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23 March 2010 @ 01:43 pm
Lies, Damned Lies, and Invisible Hands  

Warning! Two-topic post!

There's a discussion on CNN right now, where Rick Sanchez is talking to a guy from the Census Bureau about why we have to count everyone instead of using statistical methods to take a sample, and extrapolate the population numbers from there. Evidently, Rick's List is an "audience-driven" show, where Sanchez presents stories based on viewer questions; this explains some of his eye-rolling as he tries to hold up "his" side of the interview ("TV ratings extrapolate the opinons of a thousand viewers from a poll of a hundred, and we know how well that works.").

To me -- and, I suspect, anyone who's really studied and used statistical methods -- the answer is obvious

The U.S. Census is one of the rare opportunities to get the baseline data upon which we can base our statistical analyses.

In the Geospatial Analysis/Remote Sensing field, we call this "groundtruthing". It doesn't matter how good you think your digital data is -- at some point, you have to get down on the ground, take a look at the place you're mapping, and make sure the Map Resembles The Territory.

It's funny -- I'll lay odds that the guy who posed the question on Rick's site is also one of those people who bitches that "statistics don't mean a damned thing -- they can make'em say anything they want." Too many people will lambaste statistics as a lazy shortcut that fabricates meaningless data -- until they find themselves in a situation where rigorous, complete data collection inconveniences them.

And, yes, statistics can be misused, massaged, and abused. More often than not, it's because the people reading them aren't doing so fairly or rigorously, and the people viewing them don't really know how to read them.

This segues into a subject that was running through my head earlier this morning:

The people who are most resistant to accepting the principals of Evolution by Natural Selection in a biological context are those who most eagerly accept the same principle in an economic context. They call it "Capitalism". Darwin cheerfully admitted that he got a lot of ideas from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.

There are those who will argue that the biological and economic systems are very different, and you can't assume that a model that works for one will hold true in another.

True enough, but from a century or two of observation, the model holds more true in the biological context.*

Even more, they tend to embrace it in a social context, as well, condemning programs that "coddle" the poor. If the poor were worthwhile -- in other words, if they were fit -- they wouldn't need support. If they were worthy, they wouldn't be poor, now, would they? So it's Right and Natural to leave them to their own devices.

Creationists tend to be Social Darwinists.

*Actually, the model works just fine in either context -- the mix of stable periods, instabilities, conditional oscillations, and mass extinctions look very similar whether you're looking at graphs of the fossil record or of economic trends. When you're on the ground in the middle of it all, however, the Panglossian hypothesis that the Invisible Hand of the market will produce the most desirable results depends heavily on how "desirable" you consider a regular pattern of decimation.

Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on March 23rd, 2010 09:25 pm (UTC)
Most social Darwinists make the same mistake about evolution as most people who don't understand evolution do – they think there's a final resting place, a victor, and it's them (either economically or biologically – as capitalist and humans, they're the end point of development). This is one of the things that consistently destroys the predictive power of economic models that are strongly pro-capitalist (like in the Chicago School of Economics or the Austrians or whomever). They confuse the process with the goal, which is wrong twice because the process isn't the goal and there is no goal, hehe. So, I don't agree that their model is very good because that model you describes is not, in fact, their model. Their model ignores thermodynamics entirely and treats economics as though it has no connection to the physical world. It's . . . difficult to describe how bad economics is. The simplest way is that they never let a physical fact get in the way of a prediction.

And you are, of course, entirely right about the census.
Your Obedient Serpent: eco-rantathelind on March 23rd, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
You're dead-on, and the error is mine: yes, the graphs look similar, but the hypothesis that supports is the one that I presented: that congruent principles apply in both the ecological and economic systems.

(I'm not going to refer to that as "my" hypothesis, since it's hardly original with me. After all, it goes back at least to Darwin.)

And, yes: both economics and evolution are processes without a goal. It's all adaptation, and short-term success is no guarantee of "progress", or even "stability".

I have read and heard -- though I confess that I haven't read Wealth of Nations -- that Smith himself was not a laissez-faire free-market capitalist. As I understand it, while he saw the power of the market as a social force, and most certainly as a better model for planning than the previously-dominant theory of mercantilism, he also saw that, left to itself, the self-organization process of a free market system would leave a lot of bodies in its wake.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on March 23rd, 2010 10:05 pm (UTC)
Ironically vis-a-vis your comments about statistics, economics models backwards predictions look "accurate" because their obtuse manipulation of the data, hehe. But their backwards predictions have no real forward predictive power, largely for ideological reasons - it is assumed that modern capitalism must be correct. And, y'know, they are profoundly ignorant of other fields, just reprehensibly ignorant. They're very much the guys who like statistics with no baseline measurements. They're the same people!

I've read an abridgment of Wealth of Nations and some other stuff by Smith and . . . it varies. He changed over time. I think the fairest way to say it is that he didn't understand where deregulated capitalist markets would end up. His view of things was largely that of craftsmen working in shops they owned, producing things in free competition with each other. He didn't seem to know or understand what was obvious to many of his contemporaries that this would lead to almost immediate centralization as greedy people with a little money used that to leverage their property into monopolies. He just didn't seriously deal with the tendency for wealth to strive towards monopoly, AFAIK.
Hafochafoc on March 24th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
Y'know, the biggest problem I see with peoples' understanding of Darwinism is that they think it is some kind of a moral decision. If you actually read Darwin, he's writing about the creatures who can adapt taking over from the ones who can't. The idea of continuous improvement toward perfection is more akin to the Great Chain of Being theory, which is 16th Century and theological.

Where Taking Darwin's Name in Vain really gets us into trouble is where we start seeing it as Better creatures, or people, displacing Worse ones. It's not far from "The Better replace the Worse" to "The Better SHOULD replace the worse." And from there, it's not far to "We should HELP the Better replace the Worse," and you start pushing those you consider unfit out of the job market, into the homeless shelter or the street-- or, to play the Hitler card, into the gas chambers.

But the Nazi comparison may be apt here, because Capitalism, Communism, and Nazism share at least one thing: They are all the idea of "The strong SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED to replace the weak" applied to human society.