Good Things I read this week, 4/10 edition

Julian Sanchez:

We’re accustomed to calling the “argument from authority” a fallacym but in fact, that’s what the vast majority of us have to go on most of the time. Provided you ensure that authority’s authority actually applies to the field in question, it’s as good a strategy as any.

Obviously, when it comes to an argument between trained scientific specialists, they ought to ignore the consensus and deal directly with the argument on its merits. But most of us are not actually in any position to deal with the arguments on the merits. Which, of course, is why the ad itself makes only a gesture in the direction of an argument and then proceeds to the long list of names.

Sometimes, of course, the arguments are such that the specialists can develop and summarize them to the point that an intelligent layman can evaluate them. But often—and I feel pretty sure here—that’s just not the case. Give me a topic I know fairly intimately, and I can often make a convincing case for absolute horseshit. Convincing, at any rate, to an ordinary educated person with only passing acquaintance with the topic. A specialist would surely see through it, but in an argument between us, the lay observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which of us really had the better case on the basis of the arguments alone—at least not without putting in the time to become something of a specialist himself. Actually, I have a possible advantage here as a peddler of horseshit: I need only worry about what sounds plausible. If my opponent is trying to explain what’s true, he may be constrained to introduce concepts that take a while to explain and are hard to follow, trying the patience (and perhaps wounding the ego) of the audience.

Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. A one-way hash is a kind of “fingerprint” for messages based on the same mathematical idea: It’s really easy to run the algorithm in one direction, but much harder and more time consuming to undo. Certain bad arguments work the same way—skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible—even somewhat intuitive—to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”…

At a higher level of abstraction, a purist libertarian position is arguably quite radically green. That is, assuming the harm from climate change is demonstrable, every affected property owner gets a veto over “aggression” by carbon emitters, at least on a strict Rothbardian type of view. That’s rather too strict for my taste, but I just mean to point out that the conflict with “libertarian beliefs” here isn’t really at the level of principle or theory. If climate change is actually going to be profoundly harmful, then it’s precisely the sort of problem libertarian principles say the state ought to be trying to solve.

Matthes Yglesias on how Sid Meier’s Pirates can help us think about how to combat real pirates:

So how can the pirates be stopped? Well, fundamentally the viability of your enterprise is “Pirates!” rests on the geopolitical chaos on land. The Caribbean islands are politically fragmented between Spanish, Dutch, French, and English colonies with possessions of different nationalities mixed together and everyone always at war with someone else. Consequently, out by the main range of islands you’re never far from a friendly port where you can duck in to resupply, to sell your wares, to recruit more crew, to fix your ship, whatever. When things can get problematic is if you start spending time in the parts of the mainland that are uniformly under Spanish control. Here, if the Spanish get hostile enough that they won’t let you dock in their cities you can get in real trouble. Not because the Spanish ships are so militarily formidable, but simply because the sheer distance to safe harbor reduces your options. If your pirate crew is actually strong enough to defeat the Spanish garrison on land, you’re fine. But if not, you might be done for.

I used to play the first version when I was a kid on an Apple II. It was fantastic even back then with 8-bit graphics.

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