It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Message from an Old Friend

apropos your blog, it made me wonder what the world would be like if we (typical americans) spent the same number of hours watching physicists and mathematicians reason as we spend watching the fast, strong, and tall play basketball. we wouldn't spontaneously become scientists (as we don't become competitive with michael jordan just by watching him) but we might be in a better position to appreciate the excellence and grace of the real pros. and a few young dreamers might even be inspired to shoot a few mental hoops out behind the house and dream of the swishing sound which would surely result from sinking a spinning lepton in a net of quantum strings...

oh, and we (typical americans) would also be more likely to do the sums and so catch the quacks and sophists before gullibly swallowing their snake oil.

so howz by y'all?

Not bad, you?


Pantheist Mom said...

Well there's the premise for the next reality show. Or even a series. Throw in a few office romances and a couple of geniuses fighting for directorship and you're good to go.

Steve Bloom said...

OT: Michael, you'll want to have a look at this interesting approach to public outreach. Even if it doesn't work it's nice to see a major commercial media willing to make this kind of effort.

Steven said...

So my question would be, why is it we DON'T watch Richard Feynman instead of Michael Jordan?

That's a typical economists point of discussion that has little (at least directly) to do with money flows or GDP, and relies on no charts, graphs, or computer modeling.

Michael Tobis said...

ANd the asnwer is what?

Sure, and in that sense I am an amateur economist. So what?

I'll admit that a degree in economics may indicate an interest in such questions. How does it indicate an expertise in such question, though?

Your defense of economics as a collective verges on dull and pointless. I am not criticizing such an endeavor as you describe. I don;'t mind people pursuing their fantasies, though we can argue about how many tax dollars their pursuits are worth.

I'm criticizing Lomborg and Stern and the people who tell congress what a planet is worth in dollars, a pursuit which is so idiotic the mind boggles.

Marion Delgado said...

Ummm, I am nobody's ethologist, but it could be that this is Nature's way of keeping us from becoming so "unphysical" we can no longer reproduce. Human cranial sizes are already pretty big for the average woman's hips.

Alternately, it could either be an artifact of evolution not keeping pace with civilization (especially since civilization retards evolution**).

Or it could simply be a cultural legacy of a long era (thousands and thousands of years) wherein having sheer physical strength and agility gave a human being status.

**with the exception of activities like nuclear tests and the human exploration of space.

bi -- IJI said...


"why is it we DON'T watch Richard Feynman instead of Michael Jordan? That's a typical economists point of discussion"

Nothing to do with economics; it's just the good old naturalistic fallacy -- which happens to permeate a certain political ideology.

And as Delgado pointed out, the answer to the question probably has nothing to do with economics either. In fact, The Frontal Cortex just put up a blog entry on a hypothesis on the neuroscience of sports fandom...

* * *

pantheist mom:

I think doing a reality show of scientists will be like doing a reality show of Michael Jordan. Probably most of the time it'll be lots of gruntwork and administrativia. But maybe someone can write a screenplay based on Ray Pierrehumbert's upcoming climate textbook (heheh).

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

David B. Benson said...

Watching theretical physicists and mathematicians at work would be rather boring.

Imagine just watching Rodin's "The Thinker" for two hours or so.

Experimental physicists?

Steven said...

I think maybe your overextending your punch on this one. I was just pointing out that I agree it's a great question; and at the same time, it's the type of question I find most interesting in Econ.

Lighten up.

Here's a present for you. I think I got the impression you didn't grow up in the US, and you're of an older generation, so I don't think you'll appreciate the nostalgia, but I still think you'll find it amuzing.

Steven said...


Really? "Nothing"

Fascinating. Thanks for letting me know the kinds of things economists talk about. I guess all those lectures, books, and podcasts were all a fever dream. Glad I have omniscient you to straighten me out.

Anna Haynes said...

> "...if we (typical americans) spent the same number of hours watching physicists and mathematicians reason..."

Some of us do. It's called TED.

bi -- IJI said...


"Thanks for letting me know the kinds of things economists talk about. I guess all those lectures, books, and podcasts were all a fever dream."

Um... you learn economics from podcasts?

Anyway, I suppose economists do ask all kinds of questions, including things like "why's the sky blue?". (Economists are people after all...) But unless the question "why Jordan and not Feynman?" somehow makes especial sense in the realm of economists, or unless economic theory gives us some special insight into the problem, I still contend that this question has nothing to do with economics.

Actually, I'm reminded of a blog post which talks about the question of motivation -- an issue in the fields of education and management. I suppose it's somewhat related to the problem at hand, which can be framed thus: Can one get people motivated to learn maths and science, through the medium of TV?

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Steven said...


Actually yes, I listen to a weekly podcast on economics. (Unfortunately I'm almost caught up on the archives, so I'll sadly be waiting a week at a time)

I read econ books, and I've taken econ classes. I don't see what's so amazing about that. There's podcasts on everything these days.

I think you may be suffering from the common misperception that Economics is Finance, which it is not.

Michael Tobis said...

There are examples of economists building models of other things beyond what one would normally call "the economy", though there's little reason to expect them to do any better at that than in their core interest.

Whatever economists call economics is really a very marginal interest of the readership here. We are interested in what economists say about the resource extraction and waste stream parts of the system, and what they say about food and water and hmmm, a reasonable absence of floods and droughts and plagues and pestilence.

The answer to this appears to be, not very much. Such matters are peripheral to the calculations that economists offer in the contexts that interest us here. The point is that moving such matters to the periphery is pretty much exactly analogous to moving the deck chairs around while the ship sinks.

It;s not hard to find economists addressing interesting questions. It might not be impossible, even, to find them offering interesting hypotheses. I am unaware of any significant observational or experimental technique, though I understand that economics Nobels are now being offered to psychologists in the hopes that their appreciation of experiment and statistics might rub off.

So I am with Steven this far: economists will indeed consider that the question does have some connection to economics, but this is exactly their hubris at work. And I am with Bi this much further: they haven't given us any reason to believe that their input has any special merit on this question.

Or any question at all?

In fact, some of us suspect it's all angels and pinheads.

Fields do go off the rails. Others need to watch carefully.

Are string theorists making any sense? Should we care? Should we keep sending them the big bucks?

Climatologists? Economists? Political scientists? Psychologists?

These are legitimate questions, even though there is no doubt that the fields are deeply interesting to their participants.

The academy is too big anymore to function on trust. Fields need to be prepared to defend their interests, and not just on the ground of their utility to their participants.

Michael Tobis said...

I note Steven has diverted yet another thread to the value or otherwise of economics. There are plenty of threads about that here, but not all of them.

I had a prior rule about Steven changing the subject, but that seems not to capture what is needed. The rule is, no introducing the concept of "economics" into threads where it isn't mentioned in the original text.