Put the second law of thermodynamics down and slowly step away, New York Times

From Natalie Angier’s article on “pathological altruism”:

Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. “I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,” she said. “I’m looking at it as an engineer.”

And by the first rule of engineering, she said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.” If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.

Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that the transfer of energy will itself exact a tax, which means that the overall disorder churned up by the transaction will be slightly greater than the new orderliness created. None of which is to argue against good deeds, Dr. Oakley said, but rather to adopt a bit of an engineer’s mind-set, and be prepared for energy losses and your own limitations.

Stop hurting physics!

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5 thoughts on “Put the second law of thermodynamics down and slowly step away, New York Times

  1. nichole says:

    Wow, ouch, bad physics hurts! Two thoughts:

    1) OK, pathological altruism can exist. But I’d rather break bread with someone pathological about giving than sociopathological (is that a word?) about getting. (Speaking from experience here.)

    2) Most of the specific illustrations in the NYT article are about the medical field, which brought the “that’s God, he just thinks he’s a doctor” joke to mind. (Also from experience. Those quacks think they can do anything.)

  2. plm says:

    I think it is, taken broadly, an underestimated issue, for its paradoxical aspects, its complexity, and that it is much more widespread than it seems.

    I think there might be more to gain from publicizing it rather than other personality disorders -to a reasonable extent.
    For instance, some AD(HD) sufferers compensate for their lack of attention to others by a feeling of inferiority, which is extremely difficult to control due to the implicit assumption that “sacrificing is good for others”, this feedbacks with emotional dysfunction. This leads to crises and an uncontrolable, inefficient behavior.
    It seems that in most cases the people sacrificing themselves bear most of the burden, but this is usually transmitted to their surroundings in many ways:
    destructive behavior,
    bursts of outward hate (often but not necessarily mixed with inward hate, dysforia),
    social care for the sufferer when he/she reaches a situation where he/she cannot cope.

    And there are less dramatic inefficiencies, for instance hiding personal preferences, avoidance of criticizing others, the mundane fact of not denouncing abusive behavior from a superior has many consequences (I think that many can relate to this example).

    Suffering from such a situation (different from those mentioned in the article) I appreciate the New York Times’ efforts to mediatize this phenomenon, and I feel joking about it is a little cruel.

    Thank you for the reference to that article.

  3. Bad physics indeed. It seems you are too busy patting yourself on the back in relation to your superior knowledge base to go look up the word “analogy.” Analogies and ideas from very different disciplines have often been used to good effect to advance science–even the social sciences.

    But it wouldn’t be as much fun to ridicule if you acknowledged that the effects of entropy can serve as an excellent analogy in helping us understand other issues.

  4. plm says:

    I would not blame Jordan that much for this, I think he did not mean a serious criticism, he probably found a catchy title for a blog post referencing to that article and could not resist using it -please correct me if I am wrong.

    He is usually very sympathetic. :)

    And thank you for your work on altruism, there is alot more to do.

    One interesting line of research, though perhaps a little distant from yours is inefficient/uncritical altruism in “smaller” amounts, more widespread and with less visibly-dramatic consequences. The work of Nicholas Christakis and other ideas on social networks may be relevant to formalizing concepts of energy, entropy, complexity and proving for those (simplistic) models that energy is lost when agents are uncritically altruistic as well as when they are uncritically selfish, or that entropy increases for a conservative system.


    The issue of broad-sense pathological altruism seems to me also intimately related to social sacrifice for the support of the critically-ill (think of irremediable coma cases, type II Gaucher’s disease, any illness that draws large amounts of society’s resources), the uncompromising rejection of abortion, of birth-control, or the issue of euthanasia.

    In all those cases society may make a general decision and rigidly follow it, while perhaps more flexibility would be better in the long run.

    Actually those are quite interesting thoughts, and if nobody publishes much on the topic I may try some day to write something useful based on them.

  5. Hi PLM,

    Thanks for the insight–I have to admit my response was rather grouchy, and indeed, the title of Jordan’s piece was pretty funny. Thank you for the link to Christakis’ work. I, too, think this area is vitally important–I encourage you to go forward in writing about your ideas.


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