Archive for the ‘Things I read’ Category

How many casualties in today’s Baghdad bombing?

October 25, 2009

The New York Times is currently reporting 130 dead and 520 injured.  This picture has around 110 people in it:

About 110 People

Imagine that every one of these people was killed in the blast, and each person’s two parents, two children and spouse were also maimed.  That is about how many casualties there were in Baghdad today.

Bombing is a terrible tactic.

Edit: Today the New York Times reports that there were an additional thirty children killed in the playground of the Ministry of Justice.  There are exactly thirty kids in this picture:

30 kids


Appropriate Backlash

August 19, 2008

Over the weekend I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, a recommendation of Tyler Cowen‘s.  The book laid out some principles which people use to influence others behavior, and illustrated the principles with colorful examples.  It was a quick and entertaining read, but I was miffed by Cialdini’s conclusion.  He writes that we should militate against those that would use the psychological methods described in his book to influence us:

The enemy is the advertiser who seeks to create an image of popularity for a brand of toothpaste by, say, constructing a series of staged “unrehearsed-interview”…Here [we] are all being exploited.  In an earlier chapter, I recommended against the purchase of any product featured [in such a commercial] and I urged that we send the product manufacturers letters detailing the reason and suggesting that they dismiss their advertising agency.  I would recommend extending this aggressive stance…We should refuse to watch TV programs that use canned laughter.  If we see a bartender beginning a shift by salting his tip jar with a bill or two of his own, he should get none from us…In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate.

Cialdini’s vitrionic response seemed to me a bit over the top.  Canned laughter may induce us to laugh more than we otherwise would have, but we still choose to laugh.  If we tip a bartender because it looks like other people have tipped him we still decide whether to tip or not ourselves.  It would be great if the toothpaste salesman gave us a completely dry list of the advantages and disadvantages of his brand vis-a-vis the other products available, but the real world we can’t be surprised when a salesman advocates for his particular brand.  As long as we understand the mechanism which which he is trying to influence us, we are free to choose to buy or not to buy it based upon our own judgement.

The appropriate response to a “psychological” sales pitch is to recognize it as such, and thereby render it ineffective.  Once we understand how seeding a tip jar may influence our decision to tip a bartender or not, we can make sure that we only tip for truly good service and not based on the amount of money already given.  There is no reason to aggitate further against businesses who use those type of pitches than to express your personal preferences by either buying or not buying their products.  If Cialdini wants businesses to stop using the methods described in his book, he should just try to educate consumers about how they may be persuaded.  By writing such a popular book, he has already gone a long way to do just that.

Having been really so bad?

May 27, 2008

David Benatar’s anti-natalist monograph Better Never to Have Been left me unconvinced.  The short book presents Mr. Benatar’s simple argument in favor of non-existence, describes how life is more harmful than most people think, and discusses the implications of Mr. Benatar’s view.

The non-existence argument is so simple I can sum it up in several sentences (if I read it correctly).  The absence of suffering is always good even if there is no one to be not suffering.  The absence of pleasure is however merely neutral, neither bad nor good.  Thus not having a child is always good, because no matter how pleasurable a child’s life may be, there will always be some suffering.

If Benatar had convinced me that this asymmetry between pleasure and suffering was real, his conclusions would have been hard to argue with.   Unfortunately, he didn’t explain why the absence of pleasure is only neutral, and not bad.  The closest he comes to defending the asymmetry is to say that if we accept that the absence of pleasure is bad, we must have as many potentially happy children as possible, and regret that there are uninhabited islands on which people could pleasurably live.  It is strange that someone who is advocating the cessation of childbirth and extinction of the human race would be unwilling to accept these much less counter-intuitive conclusions.

Benatar is on stronger footing when he discusses the harmfulness of life.  The discussion is more complicated than the asymmetry argument, but most convincingly Benatar notes that even the people with the most satisfying lives spend much of their time stressed out, tired, uncomfortable, hungry, having to go to the bathroom, etc.  Nearly everyone’s life has some events of profound suffering, such as grieving the loss of loved ones.  Moreover, many people have profoundly unhappy lives (malnutrition, war, etc.).   Even here, though, there is a way around Benatar’s argument.  Certainly some people are more likely than others to have happy children.  People in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, with its extended, brutal, ongoing civil war are likely to have children that profoundly suffer.  But on the other hand, a very rich family in Switzerland might be relatively likely to have happy children.  As long as the Swiss family has a high chance of having a happy child, it doesn’t seem immoral for them to give birth.  This, of course, if we reject the asymmetry argument.

On the whole, the book was provocative and peppered with interesting digressions and a surprising variety of famous peoples’ anti-natalist quotes.  It was worth reading, but in the end left me where I started–on the fence about the kid question.