Monthly Archives: December 2006

A Decent Respect

Is it an intellectual or a moral virtue to care about what other people think? Let’s set aside the tactical part of this question (we might want to at least pretend to care what other people think if it will make them like us better), and focus on the principle. It’s clear that other people aren’t necessarily right simply because they’re not us, but it’s also clear that some version of the modesty argument recently made on this blog should make us take seriously the possibility that other people in other circumstances are able to see something that we can’t, which goes the other way.

I’d like to add what I think is an important variation on the modesty argument. The easiest and deadliest source of bias is the astounding human capacity to replace “I’m good becuase I’m right” with “I’m right because I’m good” or even worse, “I’m right because I’m me.” That is, while there really is such a thing as being intellectually or morally superior by virtue of a sincere willingness to take the dictates of reason and morality as binding even when they don’t favor us, we must never lose sight of the fact that many more people believe themselves to be right than actually are right, and we can never be sure that we haven’t fallen into this trap; it’s the easiest thing in the world to let the good kind of “moral clarity” morph into the malignant, literally homicidal kind. A policy of listenting to others is a very good innoculation against this; if there’s one thing that almost no one else suffers from, it’s a scary irrational belief that you’re always right.

I think the authors of the Declaration of Independence hit just the right note when they wrote “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Not bad for a bunch of dudes with wooden teeth and no indoor plumbing.

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Why Not Impossible Worlds?

Physicists, statisticians, computer scientists, economists, and many philosophers rely on the following standard ("Bayesian") approach to analyzing and modeling information:

  1. Identify a set of "possible worlds," i.e., self-consistent sets of answers to all relevant questions.
  2. Express the information in any situation as clues that can exclude some worlds from consideration.
  3. Assign a "reasonable" probability distribution over all these worlds.
  4. Calculate any desired expected value in any information situation by averaging over non-excluded worlds.

This is a normative ideal, not a practical exact procedure.  That is, we try to correct for any "bias," or systematic deviation between what a complete analysis of this sort would give and what we actually believe.

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Modesty in a Disagreeable World

An interesting paradox arise if one tries to apply Aumann’s theorem in a world of widespread disagreement. The problem is especially apparent in considering the stronger principle which Eliezer calls the Modesty Argument, which claims not only that rational, mutually-respecting people should not agree to disagree, but that in general one should be agreeable and allow oneself to be easily persuaded in any argument.

I’ll introduce it with one of my favorite jokes:

This is a story about advice, and any story about advice becomes a story about a village rabbi. Two men came to see the rabbi of their village.

The first one said, "Rabbi, I have a pear tree in my yard. My father planted it, I keep it watered and don’t let the chickens peck on its roots. One of its branches hangs over my neighbor’s wall. So what do I see yesterday but my neighbor standing there eating one of my pears. This is theft, and I want him to pay me damages."

The rabbi nodded his head. "You’re right, you’re right."

The other neighbor said, "Rabbi, you know that I have seven children–without my garden to feed them, how would I manage? But that tree casts a shadow where nothing will grow. So yesterday, when I go out to dig some potatoes, a pear from his tree falls and hits me right on the head. How am I hurting my neighbor if I eat it? And doesn’t he owe me something for his tree’s blocking sunlight?

The rabbi thought and then said, "You’re right, you’re right."

Meanwhile, the rabbi’s wife had been hearing all this. "How can you say, ‘You’re right’ to both of these men? Surely one of the men is right, and the other is wrong!"

The rabbi looked unhappy. "You’re right, you’re right."

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To Win Press, Feign Surprise

Fossil hunters have found a winning formula for getting media attention: pretend to believe behavior X appeared around the time of the earliest known fossil evidence for X, and then feign surprise when an earlier fossil overturns such estimates.  Consider these five media stories:

Mammals Linked to Earlier Flight Mammals may have taken to the skies much earlier than previously believed, … a fossil of a … creature that lived in Mongolia about 125 million years ago. It bears evidence [of] a skin membrane … providing enough lift for it to glide through the air. … lived tens of millions of years before the earliest confirmed record of bats taking wing about 51 million years ago. 

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Advertisers vs. Teachers

Suppose that commercial advertising increases your demand for advertised products, but at the same time makes you worse off by reducing your ability to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don’t sell.  Since the harm that you suffer doesn’t affect the advertisers’ profits, they have no incentive to take it into account when choosing their level of advertising.  This is a market failure in the same sense as better known ones like pollution; the fact that the people choosing the level of the activity don’t bear the full costs causes there to be "too much" of it.  This alone strikes me as sufficient reason for a pretty pronounced hostility to persuasive commercial advertising (there are other reasons too), particularly when children are involved, since children are more likely to suffer the ill effects.

But taking this position raises a question.  Children are going to get their ideas from somewhere, so arguing that there should be less advertising persuasion is pretty much tantamount to saying that there should be more of some other kind of persuasion.  Let’s say for argument’s sake that the competitor for the attention of children is their (mostly public school) teachers.  Let’s also stipulate that it is not hard to come up with stories in which teachers won’t do what’s best for kids either.  Maybe they want to teach obediance and so make their own jobs easier, or maybe they want to turn the kids into little clones of themselves, and so on.  But I mostly like teachers, for all their flaws, and mostly think that increasing their influence on kids would be a good thing.  Is there any sound basis for this?  Or is it just bias on my part stemming from the fact that I was raised to respect the kinds of things that teachers are about?

I will offer three defenses for my anti-advertiser, pro-teacher position.  First, teachers’ opportunities to make themselves better off at the expense of children, while not negligible, are for sure much smaller than those of commercial advertisers.  Second, the kinds of people who select into teaching tend to be people who like kids (why else spend all day with them?) and so are naturally inclined to seek their well-being.  Third, teachers are part of a profession that inculcates and supports the adoption of the identity of "teacher," providing a social and emotional infrastructure that makes it easier to perform the (pro-kid) behaviors that the identity prescribes, even when you don’t feel like it.

I didn’t convince Robin.  Did I convince you?  First blog post ever!

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When Error is High, Simplify

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We often use Bayesian analysis to identify human biases, by looking for systematic deviations between what humans and Bayesians would believe.  Many, however, are reluctant to accept this Bayesian standard; they prefer to collect more specific criteria about what beliefs are reasonable or justified.    For example, Nicholas Shackel recently commented:

It is no less reasonable, and perhaps more reasonable, to start from the premiss that people do reasonably disagree … and if Bayesianism conflicts with that, so much the worse for Bayesianism.

This choice of Bayesian vs. more specific epistemic judgments is an example of a common choice we face.  We often must choose between a strong “simple” framework with relatively few degrees of freedom, and a weak “complex” framework with many more degrees of freedom.  We see similar choices in law, between a few simple general laws and many complex context-dependent legal judgments. 

We also see similar choices in morality, such as between a simple Utilitarianism and more complex context-dependent moral rules, like that we should distribute basic medicine but not movies equitably with a nation.  In a paper on this moral choice, I used the following figure to make an analogy with Bayesian curve-fitting.

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Finding the Truth in Controversies

One of the problems that interests me is how best to learn the truth in controversial matters. There seem to be several approaches that different people use, but which I see as problematic.

One is to simply go along with what your peers believe. This provides obvious social benefits but for people here who are interested in "overcoming bias" it requires some justification. One can in fact make a case that the majority view is often right based on the Wisdom of Crowds. However there are also many situations in which the majority view is clearly incorrect. And given that we are talking about controversial issues, the populace is often split somewhat evenly on the matter, so the force of the follow-the-crowd argument is reduced.

Another is to try to study the issue and become familiar with the arguments pro and con in some depth, and then to use your own judgment to determine the truth – basically, thinking for yourself. I know many very smart people who do this. However there is often considerable variance in the results of this process, and I have observed that the outcome is often predictable just from the known biases of the individual, such as his ideological orientation.

Oversimplifying, I’d say that ordinary people use the first method, and smart people use the second method, but neither strikes me as very reliable on topics of controversy.

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Bias in Christmas Shopping

Just in time for the holidays I saw this article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times (strangely, on the op-ed page): Shopping for Person X. "A study proves it: People are worse at buying gifts for their partners than strangers." They are referring to this article from the Journal of Consumer Research: Why It Is So Hard to Predict Our Partner’s Product Preferences: The Effect of Target Familiarity on Prediction Accuracy. According to the Times:

In a series of experiments, marketing scholars in the Netherlands and Belgium showed images of bedroom furniture to couples who had been together for at least six months. Separately, each subject was asked to choose the styles he or she liked best. Then half were asked to predict what their partners would prefer, while the other half was given information about the preferences of a stranger, called "Person X," and asked to choose styles for them based on those preferences.

As it turned out, members of the second group were much better at guessing what furniture Person X would choose than the first group was at guessing on behalf of their partners. Oops. And unbeknownst to those in the second group, their Persons X were their partners.

All of this suggested to the researchers that the more information you may have in your brain about someone, the less you may be able (or likely) to tease out their likes and dislikes. That may be a result of couples having more important things to talk about than bedroom furniture, but sometimes, the study found, it’s because we impose our own preferences on our partners, something we don’t do to mere strangers.

So if you’re having trouble coming up with that perfect gift for your Significant Other, maybe the secret is to forget how much you know about them. Try thinking of them as a stranger, and consider their likes and dislikes in abstract terms. Choose a gift on that basis and you are more likely to come up with something that they will really like, rather than something that your image of them would like.

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Does the Modesty Argument Apply to Moral Claims?

In “Enhancing Our Truth Orientation,” Robin argues that Aumann’s theorem applies to moral claims. I’m very skeptical of this position, primarily because there does not seem to be a plausible way to translate moral positions into the kinds of probability judgments suitable for Bayesian reasoning.

What reason do we have to believe that moral positions can be understood as subjective probabilities? Is there anyone who genuinely believes that, say, deontology is true with a probability of .7, virtue ethics with a probability of .299, and utilitarianism with a probability of .001? Or that it’s 35% likely to be true that you can’t lie to the murderer at the door? (Kant’s infamous case.) Does it even make sense to say that? Is it at all coherent? What might it mean to utter the statement “there is a .35 probability of it being wrong to lie to the murderer at the door?”

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Philosophers on Moral Bias

The concept of bias seems to be central to the concept of morality.  Philosophers often say the moral action is simply the action you have the best reasons to do.  But we do not usually treat immorally-acting people as if they had made a random analysis error.  We instead treat them as if they were enemies, acting against us on purpose.  And our explanation is usually that they are biased. 

What are these key moral biases?  A few years ago, when writing a Bioethics paper, I collected these quotes from six philosophers, John Rawls, Peter Singer, Norman Daniels, John Arras, Jan Crosthwaite, and Richard Brandt: 

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