Challenge Trials, Government Debt and the Underlying Truth

Newsletter #1

Quote of the Week:

That is what is marvelous about school, she realized: when you are in school, your talents are without number, and your promise is boundless. You ace a math test: you will one day work for NASA. The choir director asks you to sing a solo at the holiday concert: you are the next Mariah Carey. You score a goal, you win a poetry contest, you act in a play. And you are everything at once: actor, astronomer, gymnast, star. But at a certain point, you begin to feel your talents dropping away, like feathers from a molting bird. Cello lessons conflict with soccer practice. There aren't enough spots on the debating team. Calculus remains elusive. Until the day you realize that you cannot think of a single thing you are wonderful at.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Ms. Hempel Chronicles

About this Newsletter

Welcome to my Substack :-).

I’ve decided to experiment with moving most of the content that I post to Substack as I have a lot of concerns with Facebook. I’m worried about increasing censorship, the way these networks encourage Cancel Culture and the way they psychologically manipulate us (see the Social Dilemma on Netflix for an excellent documentary on this last point).

In addition to this, I hope this that it’ll make it easier for people who are interested in the kind of content I post to follow me. Instead of having to read some of my longer posts when it pops up in your feed, if you subscribe, it’ll arrive in your inbox to be read on your schedule (Facebook does have a save post option, but I doubt many people use it).

I’m not planning to add a paid subscription option at the moment, so all the content is completely free. Firstly, if I did add a subscription option, I doubt I’d get many takers. And besides, if even one person subscribed, I’d suddenly feel obligated to aim for a regular schedule and maintain a higher quality.

Anyway, let me know in the comments below if there is anything in particular you'd like me to write about!

Politics - Government Debt:

An infinite corridor with an invisible pit

Noah Smith

Noah explains that surprisingly there’s been barely any research on how much money a government can safely borrow. It is natural to assume that government borrowing is like household borrowing where debt is limited by income, but unlike you or me, the government has the ability to print money. This is incredibly useful when youdebt is denominated in your own currency as you can off your debts just by printing more money.

But there’s a catch. Obviously! The government can’t just print infinite money, as sooner or latter people will figure this out and the hyperinflationary spiral will strip the currency of all value. Given the low rate of inflation at the moment, it’s quite likely that government could safely print more money to expand government programs, but we also have to figure out how to trade this off against the tail-risk scenario of collapsing our economy.

Link: No one knows how much the government can borrow - Noahpinion
Read more: A Skeptic’s Guide to Modern Monetary Theory

Coronavirus - Challenge Trials:

This vision of ethics doesn’t make sense. And, it’s particularly bad because it involves planning to fail.

Matt Ygleias (edited)

I want to share with you this argument by Matt which is the most persuasive argument I’ve ever heard for challenge trials:

Regardless of whether you perform a challenge trial or a traditional phase 3 clinical trial, you are relying on a certain number of vaccinated and unvaccinated participants to be infected with the virus. If not enough participants are infected, then you need to run the trial for longer (possibly adding participants). In a challenge trial, those who are infected have volunteered for it, whilst we can be sure that most participants in a regular trial hoping to avoid it. So even if we insist solely on evaluating the ethics of the experiment according to the impact on participants, and completely ignore the massive benefits to the rest of society of ending a pandemic six months sooner, challenge trials are still justified.

Link: The Case for Vaccine Challenge Trials - Slow Boring
Read more: One Day Sooner

Philosophy - The Underlying Truth:

Should it be said that I am using a word whose meaning I don't know, and so am talking nonsense?—Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Paragraph 78

I love this quote as I often feel that people get so caught up in the particular words being used and forget about the meaning the words are gesturing at. I feel is ultimately more important as language is just the surface level reality. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you call something, so long as you understand the reality of a situation. And if we both have the same model of reality, it’s irrelevant whether or not we are using different conceptual schemes, even if they use the same words in different ways as words.

To put this quote in context: Latter Wittgenstein is arguing against the notion put forward by Early Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivists that in order to do philosophy properly we first need to construct a perfectly precise language. In contrast, Latter Wittgenstein argues that nothing can be perfectly clarified (the clarifications would need their own clarifications and so on indefinitely), and that imprecise words are perfectly usable in any case. One of my favourite examples, is when he says that a table with three legs is perfectly usable, even if it occasionally wobbles. To give another example: it makes sense to say “stand roughly here”. In this case, the ambiguity is intentional; it indicates that the precise location isn’t important.

Link: Philosophical Investigations
Read more: The Map is Not the Territory, Linguistic Freedom (by me)

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My favourite author, Scott Alexander has resumed blogging :-). If you don’t know who he is, check out some of his old blog posts - Fish - Now by Prescription and Meditations on Moloch.

I’ve recently been watching Michael Sugre’s Youtube videos and I haven’t found anyone better at explaining the core ideas of Continental Philosophers. If you have let, me know in the comment. Anyway, I recommend starting with his video on Stoicism or Husserl. Plastic Pills is also pretty good for continental philosophy if you want shorter, more informal videos.

If you want to be astonished by the power of AI, read this Twitter thread by Colin Megill on GPT-3. I won’t spoil it for you.