Black swans

In the new words department:

The disaster bureaucrats talk about black swans: calamities from out of the blue, terrible and strange. The world is now transfixed by the black swan disaster of Japan — an earthquake larger than seismologists thought could happen in that part of the country, leading to a tsunami too big for the sea walls, and now a nuclear crisis that wasn’t supposed to be possible.

via Japan’s ‘black swan’: Scientists ponder the unparalleled dangers of unlikely disasters – The Washington Post.

I like new terms that are not mere abstractions but vivid images.  “Black swan” gives us a picture of something that is very unlikely, but that occasionally, creepily, happens.  (It turns out, though, that there is a whole species of black swans in Australia that wasn’t discovered until the 18th century.)

See this for “black swan events”

Karl Popper uses the example of a black swan to show how, contrary to naive scientism, you can’t jump from the observation of particulars to make universal conclusions, but how particulars are useful to meet the criterion of falsifiability.

Then there is the ballet movie Black Swan, which plays off of some imagery in Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake , but that’s different, positing in the white swan and the black swan a contrast between purity and sensuality.

Now that we apparently have a new word, what are some other rare, unexpected, and weird calamities that would qualify as black swans?

War #3

We started our third war.   The United Nations called for a no-fly zone in Libya, to try to stop dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s military strikes against Libyans protesting his rule.  This time NATO allies are playing a big role, with the French launching airstrikes against Gaddafi’s tanks.  (How do aircraft attacking ground targets, other than air defense sites, relate to the mandate of establishing a no-fly zone?)  But the U.S. is in it too, launching 112 Tomahawk missiles against Libya, as well as co-ordinating coalition efforts from American bases.  See  International coalition launches strikes on Libya – The Washington Post.

But here is the problem:  It may be too late.   Gaddafi may have already crushed the revolt.  His forces had already entered Benghazi, the city of a million people that was the center of the uprising.  What good would a no-fly zone, or even airstrikes do, to stop the urban warfare that is now taking place in that city?

President Obama has ruled out sending ground troops.  (Was that wise to let Gaddaffi know that?)  It looks like the Europeans are going to do the heavy lifting–in addition to the French, the Danes, the Spanish, and others have sent in their American-made F-18s and are preparing them for action–while we launch our missiles from afar to prevent any American casualties.  (Is this  Obama style of warfare, in which we no longer lead but follow and let other countries do the fighting for us, worthy of our country?  Or is it about time other countries police the world and we start holding back for once?)

But what will the coalition do if the rebellion is put down and Gaddafi is still in power?  Try to overthrow him, as the Americans did with his nearest counterpart, the late Saddam Hussein?  Which would surely require sending in ground troops after all?  Or just give Gaddafi  his victory?

UPDATE: American jets have attacked Libyan ground forces

Majority of Americans now back gay marriage

And majority rules:

A slim majority of Americans now support gay marriage, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.The results underscore the nation’s increasingly tolerant views about homosexuals, and parallel a string of recent legal and legislative victories for gay rights advocates.

Five years ago, at 36 percent, support for gay marriage barely topped a third of all Americans. Now, 53 percent say gay marriage should be legal, marking the first time in Post-ABC polling that a majority has said so.

via Slim majority back gay marriage, Post-ABC poll says – The Washington Post.

Problems with the food supply

Just in case you need something else to worry about, global food prices are skyrocketing (here not so much–yet), due to increased demand and shorter supplies:

Since last summer, several events — floods in Australia, blistering drought in Russia, the threat of a poor winter wheat crop in China — have compounded concerns about the food supply and pushed world prices to the highest levels measured since the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization began calculating its index in 1990.

For decades, the world was often swimming in surplus food because farmers were so productive. But rising demand has caught up, and reserves have become so tight that global food markets are vulnerable to even minor shocks. Many analysts say that higher, more volatile prices may be here to stay.

The new dynamic reflects in part the rising demand for meat in developing countries such as China, which has almost single-handedly driven up prices for the soybeans it imports for animal meal, as well as the increasing use of corn for ethanol. Today, at least a third of the U.S. crop goes for making fuel. In addition, there is spreading concern that climate change may make weather less settled and more disruptive to growers.

“For the last 60 years, the simple story was agricultural productivity — great productivity gains, unabated,” said Joseph Glauber, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But in the last five years, prices have lifted, and you see this real strong demand.”

Since last summer, the market price for corn to be delivered in May nearly doubled from $3.67 to $7.23 as of late last month, according to data compiled by Dan O’Brien, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University.

Grain reserves have dwindled. The latest USDA estimates, released Thursday, show U.S. reserves of corn and soybeans at historic lows, less than 5 percent of projected demand for the coming year. Typical reserves have been three or more times that amount, a chief reason why it does not take much to send prices skyrocketing.

via Higher food prices may be here to stay – The Washington Post.

The Calvinist case against Lutheranism

Darryl Hart, a Reformed theologian who favors  “confessional” Protestantism over against the new American varieties–including  “neo-Calvinism”–takes up and interrogates the Calvinist critique of Lutheranism.  He quotes the venerable B. B. Warfield:

Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. It is as central to the Reformed as to the Lutheran system. Nay, it is only in the Reformed system that it retains the purity of its conception and resists the tendency to make it a doctrine of justification on account of; instead of by, faith.

It is true that Lutheranism is prone to rest in faith as a kind of ultimate fact, while Calvinism penetrates to its causes, and places faith in its due relation to the other products of God’s activity looking to the salvation of man. And this difference may, on due consideration, conduct us back to the formative principle of each type of thought. But it, too, is rather an outgrowth of the divergent formative principles than the embodiment of them.

Lutheranism, sprung from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul seeking peace with God, finds peace in faith, and stops right there. It is so absorbed in rejoicing in the blessings which flow from faith that it refuses or neglects to inquire whence faith itself flows. It thus loses itself in a sort of divine euthumia, and knows, and will know nothing beyond the peace of the justified soul.

Calvinism asks with the same eagerness as Lutheranism the great question, “What shall I do to be saved?” and answers it precisely as Lutheranism answers it. But it cannot stop there. The deeper question presses upon it, “Whence this faith by which I am justified?” And the deeper response suffuses all the chambers of the soul with praise, “From the free gift of God alone, to the praise of the glory of His grace.”

Thus Calvinism withdraws the eye from the soul and its destiny and fixes it on God and His glory. It has zeal, no doubt, for salvation but its highest zeal is for the honour of God, and it is this that quickens its emotions and vitalizes its efforts. It begins, it centres and it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself; before all things, to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity.

via Old Life Theological Society » Blog Archive » Did Warfield Make the World Safe for Piper?.

Now let’s think about this.  Lutheranism rejoices in the comfort of the Gospel.  But Calvinism is not content with that, going on to rationally speculate about where faith comes from–that is, according to that system, in double predestination and limited atonement–to the point that the comfort gets lost!

Furthermore, here is what Dr. Hart has to say about this quote, drawing on Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

Several items are worth noting in this quotation. First is Warfield’s notion that Reformed Protestantism is not content with faith alone but embarks upon a deeper quest to find the origins of this faith. He does not explain here what this quest looks like, but his could be an argument in favor of the kind of introspection that experimental Calvinists like Edwards and Piper favor.

A second curious feature of Warfield’s contrast is the idea that Lutheranism emphasizes justification while Reformed Protestantism stresses the glory of God. This suggests common view in some union with Christ circles that Lutheranism manifests an anthropocentric view of Christianity (e.g., man’s salvation) that contrasts with Reformed Protestantism’s theocentric outlook (e.g., God’s glory). After all, an oft-made contrast between Heidelberg (which is considered a catechism that made concessions to Lutheranism) and Westminster is that the former catechism begins with man’s “only comfort” while the Shorter Catechism begins with “God’s glory” as man’s chief end.

The danger in this contrast so far – man’s salvation vs. God’s glory – is that Lutherans had good reasons for not becoming absorbed with God’s glory. Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation was a forceful warning to theologians who were tempted to identify God’s glory with outward and external signs or forms. In other words, writ large in Luther’s theology is the idea that God’s ways are not man’s, and so God may not actually glorify himself the way that man expects. The cross is folly. Preaching is weak. Christians are poor and humble. In which case, God saves an unlikely people through surprising means. And that may also mean that God’s glory is not always as glorious as human beings expect it.

If God’s glory can be a complicated affair, then perhaps Warfield is wrong to draw the contrast between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism the way he does. If Lutherans actually believe in God’s glory but are also aware that it comes in surprising ways, then maybe Reformed Protestants need to learn a thing or two about how to be truly theocentric. The Lutheran theology of the cross could teach Reformed Protestants a measure of humility in their self-ascribed ability to locate God’s glory in every nook and cranny of the created order. Reformed might also consider that Lutherans understand better than Reformed triumphalists and experimental Calvinists that God’s glory is nowhere more on display, at least in this world, in the justification of sinners. After all, if man is the crown jewel of the created order and if Christ took on human form to save fallen sinners, then contra Warfield, we may not need to go much beyond justification and man’s salvation in seeing the glory of God.

If this is so, then Reformed Protestants may need to be content with the glory that is revealed in the cross and the salvation it yields instead of yielding to the temptation to find God’s glory in human powers of discernment. If Reformed Protestants followed the lead of Lutherans more, we might be spared many of those neo-Calvinist efforts to show the “Christian” meaning of calculus, Shakespeare, or Dutch history.

So while the game of saying that Reformed highlight God’s glory and Lutherans stop with justification sounds theocentric, it may turn out to be an unintended example of anthropocentricity in which believers try to prove their own godliness by discovering God’s glory through forced interpretations of general and special revelation. Perhaps Lutherans are the truly biblical ones who rest content with the glory that God has revealed in the salvation accomplished by Christ for weak and poor sinners. What could be more glorious than that!

The world has become fragile

Steven Pearlstein reflects on our recent disasters, all of which took us by surprise and none of which we were prepared for:

In just the past decade, we’ve had the attacks of Sept. 11, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis, a global flu pandemic, the earthquake in Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and devastating floods in Australia and New Zealand. Now, Japan has been hit with a triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

What all of these have in common is that they are all low-probability, high-impact events — the “long-tail” phenomenon, to use the jargon of risk modelers, referring to the far ends of the traditional bell curve of probabilities, or “black swans,” to use the metaphor popularized by former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Such calamitous events have been a regular part of the human experience since Noah and the flood, some of them natural, others manmade. In spite of that, however, we continue to underestimate their frequency and severity.

To a degree, that is a good thing. If we were to focus too much of our attention on all the really, really bad things that could befall us, we’d never get out of bed in the morning.

But the same psychological trait that allows us to go about our daily business also creates blind spots. Although we observe that calamities happen, we assume that they won’t happen to us, or they won’t happen again. And if it has been a long time since the calamity, we are apt to take false comfort that we have beaten the odds. . . .

Part of the problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. The other part is that small miscalculations of probabilities can have large effects on outcomes when dealing with long periods of time. Think of the sailor who sets off on a voyage a few degrees off course. A few miles out, the error is small, but by the time he crosses the ocean, he may find himself hundreds of miles from the intended destination.

Our reward structures don’t encourage spending the time or the money to deal with low-probability disasters. The chief executive of Citigroup acknowledged as much when he told a reporter in 2007 that he would lose his job if he gave up profit and market share to shield his bank from the obviously excessive risk-taking that everyone knew was going on. And you can only imagine the outcry from the industry and those Gulf Coast politicians if government regulators back in 2009 had ordered oil companies to spend millions of dollars to have enough boats and booms at the ready to deal with a BP-sized oil spill from deepwater drilling.

Indeed, it seems that when we conclude that the chance of something really bad happening is very small, we wind up taking actions that either increase the probability of the disaster or the damage that it will cause. Once the rocket scientists on Wall Street, for example, concluded that it was virtually impossible for investors in so-called “mezzanine” tranches of mortgage-backed securities to lose money, it set off a chain of events that made the prediction untrue. The heavy demand for the securities led to dramatically lower lending standards and a sharp increase in housing prices, creating a bubble so large that when it burst, it caused heavy losses for those same mezzanine investors. The declaration that a particular investment was riskless became a self-negating prophecy.

Similarly, when the government builds a levee, it may reduce the frequency of damaging floods but may also encourage even more people to build homes and businesses behind the barrier. When the Big One finally arrives, the total damage will be even greater than if no levee had been built.

We’re also discovering that the impact of disasters is magnified by globalization. The troubles in northern Japan, for example, are beginning to ripple through global supply chains, creating bottlenecks and shortages in dozens of industries. The way globalization increases economic efficiency is by leveraging the advantages of scale and specialization. Yet the bigger and more concentrated production becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes to disruption.

Many scholars now think that the very complexity of modern life — including our transportation and communication systems, our economy and our social interactions — is directly implicated in the severity of catastrophes. In more complex systems, even small changes or perturbations can have disproportionate and unpredictable effects. The things that make our systems more efficient also make them more effective in spreading the impact of a catastrophe.

via Lessons from the long tail of improbable disaster – The Washington Post.


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