Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Good Economic Argument From My Favorite Webcomic

Indeed, the only one I read with any frequency. Pointed out by a commenter on my previous post.



At 12:05 AM, February 27, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

I'll be deliberately mischievous and point out that relativity and quantum elctrodynamics have been working, presumably, since the beginning of time, but companies have found uses for them only recently. Perhaps in fifty years companies will be making big money out of homeopathy and astrology, having belatedly discovered how to do so. :)

At 12:34 AM, February 27, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

Continuing in my role as devil's advocate, if we concede that contemporary astrologers are pretty useless, that doesn't necessarily imply that astrology is fundamentally useless. Perhaps the astrologers are just doing it wrongly. Perhaps some future genius will revolutionize the science and show how to make astrology really useful.

Perhaps some other genius will discover how to make magic work in real life, and sorcery will become a respected profession.

In each case, we're right not to take such things seriously until hard evidence comes in to support them. It's usually rational to ignore a very-low-probability development. But it's hard to find anything that can truly be assigned a probability of zero.

At 9:50 AM, February 27, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Jonathan: Let me just say I really like what you've written including the last paragraph (where you sort of stepped out of your role as the Devil's advocate though, I am afraid :) ).

At 4:27 PM, February 27, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...


Until quite recently, nobody had proposed relativity and quantum mechanics. Lots of people have argued for the various ideas on the comic.

The point of the argument is that if the idea is out there and works, it will get used, not that all true ideas are instantly known.

At 2:02 AM, February 28, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

Thanks, Tibor.

The trouble with ideas is that they need to be implemented correctly, and often an idea comes along that people don't manage to implement correctly until much later.

Take the idea of heavier-than-air flight, for example. As an idea, this goes back centuries, maybe into prehistory. However, people began finding out how to make it work little more than a century ago.

I'm not a supporter of astrology, homeopathy, etc. I think most of those things are cranky and probably completely specious. But people trying to fly like birds before the 20th century probably seemed pretty silly too.

Commercial success can be used as a measure of the worth of an idea as currently implemented. This may not be same as the inherent worth of the idea; although I expect it is in some cases!

At 7:09 AM, March 01, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...


Well, I guess it depends on how broadly you define an idea. If you define "heavier than air flight" very broadly, then it is an idea that works. If you concentrate on those ideas about how to make it work that came before the Wright brothers, then it is hogwash.

So, astrology as a very broad concept might perhaps some day find its correct explanation and application (although I doubt it), whereas the contemporary idea of astrology is ridiculous...and one argument for why it is so is that nobody is using it to make money (despite the fact that this particular astrology has been around for hundreds of years). And pre-Wright heavier than air flight idea is still a ridiculous concept today...and again, noone makes any money off of that.

You have been using the "definition" of an idea in the broad sense and Randall (and David) in the narrow sense. Still, it has not occured to me that one might interpret it differently than Randall before I read your post, so it was very interesting.

At 7:31 AM, March 01, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

"Heavier-than-air flight" is an idea. How it's done is implementation.

A modern hangglider is actually not so very far from what people tried unsuccessfully in the past. The problem was that most of them took the bird analogy too seriously and thought that flapping wings were useful and necessary. They should have paid more attention to gliding birds that don't flap much.

It would be interesting to know how far back in the past a successful hangglider could have been made with the materials available.

At 11:31 PM, March 01, 2014, Blogger Joseph said...

According to John Campbell editorials, businesses do use psychic phenomena but keep it secret. On the other hand, nowadays such secrets are hard to keep.

At 11:09 AM, April 08, 2014, Anonymous Arthur said...

I applied the same reasoning as XKCD to the claimed exotic abilities of Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Surely a state like China would have used the training methods of kung fu for its Olympic athletes if those methods lead to truly outstanding performance.


Post a Comment

<< Home