2020 Won’t Be 2016 (or 2000)

We’re entering what’s been called and what’s going to be “the longest two weeks in human history”. A neuroscientist who writes for Scientific American says we shouldn’t worry too much about what’s going to happen:

Will we be surprised again this November the way Americans were on Nov. 9, 2016 when they awoke to learn that reality TV star Dxxxx Txxxx had been elected president?

. . . Another surprise victory is unlikely to happen again if this election is looked at from the same perspective of neuroscience that I used to account for the surprising outcome in 2016. Briefly, that article explained how our brain provides two different mechanisms of decision-making; one is conscious and deliberative, and the other is automatic, driven by emotion and especially by fear.

Txxxx’s strategy does not target the neural circuitry of reason in the cerebral cortex; it provokes the limbic system. In the 2016 election, undecided voters were influenced by the brain’s fear-driven impulses—more simply, gut instinct—once they arrived inside the voting booth, even though they were unable to explain their decision to pre-election pollsters in a carefully reasoned manner.

In 2020, Txxxx continues to use the same strategy of appealing to the brain’s threat-detection circuitry and emotion-based decision process to attract votes and vilify opponents. . . .

But fear-driven appeals will likely persuade fewer voters this time, because we overcome fear in two ways: by reason and experience. Inhibitory neural pathways from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system will enable reason to quash fear if the dangers are not grounded in fact. . . .

A psychology- and neuroscience-based perspective also illuminates Txxxx’s constant interruptions and insults during the first presidential debate, steamrolling over the moderator’s futile efforts to have a reasoned airing of facts and positions. The structure of a debate is designed to engage the deliberative reasoning in the brain’s cerebral cortex, so Txxxx annihilated the format to inflame emotion in the limbic system.

Txxxx’s dismissal of experts, be they military generals, career public servants, scientists or even his own political appointees, is necessary for him to sustain the subcortical decision-making in voters’ minds that won him election and sustains his support. . . . In his rhetoric, Txxxx does not address factual evidence; he dismisses or suppresses it even for events that are apparent to many, including global warming, foreign intervention in U.S. elections, the trivial head count at his inauguration, and even the projected path of a destructive hurricane. Instead, “alternative facts” or fabrications are substituted.

. . . Reason cannot always overcome fear, as [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] demonstrates; but the brain’s second mechanism of neutralizing its fear circuitry—experience—can do so. Repeated exposure to the fearful situation where the outcome is safe will rewire the brain’s subcortical circuitry. This is the basis for “extinction therapy” used to treat PTSD and phobias. For many, credibility has been eroded by Txxxx’s outlandish assertions, like suggesting injections of bleach might cure COVID-19, or enthusing over a plant toxin touted by a pillow salesman, while scientific experts in attendance grimace and bite their lips.

In the last election Txxxx was a little-known newcomer as a political figure, but that is not the case this time with either candidate. The “gut -reaction” decision-making process excels in complex situations where there is not enough factual information or time to make a reasoned decision. We follow gut instinct, for example, when selecting a dish from a menu at a new restaurant, where we have never seen or tasted the offering before. We’ve had our fill of the politics this time, no matter what position one may favor. Whether voters choose to vote for Txxxx on the basis of emotion or reason, they will be better able to articulate the reasons, or rationalizations, for their choice. This should give pollsters better data to make a more accurate prediction.

Unquote.

Pollsters did make an accurate prediction of the national vote in 2016 (Clinton won it). Most of them didn’t taken into account the Electoral College, however, or anticipate the last-minute intervention by big-mouth FBI Director James Comey.

In 2000, the Electoral College result depended on an extremely close election in one state. That allowed the Republicans on the Supreme Court to get involved. There’s no reason to think that will happen again, despite the president’s hopes that it will.

When Our Votes Will Be Counted

With so many ballots being mailed or otherwise submitted before Election Day, people are wondering when we’ll know the results. The good news is that only four states wait until Election Day to begin processing ballots. I think this means Election Night will provide some blessed relief, especially if states let us know what percentage of the ballots have been counted (the percentage of “precincts reported” probably won’t be as meaningful this year). Even if the result isn’t clear that night, it should be clear by the next day.

I say that because I’m convinced this election won’t be very close. Millions of voters gave the maniac the benefit of the doubt four years ago. Now they know what they had to lose (jobs, health, peace of mind, not hearing about a dangerous fool every day, etc.).

This is from The New York Times, which has more information about the process.

Untitled

Decisions, Decisions

Our mail-in ballots arrived today. I’m wondering if I should vote for the candidate who’s a decent person with a substantial record of government service? Or his opponent, a horrible person with a history of deceit and fraud? Further down the ballot, should I vote for candidates who will help the next president achieve his goals or the ones who will do everything possible to make him fail? Hmm.

One reason to vote for Biden and members of his party is that, despite what many think, Democratic presidents have a better record on the economy than Republican presidents. Paul Krugman of the City University of New York and the New York Times explains:

[On Monday night], Joe Biden claimed that his tax and spending plans would create millions of jobs and promote economic growth. Txxxx claimed that they would destroy the economy.

Well, everything we know suggests that Biden was right and Txxxx wrong. And I’m not the only one saying this. Nonpartisan analysts like Moody’s Analytics and the not-exactly-socialist economists at Goldman Sachs are remarkably high on Biden’s proposals. . . .

There’s a widespread perception that Republicans are better than Democrats at managing the economy. But that’s not at all what the record says.

Yes, Ronald Reagan presided over a long economic expansion; but so did Bill Clinton, and the Clinton boom was both longer and bigger. The economy did in fact add many jobs under Txxxx before the coronavirus struck, but this simply represented the continuation of an expansion that began under Barack Obama.

And those were the good stretches. Both Bushes presided over really poor economic performance.

Republicans also have a long history of claiming that progressive policies would lead to economic disaster. They’ve been wrong every time.

They’ve been wrong about tax hikes: When Clinton raised taxes in 1993, Republicans confidently predicted recession, but what actually happened was a huge boom. When California raised taxes under Jerry Brown, the right called it “economic suicide”; again, the economy boomed.

They’ve also been wrong about social programs. Obamacare, the G.O.P. insisted, would destroy millions of jobs. One of the dozens of attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act was actually called the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” Yet in the six years after January 2014, when the act went into full effect, the economy added almost 15 million jobs.

And let’s not forget the flip side, the many, many times Republicans promised that cutting taxes on the rich would produce an economic miracle, promises that never came true. There’s a reason conservatives still go on and on about the Reagan boom, all those years ago; it’s the only example they have that even seems to support their economic ideology. (It doesn’t, but that’s another topic.)

But there’s a difference between saying that progressive policies are not the disaster conservatives claim and saying that Biden’s plan would actually promote growth. Why are Moody’s and Goldman Sachs so high on his proposals? Why do I share that optimism?

First, the background. Even before the coronavirus, good employment numbers could hide underlying economic weakness. For at least the past decade, we’ve been living in a world of excess savings: the amount the private sector saves persistently exceeds the amount it spends on real investments. This savings glut is reflected in low interest rates, even when the economy is strong.

Low interest rates, in turn, limit the ability of the Federal Reserve to fight downturns, which is why Jerome Powell, the Fed’s chairman, has been pleading for more fiscal stimulus.

In today’s world, then, we actually want the government to run budget deficits, because they put excess savings to use. But we also want those deficits to be productive — to boost investment, and strengthen the economy in the long run.

The 2017 Txxxx tax cut flunked that test. It increased the budget deficit, but the main driver of that red ink — a huge cut in corporate taxes — utterly failed to yield the promised surge in business investment.

Biden’s plan would roll back that corporate tax cut, replacing it with spending programs likely to yield much more bang for the buck. In particular, much of the spending would be on infrastructure and education — that is, outlays aimed at strengthening the economy in the long run, as well as boosting it over the next few years.

When Moody’s ran this program through their model, it concluded that by the end of 2024, real gross domestic product would be 4.5 percent higher than under a continuation of Txxxx’s policies, translating into an additional 7 million jobs. Goldman Sach’s estimates are similar: a 3.7 percent gain in G.D.P.

Now, a model is only a model, and economists’ predictions are often wrong (although some of us are willing to acknowledge error and learn from our mistakes).

But if you’re trying to assess the candidates’ economic claims, you should know that Txxxx’s predictions of a Biden bust lack credibility, not just because Txxxx lies about everything, but because Republicans always predict disaster from progressive policy, and have never yet been right.

And you should also know that Biden’s assertions that his plan would give the economy a significant boost are well grounded in mainstream economics and supported by independent, nonpartisan analyses. . . .

Unquote.

There’s a simple reason why Democrats do better. They believe in sharing the wealth. Republicans don’t.

Hmm. I think we should go with the Democrats.

Perhaps the Commission on Presidential “Debates” Wants To Hear From You

We watched two episodes of Fargo‘s very disappointing new season instead. We already know who these candidates are. We already know that the president is unwilling and/or unable to carry on a civil conversation. The Commission would do the country a big favor by canceling the next two. I won’t call them “debates”. It’s better to call them “confrontations”.

You can contact the Commission on Presidential Confrontations at media@debates.org or (202) 872-1020.

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Seventy-Three, Yes. Higally-Piggle, No. What Is Math Anyway?

What does it mean that seventy-three is a genuine number, but higally-piggle isn’t? Smithsonian Magazine delves into the old question: What is math? The answer is provided below. (See the original article for all the links.)

It all started with an innocuous TikTok video posted by a high school student named Gracie Cunningham. Applying make-up while speaking into the camera, the teenager questioned whether math is “real.” She added: “I know it’s real, because we all learn it in school… but who came up with this concept?” Pythagoras, she muses, “didn’t even have plumbing—and he was like, ‘Let me worry about y = mx + b’”—referring to the equation describing a straight line on a two-dimensional plane. She wondered where it all came from. “I get addition,” she said, “but how would you come up with the concept of algebra? What would you need it for?”

Someone re-posted the video to Twitter, where it soon went viral. Many of the comments were unkind: One person said it was the “dumbest video” they had ever seen; others suggested it was indicative of a failed education system. Others, meanwhile, came to Cunningham’s defense, saying that her questions were actually rather profound.

Mathematicians from Cornell and from the University of Wisconsin weighed in, as did philosopher Philip Goff of Durham University in the U.K. Mathematician Eugenia Cheng . . . wrote a two-page reply and said Cunningham had raised profound questions about the nature of mathematics “in a very deeply probing way.”

Cunningham had unwittingly re-ignited a very ancient and unresolved debate in the philosophy of science. What, exactly, is math? Is it invented, or discovered? And are the things that mathematicians work with—numbers, algebraic equations, geometry, theorems and so on—real?

Some scholars feel very strongly that mathematical truths are “out there,” waiting to be discovered—a position known as Platonism. It takes its name from the ancient Greek thinker Plato, who imagined that mathematical truths inhabit a world of their own—not a physical world, but rather a non-physical realm of unchanging perfection; a realm that exists outside of space and time. Roger Penrose, the renowned British mathematical physicist, is a staunch Platonist. In The Emperor’s New Mind, he wrote that there appears “to be some profound reality about these mathematical concepts, going quite beyond the mental deliberations of any particular mathematician. It is as though human thought is, instead, being guided towards some external truth—a truth which has a reality of its own…”

Many mathematicians seem to support this view. The things they’ve discovered over the centuries—that there is no highest prime number; that the square root of two is an irrational number; that the number pi, when expressed as a decimal, goes on forever—seem to be eternal truths, independent of the minds that found them. If we were to one day encounter intelligent aliens from another galaxy, they would not share our language or culture, but, the Platonist would argue, they might very well have made these same mathematical discoveries.

“I believe that the only way to make sense of mathematics is to believe that there are objective mathematical facts, and that they are discovered by mathematicians,” says James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science . . . . “Working mathematicians overwhelmingly are Platonists. They don’t always call themselves Platonists, but if you ask them relevant questions, it’s always the Platonistic answer that they give you.”

Other scholars—especially those working in other branches of science—view Platonism with skepticism. Scientists tend to be empiricists; they imagine the universe to be made up of things we can touch and taste and so on; things we can learn about through observation and experiment. The idea of something existing “outside of space and time” makes empiricists nervous: It sounds embarrassingly like the way religious believers talk about God, and God was banished from respectable scientific discourse a long time ago. . . .

Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York, was initially attracted to Platonism—but has since come to see it as problematic. If something doesn’t have a physical existence, he asks, then what kind of existence could it possibly have?

. . . The Platonist must confront further challenges: If mathematical objects exist outside of space and time, how is it that we can know anything about them? Brown doesn’t have the answer, but he suggests that we grasp the truth of mathematical statements “with the mind’s eye”—in a similar fashion, perhaps, to the way that scientists like Galileo and Einstein intuited physical truths via “thought experiments,” before actual experiments could settle the matter.

Consider a famous thought experiment dreamed up by Galileo, to determine whether a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one. Just by thinking about it, Galileo was able to deduce that heavy and light objects must fall at the same rate. The trick was to imagine the two objects tethered together: Does the heavy one tug on the lighter one, to make the lighter one fall faster? Or does the lighter one act as a “brake” to slow the heavier one? The only solution that makes sense, Galileo reasoned, is that objects fall at the same rate regardless of their weight. In a similar fashion, mathematicians can prove that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, or that there is no largest prime number—and they don’t need physical triangles or pebbles for counting to make the case, just a nimble brain.

Meanwhile, notes Brown, we shouldn’t be too shocked by the idea of abstractions, because we’re used to using them in other areas of inquiry. “I’m quite convinced there are abstract entities, and they are just not physical,” says Brown. “And I think you need abstract entities in order to make sense of a ton of stuff—not only mathematics, but linguistics, ethics . . .”.

Platonism has various alternatives. One popular view is that mathematics is merely a set of rules, built up from a set of initial assumptions—what mathematicians call axioms. Once the axioms are in place, a vast array of logical deductions follow, though many of these can be fiendishly difficult to find. In this view, mathematics seems much more like an invention than a discovery; at the very least, it seems like a much more human-centric endeavor. . . .

But this view has its own problems. If mathematics is just something we dream up from within our own heads, why should it “fit” so well with what we observe in nature? Why should a chain reaction in nuclear physics, or population growth in biology, follow an exponential curve? Why are the orbits of the planets shaped like ellipses? Why does the Fibonacci sequence turn up in the patterns seen in sunflowers, snails, hurricanes, and spiral galaxies? Why, in a nutshell, has mathematics proven so staggeringly useful in describing the physical world? Theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner highlighted this issue in a famous 1960 essay titled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Wigner concluded that the usefulness of mathematics in tackling problems in physics “is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

However, a number of modern thinkers believe they have an answer to Wigner’s dilemma. Although mathematics can be seen as a series of deductions that stem from a small set of axioms, those axioms were not chosen on a whim, they argue. Rather, they were chosen for the very reason that they do seem to have something to do with the physical world. As Pigliucci puts it: “The best answer that I can provide [to Wigner’s question] is that this ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ is actually very reasonable, because mathematics is in fact tethered to the real world, and has been, from the beginning.”

Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist at Aix-Marseille University in France, points to the example of Euclidean geometry—the geometry of flat space that many of us learned in high school. . . . A Platonist might argue that the findings of Euclidean geometry “feel” universal—but they are no such thing, Rovelli says. “It’s only because we happen to live in a place that happens to be strangely flat that we came up with this idea of Euclidean geometry as a ‘natural thing’ that everyone should do,” he says. “. . . Remember ‘geometry’ means ‘measurement of the earth’, and the earth is round. We would have developed spherical geometry instead.”

Rovelli goes further, calling into question the universality of the natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4… To most of us, and certainly to a Platonist, the natural numbers seem, well, natural. Were we to meet those intelligent aliens, they would know exactly what we meant when we said that 2 + 2 = 4 (once the statement was translated into their language). Not so fast, says Rovelli. Counting “only exists where you have stones, trees, people—individual, countable things,” he says. “Why should that be any more fundamental than, say, the mathematics of fluids?” If intelligent creatures were found living within, say, the clouds of Jupiter’s atmosphere, they might have no intuition at all for counting, or for the natural numbers, Rovelli says. Presumably we could teach them about natural numbers—just like we could teach them the rules of chess—but if Rovelli is right, it suggests this branch of mathematics is not as universal as the Platonists imagine.

Like Pigliucci, Rovelli believes that math “works” because we crafted it for its usefulness. “It’s like asking why a hammer works so well for hitting nails,” he says. “It’s because we made it for that purpose.”

In fact, says Rovelli, Wigner’s claim that mathematics is spectacularly useful for doing science doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. He argues that many discoveries made by mathematicians are of hardly any relevance to scientists. “There is a huge amount of mathematics which is extremely beautiful to mathematicians, but completely useless for science,” he says. “And there are a lot of scientific problems—like turbulence, for example—that everyone would like to find some useful mathematics for, but we haven’t found it.”

Mary Leng, a philosopher at the University of York, in the U.K., holds a related view. She describes herself as a “fictionalist” – she sees mathematical objects as useful fictions, akin to the characters in a story or a novel. “In a sense, they’re creatures of our creation, like Sherlock Holmes is.”

But [Leng says] there’s a key difference between the work of a mathematician and the work of a novelist: Mathematics has its roots in notions like geometry and measurement, which are very much tied to the physical world. True, some of the things that today’s mathematicians discover are esoteric in the extreme, but in the end, math and science are closely allied pursuits . . . “Because [math] is invented as a tool to help with the sciences, it’s less of a surprise that it is, in fact, useful in the sciences.”

Given that these questions about the nature of mathematics have been the subject of often heated debate for some 2,300 years, it’s unlikely they’ll go away anytime soon.

Unquote.

Nope, anybody who reads this post (or the whole underlying article) has to accept that math depends on axioms or rules. They are invented, not out of the blue, but because they’re plausible and useful. Once you settle on the axioms or rules, discoveries can follow. Therefore, Platonism is wrong. Its competition, which is usually called “nominalism”, is right. I’m glad that’s finally settled.

On a related note, the National Public Radio site has a short article on time travel. The article cites research in physics that purports to show that paradox-free time travel is possible:

Researchers ran the numbers and determined that even if you made a change in the past, the timeline would essentially self-correct, ensuring that whatever happened to send you back in time would still happen. . . . In other words, a time traveler could make changes, but the original outcome would still find a way to happen — maybe not the same way it happened in the first timeline but close enough so that the time traveler would still exist and would still be motivated to go back in time. [According to one of the authors], “No matter what you did, the salient events would just recalibrate around you.”

I’m not qualified to judge the technical merits of this research, but I doubt it shows that paradox-free time travel is guaranteed in every case. If you went back in time and murdered your grandfather before he met your grandmother, and your grandfather didn’t have an identical twin or make a deposit at a sperm bank, I’m pretty damn sure you’re grandmother would have an insurmountable problem generating your precise DNA, whether or not “the numbers” say otherwise.

On yet another mathematical topic, America’s Electoral College is authorized to determine that 63 million counts more than 66 million. That’s why we all need to vote this year.