episode.

I felt like it followed the first episode of the original series too closely. It was funny, but not as funny as the original. I liked the casting in the original version quite a lot, and felt like some of the differences in the new one were no good.

I didn’t watch any more episodes until tonight, when I re-watched the first episode. I still felt like it followed the first British episode closely, but not so closely that it felt unoriginal. I noticed nice variations on jokes from the original (the particulars of an early exchange between boss and receptionist) and new American jokes I had missed the first time through. I found it plenty funny enough to watch the second episode.

The second episode is brutal. It reminded me of what I liked so much about the other version. It evoked out-loud laughter and uncomfortable shifting in my (office) chair, as The Office should. Steve Carell is, indeed, funny as hell. With the benefit of decaying memory and a couple of years distance, I see clearly now that the American The Office is well worth watching. I will continue to do so.

However, I am still a bit wary. One of the best, and most interesting, properties of the British version is its length. Two series of six episodes each, two 45 minute specials. It left me simultaneously wanting more and feeling very satisfied that there was no more to be had. I know that the American version lasts longer. This could be detrimental to the overall package, or it could point to a worthwhile divergence from the original. I’m sure I’ll enjoy putting myself through the discomfort of finding out.

The Death of Solemnity [updated]

Josh is a good friend. He has started a death watch on my blog. Well, he can put that death watch right back where it came from. At least until a week or so from today, when I get around to blogging again.

Not that this very short post will do much to quell the rising tide of voices crying out in despair as my priorities shift away from blogging (Josh is right about that bit). For now I will merely initiate a moratorium on solemn promises, whether blogging related or not.

Anyway, here’s what makes me blog tonight: ever since the “nuclear” test a few days ago in North Korea, I have been hoping that it turns out to have been a bluff – a great big pile of conventional explosives in a hole. First of all, this is much funnier than North Korea actually having nuclear weapons. Second, it’s also much better for pretty much everyone other than Kim Jong-Il and his cronies.

The day of the test, there was evidence of either a bluff or simple incompetence on the part of the North Korean nuclear scientists: the explosion was unexpectedly small. Today, CNN reports that there is no radiological evidence for a nuclear explosion.

This is also consistent with either a bluff or incompetence. While I hope for the former, one of these two hypotheses is looking more and more likely.

Update: Now the CNN report linked above says they did find radioactive material flying around above Korea. Oh well. I suppose it’s still possible that it was a dirty bomb (i.e., still a bluff), but this wouldn’t be as funny as a radation-free bluff. It’s nice to know that the evidence still points to incompetence, though.

Political Science [updated 6.10.2006]

The Cato blog has an irritating new post (by Jerry Taylor) that criticizes what should be,but may well turn out not to be, a worthwhile new political organization with an adequately descriptive name – Scientists and Engineers for America.

Taylor is keen to complain about SEA, and the issues he raises are potentially valid, but very little on the SEA website and nothing Taylor presents about the organization provide reason for worry. Taylor quotes SEA, writing that its purpose is

to campaign for politicians “who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.” While the group professes to be nonpartisan, “the group will discuss the impact the Bush Administration’s science and technology policies have had in their fields and the need for voters to consider the science and technology policies by candidates in this year’s mid-term elections.”

While he undoubtedly has reason to be skeptical – many, many academics, scientists included, are, in fact, far left – it is entirely reasonable for a nonpartisan group to pay special attention to the Bush administration’s policies. After all, Bush is in the fifth year of his presidency. It would make little sense for such an organization to focus primarily on the policies of former administrations. It is possible that SEA’s singling out of the Bush administration is politically motivated, just as it is possible that it is completely reasonable. Taylor continues:

I imagine that most people would agree that, in the words of SEFA [sic], “Scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.” But there’s more than a whiff of the sentiment here that Americans should just shut up and let the guys in the white coats run the country.

Again, while he may well have reason for concern, nothing in either of these quotes from SEA is disagreeable, at least not to me. In any case, whiffs don’t make for coherent counter-arguments.

Case in point: Taylor points out two obvious truths about science – “…there is disagreement among scientists about many of the issues they are concerned about…” and “…scientific truth is not determined by…. majority votes within politicized professional bodies.” – and makes a truly annoying move, linking to an outdated book by Thomas Kuhn as ‘support’ for the half-redundant, half-irrelevant assertion that “[v]irtually every single thing that the scientific “consensus” believes today was once a fringe minority perspective.” (link in original).

I will see Taylor’s “virtually every single thing” and raise him an unqualified “every single thing.” New theories have to start somewhere, but no one with an ounce of sense believes they occur simultaneously to even a sizable plurality, much less a majority, of scientists. Instead, theories start small, conceived typically by one person, perhaps on occasion by a small integer larger than one people. This fact is utterly banal, and it is irrelevant to Taylor’s complaints. I would even argue that for his first two assertions to bear much weight, they must be situated in a broad view of how science works in general, which, at the very least, accounts for non-miraculous theory generation.*

I followed Taylor’s link to the SEA homepage and read the introduction page, the ‘scientific bill of rights‘, and the ‘issues‘ page, though I haven’t followed all of the links on the issues page. Almost everything I read, I liked. The ‘bill of rights’ even deals mostly in negatives (i.e., ‘thou shalt nots’), which Josh rightly points out is precisely how rights are best defined. I also have a nitpick with ‘right six’:

6. Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications, not political affiliation or ideology.

It should read “Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications.” Full stop. It’s no good listing all of the things that shouldn’t serve as criteria.

The one part of SEA’s site that gave me more serious pause was the ‘Environment’ paragraph on the issues page:

Environment: We need to push beyond our first generation of environmental laws and regulations and move to more modern environmental policies that spur continued technological innovation. Government-industry covenants could allow businesses, in consultation with regulators and the public, to craft the most effective and efficient strategies to meet broad national environmental goals through market-based limits and incentives that don’t harm our economy.

This is incredibly vague, and where it’s not vague, it’s incoherent. It’s even more vague than the rest of the site, which is plenty vague in its own right. Perhaps not surprisingly, the vagueness is part of what makes it agreeable. Most of what they say on the site is compatible with a variety of political agendas, including libertarianism. This seems entirely appropriate.

Taylor also links to two Cato papers that look to be pretty interesting (I haven’t read them), so his ‘argument’ isn’t completely limited to the silliness above. As far as I can tell, one paper is about the methodological underpinnigs of environmental policy (pdf), and the other is about politics and science more generally (pdf). I imagine that these provide some support for Taylor’s general position(s) on science and policy, but I can’t imagine they have much to say about SEA directly.

I hope that SEA turns out to be a worthwhile organization. Although I am not as pessimistic about its chances as Taylor is, I do have enough reservations to withhold my ‘signature’ for now. My ‘conversion‘ to classical liberalism is based largely on mistrust of political organizations (the government chief among them). I’ll keep an eye on SEA, and I encourage you, my vast army of loyal, thoughtful readers, to read what they have to say instead of simply taking Jerry Taylor’s word for it (I know you all use that Cato blog link at the top of this page on a regular basis).

* A further illustration of the pointlessness of Taylor’s Kuhn reference (and an implication of its necessity) is that the fact that every single theory that scientists don’t currently believe started out as a “fringe minority perspective.” Failure to recognize the irrelevance of the size-of-source of scientific ideas lends undeserved credence to hacks who point out the obvious truth that, as their theories are now ridiculed, so were Newton’s. Taylor doesn’t do this here, but some of what he did do is related to this, and it bugs me, so I wanted to address it.

Update: Josh brings up some damning material that I missed on the SEA site, and makes some good points about a number of other potential problems with the organization. It looks like Taylor’s reaction to the organization was not as knee-jerk as I thought, although seeing Josh find such clear evidence of exactly what Taylor was complaining about makes it something of a mystery why Taylor chose the much less incriminating quotes that he used in his post.