All posts by Rand Simberg

Turnabout Is Fair Play

Ken Layne, under the influence of some unknown substance, writes (in reference to his own blog),

This filthy site began in March 1999 — that’s four years ago, Jacobs!

Well, by my arithmetic, that’s a little less than three years…

This is the Internet–we can recalculate your ass, Layne!

Dodging Cosmic Bullets, Part Deux

My, it’s a red-letter day. I’m compelled to disagree with Iain Murray twice in a single day, on two different subjects.

The Professor is worried about asteroids on InstaPundit.Com. I take his point that he’s not worried about this particular rock, but Steve Milloy’s point on JunkScience.com is important here:

Gasp! Shock, horror! Er… hang on. Doesn’t this particular rock cross the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury (twice) every 1,321 days (3.6 Earth years)? And hasn’t it been doing so for millions of years? Wow! That was a close call alright…

Mr. Milloy is indulging in a fallacy here, similar to the one of the man who jumps off the building, and calls out as he passes every floor, “Doing fine so far!”

It was a very close call in astronomical terms. And in fact it doesn’t “cross the orbits” of those planets with any regularity–space is three dimensional. There is no way to know for how many millions of years that particular object has been avoiding hitting planets (it may be a chunk broken off from a larger one that did, in fact, collide with some planet, such as our own Moon).

Of course we shouldn’t lie awake now sweating over the fear that this particular object will hit us the next time around the carousel. The point is that it’s a reminder that many such objects are out there, some of them have our number on them eventually (as evidenced by past extinctions, and the cratered surface of the Moon, which didn’t get that way from too many sweets during adolescence), and that now that we have a civilization worth saving, and the technical means to save it, we should be thinking about it and devoting appropriate resources toward that end.

Of course we must colonize whatever worlds we can, but at the moment that’s beyond us. So let’s just keep on with our lives until we have the technology. Until then it’s best for us to treat this as the interplanetary equivalent of crossing the road. Look both ways, don’t build a bridge.

I’m not sure what Iain’s point is here. It is not, in fact, beyond us to colonize other worlds now–we simply choose not to. Will it be more affordable in the future? Of course. But that rationale can also be used to put off forever the decision to buy a new computer.

When he says, “just keep on with our lives until we have the technology,” one might infer from that that acquiring this magical “technology” is a passive act, like receiving manna from heaven, or cargo from the airplanes and control towers built from palm fronds. Technology is something that we develop (active voice), in response to some perceived need. Glenn and I point this little event out as a reminder that there might be reasons to develop space technology sooner rather than later.

How much we should devote to such an endeavor depends on the expected value of it (i.e., the probability of a catastrophic extraterrestrial event times the cost of it should it occur). I haven’t done that computation, partly because I don’t know the probabilities (because we aren’t even spending the trivial amounts necessary to adequately fund the sky surveys to gather the data with which to do so). But it’s certainly not zero, which is approximately how much we’re currently spending on it.

And as for “…Look both ways, don’t build a bridge,” I have no idea what this means in the context of the discussion. The point of the article was that even if we “look both ways” (right now, as I said, we are barely looking at all) we currently have no policy options if we see the car is bearing down on us–bridges are entirely beside the point.

[Update at 10 PM PST]

A reader who calls him/herself “skeptic” asks:

What is the probability and how was it calculated? If it is based on known events and conditions, that is fine. But what is it?

As I pointed out, we don’t know, because we haven’t even spent the money needed to gather the data necessary to do the calculation. The known events are many (e.g., in 1910 a meteor or comet known as the “Tonguska Event” hit a remote region of Siberia. Had it occurred in a populated area today, it would have caused billions of dollars in damage, and thousands, perhaps millions, of lives).

If it is based on what we don’t know, that is *not* fine. I don?t care what it is; it is speculation.

So we should ignore it if it’s based on willful ignorance?

What can we do about it? It would take a massive, massive amount of energy to alter the orbit of anything substantial.

Do you have some calculations to back up this claim? In fact, the amount of energy required to divert an object from its path sufficiently to prevent a collision with earth is quite small.

Hydrogen Bombs would be insignificant.

Ummm… no. Do you have any idea whatsoever what you’re talking about?

Even if we could amass the required energy, how would it be delivered?

By landing a small probe on the body, setting up a solar-powered or nuclear de-vice that could utilize its own mass as a rocket to divert it the few meters per second that would be required to prevent the catastrophe.

I am all in favor of space exploration. But I am not big on tax-funded research: who gets to set priorities? Politicians ? I hope not. Speculators ? I hope not. Scientists – How do we choose?

I said nothing about tax-funded research. Presumably we would choose based on who would do the best job of providing results.

It Doesn’t Take A Weatherman…

In a comment on Mark Steyn’s piece on the “brutal Afghan winter”, Instapundit asks:

Honestly, why should we listen to the press when they can’t even get the weather right?

This reminds me of the so-called “storm of the century” the night that the transport carrying Ron Brown went down in Bosnia. The weather was reported by most media outlets as being terrible, and the obvious cause of the plane crash. Problem was, anyone who bothered to go look at the actual weather that night on any of the numerous sources, available even then, could see that it was simply a light rain, and well within normal flying conditions.

But that didn’t fit the story template. And if the plane went down in the “storm of the century,” it allowed them to ignore politically-inconvenient facts, such as that the plane was vectored in the wrong direction from the runway, that a Bosnian aircraft controller committed “suicide” shortly thereafter, and that military medical personnel had their careers ruined for questioning during autopsy a perfectly-circular hole in the top of the Commerce Secretary’s head, and that the X-rays that might have explained it mysteriously disappeared.

To quote Mr. Layne, “we can fact-check your asses.”

It Doesn’t Take A Weatherman…

In a comment on Mark Steyn’s piece on the “brutal Afghan winter”, Instapundit asks:

Honestly, why should we listen to the press when they can’t even get the weather right?

This reminds me of the so-called “storm of the century” the night that the transport carrying Ron Brown went down in Bosnia. The weather was reported by most media outlets as being terrible, and the obvious cause of the plane crash. Problem was, anyone who bothered to go look at the actual weather that night on any of the numerous sources, available even then, could see that it was simply a light rain, and well within normal flying conditions.

But that didn’t fit the story template. And if the plane went down in the “storm of the century,” it allowed them to ignore politically-inconvenient facts, such as that the plane was vectored in the wrong direction from the runway, that a Bosnian aircraft controller committed “suicide” shortly thereafter, and that military medical personnel had their careers ruined for questioning during autopsy a perfectly-circular hole in the top of the Commerce Secretary’s head, and that the X-rays that might have explained it mysteriously disappeared.

To quote Mr. Layne, “we can fact-check your asses.”

It Doesn’t Take A Weatherman…

In a comment on Mark Steyn’s piece on the “brutal Afghan winter”, Instapundit asks:

Honestly, why should we listen to the press when they can’t even get the weather right?

This reminds me of the so-called “storm of the century” the night that the transport carrying Ron Brown went down in Bosnia. The weather was reported by most media outlets as being terrible, and the obvious cause of the plane crash. Problem was, anyone who bothered to go look at the actual weather that night on any of the numerous sources, available even then, could see that it was simply a light rain, and well within normal flying conditions.

But that didn’t fit the story template. And if the plane went down in the “storm of the century,” it allowed them to ignore politically-inconvenient facts, such as that the plane was vectored in the wrong direction from the runway, that a Bosnian aircraft controller committed “suicide” shortly thereafter, and that military medical personnel had their careers ruined for questioning during autopsy a perfectly-circular hole in the top of the Commerce Secretary’s head, and that the X-rays that might have explained it mysteriously disappeared.

To quote Mr. Layne, “we can fact-check your asses.”

Just A Theory

Iain Murray, in his comment on the fact that the Supremes are not going to review the latest “teaching evolution” case, says:

…the idea that “evolution is just a theory” is quite simply wrong. The fact of evolution has been established beyond reasonable doubt. It is how evolution works that is in question. From this report, it appears that the science teacher questions even the fact.

While I think that I know what he means, this isn’t really the case. Evolution is (in fact) a theory, though it’s not “just” a theory. To say something is “just” a theory is to denigrate the very notion of theories, which are part of the fundamental basis of the scientific method.

Evolution is “just” a theory. As are Newton’s Laws. As are both Special and General Relativity. As are all scientific principles.

We cannot prove any of them to be correct–theories can only be falsified. What we can do is lay out a set of criteria by which we judge the validity of scientific theories, and determine to what degree they are satisfied by particular theories. Those that satisfy the criteria best become the most accepted theories. Evolution, in broad terms (though the details are still problematic), does provide the current best available explanation for the diversity of life and the fossil record, within the confines of science.

These last words are key. The problem with teaching creationism as a substitute for evolution is not that it isn’t true–there’s no way to know that. It’s that it isn’t science. In a science class, what should be taught is science and the scientific method. Whether or not this represents the “truth,” or the most reliable means of achieving knowledge is unknown, unknowable, and irrelevant.

The scientific method and logic are the means chosen by people of reason to gain knowledge, at least in those spheres for which such means are applicable. The acceptance of them, like the acceptance of Biblical or other forms of divine revelation, must ultimately be taken on faith. This is disconcerting to scientists, but it’s true nonetheless.

Articles of faith for those of reason (like myself) are:

  • There is an objective reality
  • This reality is not affected simply by the beliefs of others
  • Its nature can be determined, ultimately, by forming falsifiable theories about it, and asking questions of it in the form of experiments

There may be others, but these are clearly axioms of the scientific-minded, and they cannot be proven, even to someone who accepts logic and proofs as a means of achieving knowledge. For those whose chosen method of gaining knowlege is divine revelation, there is no effective argument.

So there is some truth to the claims of the devout that “secular humanism” is a religion, which to me, merely means that if we don’t want to indoctrinate children in public schools, there is no solution except to abolish public schools (perhaps replacing them with vouchers, if we believe that education should be publicly funded), because “everyone’s gotta believe in somethin’.”

[Update]

After an email exchange with Iain, he puts the following on his web site, from another website:

Just as much as gravitation is a fact, is so evolution.

I agree that evolution is as much of a fact as gravitation. The problem, is, as I state above, that neither is a “fact.” Gravitation is a theory. I fear that this website is obscuring terminology in an attempt to convey a (valid) concept–that evolution is as well-founded as any other scientific theory. Such sloppiness does nothing to advance the cause of science in general, or evolution in particular.

Here is an example.

Fact: When I drop an object, it falls toward the center of the earth with an acceleration of approximately 32 feet per second per second.

Theory: This happens because two masses attract each other in proportion to their product, and in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them.

The second is what we call “gravitation.” The first is a fact, but it’s not gravitation–it’s simply a phenomenon that we explain with gravitation (and which could be explained with other theories, but not as well, by scientific criteria).

Similarly, the available fossil record and existing inventory of flora and fauna is a fact (or to be more precise, a compendium of facts). That they evolved into the present state via natural selection is a theory that explains those facts.

Really, folks, there’s nothing wrong with theories. Despite the attempt of creationists to use them to damn evolution, they are the stuff that all science is made of.

Let’s See If I Can Fit Both Feet In Here

Senate Majority “Leader” Daschle is having trouble getting his followers in line. No other Democrats want to sign on to his latest demogogic campaign to convince people that tax cuts cause recessions. Sounds like they’re running a little scared.

[Update at 10:36 AM PST]

Tony has a couple comments on this and the previous related post from last night.

My response to his comment on this post is in the comments section for it. As to the previous one, I’ll move it “above the fold.”

I don’t think that you fairly represented what I argued – again, nobody is claiming that “tax cuts cause recession”. The assertion was that “lack of confidence” in the fiscal policy “probably”(D’s word), or “mau have”(my words, had an adverse impact – neither of us say “definitley did have”. That’s precisely Daschle’s stated argument, though few people – except myself E.J. Dionne (in todays WP)- choose to read it that way.

Well, “choose to read it that way” is exactly the right phraseology. Very few others conversant with the English language would “choose” to do so. As I said in my comment in this post, I “choose” to read it the way it was obviously intended–to blame the tax cut for the recession, or at least the depth of it. As I said, if there’s a “lack of confidence” in the Administration’s fiscal policies, it’s not because of the policies themselves–it’s because of their mischaracterization by the Democrats and their willing accomplices in the press.

You refer to “talking down the economy” – when I threw that back at Bill Quick in re Mr. Bush doing the same to sell the 2001 Act, Bill argued that “mau-mauing” the economy wouldn’t have an effect, either.

There’s a more fundamental difference. When Bush was “talking down the economy,” he was simply describing objective reality–all the economic indicators had been heading down even before the election. Of course he was making the case for a tax cut. When the economy is heading into a recession, as it obviously was, it makes sense to cut taxes, and to develop a public consensus for that.

Mr. Daschle, on the other hand, is not so much “talking down the economy” directly, as attempting to talk down the people’s confidence in the Administration policy with errant nonsense (which he perhaps hopes will have the desired effect of prolonging the recession until after the election). Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working.

So – which is it?

As I said, you’re comparing simply describing economic reality on the one hand, with raw unfounded propaganda on the other.

In re Hoover – read over the history again: Hoover’s initial reaction was DO NOTHING, everything will be OK, the economy is FUNDAMENTALLY SOUND.

As indeed might have been the case, had he not panicked with Smoot-Hawley, and had money been looser (something over which he had no direct control, though a little jawboning might have helped).

Hoover didn’t act until after it was too late to turn things around.

As I said, it was not the timing of his actions that was the problem–it was the stupidity of them.

Finally, the argument that tax cuts spur investment is good theory, but companies are telling us what they would do with a tax cut that comes NOW – they wouldn’t use it to “invest”, they would use it to “recoup”.

What does that mean, exactly–“recoup”?

Does it mean that the money will not get spent, or invested, in something? How can that be?

Do you think that it will just sit in a vault somewhere, so that the greedy corporate executives can swim around in it a la Scrooge McDuck? I don’t really understand this comment.

As far as the causes of the depression – ask yourself why monetary policy was tightened.

Because the people running the equivalent of the Fed at that time were economic ignoramuses, and didn’t understand the problem.

Could it possibly be that when everybody tried to “cash out” it was discovered that nobody could cover the debt, and pumping the requisite number of dollars into the economy would have resulted maybe in hyper-inflation?

Nope, though it’s possible that they thought that.

[End Update]

Let’s See If I Can Fit Both Feet In Here

Senate Majority “Leader” Daschle is having trouble getting his followers in line. No other Democrats want to sign on to his latest demogogic campaign to convince people that tax cuts cause recessions. Sounds like they’re running a little scared.

[Update at 10:36 AM PST]

Tony has a couple comments on this and the previous related post from last night.

My response to his comment on this post is in the comments section for it. As to the previous one, I’ll move it “above the fold.”

I don’t think that you fairly represented what I argued – again, nobody is claiming that “tax cuts cause recession”. The assertion was that “lack of confidence” in the fiscal policy “probably”(D’s word), or “mau have”(my words, had an adverse impact – neither of us say “definitley did have”. That’s precisely Daschle’s stated argument, though few people – except myself E.J. Dionne (in todays WP)- choose to read it that way.

Well, “choose to read it that way” is exactly the right phraseology. Very few others conversant with the English language would “choose” to do so. As I said in my comment in this post, I “choose” to read it the way it was obviously intended–to blame the tax cut for the recession, or at least the depth of it. As I said, if there’s a “lack of confidence” in the Administration’s fiscal policies, it’s not because of the policies themselves–it’s because of their mischaracterization by the Democrats and their willing accomplices in the press.

You refer to “talking down the economy” – when I threw that back at Bill Quick in re Mr. Bush doing the same to sell the 2001 Act, Bill argued that “mau-mauing” the economy wouldn’t have an effect, either.

There’s a more fundamental difference. When Bush was “talking down the economy,” he was simply describing objective reality–all the economic indicators had been heading down even before the election. Of course he was making the case for a tax cut. When the economy is heading into a recession, as it obviously was, it makes sense to cut taxes, and to develop a public consensus for that.

Mr. Daschle, on the other hand, is not so much “talking down the economy” directly, as attempting to talk down the people’s confidence in the Administration policy with errant nonsense (which he perhaps hopes will have the desired effect of prolonging the recession until after the election). Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working.

So – which is it?

As I said, you’re comparing simply describing economic reality on the one hand, with raw unfounded propaganda on the other.

In re Hoover – read over the history again: Hoover’s initial reaction was DO NOTHING, everything will be OK, the economy is FUNDAMENTALLY SOUND.

As indeed might have been the case, had he not panicked with Smoot-Hawley, and had money been looser (something over which he had no direct control, though a little jawboning might have helped).

Hoover didn’t act until after it was too late to turn things around.

As I said, it was not the timing of his actions that was the problem–it was the stupidity of them.

Finally, the argument that tax cuts spur investment is good theory, but companies are telling us what they would do with a tax cut that comes NOW – they wouldn’t use it to “invest”, they would use it to “recoup”.

What does that mean, exactly–“recoup”?

Does it mean that the money will not get spent, or invested, in something? How can that be?

Do you think that it will just sit in a vault somewhere, so that the greedy corporate executives can swim around in it a la Scrooge McDuck? I don’t really understand this comment.

As far as the causes of the depression – ask yourself why monetary policy was tightened.

Because the people running the equivalent of the Fed at that time were economic ignoramuses, and didn’t understand the problem.

Could it possibly be that when everybody tried to “cash out” it was discovered that nobody could cover the debt, and pumping the requisite number of dollars into the economy would have resulted maybe in hyper-inflation?

Nope, though it’s possible that they thought that.

[End Update]

Let’s See If I Can Fit Both Feet In Here

Senate Majority “Leader” Daschle is having trouble getting his followers in line. No other Democrats want to sign on to his latest demogogic campaign to convince people that tax cuts cause recessions. Sounds like they’re running a little scared.

[Update at 10:36 AM PST]

Tony has a couple comments on this and the previous related post from last night.

My response to his comment on this post is in the comments section for it. As to the previous one, I’ll move it “above the fold.”

I don’t think that you fairly represented what I argued – again, nobody is claiming that “tax cuts cause recession”. The assertion was that “lack of confidence” in the fiscal policy “probably”(D’s word), or “mau have”(my words, had an adverse impact – neither of us say “definitley did have”. That’s precisely Daschle’s stated argument, though few people – except myself E.J. Dionne (in todays WP)- choose to read it that way.

Well, “choose to read it that way” is exactly the right phraseology. Very few others conversant with the English language would “choose” to do so. As I said in my comment in this post, I “choose” to read it the way it was obviously intended–to blame the tax cut for the recession, or at least the depth of it. As I said, if there’s a “lack of confidence” in the Administration’s fiscal policies, it’s not because of the policies themselves–it’s because of their mischaracterization by the Democrats and their willing accomplices in the press.

You refer to “talking down the economy” – when I threw that back at Bill Quick in re Mr. Bush doing the same to sell the 2001 Act, Bill argued that “mau-mauing” the economy wouldn’t have an effect, either.

There’s a more fundamental difference. When Bush was “talking down the economy,” he was simply describing objective reality–all the economic indicators had been heading down even before the election. Of course he was making the case for a tax cut. When the economy is heading into a recession, as it obviously was, it makes sense to cut taxes, and to develop a public consensus for that.

Mr. Daschle, on the other hand, is not so much “talking down the economy” directly, as attempting to talk down the people’s confidence in the Administration policy with errant nonsense (which he perhaps hopes will have the desired effect of prolonging the recession until after the election). Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working.

So – which is it?

As I said, you’re comparing simply describing economic reality on the one hand, with raw unfounded propaganda on the other.

In re Hoover – read over the history again: Hoover’s initial reaction was DO NOTHING, everything will be OK, the economy is FUNDAMENTALLY SOUND.

As indeed might have been the case, had he not panicked with Smoot-Hawley, and had money been looser (something over which he had no direct control, though a little jawboning might have helped).

Hoover didn’t act until after it was too late to turn things around.

As I said, it was not the timing of his actions that was the problem–it was the stupidity of them.

Finally, the argument that tax cuts spur investment is good theory, but companies are telling us what they would do with a tax cut that comes NOW – they wouldn’t use it to “invest”, they would use it to “recoup”.

What does that mean, exactly–“recoup”?

Does it mean that the money will not get spent, or invested, in something? How can that be?

Do you think that it will just sit in a vault somewhere, so that the greedy corporate executives can swim around in it a la Scrooge McDuck? I don’t really understand this comment.

As far as the causes of the depression – ask yourself why monetary policy was tightened.

Because the people running the equivalent of the Fed at that time were economic ignoramuses, and didn’t understand the problem.

Could it possibly be that when everybody tried to “cash out” it was discovered that nobody could cover the debt, and pumping the requisite number of dollars into the economy would have resulted maybe in hyper-inflation?

Nope, though it’s possible that they thought that.

[End Update]