Monthly Archives: January 2007

Why are there No Comforting Words that Aren’t also Factual Statements?

Suppose you have a sad friend whom you would like to comfort. Both of you are committed to Overcoming Bias, and you have no information suggesting that the situation is objectively better than your friend thinks it is, so your comfort cannot come from you conveying favorable factual information. What you really want to do is simply offer your friend some sympathetic attention, which sad people appreciate for reasons that have nothing to do with information. You could do this with a hug or a cookie, and people sometimes do so, but there is an overwhelming impulse to have words be part of the comforting. What words can you use? “It’ll be OK” won’t work because you don’t know that to be true. Something like “I love you” or “I care about you” are closer to the mark (if they are true), but even those are factual statements that your friend was probably aware of, and it’s not clear why hearing a known fact, even if it is a pleasant one, should be comforting in and of itself. And anyway “it’ll be OK” is much more common.

Why is it that we have no words to use for fact-free expressions of sympathetic attention? This seems like quite a remarkable fact, whatever the reason turns out to be. As for the reason, here’s a completely made up sociobiological just-so story. Showing sympathy is more fundamental than language; other primates do the former but don’t have the latter. Language evolved in us, and it’s original function was to allow us to express factual statements. But it proved to be so powerful that it insinuated itself into every facet of our lives, so now when we want to express sympathy, we are powerfully inclined to do so verbally, because we do almost everything verbally. Could this be the origin of at least some kinds of bias? Our forebears wanted sympathetic attention, and getting it presumbaly conferred some kind of survival advantage, but because everything has to be done in terms of language they demanded it in the form of comforting words. But almost all available words were about factual statements, and the only factual statements that would be comforting were about how everything was going to be OK, so they reached the point where they could be comforted by hearing such things, even when they were false.

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Prizes versus Grants

Today’s New York Times mentions my work on the history of prizes and grants:

Back in the 1700s, prizes were a fairly common way to reward innovation. … Eventually, though, prizes began to be replaced by grants that awarded money upfront. Some of this was for good reason. As science became more advanced, scientists often needed to buy expensive equipment and hire a staff before having any chance of making a discovery.

But grants also became popular for a less worthy reason: they made life easier for the government bureaucrats who oversaw them and for the scientists who received them. Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University who has studied the history of prizes, points out that they create a lot of uncertainty – about who will receive money and when a government will have to pay it. Grants, on the other hand, allow a patron (and the scientists advising that patron) to choose who gets the money. "Bureaucracies like a steady flow of money, not uncertainty," said Mr. Hanson, who worked as a physicist at NASA before becoming an economist. "But prizes are often more effective if what you want is scientific progress." …

These are the two essential advantages of prizes. They pay for nothing but performance, and they ensure that anyone with a good idea — not just the usual experts — can take a crack at a tough problem. 

Continue reading "Prizes versus Grants" »

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Wanted: A Meta-Poll

Evolutionsurvey It is interesting to see how opinion is distributed on controversial topics.  For example, this chart shows which nations accept natural selection more.  Pollers offer us many ways to slice opinion data, such as by age, gender, education, and so on.  But only rarely do we see polls that ask, as Klein and Dompe recently did:

  • What caused you to have these opinions? 

And I’ve never seen a poll that showed people the distribution of opinion, and then asked

  • How much does this distribution info change your mind?
  • What do you think caused the opinion of those on the other side?
  • What do you think they guess to be the causes of your opinion?

Yet these are the crucial questions for evaluating the rationality of such disagreements.

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Excess Signaling Example

To understand my argument against admirable activities, it helps to understand the concept of inefficient signaling.  Here is a simple example. 

Imagine there are two equal sized groups of employees: good and bad.   Good employees produce twenty units of value for an employer, while bad employees produce ten units of value.   The problem is, it is not easy to tell which employees are which.   With many competing employers, each employee will be paid what he appears to be worth on average.  A good employee will be paid twenty, a bad one will be paid ten, and an employee of random unknown type will be paid fifteen.

Imagine that employees can go to school before they look for a job, but that they would learn nothing useful at school.   They might go to school anyway though, to signal their ability.   Imagine it costs good employees six units of value to complete school, while it costs bad employees twelve units.  In this scenario, we can have an equilibrium where good employees complete school, and bad employees do not.   Employers would pay twenty to graduates, and ten to non-graduates.   

Good employees get a net of fourteen from going to school, which is better than the ten they would get from skipping school.   Bad employees would only get a net of eight from going to school, and so they are better off skipping school.  Notice, however, that both types of employees would be better off if school were not possible, as they would each then get fifteen. 

This example illustrates the concept of inefficient signaling: the effort to make yourself look better than others comes in part at the expense of those others, which means that all else equal we do too much signaling. 

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Rationalization

Steven Pinker writes,

Take the famous cognitive-dissonance experiments. When an experimenter got people to endure electric shocks in a sham experiment on learning, those who were given a good rationale ("It will help scientists understand learning") rated the shocks as more painful than the ones given a feeble rationale ("We’re curious.") Presumably, it’s because the second group would have felt foolish to have suffered for no good reason. Yet when these people were asked why they agreed to be shocked, they offered bogus reasons of their own in all sincerity, like "I used to mess around with radios and got used to electric shocks."

…The brain’s spin doctoring is displayed even more dramatically in neurological conditions in which the healthy parts of the brain explain away the foibles of the damaged parts (which are invisible to the self because they are part of the self). A patient who fails to experience a visceral click of recognition when he sees his wife but who acknowledges that she looks and acts just like her deduces that she is an amazingly well-trained impostor. A patient who believes he is at home and is shown the hospital elevator says without missing a beat, "You wouldn’t believe what it cost us to have that installed."

I think readers of this blog will enjoy Pinker’s entire essay.

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Against Admirable Activities

Christians often say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin."  I say, "Love the signaler but hate the signal."  We all want to be respected, by ourselves and others, or at least not despised or ignored.  So we fill our lives with activities that could get us more admired, such as pursuing our career, practicing our art or sport, tending our beauty, developing our style, being loyal to our friends and family, caring for the downtrodden, becoming more informed about current events, and so on.

These admirable activities help us to develop and show our admirable qualities.  But since admiration is in part relative, my looking more admirable comes in part at the expense of others looking less admirable.  So there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we do too much of them from a global point of view.

Unfortunately, our minds were not built from a global point of view.  We are instead built to admire admirable activities, in addition to admiring the people who do them.  We admire drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on, and we support policies that encourage these activities.  We like our families, churches, clubs, companies, cities, and nations to subsidize such activities.  Parents push their kids toward more admirable activities, such as music over video games.  And nations subsidize science, sport, and arts that will impress other nations. 

This support urge can make evolutionary sense.   A group that coordinates to help its most noticed members look more admirable may be more admired as a group, to the benefit of all group members.  But at a global level we all suffer from admiring admirable activities, much like trees suffer by working to grow tall enough to see the sun past other trees. 

Yes, the optimal level of admirable activities may usually be above zero, and yes other considerations may suggest we do too little of some activities.  But we are too eager to believe such considerations exist.  For example, many will tell you that we should subsidize art because it promotes peace or innovation.  Overall, we try too hard at admirable activities, relative to just enjoying the less-admirable pleasures of life, and we are biased to neglect this problem.  For humanity’s sake, please, take five, and chill.

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Effects of Ideological Media Persuasion

It might seem like if there are a lot of media outlets to choose from, as is the case in the U.S., there will only be such ideological content in the media as viewers (or listeners or readers, but I’ll call them viewers) will want. In other words, it might seem like there won’t be any “persuasion” in the sense of viewers being talked into accepting the ideology of media outlet owners. But it’s not obvious that this is true, and even if it were true it’s not obvious that it is a good thing for viewers get the ideological media content that they “want.” Some reasons are as follows.

1. Viewers will get ideological content that they don’t want (i.e., will get persuasion) if: (i) outlets have ideological content, but also have differentiated non-ideological content that is sufficiently attractive; or (ii) the ideology is effective but is subtle enough that the viewers don’t know they’re getting it.

2. It is precisely when the ideological viewing is consciously choosen that viewers are most likely to forget that they are still being persuaded. Some folks may have started listening to Rush because it was fun to hear him knock the Dems around when they were in power, without realizing that things that were said then put many of them in a frame of mind that led them to be catastrophically wrong about things that were actually important a few years later.

3. There can be meaningful persuasion even when viewers are in no way mistaken about what happens when they expose themselves to ideological media. One of the functions of ideological media is to consciously reinforce existing ideologies. People want to hear a compelling, authoritative voice tell them that they are right. The dittoheads who listen to Rush tune in not just because it’s fun to hear what they already believe to be true, but also for validation that their worldview is correct and respectable. But this is still just another form of persuasion, no less so because it was consciously chosen.

4. One function of ideological media programs is to organize and mobilize. Ideological programming will advance an ideological agenda even if it has no direct persuasive effect at all if it helps group members to co-ordinate on which talking points to use on potential converts, or to know which Congressman to write an angry letter to, and so on.

5. The persuasion that people consciously choose is typically attached to an identity that they adopt for themselves. I identify as a conservative, so I listen to Rush, because he is the voice of the conservatives. But the actual content of what it means to be a conservative is a pretty fluid thing. So whoever gets to define what it means to be a conservative in fact has a lot of persuasive power after all. One of the benefits of being a media owner is being in a position to be that person.

Of course, none of this is necessarily to knock ideological persuasion. At least some of it is almost certainly a good thing. The point is just that ideological media persuasion is neither impossible not obviously benign, even in a free country with lots of media diversity.

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Galt on Abortion and Bias

Jane Galt (the sharpest woman I’ve met) describes how the abortion debate is full of bias and bias accusations:

My favourite, though, are the posts where everyone speculates on the motives of the other side. … So what [pro-lifers] obviously really care about is screwing up women’s lives so that they’ll have to spend the rest of them barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen making lemonade for Pa and his friends when they come in from a hard day of plowing and oppressing colored people. And pro-choicers don’t actually care about women; all they’re really interested is enforcing a radical feminist agenda on the rest of us so girls won’t be able to wear dresses and lipstick any more and boys will have to have their genitalia surgically removed at puberty and replaced with a copy of The Feminine Mystique. …

There is quite a lot of reasoning from the result to the premise on both sides: people who think that it is of surpassing importance for women to take their place at the helm of half the world’s institutions notice that this would be much more difficult in a world containing both frequent sex with people you don’t intend to spawn with, and restricted access to abortion; they therefore reason that abortion must be moral. Conversely, the pro-life side notes that if you deny the obligation of a woman to carry her pregnancy to term, all sorts of other family obligations become harder to logically support, and therefore conclude that abortion must be wrong. Since the pro-life side generally does not care so much about total workplace parity, and the pro-choice side generally does not care so much about preserving traditional family structures, they conclude with some truth that there is a somewhat questionable moral discounting going on across the divide. But the sin is sufficiently equally distributed that this is not enough reason to dismiss the moral heft of the other side’s arguments.

Like Jane, I’ve not "found a well-reasoned answer to the abortion question," and remain uncertain.

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The Procrastinator’s Clock

Someone has developed a procrastinator’s clock that is probabilistically inaccurate.  The idea behind the clock is that if you merely set your clock ahead by, say, 10 minutes then you know the clock is always ten minutes fast and so you will adjust accordingly.  But this probabilistic clock is always somewhere between 0 to 15 minutes fast.  Consequently, you never know the correct time and so can’t correct for the clock’s inaccuracies.  The clock, therefore, is supposed to increase your punctuality by deliberately introducing bias into your timekeeping.  Many bloggers have linked to it.  But I don’t think that the probabilistic clock will decrease the average cost to you of your tardiness. 

Let’s assume that you get a constant benefit for every second you procrastinate, but the cost of being late increases.  With an accurate clock you will procrastinate until at the margin the benefit of procrastinating another second equals the cost of being one more second late.

With the probabilistic clock you don’t know how late you will be, so you don’t know the exact cost of being another second late.  But you can estimate the time and so can estimate the lateness cost of procrastinating another second.  So with the probabilistic clock you will procrastinate until at the margin the benefit of procrastinating another second equals the estimated cost of being one more second late.  On average, therefore, the lateness costs you will suffer will be the same with the accurate and probabilistic clock. 

For reasons I haven’t detailed I suspect you will on average be less late with the probabilistic clock.  But because you will sometimes be extremely late with the probabilistic clock (more late than you would ever be with the accurate clock) the average lateness cost to you if you use the probabilistic clock equals the lateness cost to you if you use the accurate clock.

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Keeping score

A while back Robin Hanson mentioned that somebody should design a mechanism keep to track of pundits’ ‘scores’. Robin notes that there is no feedback mechanism to help the public figure out how accurate pundits’ predictions have been. Moreover, given the way the media works, it’s not clear they have an incentive to find accurate/reliable pundits, rather than entertaining and/or provocative ones. Currently, ‘pundits’ don’t suffer a reputational cost for their blunders. (Anybody recall weapons of mass destruction?) An academic way to go, of course, is to write a critical journal article (also nice at tenure time). For example, the economist/philosopher Erik Angner has written a very nice paper (2006), ‘Economists as Experts: Overconfidence in theory and practice,’ Journal of Economic Methodology 13(1): 1-24 [Fulltext (subscription required); Penultimate draft] in which he analyzes the (somewhat un-inspiring) track-record of Anders Aslund. (Aslund, you may recall, was the Swedish economists that suggested ‘shock therapy’ when he acted as an advisor to the Russian government between 1991 and 1994.) Of course, few pundits deserve such thorough treatment. So, we still await a nice mechanism to ‘score’ and aggregate pundits’ track-records (in the way, say, Ebay merchants are scored). Given the role pundits & talking-heads play in validating (and creating a narrative for) important public policy decisions, this could perform an important public service role. Of course, there is a catch-22 lurking here because it probably requires ‘experts’ to rate/score the ‘experts.’ But given that various foundations are willing to spend serious money on tracking media bias, why not fund a pundit score-keeping institute? In a future post, I’ll discuss the ‘serious’ business of science–and the need for score-keeping in it.

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