Intellectual free-riders

In the unforgiving circumstances of most of our species’ existence, the environment was probably particularly unforgiving of stupid.  Risky decisions were sometime necessary for survival, but survivors took care to balance risks and benefits carefully.  Our pre-agricultural ancestors were probably not deep thinkers much of the time, but relied on a mixture of common sense and affect developed though cultural and biological evolution. While the details of early human thinking and decision making will probably always be a mystery, we can be pretty sure that stupidity had a short shelf-life on the unforgiving savanna 100,000 years ago.

These days much of our thinking is taken care of by the medical researchers, engineers and policy makers that precede us.  Our environments are astonishingly safe. Most of us living in Western democracies, for example, don’t have to test the water coming out of their taps to determine if it’s potable.  Similarly, we usually don’t have to worry about whether or not a person we encounter on the street will try to harm us. We usually don’t have to worry about whether or not a merchant we are buying goods from is going to rip us off. Our society has been built to free us from having to think about the regular hardships of only a few centuries ago, and that frees us up to be more productive, and have more fun.

As our environments have become safer, individuals are also freer than ever to make bad decisions with little or no direct risk to themselves.  Consider the case of Ann Barnhardt. Barnhardt is a minor personality in the ‘look who’s crazy now’ circuit of American fascists. Not that long ago she uploaded a provocative YouTube video deliberately insulting to followers of Islam. Some viewers then posted comments on her video that included threats to end her life and worse.  Instead of treating these comments as the typical garbage posted on YouTube, she made available her home address and encouraged the commenters to make good on their threats.  Included in her response was reference to a threatening arsenal of weaponry that she would use to defend herself.


In Ann Barnhardt’s imaginary world, she is taking care of herself.  She has guns, and is able to back up her provocative words with the force of arms.  But in reality, it’s the U.S. state that takes care of her.  It is blindingly obvious that if some of the fanatics threatening her had the logistical capacity to make do on their threats (access to weapons and entry into the U.S., mainly), she’d already be dead. But to Ann’s good fortune, the American state has made it hard for most fanatical Muslims to make much hay on the domestic terror front.

In a Hobbesian state of nature, Ann Barnhardt’s kind of thinking wouldn’t survive a fortnight. But her behaviour isn’t very likely to threaten her survival because for centuries intelligent people have worked together to develop social, legal and enforcement structures (both formal and informal) that keep things in America, more or less, in order.  Indeed, Ann Barnhardt is an intellectual free-rider–free to do and think stupid things because of the smart work that other people have done to make society safe and functioning.  This is the same kind of free-riding we see among anti-vaccine crusaders. These ‘anti-vaccers’ have the luxury of benefiting from everyone else’s vaccination (through herd immunity) without having to endure the burdens of vaccination themselves (small though they are).

Some intellectual free-riding is unavoidable in an open and benevolent society, and I am OK with that. But I do find it contradictory that Ann Barnhardt–an apparent political libertarian–would be a free-rider.  Does she not realize that the only thing standing between her alive and her dead is a vast network of government intelligence and policing agencies?  If she really thinks herself an island of self-preservation, she should ply her antics in Taliban-controlled regions of Pakistan, where there won’t be a benevolent state to back her up.

Is science good?

In a recent interview of Richard Dawkins on The Daily Show host Jon Stewart asked some thoughtful questions about science and religion.  Among them, Stewart asked if science might be, on balance, harmful to humanity.  This is a classic critique of modernism–that whatever truths science may reveal, ethical questions about who these truths serve cannot be ignored within the scientific enterprise.  Implicitly, it may have also been meant as a critique of atheism, but this argument is off the mark–the value of science says nothing about arguments against supernaturalism.  However as a comment about the scientific enterprise, Stewart raises an important and fair question: on balance, has scientific progress been good for humanity?


Dawkins’ answer was  that science is the best tool for doing things, good or bad, and could not rule out the possibility that on balance, science may be used to destroy our world.  It seems a little ambivalent, but I think Dawkins is simply being honest–he’s not sure about the answer–and leaves it for general debate.  Dawkins has never, as far as I am aware, suggested that science is normatively ‘good’ and in this interview even invokes the precautionary principle as an important tool for evaluating the impact of scientific advancement.

It’s fairly clear that evaluating the practical utility of science is an impossibility; we would need to know what human science does in the future, which is unknowable without time-travel.  But we probably can estimate what science has done (good and bad) in the past.  This may not be at all informative or predictive of the future, but it might be a useful starting point.

In a 2003 paper, Jenifer Ehreth totaled the annual lives saved (as well as some other metrics) from just four vaccine preventable diseases: smallpox, polio, measles and tetanus.  Her total is 168 million life-years.  While expanding that over time is tricky–since it took time for all these vaccines to reach their current coverage, even if we assumed that this figure could be extrapolated over 30 years (which is fairly conservative), that’s still over 5 billion life-years saved by just these four vaccines.  If we assume that the average person lives 80 years, that gives us 63 million lives saved over the last 30 years by these four vaccines alone.  This is in the ballpark of the total number of deaths in World War II–either a bit high or a bit low depending on who is doing the estimating.

This evidence does not serve to fully answer the question about science’s contribution to human welfare, but provides a pretty powerful example.  One could very credibly expand on this evidence and argue that modern Western lifespan has increased by 20 or so years since the industrial revolution through the scientific discovery of germ theory–responsible for not just vaccines but also antiseptic surgery, antibiotics and modern sanitation practices.  I am not sure how one would estimate the number of lives (or life-years) this achievement has this saved over the past century and a half, but it’s almost certainly in the hundreds of millions.

So in the words of Dawkins himself: “Science.  It works, bitches.”

The mixed metaphors of Stephen Poloz

Stephen Poloz, governor of the Bank of Canada, recently said:

“When the bubble burst in 2008, we were left with a crater, which is where we now find ourselves.  If you look carefully at a pot of simmering spaghetti sauce, under every bubble there is a crater that’s equal in size. So a seven-year bubble, a seven-year crater. Central banks have been filling that crater with liquidity, so we can row our boats across it. We need to make sure we’re getting to shore and not just hitting a rock.”

If you’re having difficulty understanding his comment, here’s a diagram:

Poloz' sauce

How the governor of the Bank of Canada sees the Canadian Economy

Why in the hell are there rocks in our spaghetti sauce?

Did Diana Nyad cheat? An empirical analysis

Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida–a 110 mile (180 Km) marathon journey through jelly-fish infested waters.  She has since been accused of having held on to a watercraft for part of her journey based on observations of increased speed over a 7 hour period of her swim.  She denies cheating, and has   provided GPS data of her trip to facilitate a critical examination. Are these data consistent with the fraud hypothesis?

I start by by plotting out her speed (without units here) in 10 minute time intervals.

Nyad1The GPS unit they used to track her location and time used somewhat regular time intervals; I cleaned these data up a little so the horizontal axis is 10 minute constant intervals.  It makes little difference in the appearance of the graph but facilitates somewhat easier analysis.

Visually, it is clear that her speed varies considerably over the duration of her trip.  There is an early phase in which she start very slow, and then gradually increases over time.  At one point there is a drop in speed of about 1 kph (the red oval), then an increase again up to her peak (green oval).  Then her speed declines again through several plateaus until she arrives at her destination.

Small variations in her speed are to be expected, perhaps due to small, largely immeasurable influences on her performance–such as physiological process, lapses of attention or subtle changes in the environment.  Larger changes in speed are probably accounted for by more significant environmental effects (such as strong currents) or as it has been suggested, cheating.   Her critics have used the speed data to accuse her of cheating, but looking at the trend in speed itself is not informative enough to determine which of these two processes are at work.

Looking at the variability of her speed provides some important insight, however.  If Nyad was holding onto a boat, we should probably expect to see a significant change in the variability of her speed–not just a change in speed.  Boats and people are affected by both winds and currents differently.  Boats have a higher profile and are more affected by wind.  On the other hand, a motorized boat has more horsepower (and in turn, control over its speed) than a person, so it is probably less affected by strong water currents.  So if Nyad attached herself to a boat, it seems reasonable that we’d see a clear change in her speed variability within an interval of time–perhaps an increase or a decrease (I have no idea which).  This is because during an interval in which she was holding onto a boat she’d adopt not just the boat’s speed, but also its variability in speed.

This is what we see (in hourly time intervals):

Speed and variance in speed

This graph illustrates variability in speed (green dots) along with the average speed (blue dots).  There are three clearly visible increases in variability–periods in which her speed varies considerably more than typical within an hourly period.  Two occur at the beginning and end of her journey (and as such, unsurprising).  The third is around the 32 to 33 hour mark, the time immediately preceding her 5-7 hour increase in speed.  Critically, however, the variability in speed stabilizes to its normal level immediately following her speed increase.  In other words, there is a short increase in the hourly variability in speed, but it is immediately followed by a return to the same variance seen throughout the rest of her journey.

If Nyad was holding on to a boat at this time, we would expect her speed variability to match the speed variability of the boat as well as matching the boat’s speed.  As noted above, it is reasonable to think that a boat and a person, even when travelling at the same hourly speed (though independent of one another), would have a different profile in speed variability because of the different effect that the environment would have on them.  But in Nyad’s case, the variance drops right down to its ‘natural’ state–hovering in the same range as her variability in speed throughout the whole of her trip.

Nyad may have cheated, I have no clue.  However, these data are not obviously inconsistent with a hypothesis that she did not cheat.  If her accusers have other data or evidence that more clearly supports the claim that she cheated, then they should bring it forward.  As it stands, at least in my view, these data are not sufficient for public (and cynical) conjecture.

Ending the drug war with price controls

The drug war has had enormous economic and social costs.  In the U.S. (and to a lesser extent Canada and Western Europe) the drug war is responsible for the emergence of violent organized crime groups, and a multi-billion dollar incarceration industry.  Mexico along with several Central and South American countries can thank the drug war for their astonishingly high homicide rates, political corruption and widespread public fear.  Countless lives have been lost in the fight over drugs around the world, which has invited a critical discussion of whether or not the war is really worth fighting anymore.

The strongest argument in favour of the war on drugs is that it puts pressure on prices (see pages 67-68 of this UNODC report for a brief economic discussion of this).  The assumption is that much of the high price of drugs is largely due to the cost pressures that policing and enforcement put on producers, distributors and retailers.  The risks of being in the drug trade need to equal the rewards, which translates into higher prices for illicit drugs.  These high prices put downward pressure on drug use.  Legalization would lower prices, so the argument goes, and assuming that drug consumption is a function of price, also increase consumption.  Increased consumption is thought to have a variety of negative consequences—particularly in the case of hard, addictive drugs—so the drug war is justified.

It’s hard to know if drug consumption responds to pricing they way economists predict, but the idea that high prices discourages some use is at least plausible.  On the other hand, this method of price control is blunt and indirect–the idea is to make production and distribution more expensive, which will hopefully force dealers to raise prices at the retail end. Moreover, the strategy ignores the incentives of producers/distributors to resist this pricing pressure.  The producers want to make a profit, so they will constantly search for ways to keep their costs down.  This is why we see the war of attrition between law enforcement and the illicit drug industry; producers and dealers are constantly looking for creative ways to keep the product moving as cheaply as possible, and enforcement agencies are having to match innovations with investment in new training and new technology to keep the price pressure high.

If this stalemate in the current state of the drug war weren’t bad enough, high prices in illegal drugs cause other problems.  Most addicts can’t earn the money required to purchase their drugs legally, so high prices (and in particular, price shocks) can increase crime rates (the ‘economic-compulsive’ model).  There’s also evidence that high drug prices undermine economies of developed countries—creating incentives for farmers to abandon food crops in favour of narcotic production.  Finally, high priced street drugs aren’t much of a deterrent to substance abuse–people determined to use simply shift to cheaper products that are, almost without exception, even more dangerous–such as the solvent sniffing seen among youth in remote northern communities.

Alternative price control?

Even if it were true that the drug war keeps prices high and puts resistance on both production and consumption levels, there may be other ways of keeping drug prices high that don’t also result in all the negative by-products of the current drug war.  These alternatives actually provide a possible victory for the drug war that seems otherwise un-winnable

One option is to regulate the prices of currently illicit drugs within a legal private drug marketplace.  The primary regulatory tool would be a price floor—forcing producers to sell the product at a minimum price.  With a price floor in place, there should be little increase in demand provided the price floor is near the black market price.  A clever regulator would routinely monitor black market prices and then modify the regulated price accordingly—ideally, just below the black market price.  Provided enforcement measures remain in place to keep the black market price high, this pricing ‘sweet-spot’ should prevent a surge in production and demand of total drugs, and will make black market drug production and retail a considerably less attractive profession.  While the potential for long jail times will still exist for producers of the black market product, in practice there should be considerably less incarceration overall since most production and consumption would shift to legal.  Under this scenario, policing costs may not drop, but could be more focused on a smaller and almost certainly less profitable black market.  But more importantly, the broader social costs of the drug war should also almost certainly drop.  Once the market is legal, disputes between producers will enter the court system, which will mean less violence on the street.

One problem with this idea is that regulating private industries often proves a great challenge in practice.  Just like illicit drug dealers looking for new low-risk methods of smuggling drugs into the country, legal private producers would have incentives to similarly circumvent the rules, and would very likely put considerable effort into finding legal ways to sell below the regulated price.  It’s hard to imagine how this would happen a priori, but we’ve seen this kind of trickery in attempts to regulate toxic substances—such as the switch from bisphenol A to bisphenol S in the manufacturing of plastics.  Government regulators often have a hard time keeping up with the creative instincts and financial motivations of industry lawyers and scientists.

A response to this problem could be nationalized production (where the only legal production is managed directly by the government), setting prices at the same pricing sweet-spot as above.  The advantage of a public producer is that the relationship between regulation and production is less adversarial—the public producer will simply do what the legislators demand.  On the other hand, public production introduces problems of competing incentives—if drug use provides government revenue, might governments have an incentive to manipulate prices or production to solve deficit problems?  I have never been comfortable with the government earning revenues from gaming or alcohol sales (as they do in some Canadian provinces) and feel the same way when it comes to narcotics.

It seems pretty clear from the modern war on drugs that the only way to even make a dent in illegal production and consumption is to legalize their consumption, production and sale.  I am not under any illusions that narcotics contribute much if anything to the welfare of society; I am very much a teetotaller myself.  But the social and economic costs of the drug war far outweigh any potential benefit, particularly given the alternative methods to keeping drug prices high.  At the very least, it seems worth a try…