Posted by: Kash Farooq | January 10, 2012

The “Economic False Dilemma” logical fallacy

Adam has started replying to the points I made in my previous post: Hunting for Logical Fallacies in a Pod Delusion report.

In summary, last week, Adam submitted a Pod Delusion report critical of the funding of particle physics. I spotted a number of Logical Fallacies in that report (and in the comments about the report) and blogged about them.

Adam’s excellent suggestion (it’s well worth reading this comment) was that we discuss the points one by one.

His first response is regarding a False Dilemma logical fallacy, which, in the report, went something like:

  1. Either we can fund particle physics, or we can fund other, useful stuff.
  2. We must fund the other, useful stuff
  3. So, we can’t fund the particle physics.

To keep the discussion in one place (otherwise the original comment thread could become unwieldy), I’ve reproduced his comment here:

OK, here goes then. Let’s start with the “economic false dilemma” fallacy.

You make a perfectly reasonable point, which is that if we stopped spending money on the LHC, it wouldn’t necessarily get spent on one of the examples I’ve given as being more worthy. It might get spent on something like bigger duck houses for MPs. However, what I’m arguing is that we stop spending money on the LHC and spend it on something more worthy, not simply that we stop spending money on the LHC and then hope for the best. So I don’t think that point invalidates my argument.

What is true, however, is that every pound we spend on the LHC is one pound less that we have to spend on other things. So, on the assumption that the total pot of money for doing sciencey things is constant (and of course that is an assumption, as it would also be possible to increase the total pot, which I suspect we’d both welcome, although I don’t think it’s likely to happen in real life any time soon), funding the LHC means less money for other sciencey things.

Where I think I did fall down a bit in my piece (and if you’ve been following the discussion on the PD website you’ll see that Quackonomics picked me up on this) is that I failed to make a clear distinction between spending money on research and spending money on other worthy things that don’t need any research, merely putting resources behind some existing knowledge. An example of the latter would be polio eradication. We already know how to do it, so no research is needed. We just need to get out there and vaccinate all those troublesome little disease hot spots.

So, it might be a reasonable assumption that money not spent on the LHC could be spent on other kinds of research (eg developing a malaria vaccine), but it’s probably less reasonable to assume it will be spent on non-research things like eradicating polio, because that would put it into a completely different budget.

Nonetheless, if we think of the LHC as part of total government spending, then there is no real reason why any money not spent on it couldn’t be put into anything else we like, which might include polio eradication.

So, in summary, I don’t think I’m guilty of a logical fallacy here. I would be if I were saying “let’s just stop spending money on the LHC and see what happens”, but that’s not the argument I’m making.

Over to you…

So, as Adam requests…over to you.


Responses

  1. I’m not sure what sort of argument this might come under, but its one you see a lot of in the media. I don’t think its necessarily wrong, but it ultimately focuses you into just doing one thing and ignoring all others.

    In the media its often portrayed as “Yes, but if doing this saves just one child’s life, isn’t it worth doing?” – which is a powerful emotional argument.

    So, spending X on issue Y “to save one child’s life” is very common, but you have to look at it in the round. Yes, spending X might well save a child’s life, and that’s a laudable goal. However ultimately, some things are not worth throwing everything at, and for a few reasons I think.

    Would it not be better to spend your amount X on something better. Yes you could save a child’s life by funding Y, but you might save 100 children by education on road safety. Where is it best spent? Does that mean we shouldn’t spend it on issue Y at all? Or 1/100 or it?

    If we eradicate polio, a very laudable goal, that’s great. But there are still plenty of diseases out there, so now you need to target the next one, and the next. Diseases mutate, new strains form, so its never ending. We end up curing more people, the population booms, we now have new worries.

    If you focus spending on worthy causes only, you must surely stagnate. Why spend money on aids research, when we KNOW how to stop polio now. The money would be better spent on polio vaccines, and then measles, and so on. AIDS is speculative research, we don’t know there is a vaccine, we don’t have a cure, we might very well think there is, but it doesn’t have the certainty of polio.

    So, why spend money on the LHC, or the big observatories, or the human genome project. You can make economic arguments all you like, but I think the overriding one is curiosity, and the wish to understand. For me those are always worthy goals. Yes, it is disquieting to be reminded you’re probably condemning people to death because of it, but that’s also true every time you buy a newspaper, or make a phone call – that money could also be used to save someone. Therefore I think you have to accept you can’t cure everything bad in the world, and at least some money should be focused on new knowledge. We’ve seen attempts to impose goal driven research, and it tends to be very shortsighted – and perhaps better handled by the private sector. The only people that can fund fundamental research are governments – and if its pure research, then you make your case for what is interesting. The LHC will fill in many gaps in current theory, and narrow down other possibilities, which helps many people doing research.

    Keeping a balance between curiosity and altruism is a tricky one, but I don’t think it’s black and white.

    • Yes, I completely agree. I’m certainly not arguing we stop spending money on blue-sky research. We need a mixture of spending on things that are obviously practical right now and things that may bring as yet unknown benefits in the future.

      The tricky thing is, as you say, where we draw the line. I think I’m just arguing for drawing the line in a slightly different place from some of the rest of you.

  2. This argument grated with me slightly, not really because of the false dilemma but because of the phrase “in the current economic climate”. It’s easy to say we can’t afford a £3 billion particle accelerator while a Tory government is cutting even the most basic quality of life benefits from the poorest people in the country, but none of that was true when workers started building the LHC, in 1998. Wikipedia puts the start of the current recession at December 2007, just ten months before the first beam zipped round the shiny, new Collider. To have stopped the project in 2007 would have been one of the largest false economies in human history.

    • Yes, it’s probably not practical to stop now. I guess I’m arguing that we shouldn’t have started in the first place, and more realistically, that we should think carefully before funding the next project like this.

  3. I think it’s a bit unfair to call the pure research as ‘less worthy’ than other types of research because by its very nature it’s impossible to estimate the value of such research until after the fact except to look at past examples, whereas it’s very easy to predict that cancer research is likely to lead to better cancer treatments.

    That may sound a little close to special pleading on the part of pure research but I think actually I’m detecting a pre-supposition here. That pre-supposition seeming to be a definition of what counts as ‘worthy’ research, which I’m not clear at all is something we agree on at this stage. So I don’t think that we can proceed along these lines until we have a clear understanding of what criteria is being used to decide what is and isn’t ‘worthy’ and what makes one thing more worthy than another.

    Going from my own gut reaction about worthiness, I think that the benefits that come alongside doing pure research count towards it in the ‘worthiness’ stakes and are more than enough to make up for the fact that the questions that the research is asking may not provide obvious practical benefits when answered.

    • I don’t think pure research is less worthy in my eyes, but its much more difficult to give a qualitative value to it.

      Is it “better” to spend £10 on a vaccine for a child or £10 on a clock I want to smash to see what happens? I suspect most people would go with the former when asked which is a more worthy cause, because the short term benefits are obvious.
      If I say I’ll spend the £10 mixing some chemicals, in the hope of curing cancer, its a little less black and white.

      You can’t get away from the fact that in one case you can clearly show what you’ve done, and in the other case its intangible, and maybe ultimately fruitless. That’s why its harder to sell.

      • Oh, I agree it’s a harder sell, which is why it’s worth looking at the countless historical examples where it has, apparently, paid off. Few people will argue that trying to cure cancer is a good idea, but figuring out some physics which may or may not be directly useful? It would be HORRIBLE to see such research go away because I think we have it to thank for a big chunk of the modern world, so I think it needs defending all the more.

    • I’m not arguing that pure research per se is less worthy. We need pure research. What I’m saying is that high energy particle physics is a particular subset of pure research that is less likely than most other areas to result in discoveries of practical value.

  4. The hidden assumption behind joining “taking money from the LHC” and “using it somewhere more worthwhile” as a single proposal, is that such an exercise is possible or could ever happen.

    If governments had a single, fixed pot of money to spend, that didn’t vary according to how well their policies interacted with the economy or how much deficit/surplus they ran with, that hidden assumption could be true. They don’t.

    It gets worse when you compare research with research. Not only are there multiple pots, but their are multiple pots from different sources, for different purposes. The size of the pots varies according to perceptions of importance, impact on other research, international agreement, research taxation strategy etc. The simplest thing would be to take the money from the LHC and spend it on a different large scale, international equipment project. Once you take it out of the large scale equipment pot, how are you going to be sure you get that much back again as some other form of research funding?

    For this not to be a fallacy, Adam needs to tell us _how_ he would propose transferring money from the LHC to something else. (For the purpose of argument, he could assume at the time the LHC funding was committed he could change things, or he could pick a current similar capital equipment project and say what he would do instead).

    For the record, I think that there is good evidence in the UK at least that “concentration” of research money isn’t effective. However, there is also good evidence that projects and groups need to be at least a certain size (depending on the field) before they can do more than noddy studies. I personally resent the willingness of people to pay for massive particle research projects but not for equivalent non-equipment social projects. I don’t believe that cancelling the equipment projects would get us the money for the social projects though – that’s the link Adam is trying to assert as a “given” in his argument rather than establishing it.

    • You make some good points in saying that what I’m proposing is unlikely to happen in practice, because taking money away from the LHC does not guarantee it would go to something more worthy.

      But, in principle, it is perfectly possible. All you need is for someone at a high level in government to say “we’re going to take £x billion away from our particle physics budget, and add £x billion to our find-a-cure-for-malaria budget”. While I agree that it’s not realistic to expect that to happen, because that’s just not how politicians work, there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen if members of the Cabinet happened to listen to my PD piece and found it convincing.

      So I’m not claiming that is how things do work, merely arguing that that is how I would like things to work.

  5. In the time it’s taken me to write this I see a lot of the points have been covered, but I’ll post anyway.

    I think there are a few assumptions in this argument. One is that the LHC is identifiably under-performing compared to unfunded research. This is a difficult assertion to prove one way or another because unfunded projects are likely to do worse simply because they are unfunded rather than rubbish. An argument against this is that LHC funding had to pass through review by scientists who allocated the money knowing that would mean other research could not happen. It’s not a knock down argument, but it shows funding was not whimsical, and it suggests that there should be a more substantial objection than “I don’t rate particle physics”

    It also identifies the £34m per year spent on the LHC as the 1% of RCUK funding that is is in most urgent need of reallocation. This has doesn’t work. For a start, how is performance being measured relative to other fields?

    Also it requires that Physicists are not in a position to the value of work within their own field because the judgement to pull money from the LHC comes from outside. Your telling them they’re wrong the LHC is a waste of money compared to the other physics they do. This might be true, but if it is, then then isn’t the same true for all fields? If experts in cannot judge the performance of projects in their own fields how can you possibly identify the 1% worst performing part of the RCUK budget? It’s logically incoherent.

    To have this discussion we must first accept that money would be better spent elsewhere than the LHC. But that’s also the conclusion of the discussion. You’re begging the question. How do you know the LHC is the weakest 1%? Obviously spending it on something more worthy is by definition a good idea, but it’s not an argument against the LHC. It’s an argument against anything. You can use the same arguments against the monarchy, Trident or Manchester United.

    That doesn’t put LHC funding beyond question. The idea that spending money on whatever and not the LHC is a political argument. That’s not inherently a bad thing. We have £x pounds for physics. Nuclear Physics has been wiped out by the recent cutbacks and if nuclear power is to be an option then for national security it would make sense to fund it. There’s no scientific justification, but it could be sensible politics. If I were to say that the LHC is a poor physical research output relative to Nuclear Physics, then that’s scientific and I’d have to back it up.

    But this Pod Delusion segment was anti-science insofar as some of the assertions are demonstrably wrong.

    Why aren’t Physicists working to cure cancer? I hope you don’t get cancer, if you you do you’ll be put into a giant metal doughnut. You’ll hear a whizzing noise as the x-ray camera spins round and you’ll feel like you’re wetting yourself as a dye is pumped into your bloodstream. At this point it’s important not to imagine a torrent of liquid helium spilling from the machine and freezing you. Why is there liquid helium in the machine? Well that’s because physicists have found that they can create superconductors at low temperatures and helium is very cold. It’s also going to run out on earth during the next century. Ideally we could use high-temperature superconductors to continue with the fight against cancer, but that’s not likely to happen without some pretty expensive experiments onto the behaviour of subatomic particles. Additionally CERN itself is working on other projects which might have medical applications like building photon detectors such as the Medipix chip. http://medipix.web.cern.ch/medipix/pages/medipix1.php

    But what about solar power? The most effective users of solar power are plants. The best model is the z-scheme which combines biology, chemistry and quantum physics. Chlorophyll grabs electrons and light pumps up the energy of the electrons to the plant can synthesise ATP, which is effectively energy and reduce carbon dioxide to glucose. You can’t directly bolt that on to a solar panel so trapping photons and storing energy is likely to need some serious subatomic research. The simplest explanation of the z-scheme I’ve found is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsZlPeT3D10 but Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun is brilliant if you want to find out more.

    The implied assumption that work here stops work there is wrong. Research on one project can inform another.

    As far as costs go, I wanted to find out the budget for the LHC that came from the UK and typed LHC uk budget into google. That has a FAQ page from the LHC that gives the figures £34m for the LHC and £70m to CERN as a whole. In total it’s expensive but it’s been under construction from a long while and the costs are shared with many nations. http://lhc.ac.uk/about-the-lhc/faqs.html

    As for the simple economics used to justify the argument, these were not economic arguments. It was morality supposedly derived from economics. An economic argument would have analysed the costs and benefits of the work done at the LHC. If it’s simply that you don’t know the price tag but you suspect it’s large, then why not apply the same argument against anything more than £34m a year. And why is £34m the cost we should not exceed?

    Given the lack of scientific or economic argument there’s not a lot that can be meaningfully discussed. You could say there’s a political argument that money spent on the LHC is better spent on «insert cause», but again there’s no reason to say why the LHC is targeted that couldn’t be applied to anything else you don’t understand.

    So why the LHC?

    • Thanks for the detailed post. I think I’ve probably answered most of your points in my responses to the other posts above. If there’s anything important you think I’ve missed, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

  6. Why the LHC?

    I think unless you put aside a pot for speculative long term research you’ll always be chasing your tail. There will always be something more immediate we could fix, so that’s why its worth saying “here is some money to chase intangibles – some of them will pay off big, many will fail, and we’ll try and weed out the stupid, but otherwise go find out stuff”.

    It’s heartbreaking to see someone die you could have saved with just a little money, but I think you have to be aware of the long term benefits, and that not paying Alexander Flemings wage to mess around with petri dishes, and instead spending that on more nurses and bandages might not be the best plan in hindsight.

    Benefits nearly always come out of research. Sometimes it takes a while.

    “To the electron: May it never be of use to anyone” — J.J. Thompson
    “The LASER, a solution looking for a problem” — 1960

  7. @kash @adam

    (This is Quackonomics btw)
    I do agree with broadly the theme of the blog in that it was a bit a ‘false economic dilemma’ to suggest that money should be diverted to other things.

    Firstly the money spent on the LHC is nothing compared to bailouts, the defense and other things to begin with, so casting LHC as some decadent hedonistic enterprise within the broader context of the budgets (keeping in mind that many governments are funding it not just one) is a little unfair I think. And austerity – let’s not forget – will impact “bluesky” research as well, so Adam making that argument seems to be a redoubling of a concern which is already in implementation.

    Second, and I made this point at the Pod Delusion website comments section, that innovation doesn’t work in the injection/removal way anyway. It’s a nuanced process, an interplay of ideas, framework, division of labour that makes us as economies innovate in technology, healthcare, medicine etc. To suggest that we can change priority by pulling levers here and there, I’m not convinced, Sure we have to prioritize, but the basis of that prioritization must have empirical backing and I’m afraid, your alternatives sounded very platitude-filled. Hence the failure in the report (although to be fair you seem to acknowledge in the comments) that the impediments of us solving climate-change, poverty, even disease control are not scientific, but economic and (really) political.

    In the end, I think investment in science is possibly the most rewarding enterprise a govt/taxpayers can make. Not only will it create new research, but new graduates, demand for better technology… and hence economic demand offshoots from that. It really isn’t the reduced process that you are claiming. I acknowledge that you’ve listened to our arguments, and I have to say accepting criticism is the mark someone who is clearly intelligent. But these are the concerns and criticisms that we have of your piece and I’m sure you’d probably appreciate some of the points we’ve brought up.

    I’ll just do quick plugs if I may, you can follow me on twitter @quackonomics or @13411Fahad….and you can visit my blog http://quackonomics.wordpress.com/

  8. The entire UK contribution to the LHC since 1996 hasn’t been in the billions. The annual budget for UK particle physics is far from being in the billions. The pot of money that particle physics gets its money from also pays for astronomy, nuclear physics, and large facilities (e.g. Diamond that also happens to be useful in other, diverse, areas of science). Politicians decide how much money is put in each pot. How money within a pot is allocated to specific projects is left to a peer-review process following the “Haldane Principle”.

    Adam, do you have a price-point where you would consider a contribution to the LHC to be acceptable? If you do, where do you set that and why is it different than the peer-review process that divided up the Nuclear-Astronomy-Particle Physics-Facilities pot of money? Is no level of contribution to particle physics acceptable? If it isn’t, does that only apply to government funding or do you think all money (private and public) should be spent only on worthy causes? If just government funding, how is “worthy” to be defined? For instance I know some people would say Trident was worthy even if I don’t.

    I am of the opinion that some finite, non-zero, amount of money should be spent on “blue skies” research. Some of that research will have direct/large benefits. It is extremely difficult to predict which will or won’t in advance hence our current system that assigns a fairly small amount of our total government budget – smaller, fractionally, than in France, Germany and the US (as far as I know) – to this endeavour.

    All of this science-spending-policy discussion (taking place thanks to a spin-off from CERN) isn’t as worthy as spending that time and money curing diseases, providing access to clean water or, dare I say it, spending that time/money on a deep understanding of the universe. I think that asking big questions about the universe is _a_ worthy thing for a civilization to do.

  9. Kash, still looking forward to your thoughts on what I’ve said here!

    • 🙂

      At some point I may summarise all this into a “rounding things up” blog post.

      At the moment, I really need to get back to studying. I spent all my spare time last week (and the weekend!) thinking about this and preparing the response Pod Delusion report, and consequently didn’t do any OU course work.

      • Fair enough! I know that feeling well. Let me know when the response post is up.


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