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Greene vs Taleb on risk and immigration

A few days ago, two men didn't quite agree with one another on Twitter. That's probably not so exceptional. But I found the disagreement a bit more interesting than most others. One of those men was Brian Greene (Wikipedia) whom I know rather well, met a few times, and I have also translated two of his books to Czech etc. He's a brilliant and nice guy. And a leftist, too.

The other man was Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Wikipedia), a former trader and a risk analyst. His 2007 book "The Black Swan" became quite famous, has some 6,000 citations, and was praised as the most important post-war book by an influential daily. We might say that Google Scholar and INSPIRE indicate that their research credentials are comparable. Taleb may be a bit ahead but you could dismiss his field as a softer one etc. They also have a comparable number of Twitter followers.

OK, Brian began with this criticism of restrictions on immigration:

He linked to a CATO institute essay that has pointed out the relatively tiny number of Americans killed by foreigners, especially by "refugees".

Well, Taleb didn't agree and he wrote:

He clearly wants to be careful about a particular thing: "fat tails" of distributions. One might say that his book about the black swans is dedicated to the very same issue.

You could smile and say it's ironic that a person with an Arab name turns out to be an opponent immigration from the Middle East while the guy whose DNA is close to the people in Israel is a big supporter of the Arab immigration. Well, this situation is actually rather typical. Jews are among the most fanatical defenders of extreme multiculturalism etc. while Taleb is a Lebanese American.

In Lebanon, there are numerous people whose views on immigration are actually rather close to ours. For example, a few days ago, I followed the example of Steve McIntyre and became a follower of Sarah Abdallah. It's a strange feeling that her "Lebanese" views are so much closer to my views or the Czech mainstream than e.g. Brian Greene's views – but it's the case, anyway.

Well, Brian's disagreement continued:

You aren't surprised that I like these "embedded tweets", are you? They look almost as good as the original tweets on Twitter. Lots of people – including myself – have joined the argument and Taleb has written some extra responses, e.g.

Here, Taleb suggests that Greene shouldn't try to talk about anything unless it depends on the Calabi-Yau geometry. Normally, I would find this expectation ludicrous – a theoretical physicist normally understands all important things in the Universe. However, in this case, I am afraid that Taleb was more or less right. Greene did talk as a person who is less informed about these risk issues than the average layman and his implicit efforts to morph his scientific credentials to the authority in these matters seemed inadequate.

That could be enough. Let me discuss these topics.

Greene is obviously pro-immigration and his attack against Trump's executive order starts by saying that almost no one dies in the hands of a refugee. At most, foreigners such as the 9/11 attackers have killed some 3,000 Americans in this century which is still tiny relatively to the number of Americans killed by a lightning. We don't even talk about policies that would restrict lightnings, and therefore we shouldn't think about regulating immigration, Brian effectively says.

I would agree with Brian if
  1. the deadly terror attacks were the only problem caused by migrants and simultaneously if
  2. it were guaranteed that the rate of deaths won't be substantially greater than we saw in recent decades.
But there are good reasons to think that at least one of these assumptions is wrong which is enough to invalidate Greene's argument. Well, I think that both of them are wrong.

As I have mentioned many times, it's simply not true that the murders by the immigrants are the only difficulty they may cause. The politically correct attitude that Greene represents contains the assumption that "an original citizen's death is the only moment when he has some moral right to complain against an immigrant or immigration". (Sadly, while the dead people may get the right to complain, they usually don't have the ability to talk anymore. Brian may think that this "bug" of his policy is actually a "virtue".) I am sorry but that's simply unacceptable. Even the overwhelming majority of the immigrants – e.g. Muslim immigrants to Western Europe – who have never killed anybody are causing things that many original citizens of these countries sensibly consider serious problems.

First, they sometimes rape a woman or a boy. Steal something. Put a building on fire – in all these disciplines, they statistically beat the original citizens even though the original citizens obviously have a positive rate as well (and Quebec has seen its terrorist attack by an all-delicate white young man in recent days). But even when we subtract all the criminal activity, there are still lots of problems. A typical Muslim immigrant to the West consumes much more resources from the welfare system than the original citizens. He has smaller respect for individual human rights, women's dignity, freedom of speech, religious liberties. He may shout "Allah" when you want to sleep. And so on, and so on. Many of these things are understandably viewed as problems by a big portion of the original citizens – probably a large majority. People like Brian Greene apparently want to make it politically incorrect to complain about any of these things.

Thankfully, in Czechia, these taboos don't exist and no one has to be afraid of saying that he or she prefers not to accept any immigrants from these parts of the world – and the reasons for these refusals don't require one to speculate about any big terror attacks. Even the everyday experience would be getting worse in total. And we just don't want to donate this country inherited from our ancestors to someone completely different.

OK, but let's spend the rest of this blog post with ideas related to the second objection against Brian's original pro-migration argument. (These two problems with his argument aren't quite independent from each other and we will see it later.) Greene is basically assuming that the rate of deaths caused by immigration may be reliably estimated by looking at the historical record. And because the deaths caused by the immigrants let alone refugees are rare enough, we shouldn't adopt policies that try to reduce immigration.

However, as Taleb points out, the small rate observed in the past can't be extrapolated. Taleb posts two pages from a book, probably his book. You know, his idea is that there is a nonzero probability of some very huge problems caused by the terrorists. They may poison the water supply of New York and rather abruptly kill millions of Americans. Or detonate a warehouse with nuclear weapons or something like that. It hasn't happened yet but there's no law of physics saying that it can't happen. So the expectation value of the damages caused by such immigrants may be much higher than Greene's estimate – based on the recent past – simply because some truly devastating effects may happen.

Moreover, as Taleb also wrote, there exist mechanisms that allow the damages grow exponentially. Pandemics is an example of this process. For a while, the number of infected people may grow as \(\exp(Ct)\) for some constant (rate) \(C\). The value of \(C=C_0\) at which the exponential growth stops may be random – but it may be of order "dozens" in which case the pandemics may grow by many orders of magnitude. Lightnings don't seem to have this property: the number of lightnings per year may be expected to be rather constant as a function of the year. But pandemics may grow exponentially which makes the tail "fat" again, although the details are a bit different now.

And the mass radicalization of the Muslim population within a nation is a special case (or generalization) of such pandemics, or at least it follows the same mathematics. When millions of Muslims in a country are persuaded to become true jihadists, you may obviously get much more severe results than a 9/11 attack.

Another point. Brian Greene says in one of the tweets which starts "Are you kidding me?" that both events, lightnings and murders by immigrants, are rare which is why the policy justification is ludicrous. I had to laugh when I was reading that tweet because Brian not only thinks that the justification of the restrictions on immigration are ludicrous; he apparently believes that the justification of policies dealing with lightnings are ludicrous, too!

And you know, I was so proud of the Czech inventor Mr Prokop Diviš who actually constructed his first lightning rod (in 1754 i.e.) six years before Benjamin Franklin did it (in 1760). Should we abolish lightning rods (and/or the EU regulations of them which are concisely summarized or sketched on these 61 pages LOL) because the death caused by lightnings is so rare? You know, I don't like useless regulations at all – e.g. mandatory helmets and thousands of other things – but I still believe that lightning rods exist for a very good reason and they're a good investment.

Brian Greene explicitly endorsed a tweet by his ally Scott Ogden:

Well, different people have truly hugely different perspectives. The risk that someone existentially cripples the U.S. – or a big U.S. city – isn't a "pedantic debate". What is "pedantic" are worries about the comfort of the travelers from several troubled countries of the Middle East to the U.S. Whether a traveler from Syria or Iran needs to delay his trip by several months is far less important than Trump's plan to reduce the risks of major problems for the U.S. soil that were caused by the irresponsible – even though not Merkel-level irresponsible – policies of the previous U.S. administration.

Scott Ogden talks about "the compromise of values". Which values? Whose value is it that the citizens of all countries, especially the most troubled countries, should have a free access to the U.S. or that their visa papers should only evolve in one direction, namely the direction of making it ever easier for them to get to the U.S.? This assumption surely isn't a value that is mentioned in the U.S. constitution. Equally importantly, more U.S. citizens support Trump's travel ban than those who oppose it.

So it's just nothing else than pure scam for Scott Ogden to sell his (and Brian's?) radical multiculturalist dogmas as a universal value. These dogmas are very far from a universal value. And quite generally, if the general principles of a country such as the U.S. promise some universal rights to someone, it's only the citizens of that country. The idea that a country may consider everything else in the Universe to be "equal" and effectively eliminate the borders is as ludicrous as the suggestion that animals and humans shouldn't have any skin and shouldn't eat any other plants or animals. It just can't work in this way. You may praise such a setup as "your values" but then your values are absolutely dysfunctional.

Finally, I want to mention one tweet that I added to that exchange:

The article I linked to has argued that the Roman Empire basically collapsed because it mismanaged a migrant crisis. Whether this particular story is entirely accurate and describes the main cause of the decline of the Roman Empire or not, I am confident that the message is morally true.

And the message is that

Leftists may invent lots of bogus reasons why civilizations collapse or die away – such as carbon dioxide, the gas that we call life, or climate change. But every adult and every kid with some basic knowledge of history or with common sense knows that these claims are just ideological rubbish. Countries' and civilizations' fate is primarily all about the confrontation with other countries and civilizations. This statement is basically analogous to the claim that the natural selection is primarily about the competition between organisms and other organisms. When a country or civilization ceases to exist, it's almost always because of the hostile will of some people – either foreigners or locals who just don't like the principles underlying the country in which they live.

Austria-Hungary didn't decay because of carbon dioxide or climate change. It has lost the First World War and the nations inside have used that fact to create their own nation states. The Nazi Germany didn't cease to exist because of bad weather: this cruel country was defeated by the allies and millions of lives had to be paid. The Soviet bloc hasn't decayed because of some environmental crisis, either: it was beaten by the First World in the Cold War. The arms races became too fast. The communism in the Soviet satellites such as Czechoslovakia didn't collapse because of global warming, either. The citizens just turned out to be mostly foes of the regime that was scheduled to last forever.

And so on and so on. The existence of countries, empires, and civilizations mostly depends on some political environment. When they cease to exist, it's almost entirely because of some political changes, too. Immigration is a driver of demographic and political changes that some people may find beneficial but others don't. And that's why they oppose it! Democracy only works at the level of the countries or individual nations – uniform enough examples of the "demos". And this "demos" has all the rights to decide that it wants to protect itself against changes that could lead not only to large attacks but also to significant demographic changes that may end America as we've known it in a few decades, if I use more specific words than the general idea I want to convey.

The U.S. is a nation that was mostly created by immigrants but the body of immigrants in the previous 2-5 centuries is statistically significantly different from the composition that you would get if you e.g. totally opened the borders to the folks from the Muslim world. So the two groups of immigrants, past and the future (according to a scenario or a policy), just aren't equivalent and it's an obvious fallacy to assume that they are equivalent. Lots of migrants from Syria would very likely turn portions of the U.S. to copies of Syria. And most Americans simply believe that America is better than Syria so they don't want this development to materialize. It's that simple.

The "mandatory carelessness" that Brian Greene and his followers promote with respect to immigration is particularly crazy if you contrast it with the "precautionary principle" that a hugely overlapping set of people wants to obey in the case of the bogus problems – such as the emissions of carbon dioxide. One should be ashamed of emitting a few pounds of CO2 a week – but to install a million of Syrians in your country is just OK, isn't it? I am sorry but mass (multi-million-people) migration from a very different civilization realm is self-evidently far more dangerous than a few gigatons of CO2 emissions. Maybe you can't see these elementary things, Brian, but most Americans arguably can. They are more likely to produce constructive answers to these politically sensitive questions while not even mirror symmetry seems to be enough for you to get on the right track.

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