OnPoint by Keith Ng

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OnPoint: Student Loans are Loans (Duh.)

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  • Keir Leslie,

    What evidence can anyone give about counter-factuals?

    The problem with the government picking winners is that the government just doesn't have that much knowledge about the skills required in the economy. So it is all very well to say we need more tradespeople, but (a) the market should correct that problem anyway, and (b) there's Hayekian arguments that the government will stuff up these attempts anyway.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

  • bmk, in reply to BenWilson,

    This is OK to a point, there is economy in specialization, but people can become overspecialized very, very easily. This carries a lot of problems with it. It is extremely risky, can leave those people with nothing if what they are specialized in loses value.

    I always love the quote:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    -Robert A. Heinlein

    I can do some of the things on the list but would always like to learn more. And I think he makes a fundamental point that humans' great strength is being flexible, adaptable and multi-skilled.

    Since Jun 2010 • 323 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    1) Yes. 2) Yes. That's....really not in dispute.

    Cool. What experiment could potentially disprove evolution?

    Let me be clear. I'm not disputing evolution is true. I'm disputing whether it is a scientific theory. To many appearances, it is a tautology. Which means it is certainly true, but immune to disproof and thus hardly something to class as science. I suggest it is more a part of the backdrop of science, an attitude.

    To flesh out what I'm saying, I should be clear about what I'm referring to as the theory of evolution, and that's not the mechanics of it, the various bits and pieces that have been added along the way to show the way that organisms evolve and adapt. I'm talking about the base idea, that the explanation for how things are now comes down to their ability to adapt to their conditions, given enough time. The theory that Darwin had, rather than the vast science that enabled. Could this idea actually be disproved? You could refute one way in which they are theorized to adapt without damaging the theory at all - my understanding is that this is precisely what happened to Darwin's own explanation, he didn't know about genetics, after all. So long as any adaption is possible at all (and it's obvious that organisms are all slightly different to each other - for starters they occupy different positions in space), then the theory can survive, it can just say that perhaps we haven't got that part of the idea fleshed out, or we can speculate on reasons and counter reasons for the particular adaptions that we see. That speculation seems to be a favorite sport for people waxing philosophical about the world. Postulate some situations in which some property is desirable and then suggest this situation comes up with sufficient frequency to explain the existence of the property.

    That's when the scientific theories begin, the point where actually experiments can be conducted. But the basic idea behind them is simply an invitation to speculate along lines that explicitly deny intelligent design. The speculations can go anywhere, and are guided by experiments at that point.

    That is why I said the theory is really part of the negative heuristic of science. Do you understand what I mean by this? It's an idea raised by Imre Lakatos. I'm pleasantly surprised in that article to discover that Lakatos had the same ideas about Darwin that I do - I was unaware until right now. It shows I grasped the ideas (it's been a looong time since I studied this stuff). Also, interesting and completely unrelatedly, I have the same opinion about monetarism, which is mentioned in the article, although I got the idea for that one from Steve Keen.

    Obviously I can't prove a negative, but the fact that she had to shop it to fifteen separate journals before she even got it published suggests that it wasn't likely to emerge anytime soon.

    Or it suggests sexism in science, which seems likely. The fact that a negative can't be proved is precisely why I'm offering this challenge to you and Bart. Why do you have a high level of certainty in something that you can't put any figures on? Describing that smart people get answers faster is true by definition of smart people, but it doesn't prove that smart people are therefore vital in getting fast answers. My point is that this can't be proved, but it certainly can be blindly believed. I'm in the habit of challenging blind beliefs everywhere I encounter them, that's part of my own training. All I'm seeing so far is anecdotal evidence, for which there are plenty of counter anecdotes - the one I already gave was Darwin, who was a bit thick by his own admission. If you say that he couldn't possibly be thick because he came up with a brilliant theory, then you're falling into a tautologous position again, an unassailable and mostly unscientific position regarding the importance of a quality you can't really quantify.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    If you want an example, the best I can think of offhand is mitochondria. Lynn Margulis – actually a professor at my university until her death a few months ago – worked out that they are the remnants of a symbiosis between bacteria and eukaryotes, bacteria that moved into larger cells and never moved out. (So are chloroplasts in photosynthetic eukaryotes.)

    That is such an amazing discovery. And such a strange reality!

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3466 posts Report Reply

  • chris,

    two people came up with well-developed theories of evolution at roughly the same time. One of them just had better publicists.

    Certainly, and speaking the lingua franca also helps, if Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had only been British....

    中国 • Since Jan 2010 • 900 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    What could disprove evolution? Well, the discovery of a human in the pre-cambrian. That's a thing that would disprove it.

    Anyway you want to make things scientific by popperian falsification-ism, and that's a rubbish game, so let's not play it.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    What could disprove evolution? Well, the discovery of a human in the pre-cambrian. That's a thing that would disprove it.

    No, it's not. That would just mean that the human species is older than we think. Maybe it came from another planet. That does not refute evolution. Nor is that an experiment.

    Anyway you want to make things scientific by popperian falsification-ism, and that's a rubbish game, so let's not play it.

    No, I don't, I didn't mention Popper or falsificationism, nor am I a subscriber to it. I don't know what you mean by rubbish game, and I don't really care. If you don't want to engage in discussion, then don't. If you have something to contribute, then contribute it.

    Your own game, of touting the free market, and making counterfactual observations about the evils of government investment, is a boring game but I was going to get to it. I was going to say that nuclear science, power, and weapons would never have happened without government, and they are "winners". Computers generally were a product of massive government investment, as was the internet. Governments have picked winners time and time again, and markets have failed to correct problems too. And vice versa. I'm not a believer in government investment on principle, but when there is a genuine imbalance, then I'm not against it on principle either. Both extreme positions are ideological rather than practical and I don't buy them.

    ETA: Oh, and the space race. Forgot to mention that the potential of using the other 99.999999999999% of the universe for human purposes is most certainly something that is never going to come from the free market.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    No, but you can still get a loan for fees and course-related costs, as there’s unlikely to be allowance money left over after living costs to cover those things.

    To steal a phrase from our host, Duh! The student allowance's existence is entirely predicated on paying your living costs. It's never, ever been intended to be sufficient to cover the costs of studying. That it and the living-costs component of a student loan are mutually exclusive says everything about their roles: they're there so you can live while studying, not so that you don't have to find other sources of funding for your study.

    The pit from whence crawl… • Since Mar 2007 • 3909 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to BenWilson,

    But it’s not usually “a little more time”, it’s “a lot of time”, or “a lot of wasted effort and resources looking at the problem the wrong way”.

    Care to quantify? Is an A student twice as fast as a B? Ten times faster? Whatever number you pick, that’s the number of resources their talents take to replicate. They are therefore not essential at all.

    Humans are not computers dealing with linearly-scalable problems. With a computer, if you know it will take 200 years at 1Gflop you can extrapolate that it'll take roughly 1 year with 200 1Gflop computers working on equal-sized portions of the problem.
    You cannot say "An A-grade scientist will derive a solution 10-times faster than a B-grade scientist, therefore 10 B-grade scientists equal one A-grade scientist" because the output of those 10 scientists will contain overlaps, it'll contain deviations from the problem, it'll contain errors, and, most importantly, it's the work of 10 unique processing units who all have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies and consequently their output is not the cohesive whole of a single A-grade scientist. And you can't just scale it out to add more B-grade scientists, either, because that's just scaling up all of the other problems that come from trying to get multiple people working on the same problem.

    That's not deifying scientists, or whatever you want to call it, it's a recognition that you cannot look at how we use computers and attempt to apply the same overlay to how we use scientists. It doesn't work. A large number of B-grade scientists collaborating on the same problem may well achieve the same breakthrough as a single A-grade scientist, but it won't be based on any linearly-related application of additional resources to the problem and it quite possibly won't be as elegant in the first pass because it's a collage not a portrait. Their final output could well be better, because beyond the breakthrough there are many more brains working on finishing the product and filling the gaps, but how much more money and other resources went into achieving that breakthrough than could've been achieved with a single A-grade scientist?

    The pit from whence crawl… • Since Mar 2007 • 3909 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Cherrypicking successful example of government spending is not an argument.

    In particular, war-driven advances in technology are one of the worst advertisements for government investment in technology ever.

    Of course, space is not a particularly non-commercial environment, and (hardly surprisingly) there are a crazy number of crazy US space fanatic libertarians who are just itching to get themselves into spaces and make money mining asteroids/He3 form the moon/wevs. And it isn't like human space exploration has, to date, been a very economic venture, and nor does it look like it ever will be.

    The thing is, when someone says: we have insufficient tradespeople, they are not really saying that. What they are saying is that tradespeople cost too much, and they would like the supply of tradespeople to be subsidised in order to bring that price down. Markets work. Not always, but in general.

    And Bart isn't even saying that! He is basically arguing that we should make it cheaper to become a scientist or an engineer, on the grounds that the wages made by those graduates (i.e the value the market places on their skills) is too low to make it economic to become one at the moment. This is the most precisely backward reading of the market's signals possible.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    That's not deifying scientists, or whatever you want to call it, it's a recognition that you cannot look at how we use computers and attempt to apply the same overlay to how we use scientists.

    I referred to deifying the A-grade scientists, as if they brought something that couldn't be got another way, that they were somehow a different species of scientist. I didn't make any argument from computers. Human work scales up too, you know, both in simple and in complex problems.

    The rest of what you're saying is simply to point out that making guesses as the value of them is impossible. Which was my point, the main reason I asked the question. So that it would be obvious that arguing in that way wasn't coming from a particularly indisputable source, regardless of the no-doubt impeccable credentials of the scientists making the claim. They may be accustomed to being well respected on matters of science, but on matters of organizational management they are no more or less in the dark than everyone else. The exact same question comes to fore in every creative/discovery domain - how much are the best people really worth? My only point is that the answer isn't actually clear at all. Which might not matter if you're not paying the bills, but when it's a matter of funding this or that person, the people with the money like to make the choice on more than "I worked with some brilliant people and it was great". So I'm not surprised penny pinching on science budgets means less brilliant people, and I'm not at all convinced (yet) that it matters much. If it matters, how much? Quantify, or admit that you're waving your magic wand.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    This is the most precisely backward reading of the market's signals possible

    Only if you believe that market is functioning properly. Where's the return on our broader public interest from having truckloads of BCom and LLB grads?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16746 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Perhaps an 'A' scientist makes better connections between items of information, not more of them.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16746 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    You have to be careful here. If you want to make an argument about the broader public interest that's all very well, but that's different from arguments about economic benefit. And really I am pretty unconvinced of an argument that a software engineer is of any greater specifically public benefit than a lawyer.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    that's different from arguments about economic benefit

    If economics can't take public interest into account when talking about state-subsidised education, then it doesn't seem all that useful.

    A functioning economy and society needs both lawyers and software engineers, sure.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16746 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    But I can't see why truckloads of accountants ought be any more concerning than truckloads of traffic engineers.

    The way you are using this public interest thing seems amorphous and ill-defined. I would like a lot more definition before I relied on it for any policy decisions.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Telfar Barnard, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    That it and the living-costs component of a student loan are mutually exclusive says everything about their roles: they're there so you can live while studying, not so that you don't have to find other sources of funding for your study.

    Well, sure, and I never said otherwise. I'm not sure exactly why you're arguing with me about it though. My original point was that even if you receive a student allowance for 200 weeks, you're still likely to have some student loan as well at the end of it.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 373 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    Cherrypicking successful example of government spending is not an argument.

    Considering the magnitude of the examples, they're part of the argument. Especially since you made the blanket claim that they couldn't pick winners. That's tosh, admit it. The information revolution is based on massive government investment. One possible future of human development in it's entirety is the product of government choices.

    In particular, war-driven advances in technology are one of the worst advertisements for government investment in technology ever.

    Quite the contrary, that's good evidence that when the shit really hits the fan, ideology goes out the window, governments are forced to invest hard and fast, and the dividends come fast as a result. Leave a war to the fucking market and you're basically letting the enemy win.

    Of course, space is not a particularly non-commercial environment

    Precisely, that's why the market won't solve shit up there.

    And it isn't like human space exploration has, to date, been a very economic venture, and nor does it look like it ever will be.

    Maybe. Left to the market, we will never find out.

    What they are saying is that tradespeople cost too much, and they would like the supply of tradespeople to be subsidised in order to bring that price down.

    Yup. I would like that a great deal. It would also be good for the tradespeople, and the economy generally.

    Markets work. Not always, but in general.

    They're good at some things in some conditions. They fail terribly at other things.

    This is the most precisely backward reading of the market's signals possible.

    Yes, Bart is interested in better science, not casting through entrails for his beliefs, on the altar of a refuted economic theory. I think his heart is in the right place, and he may be right about the benefits of attracting the best talent. It should be a question for which evidence can help in decision making.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to BenWilson,

    I think his heart is in the right place, and he may be right about the benefits of attracting the best talent. It should be a question for which evidence can help in decision making.

    Ben, whether you intended it or not, that is *so* fucking patronising mate- a humble poet throws justifiable wrack at you-

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Islander,

    Ben, whether you intended it or not, that is *so* fucking patronising mate

    I don't see why. Bart wants what he does to have the best chances it can get and that's admirable. My question about the true necessity of extreme talent is genuine, but I do not question that science itself is of great value. Or poetry, for that matter. Neither of them is well served by market forces.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Look, if you want a government that runs an industrial policy based around the economic benefits of very far away rocks, you're more than welcome to it. But personally, that sounds so perfectly crackpot as to be a sterling example of why governments ought stay out of it.

    Of course, it is very easy to point to examples of misguided government investment. Think Big, for instance. Or farm subsidies. And that is solely in New Zealand, a traditionally free market economy.

    I am not against government intervention when there's actual evidence that what is going on is amenable to the government fixing things by the spending of money. And so I think that free tertiary education is a really really good policy, because it fixes a real problem in an economically sane manner.

    I do not think think throwing more government monies specifically at the undergrad provision of STEM subjects is economically justified. (Because that is the specific argument before us.)

    If you think that markets are a generally discarded economic theory you are more than welcome to tell the economists. As far as I can tell there are almost no reputable economists who reject the market as the basic economic structure. There are questions about the efficacy of certain kinds of market.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    Which means it is certainly true, but immune to disproof and thus hardly something to class as science.

    How to disprove evolution: find a situation where a trait is clearly advantageous but is not selected for (c.f. the Galapagos finches, if beak distribution did not change during droughts even though smaller-beaked birds were getting more food and laying more eggs.) Or one where a trait emerges throughout a population - or in separated populations of a species - without selection, at the same time. Or good evidence of widespread Lamarckianism, that'd throw a wrench in things too. (Current epigenetic research suggests something somewhat like this may play *a* role, but it's not anything like fundamental.) Essentially: where the raw material is available for selection, and so is selective pressure, but selection does not occur; or adaptive changes without selective pressure (or prior traits to be selected). That'd be decent disproof.

    Regarding the rest of it...look, I'm not a manager or HR person. I don't know the precise selection metrics you'd use. But try something like this: evaluate people on the basis of the originality of their published research. Who strikes off in profitable new directions, rather than extending known problems? Who is involved in work that approaches known problems in novel ways? Those are the people you need more of. Hire them. I don't know whether you could turn this into a numeric thing. I don't think you need to.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    find a situation where a trait is clearly advantageous but is not selected for

    You'll use the fact that it was not selected for as evidence that it was not clearly advantageous, so that's not going to work. No matter what advantage I could think of that has occurred occasionally as a trait in some creature, you'll just find a disadvantage to save the theory, pointing to the disappearance of the trait as clear evidence of that disadvantage. Or, failing that, you can fall back on bad luck or not enough time elapsed. The theory is really quite well immunized against disproof.

    Or good evidence of widespread Lamarckianism, that'd throw a wrench in things too.

    I don't see why, that could be true without falsifying natural selection. They could be complementary evolutionary processes. They aren't, I know, but if Lamarckism were true it would not do that much damage to the "survival of the fittest" idea. You couldn't pass on your adapted trait if you died before bearing offspring either, or if the trait you adapted did not confer a survival advantage so the offspring died.

    Those are the people you need more of. Hire them. I don't know whether you could turn this into a numeric thing. I don't think you need to.

    If they get paid more, then it affects budgets, so turning it into a numeric thing is vital to the success of the research. It might even be well worth the effort to do so, to prove the value of the good people. I'm really surprised that a scientist would think such a thing even difficult to do, particularly in light of having strong views on the subject. Aren't you guys all about taking away the black magic and hand waving that's so typical in the "soft" subjects.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    But personally, that sounds so perfectly crackpot as to be a sterling example of why governments ought stay out of it.

    Yup all those people at NASA are crackpots...

    Of course, it is very easy to point to examples of misguided government investment. Think Big, for instance.

    Which gave us massive renewable energy resources and the ability to refine our own petrol? Which is on the verge of being the National government's solution to the recession, in a big IPO bonanza? Yeah, real bad investment, those ones were.

    I do not think think throwing more government monies specifically at the undergrad provision of STEM subjects is economically justified.

    If you mean to the exclusion of non-STEM subjects, then I'm inclined to agree. It's quite an unfair subsidy, just as farming subsidies are, because they're subsidizing activities that already have a good payback.

    As far as I can tell there are almost no reputable economists who reject the market as the basic economic structure.

    I don't really know what you mean by "reject the market as the basic economic structure", so I can't comment.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8586 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    No, those people at NASA (&c, hi Lucy!) are engaged in science that is not expected to make a return on investment. If NASA was expected to make money, it would have to be one of the most useless investment vehicles ever.

    Think Big, of course, was a major cause of the atrocious state of NZ's books in 84, and part of the reason the '80s were a horribly painful economic experience.

    (I mean, if you talk to most economists, they will tell you that if you have to set up some way of organising an economy, a market is the best way to start. Some will then tell you should do other stuff to fix the flaws in the market, while others will tell you you can never meddle with it. But there are almost no economists who will tell you to start by centrally planning everything, for instance.)

    Since Jul 2008 • 1376 posts Report Reply

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