Basic Truths And Imaginary Concepts

Here is a graph that gets a cute introduction as what one might call “econo-porn.” The play on words is sort of clever, but the overall concept is not. That’s because it is not possible to predict anything from a graph. Sure, people do it all the time, pointing to peaks and troughs and especially to trends — but there is no such thing as a trend. And that takes some explaining.

The concept of the trend is our abstraction; it’s a pattern that we literally invent. Trends are not “out there” in the real world, behaving according to a set of rules that we have figured out. They are ideas, fantasies, that we impose on the facts.

We often talk as if these trends had a life of their own. Stocks will continue to rise because they have been rising for a while, or temperatures in the Antarctic will fall until that trend exhausts itself. We look at the squiggly line on the chart and believe it tells us not only about past events, but about where the line will go next.

Perhaps the fact that we connect the dots with lines predisposes us to see trends when we look at charts. Those lines are linkages, aren’t they? They imply that this datum is somehow tied to, related to, has something to do with that datum. But if the price of gold was X dollars per ounce yesterday, the price Y today was not in some sense caused by X, or even influenced by it. To make things even worse, we don’t know the full list of factors that determine the price of gold on any given day, and we have only a minimal understanding of some of them. So, burdened with all this ignorance, and impressed by the seemingly related data, we fill in the gaps by talking about the flow of events as if yesterday somehow determines today, and yesterday and today will cooperate to produce tomorrow’s level. It’s magical thinking.

If we are told that each datum on the chart is discrete, that there is no mysterious energy flow that ties them all together, we scoff. “Just look! There they all are, and you can see the trend!”

Puzzling events invite us to find ways to explain and interpret. It’s human nature. The urge to understand has given us divination, the tarot, white and black magic, phrenology, racism, every religion on earth, faith in politicians, psychoanalysis, and genuine science. The fact that we name things in order to understand them — and then make the mistake of thinking that a thing with a name is therefore better understood — is a clear indication of how naive and needy we are. Faced with the incomprehensible, we supply the psychological cues that reassure us that we have at least some control over our environment. Trends are one of the ways we interpret reality; the fact that most of the time we gain no insight into that reality by applying trends does not discourage us, for we simply say that we misinterpreted or did not see the trend. As if there were actually something there to see!

The classic instances of trends and the prediction they make possible are the coin toss and the roulette wheel. The easiest way to see that a trend is a supposed link between the past and the future is to consider how we think of events as occasionally being “ripe for a change in trend” when they seem to “go against the odds.” Suppose you toss a coin repeatedly, and heads comes up six times in a row. If you are betting on the outcome of the next toss, would you consider it a sure thing to bet on tails? If the little ball bounding around on the roulette wheel lands on red numbers eight times without landing on a black number, wouldn’t you “know” that black is the sure bet?

It’s not an easy concept for many people to grasp: the past behavior of the coin, or of the roulette wheel, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with its next result. The next coin toss is exactly as likely to be heads as tails, and the next number up is no more likely to be black than red. Facts. Facts that are hard to believe.

Whatever has happened in the past, tomorrow the earth could warm up or cool down, and the economy could fall over dead or zoom out of recession/depression. Worse, the cows might never come home and the ducks might never all form up in a neat row. Prediction is for Madame Zelda, not for rational people!

That means that a confession is required: this newsletter guesses at what outcomes will be. No one can do more than that, and being right most of the time says nothing about how likely one is to be right the next time. You may recall that the Great Depression “bottomed out” and “broke out” several times, fooling everybody. And every time one or the other happened, FDR managed to fool everybody, too (he got re-elected, in spite of the facts). In politics and economics, scoundrels can talk their way out of anything. Don’t believe it? Ask Barney Frank how much responsibility he takes for the current disaster!

But can’t we tell what is going to happen, at least part of the time? Sure. We expect the grass to grow if we water and fertilize it, and we get predictable results from medications. The success of rational expectations — an appreciation of what is going to happen next — is based on two things: first, a grasp of the mechanics of the situation, and second, a control of the variables. We know that grass won’t grow if it has no water or nourishment; that’s the mechanics of botany. And we expect the grass to thrive as long as we don’t poison it or allow any other negative factors to intrude. We control the environment, in other words, and we get what we want: a nice green lawn.

That is to say, we understand cause and effect, and we use it to produce good results and prevent bad ones.

Yet the truth is we not only do not understand cause and effect, except at a very primitive and error-laden level, we can’t prove that cause and effect even exists as some kind of rule or law in the universe.

In the eighteenth century, David Hume told us that what we think of as the law of cause and effect is nothing more than the interpretation we impose on sequential, always-paired events. He was quick to acknowledge that if you do A, B always happens. But he pointed out that we have no possible way of knowing that B will pop up the next time we do A. He was right, and nobody has ever been able to show that he got it wrong. There is no proof of cause and effect; there is only the folk wisdom that tells us what we can expect. The truly unexpected is, according to our understanding of the world, always due to unrecognized causes.

So we say if you jump out of a soaring airplane without a parachute, you will fall. We can’t prove it, no matter how many people we throw out of the plane to demonstrate the point, but that’s the way to bet.

Because it is impossible to provide any empirical data regarding the future, we cannot know the future. Only the past can be known, and pretending that somehow there is a link between past and future is a leap of faith, not a rational discovery that can be demonstrated. That was Hume’s devastating comment on the certainty of our knowledge. He showed us the fragile nature of one of the fundamental principles upon which we depend for our survival.

Even near-total control of all the variables cannot allow us to predict. The scientific method, with its clinical studies of patient responses to medications, careful observation and control groups (receiving placebos) is logically invalid. (Because you can’t ever say that you have controlled all the variables. Homeopathy has been proved effective in at least one clinical trial on cattle.) And when we move on to graphs of economic activity, cotton futures and temperatures in Cairo, we get even further from validity and closer to white magic. A great deal of science is actually based in a superstitious epistemology that survives because it works almost all the time.

Now take another look at the link originally found in PenPo 84 and reconsider everything.

The Embarrassment Of Outcomes, Or, “Leave Me Alone, I’m A Gullible Ideologue”

Caution: if you are “green,” or a “progressive,” you should probably not click on this link. If you are and you do, one of two results is very likely:

A. You will reject out of hand everything you find on the web page, without reading more than a tiny bit of it — which means that you might as well never have clicked on the link in the first place.

B. Or you will look around and read some stuff just to live up to your liberal principles that tell you that every argument deserves a chance to explain itself, but…you will wind up so totally pissed off that your cardiovascular system may be at serious risk.

In the event, however, that you don’t hold any dogmatic views and would like to know, for example, how the “acid rain” scare of the 1970s and 1980s eventually came out, or how disposable diapers rate vs. the environment, or how much is known about the vectors of HIV in Africa, or how effective the War on Poverty was, and a lot of other stuff like that — the genuine results of efforts to do the right thingaccording to the lights of various leftist/liberal/green/”progressive”/socially conscious/Utopian/big government types — you will learn a lot. Some good, some bad, because that’s life.

You may now click here if you wish.

Politically Incorrect Machines

This is choice. It’s about some sophisticated buoys called “Argos.”

They drift along in the worlds’ oceans at a depth of 2,000 metres — more than a mile down — constantly monitoring thetemperature, salinity, pressure and velocity of the upper oceans.

When they were first deployed in 2003, the Argos were hailed for their ability to collect information on ocean conditions more precisely, at more places and greater depths and in more conditions than ever before.

No longer would scientists have to rely on measurements mostly at the surface from older scientific buoys or inconsistent shipboard monitors.

So why are some scientists now beginning to question the buoys’ findings? Because in five years the little blighters have failed to detect any global warming. They are not reinforcing the scientific orthodoxy of the day, namely that man is causing the planet to warm dangerously. They are not proving the predetermined conclusions of their human masters. Therefore they, and not their masters’ hypotheses, must be wrong.

In fact, “there has been a very slight cooling,” according to a U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) interview with Josh Willis at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a scientist who keeps close watch on the Argo findings. (Emphasis added.)

It isn’t just that man is not heating up the globe — it’s that nothing is making the globe warmer. That’s two solid kicks in the head for the AGW nutcases.

And what future is there for the Argos?? Good question. After all, how do you punish a robot for refusing to endorse the prevailing mythology? Robots don’t have myths. Only humans try to impose their goofy fantasies on reality.

Jew-Hatred Is The Bigotry The World Just Can’t Give Up

From a fine synthesis and summary of the problem to be found here:

One has to be struck by the remarkable animus toward Israel demonstrated by some of the leaders of this administration, as by various pundits and politicians. It is quite astonishing to see the Obama White House dispatch waves of diplomats to make nice to Iranians — at the very moment that Tehran is stepping up the violence against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan — while sternly warning Israel not to “surprise” us by taking action against the fanatical ayatollahs who have vowed to destroy the Jewish state. Why would anyone be surprised if a sovereign state defended itself against an outspoken and vicious enemy? And why would the United States want to prevent it from doing so? It reminds one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s fine line about the Carter Administration: “Unable to distinguish between their friends and their enemies, they have ended by adopting their enemies’ view of the world.”

Highly recommended reading.

Claudia Rosett On Iran

You will recall that Rosett is this newsletter’s favorite reporter. Here is the complete text of her recent comments on Iran, which appearedhere.

Commentary held its annual dinner in New York last evening, with Gen. Jack Keane and Fred Kagan jointly delivering the Norman Podhoretz lecture — on the surge in Iraq, and related matters. A line that jumped out, from Gen. Keane — on Iran, and what might be done about its nuclear bomb program:

“We’re out of the time that we could have used to implode the regime from within.”

Experts will continue to debate whether that is true, what might be done, and so forth. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, meeting in Washington today with President Obama, is slam up against realities that no mere debate will stop. Whether he cares to face it or not, so is Obama. And the clock ticks and ticks….¦

Why are the great democracies so slow to do anything that would actually stop Iran’s bomb program? Why does America carry on as if there were, well, yes, a problem with Iran’s bomb program…¦ but no real and imminent mortal danger?

Well, here’s a thought. As it happened, my subway reading the past few days has been George Eliot’s great novel, Silas Marner — perhaps as a way to escape, while immersed in its story, into a world at least beset by different problems. But in its pages, I find the same old human problem, beautifully laid out. Silas, the miser hoarding his gold, has come to feel a a false sense of security that because for 15 years no one has stolen his treasure, no one ever will. Eliot writes:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not yet happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

So it is for Silas, who steps out of his cottage, leaving the door unlocked, and returns to find that the event is upon him. The thief has been, and the gold is gone. So it is with the Iranian bomb, and the terrible things too likely to follow. Perhaps our policy makers in Washington should set aside the debate and the briefings and the make-believe for an evening, and try a refresher course in reality, via the fiction of George Eliot.

You might want to have another look at PenPo Number 3, which deals with Islamic ethics and the Twelvers in Iran. Want a copy? Just request it of the publisher.


This newsletter confesses that it finds this argument in favor of restrictive firearms legislation utterly incomprehensible. Is it self-contradictory and smugly racist, as it seems, or is it just nutty? Perhaps you can figure it out. Meanwhile the PenPo is happy to link to it. Heh, heh.

This looks like a good website for information on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), but it has proved prohibitively balky. It may work better via your ISP.

How much will Obama’s version of socialized medicine cost? Discussion. How will we keep costs down? Human beings will be considered expendable. Next question?

You call it “the Obama administration.” Is that correct, or would another name be more accurate? Just asking….

A must: this appraisal of President Palin’s first one hundred days in office is pure gold. Obamaniacs will be incensed, even furious. The rest of the electorate will love the stinging sarcasm, as Prof. Hanson goes right down the list, hitting sore spot after mis-step after blunder after pratfall. Don’t miss it! A hat tip to loyal subscriber JY for this gem.

Times are tough. Money is short, people are cutting back, competition for the consumer’s dollar is rugged. So what’s Microsoft doing? Youguessed it, Pilgrim. If that price increase does not tell you something about Redmond’s attitude, consider that Windows 7 is said (in the linked article) to be beating the disaster called Vista in “…just about every…aspect….” Wow. How’s that for fulsome praise??

In order to read the occasional online Wall Street Journal article without having to pay for it, try using Google News, as described in the linked web page.

A century and more ago, it was common to dress and pose the corpse of a recently deceased family member and take photos as if the dearly departed were still alive. Some of these photos are the stuff of nightmares…. So when this newsletter discovered the eerie custom has been revived — and improved upon by the modern mortician’s artifices — a preternatural chill swept through the PenPo’s offices. Click on thelink with care; the photo may be disturbing.

Here are twenty-two minutes and twenty-four seconds of facts and wisdom that are well worth your time. It’s a revelatory history of European Marxism and its authorship of US political correctness. It clarifies the shift from classical Marxist economic determinism and dependency on the working class as the vanguard of revolution to the mid 20th century attempt to bring down Western culture by radicalizing the victims of sexual repression. Think of it as Freud plus Marx as exploited by Marcuse and Adorno, in other words. Don’t pass up this high voltage opportunity! Link.

A weblogger puzzles over Obama, and, in the words of another weblogger, “…rightly wonders what would cause a 33 year-old to write an autobiography.” Here you see yet again the value of the internet; after all, by which of your newspapers, magazines or TV/radio sources of news and commentary have you been exposed to that seminal question??

When attacked by a vampire or zombie, simply hold up your right hand in a “Stop!” gesture, glare with fierce intensity, and say loudly, “Cheney will have his portion of your misbegotten flesh, thou bastard of Satan! Cheney!!” Guaranteed to work every time. Documentation here.

You probably saw coverage of this demonstration in New York. Imagine a Christian or Buddhist demonstration in Medina….!

Now this is just downright cynical: “The only alternative, which now looks like the lead horse, is that the non-Fox mainstream media ignores the (Pelosi vs. CIA) scandal for the good of the (Democratic) party.” Source here. Yep, cynical but factual, which is too bad. What the country needs is more professional news-hounds and fewer propagandists. That would improve Congressional ethics.

Are the Democrats fracturing their party over security issues? This newsletter guesses — important word, there — not. There is a certain amount of milling about mindlessly, but a real split seems avoidable. We’ll see. And unless the GOP institutes some major reforms, which is very unlikely, a split Democratic party won’t have much to fear.

So we are going from “war” to harm reduction, or so the hints go. If (big if) that’s what awaits, expect this administration’s version of harm reduction to be a confused mess. The amateurs in Washington will probably want to tax drugs heavily, which will encourage crime, smuggling, and violence. Pfffitt.

This latest AGW fantasy among the Gore-Hansenist cultists would be hilarious if it were not for the fact that these anti-science crusaders are serious, and still dangerous. It’s rather like having a tyrannosaurus rex loose in your local shopping mall.

He’s done it again. He needs an intervention. Maybe a recovering alcoholic who attends AA regularly can talk him into getting help before he hits bottom. But that’s the problem with people like this — they think they are just fine, while friends and family are meddlesome paranoids. “So I have a little drink once in a while; it relaxes me. No problem.”

And she’s done it again! After fiddling a W quote so it said something very other than what the president actually said, Maureen Dowd had the dubious distinction of joining Robert Fisk as a journalist whose name was associated with journalistic excess and its remedy. Right: there is the verb “to fisk” (meaning to correct false and/or biased reporting point by point by citing facts) and then came the verb “to dowdify.” So what are we going to call this recent transgression, if not just plain old ordinary dishonest unethical unprofessional plagiarism? Maybe “mo-do-no-no”? Ugh, lousy idea…. You can do better. Send your suggestions to the publisher of the PenPo!

Speaking of the NY Times, here’s a detailed account of how that propaganda organ worked to prevent a story unfavorable to Obama from being investigated and reported. Yes, it’s open and shut, though if you read the post, you will find it complex and even a bit off-putting. That’s because in defending itself against a charge of operating as a propaganda outlet of the Obama campaign, the NYT has drafted a wordy, mind-numbing and labyrinthine version of events. The paper can’t demonstrate the falsity of the charge, so it has tried to make the entire subject virtually incomprehensible. Yet if you cleave to the facts and chop away the deliberate obfuscation, you can see what happened. It’s censorship and abuse of the freedom of the press.

More…Speaking of improper use of one’s position in promoting a partisan cause, here’s a story that would provoke the press to howls of “Scandal!” and “Political interference in the jurisprudential process!” if the stunts were being pulled by Republicans. But…”Yes, we can, because we won!!” So Hail Victory!

From The Archive

This message was passed around on the internet for a while, and provides a welcome bit of slightly malicious humor to leaven the deadly effects of a newsletter heavy with bad, bad news.

Breaking News From ALLAH: April 15, 2004 05:07 AM

A critical shortage of virgins has suddenly put Heaven itself in the hot seat, informed sources say. The problem cast doubt on whether Islamic martyrs will continue to receive the 72 virgins promised to them as a reward for sacrificing their lives for ALLAH. Speculation began circulating that future martyrs might soon be entitled to 60, or perhaps even fewer, virgins.

The Almighty readily admitted to the problem. “It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” He explained. “Just do the math. The September 11 hijackers: there were 19 of them, right? That’s over 1300 virgins right there. On top of that, look at all the recent suicide bombers in the occupied territories. Every one of those bombers – even the women – gets the 72 virgins.” ALLAH threw up His arms in exasperation. “Where am I supposed to get all these Virgins from? Do I look like I’m made of virgins?”

Disappointed, followers did not accept the Lord’s explanation at face value. “The Qur’an promises us 72 virgins if we sacrifice our lives in the name of Allah,” complained prominent Muslim scholar Muhammad Sayed Haqla. “Seventy-two. Not 71, and certainly not 60. I’m trying to recruit prospective martyrs here. If I have to tell people they might only get only 60 or fewer virgins, they’re not going to do it.”

As a stopgap measure, ALLAH has proposed the use of young, “barely broken-in” non-virgins for less illustrious martyrs. “These guys who blow themselves up and injure, like, three people – they’re just abusing the system,” the Creator complained. ” The 72 virgins are really intended for the big shots, the Mohammed Attas. So, for the lesser guys, I’m offering non-virgins. But you must realize, these girls are young, they’re supple, they’re innocent. Sure, they’ve had one or two experiences. But the average guy is not going to be able to tell the difference. In fact, I defy you to tell the difference.”

Unsatisfied, Haqla scoffed at the proposal. “He thinks we can’t tell virgins from non-virgins? He must be taking us for fools. ‘One or two experiences,’ He says? ‘Barely broken in?’ ‘Washington BS’. Sounds like a snow job to me.”

Asked whether He should have promised His followers 72 virgins if He was unable to keep up with demand, ALLAH answered testily, “Yeah, well, you do this job.”

Scholars and prominent Muslims like Haqla showed little sympathy for ALLAH’s position. Haqla in particular feels his recruitment effort is in jeopardy. “With the promise of 72 virgins in doubt, I just can’t recruit the kind of talent I need. Let’s face it, these guys who strap bombs to their chests and walk into a crowded market – they aren’t doing it for the glory, they’re not doing it for the moral satisfaction. They’re doing it for the 72 virgins.”