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The world isn’t getting worse — our information is getting better

Ray Kurzweil explained how it is that the headlines can be continually worse even if the world is getting better: our information is getting better.

People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

We know more than we've ever known before about what's going on around the world. Things aren't getting worse every day, we're just better informed about how things really are. Tragedies are no longer local news, they're now national news. Instead of rarely getting bad news about our local area, we now get daily bad news from everywhere. Even if there's less bad happening overall, there's still enough of it for one depressing headline a day. The upshot is that everything's getting better and everyone's convinced that everything's getting worse.

It's Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education

It's Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education →

In one of his academic papers, David Brat (he of the primary victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor), referred to government having “a monopoly on violence.” Journalists for the New York Daily News, Politico and the Wall Street Journal treated this as a statement of extremism rather than a straightforward reference to political philosophy.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing at Forbes, used that to call for a renewal of real liberal education.

In particular, two of the most fundamental requirements of citizenship were virtue and a liberal education.

The expression “liberal education” is quite important. Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe–a.k.a. science–but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

Similarly, the great men (and, sorry, they were mostly men) who bequeathed us this wonderful order understood that a regime of majority rule cannot long withstand the test of time without having a citizenship that takes seriously the notion of virtue. The virtues, to Aristotle and others, are not so much about being a goody-two-shoes, but rather about the lifelong effort to reach self-mastery through confronting our passions (today, perhaps, we would say: our addictions) and properly ordering our will towards that which is good. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see how growth in virtue is itself a form of liberal education.

Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.

Which brings me back full circle, which is that when a bunch of people, whose job is to write about politics, who presumably have nice-sounding educations, who have editors, don’t know one of the very basics of the political thought that gave us the world we live in, the hour is very late indeed.

This matches my own leanings pretty well. I believe that one should have a liberal education before undertaking the responsibility to vote. Voting shouldn't be a lark, a popularity contest, an opportunity for cheap point scoring, or for "gotcha!" campaigns. Voting should be a civic responsibility, taken only after prolonged consideration of the best way to promote the general welfare.

In the past, I've suggested voter tests as a way to determine which people actually take this responsibility seriously. Given our nation's history of racism and oppression, that's not a good idea. But I do wish that people would take the responsibility seriously enough to prevent themselves from voting, if they lack the requisite knowledge and tempermament.

The low-information voters that should most refrain from voting are the voters least likely to abstain out of principle. A true liberal education would give voters those principles, but then they wouldn't be low information voters in the first place. If you're wondering why our election campaigns attract only the worst candidates, look no further than the unqualified, illiberal voters that populate the political left, right, and center.

Oil Sanctions and the Pretense of Knowledge

Oil Sanctions and the Pretense of Knowledge →

I mentioned last week that the recent rise in gasoline prices was most likely linked to the recent sanctions on Iran. Apparently, the sanctions were expressly designed to avoid an increase in gas prices.

U.S. sanctions, set out in Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorisation Act for Fiscal 2012 (HR 1540), apply only if the president determines “the price and supply of petroleum and petroleum products produced in countries other than Iran is sufficient to permit purchasers . . . to reduce significantly in volume their purchases from Iran”.

Sanctions do not apply if the president determines an importer has “significantly reduced” its volume of crude purchases from Iran, and the president can waive them altogether if it is in the national interest.

The law mandates experts at the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in conjunction with the departments of Treasury and State and the head of the intelligence community, to review the availability of alternative supplies every 60 days. [Emphasis added.]

So, what went wrong? Here's Sheldon Richman, with two of my favorite economics quotes.

The “experts” don’t know what they’re doing. They may think they do. They surely want us to think that. But they’ve got a problem: The matter they are grappling with does not permit the kind of knowledge they would need to design a plan calibrated to produce the results they seek. They’re up to their eyebrows in data, but what they need more than data they haven’t got, and there’s no way to get it.

The Problem Is People

Rube Goldberg had it easy. He had only to arrange a series of inanimate objects and an occasional parrot to create his problem-solving devices. The expert who tries to calibrate sanctions to harm only Iran, but not oil consumers, have to deal with people. He seems, Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,

to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chose to impress upon it.

F. A. Hayek had something similar in mind in his 1974 Nobel lecture, [“The Pretence of Knowledge”][4]: “[I]n the study of such complex phenomena as the market, which depend on the actions of many individuals, all the circumstances which will determine the outcome of a process . . . will hardly ever be fully known or measurable.”

Complex Systems, Part II

Complex Systems, Part II →

John Goodman finishes his analysis of complex systems. This time, he considers the policy implications of the fact that healthcare is a complex system.

  • Complex Systems Cannot Be Managed from the Top, Down
  • The Core Components of Complex Systems Cannot Be Copied
  • Choosing Public Policies for Complex Systems
  • Public Policy Lessons

Most people in health policy do not understand complex systems. They really don’t understand social science models either. As a result, when they advocate or enact public policies, they are almost always oblivious to the inevitability of unintended consequences. The idea that a policy based on good intentions could actually make things worse is beyond their comprehension.

Speaking as someone who works in healthcare: yup. Every time healthcare people get together in large numbers, I see the belief that they can figure out a master plan, using the power of good intentions to make everything better. (Usually, of course, without using any evil profits either.)

Complex Systems, Part I

Complex Systems, Part I →

John Goodman explores some of the characteristics of complex systems and applies them to healthcare.

  • Complex systems can never be accurately modeled
  • There is no reliable model of the health care sector
  • Complex systems have unintended consequences
  • Implications of unintended consequences.

The key take away is that it's impossible to centrally plan a complex system and that trying to do so is generally counterproductive.

Why are unintended consequences so important? Because in trying to solve one problem we can create other problems. Also in trying to solve problems, we can end up making them worse. ObamaCare has three principal goals: control costs, raise quality and increase access to care. Yet there is no model which allows us to predict that any of the three objectives will be even partially achieved. In fact, readers of this blog know that we expect all three problems to get worse.

This entry was tagged. Knowledge

In Search of a Confident Faith (Chapter 1, Part 2)

I'm going to continue talking about what I learned in Chapter 1 of In Search of a Confident Faith. Last week, I talked about the first half of Chapter 1.

Philosophical Aspects of Faith

After unpacking the three theological aspects of faith, the authors move on to three philosophical aspects of faith. These are degrees of belief, confidence in and confidence that, and changing beliefs.

Degrees of belief:

The first philosophical aspect of faith is that beliefs are not binary. It's not true that you either believe something completely or disagree with it entirely. Beliefs are expressed in degrees of confidence. You can either believe something (51-100%) confidence, disbelieve something (0-49% confidence) or be completely counterbalanced (50% confidence or no confidence either way). This is true of everything in our lives, not just religion.

For instance, I'm 90% confident that Republicans will retake the House this year -- I believe it. I'm only 40% confident that Republicans will retake the Senate -- I disbelieve it. You can see that it would take a lot to change my belief about the outcome of the House elections but only a comparatively little to change my belief about the outcome of the Senate elections.

For a Christian, it's possible to believe in God with only a 51% or 55% confidence. You would believe, but your faith wouldn't be very strong. You would be constantly reevaluating your beliefs and seeking new evidence to either increase or reverse your existing beliefs. This is important because it indicates that the presence of doubt is not fatal.

... It follows from the fact that confidence comes in degrees, that in order to grow in Christ, it is not enough to assess what we do and do not believe. Rather, it is crucial to assess our degree of belief.

A Christian with doubts isn't a heathen or someone to be feared. A Christian with doubts is someone who's less than 100% confident that Christianity is true -- but still more than 50% confident. What's needed isn't blind exhortation to "have more faith" but more evidence to create confidence -- to create more faith.

Confidence In vs Confidence That

This second philosphical aspect of faith is fairly simple. You can have "confidence in" in an object (such as a automotive transmission) or a person (such as your wife). You have "confidence that" an alleged truth is actually true. For the record, I don't have confidence in my car's transmission but I do have confidence in my wife. I have confidence that the earth orbits the sun. I don't have confidence that anthropogenic global warming will destroy mankind.

Two important things follow from the distinction between "confidence in" and "confidence that." For one thing, the proper value of each rests on the worthiness of its object. Regarding "confidence in," its proper value is derived from the reality of its object and the object's dependability or trustworthiness.

... Regarding "confidence that," its proper value derives from the fact that the object--a particular claim--is actually true and not false.

... The second implication of the distinction between "confidence in" and "confidence that" is that while truth is an important aspect of biblical faith, faith goes beyond accepting certain truths and crucially involves "confidence in" and reliance upon a Person--the Triune God.

Changing Beliefs

The final philosophical aspect of faith deals with how to increase your faith in something or someone. The authors take pains to point out that beliefs can only be changed indirectly -- never directly. You will never increase your own faith or someone else's faith by merely commanding greater faith to exist.

The good news is that you can indirectly control what you believe and how strongly you believe it by freely choosing to do certain things that develop God-confidence as a byproduct.

In essence, persons do not have direct control over what they do and do not believe (or regarding the strength of their beliefs), but they do have indirect control over their beliefs. Put differently, one's beliefs (and their strength) are not directly subject to one's free will, though other activities that indirectly produce (or strengthen) belief are subject to one's free will.

Why Do We Have Faith

The Hidden God

Finally, Moreland and Issler address the question of why we have to have faith in God at all. Unfortunately, I thought this was the weakest part of the entire chapter. They start out by talking about the hiddenness of God.

... God is not interested in merely getting people to believe he is there. That's why he doesn't write something in the sky for all to see. Rather, he is interested in forming a community of people--his kingdom covenant people--who have entered that community voluntarily and uncoerced, and they have done so for the right reasons, among which include the desire to be with and like God himself.

... the Bible clearly teaches that there is knowledge of the existence of God (Psalm 19; Romans 1). What is hidden is God's manifest presence and some of his intentions.

This is worded as though Moreland and Issler believe that the two ideas are in conflict with each other. That it would be impossible for people to enter God's community voluntarily and uncoerced unless God were hidden. That may very well be true. Scripture is full of statements about man being unable to resist worship (or even keep living) in the unmediated presence of God.

Moreland and Issler themselves don't make any attempt to defend this assertion. They simply throw it out there. That greatly weakens their next two points.

Faith is How We Live Our Lives

... The second response is that, in light of the fuller understanding of the nature of faith provided above, it becomes evident that faith--confidence in and confidence that--is the very rail upon which we live our lives.

Everything we do, everyone we admire or detest, every emotion that we have comes from our specific beliefs and how strongly we hold those beliefs. My beliefs shape my daily thoughts, guide the priorization of my goals, and produce my daily behaviors. Change my beliefs and you change who I am. Change me from a raging free market capitalist to a committed liberal democrat and you'll change a lot of what makes me "me". Likewise, change my Christianity to atheism and you'll also change a lot of what makes me "me". Sure, I won't become a different person entirely but my priorities will change. My reading list will change. Some of my emotions will change.

My beliefs -- and the faith I have in those beliefs -- define who I am. Christianity is "merely" one element of my personal matrix of beliefs. Having faith in Christianity doesn't make me more or less rational than having faith in capitalism or faith in the ability of the Green Bay Packers to reach the Super Bowl. Faith is faith. It's the object of faith and the evidence for that faith that matters in determining whether or not I'm crazy.

Faith and people

Finally, faith is how we related to people all around us. All of our social interactions are driven by the faith (or lack of faith) we have in the people we meet each day.

we flourish in the presence of trust from others, offering confidence and trust is one way to show respect to and value other persons, and reliance on and confidence in another are essential to the way persons work together and cooperate with each other.

... Imagine what would happen to personal flourishing, individually and communally, if there were no such thing as trust. When we recall that faith is not blind choice but is trust, reliance and confidence, it becomes clear that the existence of faith is merely one important aspect of the nature of persons and the proper way they relate to one another. Furthermore, God-confidence is fundamental to living well in this universe, as Hebrews 11:6 teaches: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

Christian faith, ultimately, comes down to how much you know about God, how much you believe what you know, and -- from that -- how much confidence you place in God to do right and to be worthy of worship.

In Search of a Confident Faith (Chapter 1, Part 1)

Several months ago, I started reading through In Search of a Confident Faith. I quickly discovered that it had a lot of good information that I both wanted to remember and wanted to pass along.

I put my reading on hold until I could actually document things systematically. I'm finally at the point where I managed to write about Chapter 1, so I'm now going to inflict my enthusiasm on you.


What is faith? Is it an existential leap into the unknown? Is it a blind hope that somehow everything will work out okay, even if you don't know how? Is it wishful thinking without a solid foundation? Or is it something more?  J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler tackle this topic in Chapter 1 of In Search of a Confident Faith.

They say that faith is more than just the idea of blind trust that the word conjures up in modern Western thought. Instead, they argue, faith is something that must be built on a solid foundation, if it's to be worth anything at all. They start out by proposing to drop the word "faith". It's too confusing and -- by now -- has too much baggage associated with it. Instead, they encourage you to think of it in terms of three synonyms: "confidence", "trust", and "reliance". They say "We can see that if faith is essentially trust and confidence, its proper exercise crucially requires reasons, evidence, and knowledge."

Without reason, evidence, or knowledge, no Christian should hold Christianity to be true. Faith without reason and evidence is mere wishful thinking. They want to encourage Christians to question their faith and to discover what -- if any -- foundation they have for their faith.

If Christians have a solid foundation for their beliefs, then they can have great confidence in those beliefs, great trust in those beliefs, and a great reliance on those beliefs. They'll know why they have those beliefs and won't live in constant fear that they've misunderstood something or have wasted their lives on a delusion. Having a confident belief is vital to actually living as a Christian.

Because many Christians don't have a strong foundation of evidence for their faith, they are deathly afraid of doubting Christianity. This fear comes from a fear of what other Christians might think, a fear of what God might think (if he even exists), and a fear of what unpleasant truths they might discover if they ask too many questions. To combat these fears, Moreland and Issler proffer three different types of uncertainty -- only one of which is sinful.

one must distinguish among (1) unbelief (a willful and sinful setting of oneself against a biblical teaching), (2) doubt (an intellectual, emotional or psychological hindrance to a more secure confidence in some teaching or in God himself--I believe something but just have doubts) and (3) lack of belief (I don't believe something but know I should and want to--I need help).

Theological Aspects of Faith

Moreland and Issler begin to move into the meat and potatoes of the chapter. They unpack three historical theological aspects of faith. True faith starts with knowledge and ends with full fledged commitment. These three theological aspects of faith are faith as knowledge (notitia), faith as assent (assensus) and faith as commitment (fiducia).


Notitia refers to the content of faith, primarily the assertions of Scripture and theological, doctrinal formulations derived from Scripture. ... Notitia is also defined as knowledge of the meaning of or as understanding the content of doctrinal teaching. This clearly implies that far from being antithetical to faith, knowledge is actually an important ingredient of it.

Faith starts with simply knowing what the truth claims of the Bible (or anything, really) are. Is it claimed that stealing is honorable or dishonorable? Is it claimed that the poor are victims of their own stupidity, victims of the oppressors, or something else entirely? Is it claimed that the world is screwed up from the result of unwise choices or from malevolent evil? Is it claimed that the path to salvation lies in increasing knowledge or in humble submission to another? Every religion or set of ideas has its own set of facts. In the first stage, notitia, you don't have to agree or disagree with any of them. You just need to know what they are.


Assensus refers to personal assent to, awareness of or agreement with the truth of Christian teaching, and, again, it is primarily intellectual, though as we shall see in chapter three, there are clear affective and psychological components to assensus. Medieval theologians distinguished varying degrees of assent to something, with "full assent without hesitation" as the strongest form. The important thing is that it is not enough to grasp the contents of Christian teaching; one must also accept the fact that this teaching is true.

To get to this stage, you have to actively weigh the evidence for the facts that you've learned as part of notitia. You have to listen to the arguments pro and con. You have to apply your own reason and understanding. Only when you've agreed that the facts are, in fact, true can you move to assensus.


Finally, fiducia involves personal commitment to its object, whether to a truth or a person. Fiducia is essentially a matter of the will, but because Christianity is a relationship with a Person and not just commitment to a set of truths (though this is, of course, essential), the capacity to develop emotional intimacy and to discern the inner movements of feeling, intuition and God's Spirit in the soul is crucial to maintaining and cultivating commitment to God.

To be honest, I don't see a huge gap between assensus and fiducia. I know there can be a gap between claimed agreement with the Bible and actually living out a life of commitment but I don't think there should be. I think that if you really and truly whole-heartedly agreed with something that it would be hard to avoid living your life according to that belief. And, for Christians, agreement with Scripture is an agreement that you can have a personal, life altering relationship with the Being that created everything. If you agree with that, how can you not have a personal commitment to obeying that God fully?

But, of course, it's impossible to argue or guilt someone into a relationship with God. Moreland and Issler recognize that.

Merely exhorting people to be more committed to God—"just have more faith"—seldom produces greater confidence and dedicated trust in God. Rather, what is needed is a realistic picture of a flourishing life lived deeply in tune with God 's kingdom—a life that is so utterly compelling that failure to exercise greater commitment to life in that kingdom will feel like a foolish, tragic missed opportunity for entering into something truly dramatic and desirable.

That finishes up the three theological aspects of faith. Next week, I'll continue talking about Chapter 1 and I'll cover the three philosophical aspects of faith as well as the question of why it's necessary to have faith at all.

Can we do what we "ought" to do?

I just read a pretty good essay over at The Freeman, discussing the difference between what we can do and what we ought to do. Too often, people talk about what we ought to do before even considering if we can do it. The essay, appropriately enough is Ought Implies Can.

There are two parts I particularly liked. The first was on the problem of imperfect knowledge.

The economist David Prychitko once defined economics as “the art of putting parameters on our utopias.” And in a particularly insightful definition, Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek wrote that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” What both definitions suggest is that economics deals with the realm of the possible and in doing so demarcates the limits to what should be imaginable.

The author points out that this practice makes economists unpopular.

Economists are thus often seen as only knocking down the ideas of others without coming up with solutions of their own. There is some truth to this claim. That is how economists spend much of their time. But it’s an important function: showing why a proposed solution would only make matters worse is a valuable contribution to the broader process of solving the problem.

So, before you tell me that we ought to do it -- healthcare reform, for instance -- you first need to demonstrate that we can do it. Preferably in some level of detail.

This entry was tagged. Hayek Knowledge Quote