Policy Paralogism

22 February 2018

Confronted with a real or imagined social problem, most people first grab for an ostensible solution that appeals to their prejudices, and then for an argument (in favor of this policy) that seems plausible to them. That approach is not ideal, but might still result in good policy if people would poke at each such argument, to see whether it were actually logical, and move away from proposed solutions in cases in which none of the arguments withstood examination. Unfortunately, people don't generally test their arguments; words strung together in emotionally satisfying ways are embraced as if any reasonable person would accept them.

I came upon an epitomal example of this behavior, in the wake of a recent mass shooting at a school. Someone posted a graphic macro suggesting how guns might be treated analogously to motor vehicles and and declared

Let’s go through this one more time…maybe they will get it. And yes, people will obtain guns illegally. And yes, people kill people. But doing nothing means more die.

(Underscore mine.) Now, there are various problems with the suggestion that guns should be treated analogously to motor vehicles, and perhaps someday I'll labor all that occur to me. But here I want to focus on that assertion doing nothing means more die. To the poster, it apparently seems that any reasonable person would accept that this assertion is an argument for the policy that he favors. Let's poke at this use, to see whether it is actually logical.

It is surely true that if we do nothing different, then people who have not yet died will die, and in this sense more will die. But, as a matter of logic, that doesn't mean that there is something that we can do such that people would not die, or even that fewer would die. If we somehow had an optimal social policy, and found that people died, we could still say that if we did nothing different then people would die. So, one question that we might ask is of whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die.

And I'm not simply talking about whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die at the hands of shooters who are not state officials, or even about the more general question of whether a change in policy would cause fewer or more people to to die at the hands of shooters of all sorts, but about the question of whether the change in policy would result in fewer or in more deaths across all causes. For example, a policy change might lead to greater use of IEDs. (The deadliest mass murder at a school in American history was effected by a bomb.) The answer is not known a priori.

There is also the issue of other costs. For example, some jurisdictions have a lower rate per capita of homicide, but a higher rate of rape. One doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will be raped, and likewise one doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will die. I don't think that any utilitarian calculus is actually reasonable, but one that simply counts lives is plainly inhumane. And it would be childlike to think and childish to insist that, with some set of policies, the global minimum for each costs could be achieved simultaneous to that for every other, let alone that such a fantastic minimum could be found by first finding the local minimum for one cost and then seeking the local minimum for another.

The poster has presented an example from just one class of policies, and declared doing nothing means more die. Plainly, there are other possible policy responses, so that the relevant comparison is not simply between adopting the policy that he favors and maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, if his argument were adapted to the defense of other policies, he and others might be provoked to examine that argument more carefully. His words might be left essentially unchanged, but the macro replaced with one discussing a policy of a different sort. For example, someone might propose that each person above the age of 10 years old be interned in a mental-health camp, until and unless experts appointed by the state certified that he or she was not a danger to society. I'd like to think that, if the original poster had earlier seen the very same words used in defense of an internment policy, then he would have immediately poked at the argument to find the illogic. I'm quite sure that most people who applauded or would have applauded his words in the context in which he did use them would have found their illogic in the context of an argument for rounding-up American youth and throwing them into camps. Well, the should have poked at the argument where they actually found it.

A Third Rejection and Fourth Submission

20 February 2018

The third journal to which I submitted my paper on formal qualitative probability had a 10,000-word limit on submissions (with bibliographies excluded from the calculation). I wasn't sure just how they wanted formulæ to be assessed, but it seemed to me that I should still be under their limit with them counted in some reasonable way. As the editors requested a word-count, I mentioned to them that I weren't sure how to assess the formulæ. After barely less than two weeks, the paper was rejected, without a reason being given.

The next journal to which I planned to submit the paper had a 9,500-word limit (with bibliographies included in the calculation). I still thought that I would be under that limit. Unfortunately, they wanted citations and the bibliography formatted in a way for which I was not immediately prepared, so I spent some time wrestling with that. Then, part-way through the submission process, I encountered a note that said that figures were to be counted as if having as many words as the space they occupied could otherwise have contained. What they had called a word limit began to look suspiciously like a page limit (combined with an expectation as to the size of type).

My paper does not have an figures as such, but many of its formulæ are in block-display form. In theory, I could present the formulæ in in-line form, and then the paper would probably come-in under the apparent limit; but it would also become nearly impossible to understand. In order to get my paper under the apparent limit otherwise, I'd have to pare-away more than 18% of its content, which would be dreadful. I might press ahead without making changes, as the editors had not said anything about formulæ, but I felt sure that I'd be wasting my time.

And I think that it is comparatively likely that the previous journal, with its ostensible word limit actually had a similar page limit.

I made some further improvements in the content. One improvement was a consequence of looking again at an article to deal with the citations, and noticing something that I'd long ago forgot. Another was a result of fleshing-out the philosophical discussion, still in the wake of the first rejection. My perhaps too spartan mention of that change puzzled kpm, so I wrote a longer explanation for her, and the process of doing that led to my adding two more points to that discussion.

To-night, I submitted the latest version of the paper to what one might count as the fourth or fifth journal. It is again most likely that I'll get a desk rejection; and, should it instead be sent to reviewers, most likely that they will reject it. Either such rejection would be hard to take, even though anticipated.

But I know that it was a marvelous piece of work when sent to the first journal, and it is still better now.

A Second Rejection and Third Submission

26 January 2018

On 25 January, I received a desk rejection (without explanation) from the second journal to which I had submitted my article on qualitative probability. To-day, I submitted to a third journal, adopting one of two suggestions from Anthony Gamst.

This third journal imposes a strict word limit. I am not sure how to adjust a word count in the presence of formulæ, but I removed two tables to ensure that I were below the limit. Possibly they might be restored, if a reviewer wants a pair of claims within the text to be substantiated.

I also made some minor changes in the text to hide my identity in the specific manner demanded by the journal. I don't know whether I would want to reverse those changes should the article be accepted.

Additionally, I added a sentence to the abstract, in order to help the editor (and any other possible reader) recognize the philosophical content within the paper.

Again, most articles receive rejections before being sent to reviewers, and most articles sent to reviewers are rejected. I must be prepared to deal with yet another rejection.

A First Rejection and Second Submission

18 January 2018

I received a desk rejection from the editor of the first journal to which I submitted my paper on qualitative probability. He said that the paper were a highly technical discussion without sufficient engagement with the philosophical literature, and would be better suited to a journal of statistical or probability theory.

There is very little philosophical literature on qualitative probability as such, and I engaged with it; I also discussed philosophical issues that don't appear in that prior literature.

A journal of statistical theory would almost surely reject my paper. One of probability theory might well accept it; but might instead reject it as too philosophical.

I've submitted to another journal of philosophy. That journal demanded to know to where I'd previously submitted the paper, so I told them and gave the editor's argument for rejection. Then, in a set of cover comments, I explained why I thought that argument inappropriate. I also made a point of noting work that this next journal had previously published on probability theory that was formal and did not embrace an interpretation of probability.

My argument not-withstanding, I can expect yet another desk rejection. If-and-when my paper reaches editors who send it on to reviewers, I can expect that at least the first few sets of reviewers will reject it. But, were I unwilling to endure this wretched process, then it would have made little sense for me to write the paper in the first place, as my prior experience informed me as to what to expect in submitting a paper that innovated in a non-trivial manner.

As I told kpm, my submitting to another journal on the same day as I had been rejected was largely a matter of getting on another horse. I might have spent more time investigating my options, and might thus have identified a still more suitable journal, but I didn't want to be bogged-down by such considerations even as I dealt with my frustration and disappointment.

Again into the Breach

15 January 2018

As occasionally noted in publicly accessible entries to this 'blog, I have been working on a paper on qualitative probability. A day or so before Christmas, I had a draft that I was willing to promote beyond a circle of friends.

I sent links to a few researchers, some of them quite prominent in the field. One of them responded very quickly in a way that I found very encouraging; and his remarks motivated me to make some improvements in the verbal exposition.

I hoped and still hope to receive responses from others, but as of to-day have not. I'd set to-day as my dead-line to begin the process of submitting the paper to academic journals, and therefore have done so.

The process of submission is emotionally difficult for many authors, and my past experiences have been especially bad, including having a journal fail to reach a decision for more than a year-and-a-half, so that I ultimate withdrew the paper from their consideration. I even abandoned one short paper because the psychological cost of trying to get it accepted in some journal was significantly impeding my development of other work. While there is some possibility that finding acceptance for this latest paper will be less painful, I am likely to be in for a very trying time.

It is to be hoped that, none-the-less, I will be able to make some progress on the next paper in the programme of which my paper on indecision and now this paper on probability are the first two installments. In the presumably forth-coming paper, I will integrate incomplete preferences with incompletely ordered probabilities to arrive at a theory of rational decision-making more generalized and more reälistic than that of expected-utility maximization. A fourth and fifth installment are to follow that.

But the probability paper may be the most important thing that I will ever have written.

Hume's Abstract of His Treatise

14 December 2017

In an attempt to promote his work A Treatise on Human Nature (1738), David Hume anonymously wrote and in 1740 had published a booklet, An Abstract of a Book Lately Published, Entituled, A Treatiſe of Human Nature, &c. It went nearly unnoticed and unrecognized until republished in 1938, with an introduction by John Maynard Keynes and Piero Sraffa. That edition was reprinted in 1965. The introduction may still be protected by copyright, as may be images of the reset text.

In any event, I did not find any editions of the booklet itself freely available on-line; so I have created one.

Well, actually, two editions. The first retains the use of long ess (‘ſ’) and the convention by which longer passages were quoted, which was a matter of prefixing a quotation mark to each line which continued a quotation from the previous line. The second replaces the long esses with now ordinary lower-case esses, and uses block quotation where now conventional, though the second version otherwise preserves the spelling and punctuation of the original.

The Abstract is about 6,500 words. The booklet was just thirty two pages, one of which was a title page and one of which was blank. My transcriptions come each to less than nine pages of twelve-point type.

Addendum (2017:12/15): After I posted my transcriptions, a Google search on an Android tablet returned a link not previously returned by a Google search on my Linux box, to a transcription by Carl Mickelsen lacking the original preface contained in the booklet, and with the remaining text extensively editted to change spellings, punctuation, italicization, &c I also found a wholesale paraphasing of the Abstract by Jonathan Bennett, with changes far more extensive than the reader is led to believe


19 November 2017

It has famously been argued that the word game cannot be defined in a way that adequately captures the various senses in which it is used. I believe that, in everyday use, the term game most often means a system of contrived challenges properly imposed or undertaken for purposes of amusement. Hence, someone might assert something such as Love is not a game! But, even in lay-use, game can have other meanings. For example, when a person proceeds deceitfully or insincerely, he or she may be said to be making a game of things, without necessarily seeking amusement in proceeding in this way.

Economists and mathematicians applying themselves to problems of economics or proximate to those of economics can use the term so very broadly as to refer to any problem of optimization. But, most often, they mean a system in which multiple parties interact with the potential for one or more parties to advance an interest or something that is treated as an interest (such as reproduction). It is in this sense that I here use the term game.

The rules of games are often subject to to change, and those changes may be affected or effected by players of the governed game. There is thus a meta-game — a system in which multiple parties interact with the potential for one or more of them to advance an interest by changing the rules of the game; or, in the context of others trying to changing the rules, by preserving the rules. The concept of meta-games is hugely important for understanding social processes.

Of course, a meta-game might have its own meta-game — a meta-meta-game. For example, the determination of a legal frame-work might be the meta-game of the social processes that the frame-work governs, and a struggle over social values might be the meta-game of the determination of the frame-work and thus the meta-meta-game of those social processes. But it can be difficult — without necessarily being useful — to work-out an actual hierarchy.

Sometimes, all that we really need to recognize is that some activity is a meta-game of some other game, without concerning ourselves as to whether the other game is itself a meta-game. People might readily recognize meta-gaming in activities such as political lobbying, but they generally don't recognize it when it's effected by psychologists, by teachers, or by screen-writers.

I want to draw upon this notion of meta-games for at least one 'blog entry, but I will probably want to draw upon it for multiple entries, so I will leave this entry as infrastructure. And I may later and without notice rework it, in an attempt to improve it as infrastructure.

Hyper-Vigilance and Feedback

14 November 2017

Psychologists vary in precisely what they mean when using the term vigilant or hyper[-]vigilant to describe a personality type. What is common across notions and here relevant is an acute concern about — and sensitivity to — behavior by others that may carry information about intention, about propensity, or about capacity. Hyper-vigilance typically arises as an attempted adaptation in response to seriously hurtful experience; it is in any case a self-defense behavior more focussed on identifying hostile or otherwise threatening intentions, propensities, or capacities, and should be expected to be associated with other defensive behaviors and more generally with personality attributes that arise from injury.

Hyper-vigilance itself is not the same thing as paranoia. When there is an element of irrationality to hyper-vigilance as such, it is in an over-commitment of resources to the tasks of awareness or of interpretation. The hyper-vigilant may otherwise be for the most part rational in their interpretations of behavior. (And one cannot reasonably infer that there is an over-commitment of resources simply from the fact that a hyper-vigilant person is seeking greater awareness.) A paranoid systematically makes important inferences that are themselves unreasonable.

The skills of the hyper-vigilant (and, for that matter, the unreasonable inferential practices of the paranoid) aren't always employed for purposes of self-defense. People may be identified as well-intentioned or peculiarly talented, and cultivated as friends; people may be perceived as having concealed vulnerabilities, and quietly given protection.

When two people interact — whether either is hyper-vigilant or not and so long as they are at all social — they consciously or unconsciously each size-up the other. The behavior of each usually adjusts to anything learned in the present encounter, and that adjustment of behavior may then communicate something new to the other, causing a counter-adjustment on his or her part. When two people have complementary emotional responses each to the other, a feedback loop is creäted, and the responses amplify to some extent. These feedback loops can cause people to take relatively quick and markèd likings or dislikings each to the other.

When hyper-vigilant people interact, complementarity has a still more pronounced effect. They can move to attack or become friends or come to love or indeed fall in love with a speed that startles everyone — including the two people in the feedback loop if they've never considered the dynamic or if they haven't each discerned that the other is not merely ill- or good-willed but also hyper-vigilant. Because hyper-vigilance is a behavior of self-defense, it is likely to be accompanied by a suppression or masking of behaviors that would otherwise expose emotions or reveal defensive abilities or propensities, and hyper-vigilance itself would be one of those behaviors; additionally, a hyper-vigilant person may conceal vigilance to avoid censure (especially as hyper-vigilance is widely equated with paranoia). Thus one or both of two hyper-vigilant people may miss this important insight in the implicit challenge of reading the other, especially when vigilance is operating largely at an unconscious level.

'Blog Presentation Tweaks

5 November 2017

I've made some changes to the code that determines the presentation of this 'blog, in order to make it more useable with devices such as cellular phone sets and tablets. Some visitors will observe substantial improvement.

There will probably be more changes to come, and during my attempts to effect such changes, the 'blog may occasionally behave dysfunctionally. If you observe a persistent problem in presentation, even if one long-standing, then please contact me, being as precise as you can about which device, operating system. and browser you use.

Responsible Voting

18 October 2017

It was once socially accepted that people were not responsible for acts of a wide variety if the persons engaged in them while intoxicated, even if the intoxication were quite voluntary and the engagement active. Over time that attitude has eroded. After all, a person who chooses to be intoxicated chooses to engage in increased probability that he or she will effect those acts. If a person who chose to drink passes-out on the front lawn, drives his vehicle into a pedestrian, or beats his domestic partner, few people would insist that he didn't choose to do such a thing. And, should we meet one of those few people, we rightly suspect that they cannot be trusted to use intoxicants responsibly.

In response to the campaign of Bernard (Bernie) Sanders, a great many people embraced things that they called democratic socialism. They didn't actually agree amongst themselves as to what this term meant. Many of them insisted that democratic socialism weren't socialism, which insistence did not provoke as often as it should a question as to why then its name should contain socialism. The answer simply was that Sanders had long referred to what he advocated with this term; they were stuck with socialism if they held onto Sanders. Whether they admitted that democratic socialism referred to socialism or not, all of the folk calling for something by that name sought to neutralize the dire associations of socialism with various outcomes that had been observed when regimes had been identified by that label. And all of these folk, whether or not they acknowledged that they were referring to socialism, agreed that what they called democratic socialism would indeed be democratic.

That insistence has afforded them a rhetorical ploy for dealing not only with socialistic regimes that were never democratic, but with socialistic regimes that have lost popular support, such as that in Venezuela. Absenting that support, these regimes are said not to be democratic, and hence plainly not to represent whatever might properly be called democratic socialism. But when a socialistic regime is brought to power by democratic means, in a framework of law that was effected by democratic means, and then uses that law to take unpopular actions, to insist that the regime is undemocratic begins to resemble claiming that the neighbors passed-out on the lawn, driving their cars into pedestrians, or beating their domestic partners did not choose to do such things. Oh yes they did. And anyone who insists otherwise is to be regarded as dangerous with the relevant intoxicants, including ballots.

Indeed, for most of recent history, popular opinion was not treated as particularly important in application to America by most Americans who came to call for democratic socialism. They had earlier thought it perfectly democratic when the Democratic Party, democratically elected to majority control of both Chambers of Congress and to the Presidency, effected various measures that were in fact widely unpopular with the more general population. President Obama advised the Republicans to win some elections. When they did, so that the Democrats lost first the House of Representatives and then the Senate, he and most of these folk for democratic socialism held to the idea that his democratic election to the Presidency legitimized his actions in defiance both of the votes of the Congress and of popular opinion amongst the wider population. Popular opinion in Venezuela and elsewhere has emerged as ostensibly relevant to democratic socialism exactly and only because, once again, socialism — even socialism within a framework democratically effected — has devolved as it always will if allowed to persist. There is no magic in democracy.

The state is a terrible institution, to be checked by an institutional framework that resists its growth, instead of enabled to grow by fantasies that amateurs or experts can use it expansively to bring about a more humane world.