Monthly Archives: May 2007

The One Minute Case For Science

Science is an epistemological method

Science is the field which applies reason to the study of nature. Science is necessary because knowledge of how nature works is not self-evident, but requires a systematic method to collect evidence and correctly interpret it. Science is different in degree from informal empirical methods such as “trial and error” and in kind from non-empirical methods such as revelation, astrology, or emotionalism.

Science is the application of philosophy to specialized fields

Science is made possible by the acceptance of certain philosophical axioms in metaphysics and epistemology. In metaphysics, science requires recognizing that all entities behave in a causal manner according to their nature. In epistemology, it recognizes that man is capable of perceiving and understanding reality by the use of his senses, and because his consciousness is fallible and not automatic, he needs to actively adhere to reason and logic to reach the right conclusions.

Science is empirical

The scientific method is a formal methodology for using reason to study nature. Proper application of the scientific method can produce a scientific theory — a unifying and self-consistent explanation of fundamental natural phenomena derived from the evidence. Some essential principles of science are:

  • Observation: scientists attempt to sample and describe the full range of observed phenomena, ideally including the use of controls which counterbalance the risk of empirical bias.
  • Causal explanation: a scientific theory must provide a causal identification of the underlying processes of particular phenomena.
  • Prediction: scientific theories must explain nature in a replicable way, so that hypothesized causes correlate with observed events.
  • Falsifiability: the ability to eliminate plausible alternatives by repeated experimentation of observation. This requires scientific theories to be formulated in a way which can be independently tested and corroborated by others.
  • Integration: new theories must integrate with the existing body of scientific knowledge. When a contraction is found, the theory must be amended or discarded if not compatible with the evidence.

Science is hierarchical

Scientists build on existing work to form a hierarchical body of knowledge. Sometimes new evidence disproves existing theories. In other cases, new evidence may show that an existing theory is not a complete explanation in all contexts. For example, Einstein’s relativity theory did not prove Isaac’s Newton classical mechanism wrong. Classical mechanics is valid in the context of non-relativistic speeds, whereas general relativity theory explains for a wider range of behavior. Quantum mechanics provides evidence that a new theory is necessary on the sub-atomic scale. As scientific knowledge delves ever deeper into the fabric of the universe, new theories build on existing knowledge.

Pseudoscience versus science

The tremendous success of science in learning about the material world and applying that knowledge to benefit mankind has encouraged some anti-scientific movements to adopt a façade of scientific verbiage to mask an anti-scientific, anti-reason ideology. Some indicators of non-scientific reasoning are:

  • Use of vague and untestable claims which cannot be independently corroborated.
  • Reliance on testimonials and anecdotes rather than carefully structured, large-scale studies.
  • Argument of ignorance: placing the burden of proof on skeptics.
  • Evasion of peer review combined with claims of institutional conspiracies to suppress results.
  • Lack of progress beyond the initial theory. For example, in the case of astrology and religion, claims can remain unproven for thousands of years.

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The One Minute Case For “Sweatshops”

The opposition to sweatshops

Opposition to “sweatshops” originated with the socialist movement and the first labor unions, and these groups remain their most vocal critics today. For labor unions, sweatshops are both competition and evidence that unions are not needed to raise wages and improve working conditions. For socialists, sweatshops are their last, best hope, that somewhere, somehow, capitalism is causing suffering. Here are some of the loudest arguments against sweatshops:

Sweatshops pay low wages and subject workers to harsh conditions

It is ignorant and misleading to hold businesses in the developing world to the same standards as those in the West. Multinational companies face entirely different challenges and expenses than in the West: oppressive, unpredictable, and corrupt governments, long distances, language and cultural barriers, lack of a skilled or educated workforce, primitive infrastructure, and labor activists back at home.

Consider the condition of third world countries before the multinationals arrival. The majority of people live in the same state as they have for all of human history – in a permanent state of near-starvation, with no jobs and no future to look forward to other than the backbreaking labor of subsidence farming. Everyone works from almost from the time that he or she can walk, and most children die young from starvation or malnutrition. If they are lucky, they find work as scavengers, farm hands, prostitutes, beggars, petty criminals, or trash collectors.1

Sweatshops” offer a considerable improvement from this state: Sweatshop wages are more than double the national average in Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras. In Honduras, where almost half the working population lives on $2/day, “sweatshops” pay $13.10/day.2

Sweatshops use child labor

Child labor is necessary in the developing world because given the low productivity of their parents, the alternative is starvation. According to a 1997 UNICEF study, 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese children turned to prostitution after the US banned that country’s carpet exports in the 1990s, and after the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as “stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution.” The UNICEF study found these alternative jobs “more hazardous and exploitative than garment production. The only way to eradicate child labor is the same as in was eliminated the West – by raising the productivity of adults sufficiently to feed their families.

Sweatshops are coercive environments

Workers in sweatshops are free to quit or look for another job anytime, but they remain because they consider it the next best alternative. Their pay and working conditions seem low to us, but they are an economic step forward compared to subsistence farming. Real slavery exists today not due to economic development, but due to totalitarian regimes that do not recognize basic human rights such as North Korea, Cuba, and the Islamist militias of Sudan.

Sweatshops destroy local cultures

One criticism with a kernel of truth, is that globalization obliterates local cultures by exporting Western values. Capitalism does encourage certain values such as productivity, rationality, independence, and equality of opportunity, which are incompatible with the fatalism, tribalism, caste-based discrimination, and misogyny of most primitive societies. Rather than condemn these values, we should recognize that they are responsible for the tremendous material success of Western civilization and urge their adoption worldwide.

References:

  1. UNICEF: State of the World’s Children 1997
  2. Ben Powell and David Skarbek: Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? Journal of Labor Research; Spring 2006.

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The One Minute Case For Free Trade

Why not be self-sufficient?

Do you make your own shoes? If you invested some time learning shoemaking, you could save the money you regularly spend on new shoes. What about butter – why not churn your milk? If, like cavemen, everyone was entirely self-sufficient, our monthly spending would be zero. That would be fortunate, because our income would be zero as well, since no one would buy anything from us either.

Everyone outsources

We don’t make everything ourselves because we don’t have the time to produce everything we want. Humans learned long ago that it is beneficial to trade our specialized labor in one field for the labor of others in another, with money as the means of exchange. The difference between the short hardscrabble lives of a hunter-gatherer society and our relatively luxurious existence is due to the gains in efficiency made possible by voluntary exchange.

Everything is outsourced

In “I, Pencil”, Leonard Read writes that there isn’t a single person on earth who knows how to make a pencil. The process of acquiring and assembling the cedar, lacquer, graphite, ferrule, factice, pumice, wax, and glue that compose a pencil are performed by thousands of people all over the world. No one individual is capable of understanding all the processes involved or arranging all the transactions that deliver the necessary supplies to the right step. Voluntary exchange between individuals who know only their immediate trading partners makes possible a process that no central planner could design. None of the participants engage in it because they need a pencil, but because they want the goods and services others produce in order to buy a pencil.

A policy of free trade is beneficial even when it is unilateral

Some isolationists argue that foreigners have “unfair” advantages due to lax labor or environmental regulations, industry subsidies, or restrictions on imports abroad. But such arguments miss the whole point of trade. Capitalism is not a zero-sum game where profits are redistributed from one producer to another. Consumers who buy cheap foreign goods make their money available to buy other products, increasing everyone’s living standards. Domestic producers who lose sales to cheaper foreign goods benefit from increased consumer spending at home, and foreigners with dollars clamoring to spend them on domestic industries.

Governments that subsidize export industries only rob their taxpayers to pay foreign buyers. When France subsidizes steel exports, American steel foundries lose money, but Americans get cheaper consumer goods, and “free” Euros to buy goods that would have belonged to French taxpayers. Ultimately, restrictions on trade based on international borders are arbitrary and just as destructive as internal barriers.

Trade deficits and surpluses are natural states of economic development

The U.S. has a trade deficit when foreigners accept more U.S. dollars for their products than vice versa. If a deficit were to continue indefinitely, Americans would have a permanent supply of “free” foreign goods, since dollars are worthless if they are never spent. Foreigners trade at a deficit with America because they are confident that the we will have products they want sometime in the future. Likewise, we accumulate foreign currency in the belief that foreign goods will be valuable. Surpluses and deficits are natural states that every nation experiences as it varies between being a net recipient of investments or a net investor.

Further reading:

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The One Minute Case Against Malthusianism

The origin of apocalyptic overpopulation theory

In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus argued that the growth in the food supply is linear, whereas the growth in the population rate is exponential. Whenever the population exceeds the food supply, social turmoil erupts until drastic checks such as famines, wars, and epidemics lowered populations down to sustainable levels. The only way to avoid periodic disaster is to implement strict population controls, which have historically included both voluntary restraints, as well as coercive measures such as limits on family size and mass sterilization of “undesirable groups.”

Malthus was wrong

Malthus predicted a population crash by the middle of the 19th century. In reality, living standards have increased over sixty times since 1820 despite a tripling of the European population in the 18th century.1 Meanwhile, family sizes fell naturally without the need for coercive measures.
Nevertheless, modern Malthusians perpetually extend the date of the inevitable apocalypse to the near future. Faced with the astounding growth of agricultural yields which virtually eliminated hunger in the West, environmentalists are continually discovering new resources to run out of, whether fossil fuels, metals, land, or water.
The discrepancy is explained by two errors in the Malthusian model: the population growth rate is not exponential, while the potential growth in human productivity is.

Family size is subject to individual cost/benefit analysis.

The reason for the natural decline in population growth rates is that children are much more expensive in industrial countries. Increasing productivity levels in the developed world mean higher standards of living, lower child mortality, and a higher opportunity cost of having children. Child labor is no longer necessary for families to survive, and children have become expensive in terms of both direct expenses and lost economic opportunities for parents. Rather than working in farms or factories to keep younger siblings alive, a smaller number of kids can take care of parents in old age. Welfare programs for seniors have actually tipped the balance below equilibrium levels in most developed nations.

Capitalism allows unlimited productivity improvements

Malthusian scenarios assume that the resources available to meet human needs are fixed — that each new human being requires a fixed amount of land, metal, and fossil fuels to live. But human values are ever-shifting, and so are the means to provide those values. Each baby born not only creates new demand for the products of civilization, but also provides new resources and insight for meeting those needs.

Our living standards are rising because we are finding more efficient ways to harvest existing resources, and improving the technology to produce the goods we consume. We are also exploiting new resources to create those goods. Whale oil, rubber trees, and native forests for paper and fuel have been replaced by petroleum, plastics, tree farms, and coal. This is possible because a free society allows a growing capital and knowledge base to be multiplied by entrepreneurs who find new methods to improve human life, resulting an exponential growth in wealth.

Malthus’s model applies to animals and collectivists

The Malthusian population model is not entirely without merit. Charles Darwin realized that it applies to the animal kingdom because animals lack the capacity to volitionally control reproductive rates, and their productivity is fixed by biology. Whereas humans adopt to environmental changes, animal populations can crash rapidly when the carrying capacity of their environment changes.

Human society experiences the same pattern in preindustrial and totalitarian societies. Whether it is the crushing mold of tradition or stagnant socialist states, when the potential of human beings to apply their mind to improve their quality of life is stifled, humans are reduced to survival on the animal level, and suffer similar cycles of periodic famines.

Further reading:

References:

  1. Angus Maddison, Phases of Capitalist Development (New York: Oxford University

Press, 1982), pp. 4-7.

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The One Minute Case For Individual Rights

Man is the rational animal

Like all living beings, man requires certain values to survive, but he is unique in that he must choose the values necessary for his life because he has no automatic means of doing so. It is his ability to experience the world around him and comprehend it by the use of reason that gives him the capacity to understand the values his life requires, and then achieve them. Every value we enjoy in our civilized, comfortable, existence is the product of the application of man’s mind to reality.

There is no “collective mind”

All creative effort, every invention in history, was created by the mental effort of individual men and women. When they worked together, their knowledge was increased by the work of predecessors, but each advance they made was their own. The mind cannot be received, shared, or borrowed.

Man requires freedom to live

To live, man must achieve the values necessary to sustain his live. To achieve his values, man must be free to think and to act on his judgment.  Restrictions on freedom force man to focus not on the absolutes of reality, but on the arbitrary ideas of others. In a free society, a man can choose to not associate with those who do not respect his judgment – by finding a new job, new friends, or a new lover. Even if there is no one to share his ideas, every man is still free to present his own vision – by publishing his ideas or becoming an entrepreneur. However, as soon as he faces the threat of physical force, the possibility of any such alternatives becomes irrelevant. The initiation of force renders the mind useless as a means of survival.

Freedom requires rights

Rights are moral principles defining man’s freedom of action in society. The purpose of establishing individual rights is to protect man from man – to define the basic conditions necessary for social existence. All rights derive from a man’s right to his own life, including the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Whether it is by a theft, force, fraud, or government coercion, man’s rights can be violated only by the initiation of force.

Rights are inalienable and non-conflicting

Rights are not guarantees to things or obligations placed on others, but only guarantees to freedom from violence (the right to life), freedom of action (the right to liberty), and the results of those actions (the right to property). In a free society, men deal with one another exclusively by trade, voluntarily exchanging value for value to their mutual benefit. The only obligations one’s rights impose on other men is to respect the same and equal rights of others – the freedom to be left alone. A man may have his rights violated by a criminal or a government, but morally he remains, in the right, and the criminal in the wrong.

Further reading:

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The One Minute Case Against the Cosmological Argument

The cosmological, or “first cause” argument, is a metaphysical argument for the existence of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas stated it as:

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. Nothing finite and dependent (contingent) can cause itself.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause.

The stylized “proof from the big bang” is:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

Both proofs contain several problematic claims:

A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.

Infinities do not actually exist. Each specific set of entities is discrete. But the causal chain itself is not an existent. It is the set of all entities that have ever existed. That is a theoretical construct (like infinity or a singularity in mathematics) rather than a discrete set of entities that we can point to. If I walk from one side of the room to the other, my body exists in an infinite number of locations along that path during the time it takes me to do so. But it only exists in one location at any specific time.

The universe is an entity.

This is an equivocation known as the fallacy of composition. The universe can be defined as “the set containing all entities in existence.” The universe is not itself an entity, but a collection of entities. All entities in the universe may be finite, but the set of entities need not be.

There is a cause “outside the universe.”

For there to be a cause, there must be an entity doing the causation. If the universe is the set of all existing entities, that entity must be part of the universe. An entity cannot be its own cause, so it cannot have created the universe.

The universe began to exist.

The cosmological argument defines “universe” as the set of events since creation, and places the first cause “beyond” our timeline. But time is a relative measure of the rate of change between entities, not an absolute linear constant. It is a contradiction of the concept of time to speak of a “time before time.” There cannot be such thing as a “timeless” entity because time includes all causal interactions, including the initial one. It is meaningless to speak of a time before the existence of entities, because time is a property of entities itself.

The universe has always existed — but this means only that as long as the universe has existed, so has time.

The first cause is God.

Even if we accept that the universe has a cause, it does not follow that that cause is God. Why should the first cause be a complex and conscious entity conforming to a particular religion? It is more logical to conclude that the origin of the universe is the simplest one possible, since all higher-level causes derive from it. The difference between science and religious dogma is that science is falsifiable, whereas dogma is not.How could one prove that the universe created by a personal, Christian God, and not a Hindu deity, a computer hacker in another dimension, or the flying spaghetti monster?

Further reading:

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The One Minute Case Against Global Warming Alarmism

Earth’s climate is complex and constantly changing

Earth’s climate is an enormously complex system with thousands of variables in constant flux. Natural cycles of warming and cooling have existed as long as earth has had a climate. We only began to make large-scale measurements in the last 100 years, so this system is poorly understood.

Attempts to manipulate climate are limited by the complexity and inertia of the system. Dr. James Hansen of NASA, the father of the global warming theory, estimates the Kyoto protocol would only affect temperatures by .13°C by 2100, and it would take 30 Kyotos to have an “acceptable” impact on climate change. “Should a catastrophic scenario prove correct”, states Dr. Richard Lindzen, an MIT climate expert, “Kyoto will not prevent it.”

No single indicator can provide proof of a global change. The thinning of the Greenland ice sheet may be due to human causes, natural variations in snowfall, changes in ocean currents, a long-term warming of the planet since the transition from the last glacial period, continued warming since the end of the Little Ice Age following the Medieval Warm Period, or all of the above.

Politicians and the media are eager to embrace the latest crisis

Climate changes during the twentieth century were often accompanied by widespread panic, only to be quickly forgotten when dire predictions failed to materialize. Intellectuals, the media, and political institutions find it profitable to capitalize on emergencies which focus public attention on the issues they champion. Often their predictions go far beyond the most alarmist of scientific bodies. Science writer David Appell, who has written for such publications as the New Scientist and Scientific American believes that global warming will “threaten fundamental food and water sources. It would lead to displacement of billions of people and huge waves of refugees, spawn terrorism and topple governments, spread disease across the globe.” It would be “would be chaos by any measure, far greater even than the sum total of chaos of the global wars of the 20th century.” This doomsday scenario hardly follows from the hesitant estimates of a 1.1 to 6.4°C temperature rise and 18 to 59 cm sea level rise by 2100 predicted in 2007 by the IPCC.

Attempts to halt climate change are not only costly and futile, but ignore the benefits of a warmer climate

Adapting to a warmer climate has many costs, but many benefits as well. According to NASA satellite data, higher levels of CO2 have dramatically increased biomass production and biodiversity worldwide. Global warming may cause Africa to become more arid, but enormous territories in Siberia and Canada might finally be open to settlement, and new resources and shipping routes will become available.

The focus of environmental movements is usually on reversing anthropogenic causes of ecological change. Such attempts are not only futile, but ignore the large scale economic destruction caused by environmental restrictions on human productivity. Free societies and technological innovation have allowed human ingenuity bring about vast improvements in human life. This change has almost doubled the life expectancy and quadrupled the standard of living in the developed world – and is now transforming the developing world. Disrupting the global economy would have a snowball effect on future living standards, as well as retard future technologies will help us adapt to a constantly changing world.

A genuine cost-benefit analysis should weight the costs of wealth destruction and long term inhibition of technological progress against the highly uncertain costs of adjusting to environmental changes. Human beings have never passively resigned themselves to environmental changes, but adapted their society to make optimal use of their environment.

Wealth, technology, and human ingenuity are our most powerful tools for dealing with change

Even the most alarmist of scientists generally agree that there is little humanity can do to influence the global climate for many decades, even if we wrecked an industrial civilization that has allowed billions of people to leave immeasurably longer and better lives. Our resources would be far better spent creating innovative technology that allows us to make the best of a constantly changing climate than crippling industrial civilization (our best tool for dealing with a constantly changing world) in a futile attempt to stop climate change.

Further reading:

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