What’s Wrong With Jason Richwine?

Jason RichwineIt is logical to ask what is wrong with Jason Richwine because in a column today in Politico he asks what is wrong with the reporting on intelligence testing. It is disappointing, but no more so than the reaction, if I can judge based upon Steve Benen. Benen dismisses Richwine out of hand and I think that’s very dangerous. Richwine needs to be addressed. Sadly, I am not the person to do that, but I do (as usual) have a few thoughts.

The first issue is that Richwine tries to have it both ways. He complains that mainstream, popular news outlets just dismiss his work as racist rather than getting into what the science of intelligence testing is all about. But then he goes to those very same news outlets and publishes his own simplistic overview of the state of the science. I’m no expert on intelligence testing, but for the last couple of decades, I’ve been fascinated with it and I continue to read actual papers in the field. (This is one of the few advantages of a physics education.) And what I see is a field that is in chaos—one that is still very confused about the basis of what they do. There are, for example, lots of ways to measure intelligence. Listening to Richwine, you would think that whatever happens to be trendy right now must be what’s right. Even more, there is some kind of weird glitch in IQ tests that causes later generations to test unreasonably higher (Flynn Effect). It is simply the case that there remain big questions that people like Richwine and Murray brush aside.

The second issue is that those pushing this whole line about race and intelligence in the public square do not seem primarily interested in the issue of intelligence. People don’t generally remember that Murray’s The Bell Curve was pushing a political point: we shouldn’t worry about inequality because it is just a reflection of the fact that the brown-skinned people are generally stupider.

Similarly, we only know of Richwine because of his hopelessly sloppy work purporting to show that comprehensive immigration reform would cost the country a fortune. It turned out that it would actually save the country money. Is it any wonder that people would be skeptical about either man’s work on intelligence? It certainly seems that they both have preferred policies and they are using intelligence testing as a way to justify those policies. And that isn’t the way science is supposed to work.

What this all comes down to is that these scientists who put themselves forward as honest truth tellers seem like con artists. Yes, there is actual science that these men certainly know. But their presentation of it is far too tidy and is finessed to make their political points. Meanwhile, the science of intelligence tests trudges on as these men publicly pontificate about the moral decline of the upper class and the cost of immigration reform. If these men were real psychologists, they wouldn’t be working at conservative political think tanks (more known for propaganda than actual policy, anyway). So the answer to my original question is that what’s the matter with Jason Richwine is that he’s a political operative who wants to be taken seriously as a scientist. And I understand that desire. But I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I ought to pay attention to yet another conservative who will say or do anything to push his preferred policies. When it comes to intelligence testing, I think I’ll stick with Jim Flynn.

Using a Teleporter Is Suicide!

TeleporterLast week, Matt Yglesias brought my attention to some work by a group of scientists on the potential for human teleportation. The article (That I had to look up myself because Yglesias didn’t provide it!) is, Travelling by Teleportation (pdf) by D. Roberts, J. Nelms, D. Starkey, and S. Thomas. The question to all of these people is one of bandwidth. The amount of data required to define a human is so large that even at unbelievable speeds, it would take unbelievable amounts of time. This misses the whole point.

In 1970, James Blish wrote the second ever Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die. At the beginning of the novel, McCoy expresses his concern that every time he is transported, he dies only to be replaced with an exact copy of himself somewhere else. Later in the novel, a transporter malfunction causes two Spocks to occur—one of which “must die.” Whatever. The main point is that McCoy is right.

Look, boys and girls. I don’t think this is hard. Imagine a clone. A clone is a genetic duplicate of a different organism. It is no more the same organism than a perfect copy of a photograph is the same photograph. The scientists take this into account, of course. They include all the quantum states of all the molecules and that kind of thing. But all that does is make the teleportated copy think it is the original. It is still a copy!

This brings us to some very big ontological question. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the past few years. I haven’t figured out enough to go into it in detail—I’m not sure I ever will have it that well figured out. But the idea is that consciousness is a kind of fiction. We only exist for an instant, and are then replaced by another version of us: Version Infinity Plus One. If that thinking is correct, then there would be no problem with teleportation, because we are effectively being replaced by a copy every instant anyway. So what the hell: the teleporter is no more a killer than any other activity.

The idea here is not as far fetched as it may appear. Quantum mechanics has always bothered me: what happens to those other probabilities that don’t happen? Is it possible that all of existence is just an infinitely branching causality chain? Is my life but one of an infinite chain working its way through time? Or does time even exist? Are humans as clueless to the external existence of our lives as trees are to history (because they cannot form memories)? All of this is bizarre, but no more bizarre than existence itself.

But every day we must make practical choices. A teleporter could one day be a practical choice. But I’m with Dr. McCoy and I would go a step further: anyone who would use a teleporter would be insane.


I was once given a thought experiment. Imagine that you and I sit across from each other. And one by one, the cells in my body are exchanged with the cells in your body. At what point would I become you?

P. L. Travers Was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

P. L. TraversThe Italian mathematician Francesco Barozzi was born on this day back in 1537. Like many mathematicians then and now, he was a bit of a mystic. This caused people to accuse him of sorcery. Eventually, the Inquisition went after him and found him guilty. Twice! The second time it was for apostasy and heresy. Did he burn? Of course not! He was rich. So he bought his way out of punishment with 100 ducats of silver crosses given to the Catholic Church.

Satirical poet John Oldham was born in 1653. British suffragette Evelina Haverfield was born in 1867. Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn was born in 1874. British composer Albert Ketelbey was born in 1875. He wrote kind of syrupy late Romantic stuff like The Phantom Melody:

The great developmental psychologist and epistemologist Jean Piaget was born in 1896. Poet Philip Larkin was born in 1922. Actor Robert Shaw was born in 1927. Here he is in the best scene from Jaws that he also wrote (the scene, not the movie):

And Whitney Houston was born in 1963.

Perhaps the greatest point guard of all time, Bob Cousy is 85 today. Comedian David Steinberg is 71. Actor Sam Elliott is 69. Hack novelist Jonathan Kellerman is 64. Actor Melanie Griffith is 56.

The day, however, belongs to the variously talented P. L. Travers. She is best known for her book Mary Poppins and its many sequels. She was also an actor; that’s her in the photo above as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here is a nice short video about the inspiration for the character:

Happy birthday P. L. Travers!

Milton Friedman’s Two Legacies

Milton FriedmanPaul Krugman posted a really good article yesterday, Milton Friedman, Unperson. Mostly it is about how Friedman is absent from the current debate about the financial crisis and our continuing economic doldrums. Krugman thinks this is because Friedman tried to straddle two worlds with his essentially Keynesian economic views and his extremist libertarian political views. I think Krugman is mostly right. However, if you look at what Friedman means to people today, it has little to do with his economic theories. It is his extreme views about government always being bad that prevail and we continue to hear echos of that.

But let’s talk about Friedman’s economic ideas. Krugman quotes a very famous speech by Ben Bernanke where he says that the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression and that thanks to Friedman, we now know it and won’t let it happen again. That is Friedman’s great economic legacy. And I don’t question that Friedman was a brilliant economist and that he provided great insight into the Great Depression and stagflation and many other economic issues. But when it comes to this one major point, the crisis of 2008 and its results show that Friedman was wrong.

It is doubtless true that if the Federal Reserve had acted differently during the Great Depression, things would have gone better. It is also true, however, that Keynes is the man who got the fundamental nature of the 1930s rights and Friedman was working the weeds. And we’ve seen this since 2008. We are still greatly suffering from that crisis 5 years later despite the fact that Bernanke had learned from Friedman and did everything right at the Federal Reserve.

Now, some would say, but 2008 isn’t nearly as bad as 1929. That’s true. But it isn’t because of the work of the Federal Reserve. In 2008, we had automatic—Keynesian!—stimulus in the form of Social Security, unemployment, and various poverty programs. They are the reason that 2008 didn’t bring on the Great Depression II. And I still find it shocking that so many conservative economists don’t see that.

There is no doubt that Milton Friedman added greatly to our understanding of how the Federal Reserve can and should be used to stabilize the economy. But his work has been greatly overstated. And as much as it is still part of the debate, it is used by those who only want to enrich the wealthy by doing nothing. Uncle Miltie told us that all we had to do was use the Federal Reserve, and so the only acceptable tool for an economic problem is the Federal Reserve. This is now the “centrist” position. On the right are those who say that the Federal Reserve itself steals money from True Americans. So the centrist position is based on Friedman’s economic work. And the conservative position is based on his political work. In both fields, he was demonstrably wrong. But it doesn’t matter, because his theories always told the wealthy what they wanted to hear. And the wealthy control our nation.