The Nobels and the Tang prizes

The Templeton Prize.
I read on Marginal Revolution about a new set of four prizes for scholarly achievement called the Tang prizes, after the cultural achievements of Tang dai China. The prizes are roughly on par with the Nobels in amount (they pay a little more but are awarded only biannually). They were created by a Taiwanese businessman with an endowment of $102MM.

$102MM seems like a sort of low price to me, actually — if you can spend that much and achieve the prominence of the Nobels, that seems like a lot of bang for your buck. There are probably a couple hundred people alive who could make a gift like that without affecting their lifestyle or solvency. And yet very few have done so. The number of large prizes for scientific achievement is pretty small, and the number awarded yearly or bi-yearly very small I think. Hmmm. . . .

I did some Wikipedia research to check my belief that there are very few other Nobel-caliber prizes, i.e. science prizes that pay large awards and / or are regarded as paramount achievements in a field. There actually turn out to be a bunch of other prizes with plausible claims to be Nobel-level, some of which I list below. The Nobel Prizes, though, are seemingly better-known and more prestigious than all of these. Some possible reasons: older; pays more money; covers more fields. Other prizes that might be regarded as Nobel-caliber: Abel Prize (mathematics, one prize yearly, big money); Fields Medal (mathematics, about one prize yearly, small money); Crafoord Prize (science, one prize yearly, big money); Chern Medal (mathematics, new prize, one prize every four years, big money); Kyoto Prize (science & humanities, new-ish prize, three prizes every year, big money); Rolf Schock prize (math & humanities, new-ish prize, 4 prizes every 2 years, small money); Shaw Prize (science & math, new prize, about 3 prizes every year, big money); Turing Award (computer science, one prize a year, paid no money for most of its existence(???) but now $250K). You can probably think of some other contenders: John Bates Clark Medal, Templeton Prize, etc.; this may be a sort of arbitrary list.

So maybe you can’t endow a real competitor to the Nobels for $100MM, because there are a lot of well-endowed prizes out there that have a lot less stature than the Nobel. What do you think?

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Materialism, teleology, and magic

I have so far not been tempted to read Thomas Nagel’s new book, but I’ve read a couple things about it. Here is H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books. I am a fan of Nagel’s famous article, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? which argues that there are holes in materialist explanations of consciousness, and that we don’t really know what sort of thing could go in those holes. In his new book, Mind & Cosmos, Nagel appears to be arguing that this and other holes are so big that the current scientific paradigm is somehow not seaworthy. (Based on what I’ve seen, Nagel’s conclusions in the book seem a little nuts — Orr is very fair I think.)

The holes in the current “materialistic” scientific paradigm are supposed to point the way to a new “teleological” theory or model for scientific theories. Here is Orr, emph. mine:

Natural teleology doesn’t depend on any agent’s intentions; it’s just the way the world is. There are teleological laws of nature that we don’t yet know about and they bias the unfolding of the universe in certain desirable directions, including the formation of complex organisms and consciousness. The existence of teleological laws means that certain physical outcomes “have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone—simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome.”

So, there are some teleological laws, beyond or outside the physical laws (not just the ones we know but all of them), and the teleological laws cause outcomes to differ from what they otherwise would be under the physical laws. The “teleology” at issue has nothing to do with the particular purposes of any person or God; it is distinctively teleological because (supposedly) we empirically see some moves towards “purpose” broadly, divorced from any agent, and physical laws are insufficient.

Apart from whether this account is at all plausible, I want to ask: does it even make sense? Does it describe a worldview that is meaningfully distinct from materialism? I am tempted to answer “no,” based on an argument like the following:

If there is some teleological tendency that exerts a pull on physical outcomes, then that should be conceptualized as a physical law. After all, physical law is just our theory for explaining physical outcomes; if some new tendency is discovered exerting a pull on physical outcomes, then the law that describes that tendency is a physical law, not some new kind of law, even if it is a physical law that would surprise today’s physicists.


Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist.)

I like this argument but it’s just a little too categorical and tautological to be really satisfying. A reply might say: if the new tendency is strange and different enough, then it could be too strange to assimilate under physical law. For example, we could maybe imagine a teleological tendency that would upset ordinary reductionist assumptions in a disturbing way. Suppose there is somehow a tendency towards the evolution of conscious organisms. That seems like it would constitute a pull on physical outcomes. But we don’t know how to cleanly reduce consciousness to lower-level physics, so we also don’t know how to reduce this tendency to the terms of our physical laws. So we would have something like a teleological law, a tendency in physical outcomes that is easy to state in the language of purpose but can’t be neatly reduced to lower-level physics.

This example probably shouldn’t work, though. Even if there are things about consciousness that are hard to reduce to lower-level physics, anything like a tendency towards the evolution of conscious organisms should be easy to reduce to lower-level physics, because conscious organisms as far as we know are physical things that obey physical laws. If there really was a tendency towards the evolution of conscious life, we would be able to analyze it in terms of all the little things that go together to make a conscious being. (Since conscious life apparently exists, there arguably is a tendency towards the evolution of conscious life. But there is every reason to believe that tendency works on the level of physical law, as in the arguments for fine-tuning.)

There is a parallel here to debates over the definition of magic. If magic is simply something outside of physical laws, then it seems contradictory — in a world that had magic, magic would just be part of the physical laws, wouldn’t it? But magic looks very different from physical law as we know it — in magic, changes at the level of meaning, of human significance, somehow unlock dramatic physical changes, which seemingly can’t be explained in lower-level physics. An incantation works changes in the world by virtue of the meaning of the words; a chemical recipe works the opposite way. A world with magic is a world in which there’s something special and privileged about our semantics (hence “magical thinking”) — the physical world is governed by the categories into which we divide it, rather than vice versa, or rather than solely vice versa.

We can say, then, that a world of Nagel’s teleological laws might look like a world with magic. Unfortunately for Nagel, we’ve been looking for magic for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be there. (Orr: “Teleological science is, in fact, more than imaginable. It’s actual, at least historically. Aristotelian science, with its concern for final cause, was thoroughly teleological.”) Why should we think the magical worldview is about to rally and reemerge?

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The invisibility of Republican dissent

Not very novel confession from dissident conservative Republican Bruce Bartlett describes how none of his conservative friends got angry at him for his remarks to the New York Times, because they refused to even look at the New York Times. But this part was quite striking to me:

Among the interesting reactions to my book is that I was banned from Fox News. My publicist was told that orders had come down from on high that it was to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks. Whoever gave that order was smart; attacks from the right would have sold books. Being ignored was poison for sales.

I later learned that the order to ignore me extended throughout Rupert Murdoch’s empire. For example, I stopped being quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Awhile back, a reporter who left the Journal confirmed to me that the paper had given her orders not to mention me. Other dissident conservatives, such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, have told me that they are banned from Fox as well.

Vivid illustration of how a closed society can exist within an open society, without resort to closed communes and brain-washing. Brings to mind the work of Timur Kuran on preference falsification. Individuals who might want to waver from the reigning conservative orthodoxy do not because they feel they are alone in their views; the effect is self-reinforcing.

If we are hopeful we might ask, to what extent is the Republican consensus already hollowed out, waiting for a crack in the exterior that will show everyone it’s safe to dissent?

Since I don’t follow conservative media I can’t speak to the details of this question. Are conservatives really as closed-minded as Bartlett’s colorful stories suggest? Do seemingly reasonable writers like Ross Douthat enjoy any traction in conservative media? Etc. But what Bartlett says crystallizes for me both the horror and the seeming fragility of the current equilibrium.

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In the Financial District after the flood

The storm shut down my offices for fully two weeks — they opened two Mondays ago at 11am. This is my narrative from that day.

The whole place was without power, and the basement levels were fully submerged — everything down there seems to have been destroyed, including our gym and a lot of computing infrastructure. For the first days after the storm I was without outgoing email, and I couldn’t authenticate for remote access. That eventually cleared up. A couple days after the crisis, with the building accessible but no elevators, some hard-working staffer trudged up the thirty floors to my office and fetched down my work laptop. (I hadn’t requested this, but it turned out to be lucky timing — my personal laptop had just developed a crippling hardware problem.)

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For a long time now, basically every jurisdiction in the United States has had a policy of promoting car ownership via subjecting personal vehicles to a much lower regulatory standard than alternative means of getting around. You can buy a van if you want to. And getting a license to drive a van is pretty easy. But getting a permit to drive a van around town giving rides to people in exchange for money is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Then alongside this thicket of artificial scarcity of cabs and bans on fixed-route intracity bus and van operation, most American cities offer some desultory publicly owned mass transit operations. But the overall idea is pretty clear—everyone should own a car and drive it around almost all the time, while rich tourists or visiting businessmen grab the occasional cab from the airport.

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Conservatives for teachers’ unions

The Times has this piece about the unlikely collaboration between state-level Republicans and teachers’ unions, as Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel have become champions of school reforms. I’m not sure this will last. I guess it’s an example of the story told by Ezra Klein in a June New Yorker, that politicians (increasingly?) choose their policy positions in order to oppose the positions of their opponents, and especially to oppose the policy agenda of the opposing President. So the adoption of the cluster of education reform ideas by various Democrats and by the Obama administration is turning reforms once championed by right-wing think tanks and Republicans like President Bush, into the property of a hated opponent who must be opposed. (One reason that the Republican party seems so stupid right now may be that it is determined to oppose even its own previously good ideas, when they turn up in the hands of Obama.)

But it also occurs to me that there is a decent small-c “conservative” reason for supporting teachers’ unions, which is that they are completely committed to the institution of the school roughly as it exists now — they want to “conserve” it, because the livelihoods of their members depends on its continuity. There is I think good reason to be skeptical of “innovations” in the design of public institutions. In the case of schools versus school reform, let me offer an illustrative tale that I think makes a broadly Burkean point (this is culled from a draft post I wrote last year and never finished; excuse the rambling and roughness pls):
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The eternal Civ game — how can there be 1700 years of stability? and a quandary for Civ design

So some guy told Reddit that he has been playing the same Civilization II game for ten real-time years; the game calendar has reached 3991 AD. (Games of Civ can continue after they “officially” end; the game over screen came in 2020 but this guy decided to keep playing, and playing.) The in-game geopolitics has settled into a tri-polar great power war. The war has been going on, flashing hot and cold, for 1700 years. 1700 years. Nuclear weapons line the borders, deployed whenever one of the leaders thinks he’s lucky. The citizens of every country live in poverty in radioactive swamps. All governments are authoritarian (“I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire”). All economic production is directed toward the continuing war effort. It’s a frightening vision.

It’s also unlike anything I’ve seen in a Civ game. From my (non-encyclopedic) experience, I’m shocked that any kind of balance of powers has lasted for 1700 years. In my experience someone always chokes everyone else out — builds up an advantage and marginalizes or eliminates the other players. Here, the human player was able to stand up to the two AI super-powers, but wasn’t able to subdue either of them. How did that happen?

The human player gives us a clue: “The military stalemate is air tight. The post-late game in civ II is perfectly balanced because all remaining nations already have all the technologies so there is no advantage.”

What has happened is that players have exhausted all the “low-hanging fruit” that would allow them to exploit advantages over other players. For example, if you have a technological advantage in a Civ game, you can leverage this by building a high-tech military to take resources from your opponents. Because higher technology gives you knock-on gameplay advantage, you have an opportunity to “win more,” converting the technology lead into an overall lead. But this stops working once all players have explored the whole tech tree. If I have tanks and my opponents have arrows, I can use that to consolidate my advantage and claim a bigger share of resources. If I have Future Tech 16 and my opponents only have Future Tech 14, well, there’s not much I can do with that. A similar dynamic is at work in Civ’s “Wonder” system, where unique structures like the Colossus of Rhodes confer an advantage on whoever wins the race to build them.

Technological slack and other low-hanging fruit is an implicit resource in the Civ games. When there’s still some left, players can leapfrog each other, upsetting any stable order. When it’s used up, a grim equilibrium may be stable. The ability to “win more” when you’re ahead then is a major source of the dynamism of Civ games, perhaps the most important source. Could this be a problem with the Civ design? The obvious issue is that this dynamic strongly favors nations that are already ahead — change is likely to feature powerful nations getting more powerful. But take away the “win more” systems and you get stagnation and gridlock.

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China: Rule by fake PhDs? (America: Rule by fake lawyers?)

A recent Marginal Revolution post adds some complexity to my earlier post comparing the educational backgrounds of the respective rulers of China, America, and other countries. I had remarked on the tendency of Chinese top leaders to have advanced degrees in engineering and sciences. But:

One of the most obvious signs of systemic cheating is that many Chinese officials use fake or dubiously acquired academic credentials to burnish their resumes.

The overwhelming majority of these officials end up receiving doctorates (a master’s degree won’t do anymore in this political arms race) granted through part-time programs or in the Communist Party’s training schools. Of the 250 members of provincial Communist Party standing committees, an elite group including party chiefs and governors, 60 claim to have earned PhDs.

Tellingly, only ten of them completed their doctoral studies before becoming government officials.

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Randomized controlled experiments come to the Obama administration. . .

‘s re-election campaign efforts. Of course it’s the campaign that adopts scientific approaches — if the campaign improves their methods, they see immediate and direct benefits. Of course the same kind of thing doesn’t happen on the policy side, where the question of what works is secondary at best.

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This American Life and Mike Daisey’s Perfect Crime

Big fat liar Mike Daisey did an investigative piece on the Chinese factories that make Apple products. The piece aired on This American Life and he took it around the country as a successful one man show. Turns out he invented a lot of it, and TAL is retracting the story and devoting a full hour to corrections.

What’s striking to me is that this was almost the perfect crime — reporter Rob Schmitz got suspicious and tracked down Daisey’s interpreter, who contradicted much of Daisey’s story. If Schmitz had not been able to get in touch with the interpreter, the fabrications might never have been revealed, and everyone would still believe what they heard.

The pressure to put out juicy stories is immense, and the facts are often hard to check. How many folks are getting away with lies just like this one, right now? How many complete fabrications are already part of the conventional wisdom?

UPDATE: The crime was even perfecter than I thought — Schmitz was able to track down the interpreter because he had worked with her himself — Daisey covered his tracks and it would’ve been hard to find the interpreter without the personal connection.

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