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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Man Who Owned America: A Science Fiction Story

In order to understand how Cory Gates became the owner of the United States of America, you have to first go back to those wild days of the 2030's, when the big corporations were starting to fight each other with increasing violence. Each of the big corporations started to hire its own mercenaries, although at first they were just called security contractors or security guards. There were many truck hijackings, computer hacking attacks, and cases of arson; and before long it became apparent that it wasn't just loner crooks doing this. It was the private armies of the big corporations fighting each other.

People were willing to put up with this for quite a while. But when the big corporations started to arm their mercenaries with machine guns and missile-armed attack helicopters, things started to get out of hand. People got tired of being woken up at night by attack helicopters and exploding buildings. People also got tired of stepping over dead bodies in front of office buildings and stores.

So finally someone proposed a radical solution designed to stop the corporate fighting entirely. The idea was to combine all of the country's corporations into one big corporation that would be called America, Inc. That way there couldn't be any violent fighting between corporations, because there would be only one corporation in the country.

The idea caught on, and before long Congress passed the legislation authorizing the big change. All of the corporations were merged into a single corporation called America, Inc. It was a corporation that owned pretty much everything in the country. Almost everyone other than the poorest people owned at least some shares in the new corporation.

But by this time the richest people in the US had become very, very rich. There was, in fact, a single individual by the name of Cory Gates who owned 45% of the stock in America, Inc. After a few years he was able to increase that up to 51%. Once he gained majority ownership, he was able to manipulate things so that his share would get even bigger.

It was all a fancy scheme too complicated to be described here. The scheme involved inverse options, sub-millisecond computerized stock trading, computerized virtual proxies, collateralized debt obligations, and “trapdoor” regulations secretly introduced into the bylaws of America, Inc. You can kind of describe it by saying it was a shrinkage scheme designed to make the share of all minority stockholders gradually dwindle away to be nothing. When the scheme started to take effect, people started to scream bloody murder, saying that Cory Gates was trying to up his ownership of America, Inc. all the way up to 100%. But the scheme was so complicated that no one could really figure it out well enough to stop the scheme from working.

Finally the complicated scheme ran its course. One day it was at last announced that Cory Gates now owned 100% of the shares of America, Inc. It was now finally official. Cory Gates was now basically the owner of the entire country. 

For 30 years Cory enjoyed the perks of being America's owner. The Pledge of Allegiance recited by children was changed to have the following wording:

We pledge allegiance to America, Inc., and to its owner Cory Gates – one corporation under Cory, indivisible, with obedience and subservience expected from all.

Cory lived in the opulence you might expect from someone who owned an entire nation. His bedroom was ten times bigger than a football stadium, and contained 200 different beds, some as large as trucks. Cory liked sleeping in a different bed every night. He would also travel around the country, staying in any home he would pick. Few people could object, because most people's homes had a mortgage with America, Inc being the lender, meaning Cory pretty much owned most people's homes.

People with regular jobs all worked for America, Inc, meaning Cory was their boss. People who refused to work for America, Inc. usually ended up in what they called “unemployment camps,” although the prisoners in such camps were often worked mercilessly. Each prisoner would be controlled by an electronic pain necklace that he could not remove. If a guard saw the prisoners acting up, he would just activate their pain necklaces, causing punishing anguish.

Officially there was still a President of the US during this period, although he was just a figurehead because Cory controlled the whole country. But after decades of being America's owner, Cory finally died of a heart attack.

Cory's will specified that all of his assets should be inherited by his son Todd. Everyone thought that Todd Gates would rule as America's owner, just as his father had. But Todd had no interest in lording over people or living like a king. Todd was only interested in one thing: reading and writing comic books.

So shortly after his father's death, Todd gave a televised speech that announced a radical change.

I have decided to donate all of my shares of America Inc. to the American population,” announced Todd. “Each American will own one share of the corporation. The bylaws of the corporation will be adjusted so that it is strictly forbidden for anyone to own more than one share of the corporation.”

There will no longer be a single person ruling as America's owner,” explained Todd. “The country will be controlled by a President who will be elected by an annual meeting of the stockholders. Since each American will be a stockholder, each American will have one and only one vote that helps decides who controls the country.”

A man listening to the speech in his home was delighted.

Why this almost sounds like that old-fashioned system they use to follow long, long ago,” said the man to his wife. “I've forgotten what they used to call it.”

I think they called it...democracy,” said his wife.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Better Than a Smoking Gun: The Riess ESP Test

In my previous post When Rhine and Pearce Got "Smoking Gun" Evidence for ESP, I discussed the astonishingly successful ESP tests conducted during the 1930's by Professor Joseph Rhine and Hubert E. Pearce Jr. There were 10,030 trials in which Pearce scored 3746 successes (despite an expected chance result of only about 2060 successes). When we plug these results into a binomial probability calculator it gives us a probability of about 1 in 10 trillion. This means that if one were to try the same test on every person on Earth 1000 times, we would not expect that even one person would get a result so high. Another series of tests with Pearce was conducted by Rhine's assistant J. Gaither Pratt. In this series, Pratt dealt out one card a minute from a shuffled deck. Pearce (located in a building far away) recorded his guesses as to the cards, at the same time. 1850 cards were dealt, and the expected chance success rate was about 370 cards. Instead, Pearce got 558 correct guesses. The chance probability of such a result was less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. In another informal test conducted in front of Rhine, Pearce correctly guessed 25 cards in a row. The chance of that? One in three hundred quadrillion.

Faced with such evidence, skeptics are reduced to advancing ridiculous theories of cheating (which I debunk here), such as the claim that Pearce spent hours peeking through the transom of Pratt's office without being noticed, or the theory that Pearce was able to peek at cards many times without being noticed by observers who were sitting at arm's length from him across a table. Such absurd theories are futile in dismissing the ESP test conducted by Bernard. F. Riess in 1937, a professor at Hunter College in New York. Described here, the test was the most successful ESP test ever recorded.

Riess was very skeptical about ESP, but when one of his students said that a friend claimed to have ESP, Riess began an ESP test with a 26-year-old woman who was never identified by name. At 9:00 PM on each evening the test was run, the woman stayed in a room a quarter of a mile away, in a room facing away from the home of Riess. Riess at that time would be in a room facing away from the room in which the woman was in. Before 9:00 PM Riess would shuffle a deck of ESP cards, and lay out one card each minute, recording the value of each card. At the same time the woman would make one guess each minute as to the value of the card.

Each such test involved two series of 25 cards, so a total of 50 cards were laid out in each session. Thirty-seven such sessions were held, meaning the woman guessed a total of 1850 cards. The woman returned her response sheets to Riess, and was never told the degree of success she obtained.

Symbols used in ESP tests

The ESP cards used have 5 possible values. The expected chance result per session was only 5 correct guesses. But the woman guessed an average of 18.24 cards correctly per 25 cards, achieving a phenomenal 73% accuracy rate (instead of the expected accuracy rate of 20%).

The chance of getting such a result accidentally is far less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000 (this link estimates the probability of getting these results by chance as 1 in 10 to the 700th power, which is smaller than the chance of you correctly guessing all of the social security numbers of  a set of 70 strangers). After the test the woman moved to the midwestern US, and refused to participate in further tests. Riess had to be prodded to publish the results, which were published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1937 (1, 270-273).

Attempts by skeptics to debunk this test have been futile. Riess pointed out that while the tests were done, his house was continually occupied by a housekeeper, meaning the woman being tested could not have strolled into the house, and altered Riess' response sheets to match her responses. Riess also pointed out his response sheets were written in his own handwriting, and showed no signs of being altered. So even the ridiculously far-fetched idea of some conspiracy between the woman and the housekeeper is not tenable.

The term “smoking gun evidence” is used to describe a situation like you might have if you had a photo of someone pointing a smoking gun at a dead body. But what would be better evidence? Perhaps a video actually showing someone firing a gun into the body of someone. The Riess experiment must be described as that type of evidence, something better than “smoking gun” evidence.

Yet outrageously our skeptics and materialists repeatedly tell us there is no evidence for ESP. To the contrary, a test such as the one discussed here is evidence almost as strong as one could hope for. Our skeptics and materialists are in denial about ESP, a phenomenon that has been demonstrated very many times under very strict conditions, which is strongly supported by ganzfeld sensory deprivation tests and recent tests with autistic children (described here), and which is also supported by an immense wealth of anecdotal evidence, such as more than 14,000 cases recorded by Louisa Rhine. This case of reality denial can best be explained as some strange cultural taboo that bears no resemblance to objective thinking.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Consensus of Experts Means Little, But Evidence Means a Lot

Some people try to make a very simple argument to get you to believe something: believe in some claim, because there is a consensus of experts saying the claim is true. But you should reject such arguments. The mere fact that a consensus of experts supports some claim does not show the likelihood that such a claim is true.

One very general reason why a consensus of experts means very little is that experts may have a vested interest in supporting some particular idea, and may therefore not be impartial, objective judges as to whether such an idea is true. The first definition my computer gives me for “vested interest” is “a personal stake or involvement in an undertaking or state of affairs, especially one with an expectation of financial gain.” There are innumerable reasons why someone may have a vested interest in supporting some idea, some obvious and some not.

Here are some examples when the experts had a vested interest in supporting some particular claim. A cardiologist may recommend a CT scan when he works for a practice that owns some expensive CT scanning machine, and profits in proportion to how often that machine is used. Such an expert opinion is tainted and not trustworthy. In early 2003 we had many military and ex-military figures claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Such persons had a vested interest in going along with the rush to war (in which no such weapons were discovered). If such experts had stated the opposite opinion, saying that the US president was wrong in suggesting that Iraq had such weapons, such experts would have been ostracized within their organizations and social groups, facing various types of penalties, given the “war fever” climate that existed at that time.

Similarly, someone seeking a position as a university professor has a vested interest in going along with whatever doctrines are currently dominant in whatever field he is studying. For example, if you are doing graduate study in neurology or evolutionary biology, you will be much more more likely to be appointed a professor in such fields if you “tow the party line” rather than taking a maverick position in opposition to most of your colleagues. In the same vein, if you are an expert in Catholic theology, you have a vested interest in supporting traditional doctrines rather than opposing them. There aren't many jobs for heretical professors of Catholic theology.

Another reason why a consensus of experts means little is that the pool of experts is not randomly created, and is subject to extremely strong sociological effects that may lead it to poor judgments. In this respect it is interesting to contrast the operations of a jury and the operations of a group of academic experts.

A jury is produced from a random selection of people, which helps to protect it from prejudices held by only a minority of people. If we pick 12 random New Yorkers to judge a murder suspect, we are unlikely to get mostly people with some bias such as “people of that race are born killers.” But there is no such randomness in the formation of the pool of people who end up becoming experts in some topic. It may be that 90% of the people who choose to study neurology are people who previously tended to have thought biases now found in the community of neurologists; and 90% of the people who choose to study evolutionary biology are people who previously tended to have thought biases now found in the community of evolutionary biologists; and 90% of the people who choose to study Biblical theology are people who previously tended to have thought biases now found in the community of Biblical theologians. The result may be some group that ends up being as biased as the group we might have if we selected juries with “Help Wanted” ads like the one below.

Also, juries are exposed to both sides of a case. The prosecution makes its case, and each of its witnesses is cross-examined by the defense attorney. Then the defense makes its case. Both sides make a closing argument. But no such even-handed approach is taken when we are training people to become experts in some particular field. For example, if you study neurology, evolutionary biology, or some type of theology, you are likely to be exposed almost exclusively to those teaching the predominant assumptions of some particular field, with very little exposure to contrasting viewpoints. Once you become an expert in such a field, you are likely to be a kind of “creature of the herd,” a collectivist “organization man” who has been indoctrinated in whatever assumptions have become the sociological norms in some particular subculture. Given such a situation, we should not expect a consensus of opinion within some group of experts to be a very reliable indicator of truth.

CNN once had a fascinating show on how people become members of a biker gang. The gang didn't just quickly accept new members requesting membership. It required that people first serve for years as menial helpers, basically doing any favor that one of the gang members wanted. It is easy to understand the rationale of such a policy. Given such a high cost of admission (in labor and time), it is far more likely that a gang member will conform to the beliefs and behavior of the group, rather than risking expulsion or group condemnation by defying its norms.

A similar situation occurs in regard to becoming a member of many types of elite expert priesthoods. To become, say, a neurologist, you might have to spend $80,000 on graduate school, plus years of study. Having spent that money and all that time, will our new neurologist challenge the accepted assumptions of the group, or will he fall in line, run with the herd, and conform to the norms within the little subculture he has worked so hard (and spent so much) to get into? He will almost certainly do the second thing. This is another reason why a consensus of experts within a field is not something we should be too impressed by. There are often extremely strong sociological factors that may cause herd effects within a group, so a consensus of experts may be no more impressive than the fact that most of a buffalo herd is running in the same direction.

Let's imagine a hypothetical example. Let's suppose there is something called the central doctrine of quonkology, which is advanced by some experts called quonkologists. It might be that 95% of the educated public that has read something about this doctrine consider it to be false. If we were to select the next generation of quonkogists randomly from the public, it would probably be that this central doctrine of quonkology would die. But instead, the next generation of quonkologists will be that small sliver of the population which had a previous tendency to support the central doctrine of quonkology before they signed up to study quonkology, possibly because they shared the intellectual biases and worldview of quonkologists. So can we assume from the favorable consensus of quonkology experts that the central doctrine of quonkology is true? Certainly not.

Whether they be secular or religious, collegiate or non-collegiate, the schools that train experts are often bias magnets. Each type of expert training school attracts people with some particular set of intellectual and ideological biases. The people emerging from such schools may have far more of a particular intellectual bias than the average public. This may lead to very high levels of some intellectual bias within each particular pool of experts, which may help to make its collective judgment unreliable. Once a person signs up for the long process of training to be some type of expert, he may find that the training (and the resulting insular community he becomes part of) act as a bias amplification mechanism. We should hardly be surprised that such “bias-amplified” experts may have a consensus of opinion that is way off the mark. 
If a consensus of experts is not a good basis for believing something, what is? Good solid evidence. When you have good solid evidence for something, there's no need to appeal to the fact that there's a consensus of experts. For example, we don't hear people saying to believe in electromagnetism because a consensus of physics experts believes in it. There's no need for that, since it's much more convincing to explain why neither your body nor your smartphone would work if electromagnetism didn't exist. When we hear people appealing to a consensus of experts as the reason you should believe some idea, it's often the case that the evidence for the idea is weak.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

“Dangerous Numbers” or Providential Parameters?

In a recent TED talk entitled “Have We Reached the End of Physics?” the particle physicist Harry Cliff talks about two astonishingly fine-tuned numbers that are fundamental to the observed structure of our universe. He repeatedly calls these “dangerous numbers.” This is a very strange description, because as the transcript of the talk makes clear, the numbers have just the right values needed for creatures like us to exist. So why use the word “dangerous” to describe them? Given the facts Cliff discusses, it might be more appropriate to use the term “providential” to describe these numbers.

The first number Cliff discusses is the value of the Higgs field, which Cliff describes as a “cosmic energy field.” At 4:05 in the talk, Cliff says this about the Higgs field.

But there is something deeply mysterious about the Higgs field. Relativity and quantum mechanics tell us that it has two natural settings, a bit like a light switch. It should either be off, so that it has a zero value everywhere in space, or it should be on so it has an absolutely enormous value. In both of these scenarios, atoms could not exist, and therefore all the other interesting stuff that we see around us in the universe would not exist. In reality, the Higgs field is just slightly on, not zero but 10,000 trillion times weaker than its fully on value, a bit like a light switch that's got stuck just before the off position. And this value is crucial. If it were a tiny bit different, then there would be no physical structure in the universe.

This is an extreme case of fine-tuning. Physicists were so bothered by this case of fine-tuning that they spent innumerable hours (plus countless tax dollars) working on a very ornate theory called supersymmetry, designed mainly to explain away this particular case of fine-tuning. But the theory is really just one of those “rob Peter to pay Paul” affairs, as it requires the existence of a whole set of undiscovered particles, the existence of which would be just as big a case of fine-tuning as the fine-tuning that the theory tries to explain away. So far, as Cliff notes, the giant particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider has failed to confirm the predictions of supersymmetry, leaving it in a state that one commentator has described as a deathbed state.

The second of Cliff's two “dangerous numbers” is the degree of dark energy in the universe. Dark energy is believed to be an energy within empty space that is causing the universe to accelerate. Cliff describes the following disagreement between theory and observations (which is actually the biggest such disagreement ever):

Now, if you use good old quantum mechanics to work out how strong dark energy should be, you get an absolutely astonishing result. You find that dark energy should be 10 to the power of 120 times stronger than the value we observe from astronomy. That's one with 120 zeroes after it. This is a number so mind-bogglingly huge that it's impossible to get your head around. We often use the word "astronomical" when we're talking about big numbers. Well, even that one won't do here. This number is bigger than any number in astronomy. It's a thousand trillion trillion trillion times bigger than the number of atoms in the entire universe.

You can get a better grip on this idea if you understand that quantum mechanics predicts that ordinary empty space should be teeming with mass-energy, so much so that each cubic meter of empty space should be denser than steel. In fact, the quantum mechanics prediction is that each thimble-sized unit of space should have more mass-energy than if the entire Earth were packed into it.

So why do we live in a universe so different from that type of universe? Physicists basically have no clue.

Ever since the invention of the atomic bomb we have enthroned our theoretical physicists as some kind of towering geniuses, but in this respect it seems that they are really like someone who predicts this as the score of the next Super Bowl:

Carolina Panthers: 345,564,456,786,123,523,236,234,845
Denver Broncos: 24

Describing the multiverse theory, Cliff offers this wobbly explanation (perhaps just summarizing the thoughts of others):

What if all of these 10 to the 500 different possible universes actually exist out there somewhere in some grand multiverse? Suddenly we can understand the weirdly fine-tuned values of these two dangerous numbers. In most of the multiverse, dark energy is so strong that the universe gets torn apart, or the Higgs field is so weak that no atoms can form. We live in one of the places in the multiverse where the two numbers are just right. We live in a Goldilocks universe.

This is basically an “anthropic principle” explanation, the idea that we can explain some lucky number in our universe simply on the grounds that if it didn't have such a number, we wouldn't exist. But unless some willful causal agent is introduced within such an explanation, such an explanation is untenable, because you can't naturally explain something merely by referring to something else that came eons later. Causes come before effects, not after them. If event X occurred millions of years after effect Y, we cannot explain effect Y merely by referring to event X. The universe's level of dark energy and the numerical value of the Higgs field are effects that existed billions of years before life appeared, and we can't explain such effects naturally merely by referring to something that came eons later (the appearance of life).

I may add that the multiverse does nothing to fix the bad reasoning of trying to explain an effect by referring to something that came eons later. Nor would the existence of a multiverse make it more likely that our particular universe would have the right numbers by lucky coincidences, since the probability of success on any one random trial is not increased by increasing the number of random trials.

Moreover, while Cliff uses the statement “suddenly we can understand the weirdly fine-tuned values of these two dangerous numbers,his previous statements contradict that. For based on what he said earlier, a dark energy level of the type we have (very, very low) should not just be incredibly improbable but actually impossible. For quantum mechanics predicts (according to Cliff) that dark energy should be billions of trillions of quadrillions of quintillions of times greater than it is. So apparently according to quantum mechanics, the chance of a universe such as ours is not just very, very low, but actually zero.

Multiverses actually are not of any value in explaining the incredibly improbable, and they certainly are of no value in explaining a reality that seems to have a natural probability of zero. 

See here for more on the "vacuum catastrophe" discussed by Cliff.