I just finished reading Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott, a well written and accessible contribution to the emerging genre of books debating whether untestable theories can be considered science. Thanks in large part to the work of Karl Popper, it has come to be widely accepted that a defining characteristic of science is the making of falsifiable predictions. But there has emerged lately a cadre of (mostly) theoretical physicists advocating that the Popperian standard should be relaxed. See, for example, the recent Edge essay by Sean Carroll, in which he argues that we should instead ask whether a theory is “definite” and “empirical”.

It seems to me that “is it science?” is the wrong question. This is one of those debates that serves mainly as misdirection from the real issue, which is: given that nearly all science today is publicly funded, how and on what shall the limited funds available be spent? That isn’t a scientific question, or even a philosophical one, it’s a political question. In theoretical physics, the string theorists currently have the upper hand, because there are a great many of them and they dominate the grant committees, the peer review process, and the training of the next generation of theoretical physicists. But make no mistake, the issue here is not really “how shall we define science”, it’s “how shall we allocate limited funds.”

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My son sent me a link to this Wired article about how Disney World has eliminated the long lines and engineered a frictionless, glitch-free user experience, by meticulous scheduling and execution via some 100 linked computer systems that communicate with electronic wristbands worn by the customers.

[T]he MagicBand replaces all of the details and hassles of paper once you touch-down in Orlando. Express users can board a park-bound shuttle, and check into the hotel. They don’t have to mind their luggage, because each piece gets tagged at your home airport, so that it can follow you to your hotel, then your room. Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved. If you’ve opted in on the web, the MagicBand is the only thing you need. It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines.

Disney manages to achieve this level of customer service, and make a profit doing it, in a massive park with thousands of sugar-intoxicated kids running around.

I can’t help contrasting that with the health care system, on which we lavish 18 percent or so of the national income, and where even getting a prescription refilled seems to require many hours spent navigating automated phone systems, filling out the same incomprehensible paperwork over and over, and sitting around in waiting rooms. Maybe the Obamacare folks ought to get in touch with the Disney folks. Just a thought.

A year or so ago, while we were still living in the Phoenix area, I decided to build a patio roof over the concrete slab outside the back door of our house.  Visiting the Building Safety Department of our suburban city, I learned that, yes, this would absolutely require a building permit. The application fee would be more than $500, and I would need plans, signed off by an architect.  In other words, it would cost more to get the permit than I was planning to spend building the patio cover.

That was the end of that project.  Just as well, given the subsequent trajectory of Phoenix area real estate.

Now I live in the southern Philippines. Neighborhoods here tend to operate on a principle that may seem strange in modern America: it’s your property, you can do whatever you want. More »

(My friend Tom, certainly among the most analytical and intellectually capable people of my acquaintance, posted two long and thoughtful comments to my post of a few weeks ago about computational models in general and climate models in particular. I thought that Tom’s comments deserved better billing so with his permission I have converted them to a guest post, which follows, with some slight editing for flow. Tom raises some valid and interesting points, which I will probably revisit in a future post. Also, I highly recommend the Guardian podcast linked in Tom’s post below, in which I can find very little to take issue with other than the implicit assumption that anthropogenic climate change is a proven fact, forever settled, and about which no reasonable disagreement is possible.)

Here’s Tom:

Jack, I won’t pretend to any ability to state properly the scientific case in favor of the many nonpolitical and serious climate scientists who are presently convinced that dangerous anthropological global warming exists and is increasing. I do, however, think that your posting gives too much weight, like the litigation lawyers we both know who want to win for their clients by fair means or foul, to the possible or, as you put it, inevitable computer modeling hocus pocus and political jabberwockiness that exist in the science dispute. I personally believe, and feel it’s OK to use this, since your posting also contains a fair amount of opinion, that existential evidence of global warming caused by increasing CO2, apart from intricate computer models and hypocritical politicians, is gathering apace. Can anyone rational turn a blind eye to that? More »