All Conclusions in Science Are Open to Further Inquiry

(p. C3) Victory is often temporary. In December 2014, a nurse named Nina Pham contracted Ebola from a patient in Dallas. She was transferred to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and treated by a team led by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

When Ms. Pham was discharged, the cameras captured an indelible moment: Together with NIH Director Francis Collins, Dr. Fauci, dressed in a crisp white lab coat, walked her out with his arm draped over her shoulder. This conveyed a critical message at a time when public fear about the disease was widespread. “We would not be releasing Ms. Pham if we were not completely confident in the knowledge that she has fully recovered, is virus free and poses no public health threat,” an NIH statement read.

But scientific certainty often carries an asterisk. Six months later, doctors in Atlanta discovered that in some patients who survive, the Ebola virus could still be found hidden away in parts of the body. This did not indicate that they could transmit the disease, but it meant that they could no longer be declared “virus-free” with certainty. This episode demonstrated how quickly our knowledge about public health threats can alter. What we once thought was true for the Ebola virus had changed, and no doubt will continue to evolve.

For the full commentary, see:

Jeremy Brown. “What Past Crises Tell Us About the Coronavirus.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020 [sic]): C3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Jan. 31, 2020 [sic], and has the same title as the print version. In both the online and print versions, the first sentence quoted above is in bold font.)

“Linguistic Diversity Is Precious” Because Languages Are “Natural Experiments” in “Ways of Seeing, Understanding, and Living”

(p. A13) Linguistic variety is “often seen as a problem, the curse of Babel,” but for a linguist, New York City is a riotous collection of living specimens—a “greenhouse, not a graveyard.”  . . .  Mr. Perlin, who has a doctorate in linguistics, helps run the Endangered Language Alliance, which works to document such minority tongues.  . . .

The heart of “Language City” is portraits of individual New York-based speakers. Mr. Perlin writes about their work as well as his, capturing the grind of immigrant life with empathy, balance and wit.  (. . .)  “If the country was rich we would never leave,” says Husniya, a Wakhi speaker from bleak post-Soviet Tajikistan. But she savors the city’s entrepreneurial energy: “New York opened my eyes. It shapes you to be a human being, not dividing based on religion, face, or race, or anything.”

. . .

Wonderfully rich, “Language City” is in part an introduction to the diverse ways different languages work. Seke and other “evidential” languages, for example, have different grammatical forms to indicate how the speaker knows what she’s asserting—whether from observation or inference, hearsay or hunch. Other languages syntactically “tag the speaker’s surprise at unexpected information” or have a special temporal marking “just for things happening today.”

. . .

Yet linguistic diversity is precious, Mr. Perlin stresses, and should be celebrated, not just tolerated.  . . .  . . ., languages “represent thousands of natural experiments” that encode wildly different “ways of seeing, understanding, and living.” Constructed by generations of collective effort, they are invisible cathedrals bigger and more democratic than any building.

For the full review see:

Timothy Farrington. “BOOKSHELF; The Words On the Street.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Feb. 23, 2024): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 22, 2024, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Language City’ Review: The Words on the Street.”)

The book under review is:

Perlin, Ross. Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York. Washington, D.C.: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2024.

Like Wag Dodge at Mann Gulch, Bob Pardo Knew He Had to “Conceive” an Action Fast

(p. 21) In March 1967, Captain Pardo was on a mission over North Vietnam in an F-4 Phantom when antiaircraft fire hit his plane, inflicting damage, while more badly ripping into the fuel tank of another fighter in the strike force. Both jets pulled away to head home. But the second plane had lost too much fuel to make it to safety. Captain Pardo realized that its two-man crew would be forced to eject over enemy territory and face capture or worse.

Flying beneath the compromised plane, Captain Pardo told its pilot, Capt. Earl Aman, to lower his tailhook — a metal pole at the rear of a fighter used to arrest its landing. At 300 miles per hour, Captain Pardo nudged his plane’s glass windshield against the tip of the pole. For almost 90 miles, he pushed the other plane as both jets hemorrhaged fuel, until they crossed the border with Laos. Both crews ejected by parachute, and all four men were rescued.

. . .

“Pardo’s Push” entered Air Force legend — an extraordinary act of aerial ballet, but one that would never be prescribed in any pilot manuals or flying simulators. Only once before, during the Korean War, was a similar rescue maneuver performed.

The military did not honor Mr. Pardo for decades. It wasn’t until 1989 that he was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry. The citation described him pushing Captain Aman’s aircraft to safety. “The attempt was successful,” it read, “and consequently allowed the crew to avoid becoming prisoners of war.”

. . .

“My dad taught me that when your friend needs help, you help,” he said. “I couldn’t have come home and told him I didn’t even try anything. Because that’s exactly what he would have asked me. He would have said, ‘Did you try?’ So I had to be able to answer that with a yes.”

. . .

Between 1965 and 1968, the U.S. Air Force and Navy carried out an intense bombing campaign of the North, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, to destroy infrastructure. The tonnage of U.S. bombs dropped exceeded American bombing in the Pacific in World War II. North Vietnam’s defenses included antiaircraft batteries, missiles and Russian-made MIG fighter jets.  . . .

Both Captain Pardo’s and Captain Aman’s F-4 fighter-bombers were hit about 40 miles from the steel mill, Captain Pardo recalled in a 2019 interview with The San Antonio Express-News.

. . .

He knew Captain Aman’s plane would not be able to make it out of North Vietnam to rendezvous with a flying refueling tanker. At first, he tried to push Captain Aman’s plane by sticking the nose of his own jet into a rear port, but there was too much turbulence. Next he tried to maneuver directly under the other jet and give it a piggyback ride. That also failed.

Then he conceived of pushing Captain Aman’s tailhook. A tailhook pole was used by the Navy’s version of the F-4 Phantom to land on aircraft carriers. The Air Force used it for emergency runway landings, when the hook snags a cable stretched across tarmac.

For the full obituary, see:

Trip Gabriel. “Bob Pardo, 89, U.S. Pilot Who, With Midair Push, Rescued Another Plane.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 24, 2023): 21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Dec. 23, 2023, and has the title “Bob Pardo, Pilot in Daring Vietnam War Rescue, Dies at 89.”)

Charlie Munger Had “Epistemic Humility,” Endorsing Confucius’s Claim “That Real Knowledge Is Knowing the Extent of One’s Ignorance”

Epistemic humility is honest and useful, but is often punished. We often admire the confident, whether their confidence is justified or not. But I do not agree with Confucius–we can have real knowledge beyond knowing we are very ignorant.

(p. B1) I had the extraordinary good luck to get to know Charlie Munger in the past two decades.

. . .

More than almost anyone I’ve ever known, Munger also possessed what philosophers call epistemic humility: a profound sense of how little anyone can know and how important it is to open and change your mind.

. . .

(p. B4) Munger—who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School without ever earning a college degree—knew perfectly well how smart he was. And it is an understatement to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2019, he used the phrase “massively stupid” at least seven times to describe other people and even entire professions.

So was he a cocky, cranky old man yelling at the clouds?

No. If there was one thing Munger knew, it was himself. As he told me in 2014, “Confucius said that real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance . . . .  Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”

For the full commentary, see:

Jason Zweig. “THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Charlie Munger’s Reflections on His Life, Luck and Success.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis internal to the penultimate quoted paragraph in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 29, 2023, and has the title “THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Charlie Munger’s Life Was About Way More Than Money.”)

“I Do What I Want; You Don’t Like It, Don’t Buy It”

(p. 27) Terry Castro, a New York-based jewelry designer whose knack for blending the fantastical with the elegant propelled him from selling on the sidewalks of New York to adorning celebrities like Rihanna and Steven Tyler, died on July 18 [2022] at his home in Istanbul.

. . .

Mr. Castro, who worked under the single name Castro, considered himself a “creator of dreams.”

. . .

Passionate and at times confrontational, Mr. Castro considered himself a rebel within the industry.

“I do what I want; you don’t like it, don’t buy it,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Black Nouveau, a style blog. Recounting his scattered efforts to “go commercial,” he concluded that the income was not worth the creative price paid.

For the full obituary, see:

Alex Williams. “Terry Castro, 50, Rebel Who Created Exquisite Jewelry.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, August 7, 2022): 27.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Aug. 4, 2022, and has the title “Terry Castro, a Proud Outsider in the Jewelry World, Dies at 50.”)

FTX Fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried Gave “More Than $5 Million” to Biden’s Winning 2020 Presidential Campaign

Bankman-Fried was convicted of fraud on November 2, 2023.

(p. B4) On the same day that Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial on federal fraud charges begins, the best-selling author Michael Lewis is set to publish a widely anticipated book on Tuesday [Oct. 3, 2023] about Mr. Bankman-Fried’s failed cryptocurrency exchange, FTX.

Mr. Lewis, the author of “The Blind Side,” “The Big Short” and “Moneyball,” spent months interviewing Mr. Bankman-Fried and other top FTX executives, and had access to the company’s headquarters in the Bahamas for the book, “Going Infinite.”

The book features previously unreported details about Mr. Bankman-Fried’s empire, from its founding in the Bay Area to its epic collapse in the Bahamas last year. Here are some takeaways.

. . .

Mr. Bankman-Fried started his first company, the hedge fund Alameda Research, alongside Tara Mac Aulay, an Australian mathematician who moved in the same philanthropic circles.  . . .

According to the book, Ms. Mac Aulay grew to consider Mr. Bankman-Fried “dishonest and manipulative,” and other senior figures at Alameda accused him of mismanagement.

. . .

When FTX was thriving, Mr. Bankman-Fried became a prolific political donor, contributing more than $5 million to Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2020 presidential election effort.

For the full story, see:

David Yaffe-Bellany. “Takeaways From a New Book on Sam Bankman-Fried.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 3, 2023): B4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 2, 2023, and has the same title as the print version. Where the online version has more detailed wording, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The book reporting new details on the FTX debacle is:

Lewis, Michael. Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2023.

Philosopher MacAskill’s “Effective Altruism” Was Neither Effective Nor Altruistic

(p. B1) In short order, the extraordinary collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX has vaporized billions of dollars of customer deposits, prompted investigations by law enforcement and destroyed the fortune and reputation of the company’s founder and chief executive, Sam Bankman-Fried.

It has also dealt a significant blow to the corner of philanthropy known as effective altruism, a philosophy that advocates applying data and evidence to doing the most good for the many and that is deeply tied to Mr. Bankman-Fried, one of its leading proponents and donors. Now nonprofits are scrambling to replace millions in grant commitments from Mr. Bankman-Fried’s charitable vehicles, and members of the effective altruism community are asking themselves whether they might have helped burnish his reputation.

“Sam and FTX had a lot of good will — and some of that good will was the result of association with ideas I have spent my career promoting,” the philosopher William MacAskill, a founder of the effective altruism movement who has known Mr. Bankman-Fried since the FTX founder was an undergraduate at M.I.T., wrote on Twitter on Friday (Nov. 11, 2022). “If that good will laundered fraud, I am ashamed.”

Mr. MacAskill was one of five people from the charitable vehicle known as the FTX Future Fund who jointly announced their resignation on Thursday (Nov. 10, 2022).

. . .

(p. B5) Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, said that the issues raised by Mr. Bankman-Fried’s reversal of fortune acted as a “distorted fun-house mirror of a lot of the problems with contemporary philanthropy,” in which very young donors control increasingly enormous fortunes.

. . .

Mr. Bankman-Fried’s fall from grace may have cost effective-altruist causes billions of dollars in future donations.  . . .

His connection to the movement in fact predates the vast fortune he won and lost in the cryptocurrency field. Over lunch a decade ago while he was still in college, Mr. Bankman-Fried told Mr. MacAskill, the philosopher, that he wanted to work on animal-welfare issues. Mr. MacAskill suggested the young man could do more good earning large sums of money and donating the bulk of it to good causes instead.

. . .

A significant share of the grants went to groups focused on building the effective altruist movement rather than organizations working directly on its causes. Many of those groups had ties to Mr. Bankman-Fried’s own team of advisers. The largest single grant listed on the Future Fund website was $15 million to a group called Longview, which according to its website counts the philosopher Mr. MacAskill and the chief executive of the FTX Foundation, Nick Beckstead, among its own advisers.

The second-largest grant, in the amount of $13.9 million, went to the Center for Effective Altruism. Mr. MacAskill was a founder of the center. Both Mr. Beckstead and Mr. MacAskill are on the group’s board of trustees, with Mr. MacAskill serving as the chair of the United Kingdom board and Mr. Beckstead as the chair of the U.S. subsidiary.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas Kulish. “Collapse of FTX Strikes a Philanthropy Movement.” The New York Times (Monday, November 14, 2022): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 14, 2022, and has the title “FTX’s Collapse Casts a Pall on a Philanthropy Movement.”)

The Most Powerful A.I. Systems Still Do Not Understand, Have No Common Sense, and Cannot Explain Their Decisions

(p. B1) David Ferrucci, who led the team that built IBM’s famed Watson computer, was elated when it beat the best-ever human “Jeopardy!” players in 2011, in a televised triumph for artificial intelligence.

But Dr. Ferrucci understood Watson’s limitations. The system could mine oceans of text, identify word patterns and predict likely answers at lightning speed. Yet the technology had no semblance of understanding, no human-style common sense, no path of reasoning to explain why it reached a decision.

Eleven years later, despite enormous advances, the most powerful A.I. systems still have those limitations.

. . .

(p. B7) The big, so-called deep learning programs have conquered tasks like image and speech recognition, and new versions can even pen speeches, write computer programs and have conversations.

They are also deeply flawed. They can generate biased or toxic screeds against women, minorities and others. Or occasionally stumble on questions that any child could answer. (“Which is heavier, a toaster or a pencil? A pencil is heavier.”)

“The depth of the pattern matching is exceptional, but that’s what it is,” said Kristian Hammond, an A.I. researcher at Northwestern University. “It’s not reasoning.”

Elemental Cognition is trying to address that gap.

. . .

Eventually, Dr. Ferrucci and his team made progress with the technology. In the past few years, they have presented some of their hybrid techniques at conferences and they now have demonstration projects and a couple of initial customers.

. . .

The Elemental Cognition technology is largely an automated system. But that system must be trained. For example, the rules and options for a global airline ticket are spelled out in many pages of documents, which are scanned.

Dr. Ferrucci and his team use machine learning algorithms to convert them into suggested statements in a form a computer can interpret. Those statements can be facts, concepts, rules or relationships: Qantas is an airline, for example. When a person says “go to” a city, that means add a flight to that city. If a traveler adds four more destinations, that adds a certain amount to the cost of the ticket.

In training the round-the-world ticket assistant, an airline expert reviews the computer-generated statements, as a final check. The process eliminates most of the need for hand coding knowledge into a computer, a crippling handicap of the old expert systems.

Dr. Ferrucci concedes that advanced machine learning — the dominant path pursued by the big tech companies and well-funded research centers — may one day overcome its shortcomings. But he is skeptical from an engineering perspective. Those systems, he said, are not made with the goals of transparency and generating rational decisions that can be explained.

“The big question is how do we design the A.I. that we want,” Dr. Ferrucci said. “To do that, I think we need to step out of the machine-learning box.”

For the full story, see:

Steve Lohr. “You Can Lead A.I. to Answers, but Can You Make It Think?” The New York Times (Monday, August 29, 2022): B1 & B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 8, 2022, and has the title “One Man’s Dream of Fusing A.I. With Common Sense.”)

“Cochrane Reviews Are Often Referred to as Gold Standard Evidence in Medicine”

The credibility of Cochrane reviews matters. One of their most important reviews, that I cite in my in-progress work on clinical trials, suggests that results of randomized double-blind clinical trials, usually agree with results of observational studies on the same topic. This matters a lot, because observational studies can give us more and quicker actionable results, saving lives.

(p. A23) Cochrane reviews are often referred to as gold standard evidence in medicine because they aggregate results from many randomized trials to reach an overall conclusion — a great method for evaluating drugs, for example, which often are subjected to rigorous but small trials. Combining their results can lead to more confident conclusions.

. . .

. . . what we learn from the Cochrane review is that, especially before the pandemic, distributing masks didn’t lead people to wear them, which is why their effect on transmission couldn’t be confidently evaluated.

For the full commentary, see:

Zeynep Tufekci. “In Fact, the Science Is Clear That Masks Work.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 11, 2023): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 10, 2023, and has the title “Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work.”)

“Flowers Never Bend, With the Rainfall”

Sometimes when I am in a dark mood I wonder how you keep moving forward when you do not know how much time is left. Some seek an answer in religion. I am more open to a kind of stoicism combined with the other gift of Prometheus: blind hope.

(p. 3) A few months into treatment, I realized that Josh might not make it to the next spring, when we would normally visit my extended family in Greece. I told Dr. Sara that I would like to take my husband to Greece, because he might not get the chance again.

. . .

My diary reminds me that while we were there, I asked Josh what he would do differently in life. “Not get cancer,” he said.

. . .

As for me, I kept hearing the lyrics to a Simon and Garfunkel song in my head: “So, I’ll continue to continue to pretend, my life will never end, and flowers never bend, with the rainfall.” It was my soundtrack.

For the full commentary, see:

Anemona Hartocollis. “My Husband’s Doctor, Onscreen.” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, November 20, 2022): 1-3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated June 20, 2023 [sic], and has the title “Cancer, My Husband’s Doctor, and Catherine Deneuve.”)

Public Sector Unions Make Government Unaccountable to the Will of the People

(p. A17) In 2008, six years after securing control over New York City’s public schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein put forward a program to tie teacher tenure to student performance. The goal was to reward the best-performing teachers with job security, encourage better student outcomes, and hold teachers accountable for demonstrated results. To most New York residents, it surely sounded like a good idea.

To New York’s teachers’ unions, however, the program was utterly unacceptable. Union leaders lobbied Albany, threatened state lawmakers (who could pass legislation binding the mayor) with the loss of political support, and walked away with a two-year statewide prohibition on the use of student test performance in tenure evaluations. In short, the union thwarted the mayor’s authority over the city’s schools and commandeered the state’s legislative power.

In this case and many others, a public-sector union served its own interests at the expense of the public’s. In “Not Accountable,” Philip Howard shows in vivid detail how such practices have made government at all levels unmanageable, inefficient and opposed to the common good. He argues that, in fact, public unions—that is, unions whose members work for the government—are forbidden by the Constitution. The argument, he notes, would have been familiar to President Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany, the longtime president of the AFL-CIO, both of whom championed private-sector labor but believed that public workers—teachers, fire fighters, policemen, civil-service employees—had no right to bargain collectively with the government.

. . .

Mr. Howard makes a persuasive case, but the chances of seeing it affect American political life are, at the moment, remote.

. . .

Still, the goal is admirable and worth pursuing. In place of public-sector collective bargaining, Mr. Howard calls for a merit-based system for hiring and evaluating government employees. Instead of stultifying work rules that thwart creativity, he envisions a public-sector structure in which employees can use their talents and judgment to improve the functioning of government. Fundamentally, Mr. Howard views the Constitution, and the law generally, as a mechanism for both action and accountability, one that entrusts powers to inevitably fallible human beings while subjecting them to the checks of others in authority and, ultimately, to the will of the people.

For the full review, see:

John Ketcham. “BOOKSHELF; Unelected Legislators.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, March 14, 2023): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated March 13, 2023, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Not Accountable’ Review: Unelected Legislators.”)

The book under review is:

Howard, Philip K. Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions. Garden City, NY: Rodin Books, 2023.