Monthly Archives: December 2006

Advertisers vs. Teachers II

Bryan Caplan over at EconLog, in addition to giving this rookie a lovely welcome into the world of blogging, has raised a good point about the arguments that I made in my earlier post.  The state of play right now is as follows.  We start from the highly oversimplified premise that kids are either going to be influenced by commercial advertisers or by public school teachers.  Our positions are:

Me: To a first approximation, the harm done by unregulated advertisers is fixed at the level that arises from profit-maximizing advertising practices; any advertiser who refrains on principle from a bit of profitable but socially harmful advertising will be replaced by someone who has no such qualms.  In contrast, the amount of harm that teachers will do depends much more on the characteristics of the people who select into the teaching profession, as well as on the professional ethos in which they are trained and supported.  This raises the possibility that people with a natural affection for kids will be the ones doing the teaching, supported by an institutional infrastructure and set of professional norms that are themselves set by pro-kid people.

Bryan: The very same things that make it possible that teachers will be better for kids than are commercial advertisers also makes it possible that they will be worse.  They might end up being ideologues who are committed to passing along dangerous nonsense or ex-jock gym teachers who have nothing but contempt for the unathletic (in fairness to gym teachers, I think there has been some progress on this front in recent years) or just jerks who like to make themselves feel big by pushing little kids around.

Bryan’s is a very powerful objection.  The more-or-less fixed level of damage done by commercial advertising is not the worst possible outcome.  A world dominated by vapid consumerism is a lot worse than the Enlightenment utopia I dream about, but it is a lot better than some other things.  So one might argue against public education on insurance grounds: there is always some chance that the really bad guys will get to be in charge of’ public education, and to insure against that we need to keep power out of the hands of teachers.  But I don’t think that’s Bryan’s claim.  I think he is saying some combination of (i) the damage done by commercial advertisers is not that bad; and (ii) the influences of public education are really bad as things stand right now.  And this seems wrong to me.

I also enjoyed that lunch at GMU.  We hadn’t know each other five minutes before we were all hollering at each other.  What’s not to like?

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Why Common Priors

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.  Walt Whitman

A key issue for the (epistemic) rationality of disagreement is whether different Bayesians can rationally have different priors.  Bayesians with different priors could easily disagree, though they would see no point in offering information to resolve it.   But a standard practice has been to assume rational priors are common.  For example, the vast majority of economic models of multiple decision makers are models of Bayesians with common priors.   And even when philosophers allow priors to be different between people, philosophers usually insist that different parts of a mind, or different versions of that mind on different days, have the same prior. 

Can rational priors be different?   On the one hand, some don’t see why priors can’t be different, especially since disagreement often feels rational.  On the other hand, some say part of the meaning of rational belief is that it should not depend on arbitrary individual features, and others suggest Dutch Book arguments apply to groups as well as to individuals.  (One can claim rational priors are common without needing to give exact formulas for them, just as one can claim that P(A) + P(notA) = 1 without giving a formula for P(A).)   

Continue reading "Why Common Priors" »

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The Future of Oil Prices

One of the topics which I have been following for the past couple of years is “Peak Oil”, the theory that global oil production will soon peak, imposing vast changes on the social and political world order. I find it a great test case for the issues we have been discussing here. The issue brings widespread disagreement, and it’s one where knowing the truth is of great importance even for the average person.

A good starting point to get a handle on the situation is to look at what commodities traders call a “futures strip” for oil prices. Here’s a chart I created showing the prices of oil futures contracts from January 2007 through December 2012 as of the close of trading yesterday:

Oil_20061222


The obvious message of this chart in terms of future oil prices is that they are expected to be relatively stable. The whole next six years stay within the range of $60-$70 per barrel. This is unlikely to be consistent with a significant oil shortage in that time frame. The markets seem to be telling us that Peak Oil is not a near-term concern.

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A Fable of Science and Politics

In the time of the Roman Empire, civic life was divided between the Blue and Green factions.  The Blues and the Greens murdered each other in single combats, in ambushes, in group battles, in riots.  Procopius said of the warring factions:  "So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colors be brothers or any other kin."  Edward Gibbon wrote:  "The support of a faction became necessary to every candidate for civil or ecclesiastical honors."

Who were the Blues and the Greens?  They were sports fans – the partisans of the blue and green chariot-racing teams.

Imagine a future society that flees into a vast underground network of caverns and seals the entrances.  We shall not specify whether they flee disease, war, or radiation; we shall suppose the first Undergrounders manage to grow food, find water, recycle air, make light, and survive, and that their descendants thrive and eventually form cities.  Of the world above, there are only legends written on scraps of paper; and one of these scraps of paper describes the sky, a vast open space of air above a great unbounded floor.  The sky is cerulean in color, and contains strange floating objects like enormous tufts of white cotton.  But the meaning of the word "cerulean" is controversial; some say that it refers to the color known as "blue", and others that it refers to the color known as "green".

Continue reading "A Fable of Science and Politics" »

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A Christmas Gift for Rationalists

Charitable donations are ripe with what seem to be irrationalities: door-to-door charitable contributions can be doubled when the donations are solicited by women 1 SD above the norm in attractiveness, we divide our contributions among multiple targets rather than putting 100% in the area with the highest marginal impact, and do very little to investigate charitable efficiency in the first place. At the same time, Christmas gifts are subject to staggering deadweight losses. In both cases, the failure to efficiently realize the supposed objective of benefitting the recipient can be explained by attributing the decision to a ‘purchase of identity,’ or signalling function. Someone who will tithe 10% of her income to Habitat for Humanity to build house for plump, but relatively poor, Westerners demonstrates her generosity just as well as someone who saves dozens of children from death by malaria by purchasing nets and DDT for an African village, even though the latter does more good.

My three-for-one proposal: rationalist types should ask for charitable gift certificates (the charity signs up as a project, and then recipients can allocate the value of their gift cards at will) this Christmas, and then donate the proceeds to some  high-impact but unconventional charity. (What’s the third bias addressed, you ask? The self-serving bias that keeps our charitable contributions so low!)

Some questions:
1. Will this bring in a smaller total in gift expenditures? Do weddings that request donations to a named charity take in less than those that use a gift registry?
2. Would an exchange of two $100 charitable gift certificates between friends really feel less silly than the exchange of two $100 bills because of the public commitment function?
3. Would this work for weddings or bar mitzvahs?

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When Truth is a Trap

Consider the following statement: “The fraction of young Muslim males who are terrorists is higher than the fraction of old Swedish women who are terrorists.” The statement is undoubtedly true, and everyone knows it. And someone who is committed to overcoming bias would frown upon any attempt to deny that it’s true merely because it makes some people uncomfortable.

But there’s a problem. Different people have different opinions regarding what attitudes and policies towards young Muslim males are appropriate. And some of those people simply don’t like them, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the fact that a higher (though still tiny) proportion of them are terrorists, and would like to generate a generally hostile and illiberal attitude towards them. A very effective way to do this is to highlight the above fact. And it is likely to be effective even though everyone already knows that the fact is true; general attitudes towards young Muslim males will be more negative the more often the fact is repeated. And anyone who opposes such an agenda is in a pickle: they can concede that the fact is true and help advance the agenda of their opponants, or they can deny that it is true and look like idiots. Furthermore, the fact may be relevant for some non-illiberal purposes (say deciding which countries should need visas to enter the U.S.), and it becomes very hard to use it forthrightly in making that decision without advancing a very different agenda that you didn’t mean to advance.

What is to be done?

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You Will Age And Die

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.  La Rochefoucauld, 1613-1680.

Our terror of death is one of our most reliable sources of bias.  In the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Margie Lachman notes that

Older adults are less likely than the young to believe there are things that can be done to control aging-related declines in areas such as memory.

It seems to me that the threshold of just how infirm you would have to be before you would rather die also rises with age.  The young think they would tolerate only modest reductions in health and function, while the old actually tolerate very large reductions.   

Rage if you will against the dying of the light, or take a chance with cryonics, but believe it: you will most likely age, become infirm, and die.

(Yes, I know, someday technology may change all this.  But not soon.)   

Added: On p.120 of the 12/25/06 New Yorker is a cartoon with the caption, "Donald is such a fatalist – he’s convinced he’s going to grow old and die." 

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Contributors: Be Half Accessible

We intended this "web forum" to be a cross between a group blog and a conversation among experts.   We want to both attract readers to highlight our cause, and form a community discussing our shared interest.  This may not turn out not to be viable, but until we give up, let me ask contributors to help in this way: make half your posts accessible to a wide audience.   

It is great to have formal discussion of details of epistemology or Bayesian theory, but if that is mainly what readers see, most of them will leave.  And honestly our commitment to overcoming bias is a bit suspect if we just talk generalities and rarely grapple with specific biases and hard cases.   So please, I ask, let us post as often on accessible papers, news, or events that illustrate or embody important biases and corrections. 

Oh, and please, delete needless words; a screenful of text or less is ideal. 

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“I don’t know.”

An edited transcript of a long instant-messenger conversation that took place regarding the phrase, "I don’t know", sparked by Robin Hanson’s previous post, "You Are Never Entitled to Your Opinion."

Continue reading "“I don’t know.”" »

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You Are Never Entitled to Your Opinion

Ever!  You are not even entitled to "I don’t know."   You are entitled to your desires, and sometimes to your choices.   You might own a choice, and if you can choose your preferences, you may have the right to do so.  But your beliefs are not about you; beliefs are about the world.  Your beliefs should be your best available estimate of the way things are; anything else is a lie.

If you ever feel tempted to resist an argument or conclusion by saying "everyone is entitled to their opinion," stop! This is as clear a bias indicator as they come.   It may irritate you to give in, but honesty demands it.    

Continue reading "You Are Never Entitled to Your Opinion" »

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