Monthly Archives: March 2007

Big Issues vs Small Issues

I often start my postings with a joke, and I’ve come to see that the reason is that jokes that stay with me are ones that teach a lesson, and that the lessons are often relevant to the issues we discuss here. Here’s one version of one of my favorites:

An elderly woman is discussing gender-roles with her liberated granddaughter. "In the old days," says the grandmother, "the man wore the trousers and his wife respected him like a king. Take me and your grandfather, for example. All the big decisions were taken by him, while I was in charge of all the small matters." The young woman is horrified and asks for explanations. "Simple," says Granny, "your grandfather had the last word on the big issues, like the global oil prices and the cold war between the Soviets and the West. I took all the small decisions, like how to manage our family budget, what furniture we should buy and how to educate our children…"

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Tolstoy on Patriotism

Via Bryan Caplan, we get this quote from my favorite author, Leo Tolstoy:

If an American wishes the preferential grandeur and well-being of America above all other nations, and the same is desired by his state by an Englishman, and a Russian, … and all of them are convinced that these desires need not only not be concealed or repressed, but should be a matter of pride … and if the greatness and wellbeing of one country or nation cannot be obtained except to the detriment of another nation, … – how can war be avoided?

And so, not to have any war, it is … necessary to … destroy what produces war. … the desire for the exclusive good for one’s own nation – what is called patriotism. And so to abolish war, it is necessary to abolish patriotism, and to abolish patriotism, it is necessary to it is necessary first to become convinced that it is an evil, and that is hard to do.

Bryan comments:

A hundred years later, Tolstoy seems more perceptive than ever. In the modern world, how often do countries actually have anything to fight about? 

I intend to take this position:  I prefer what is good for the world, over what is good for my country, and when USA patriots disagree with others about what is good for the world, I’m not particularly likely to take their side.  But I wonder: Do I really take this position? 

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“Statistical Bias”

(Part one in a series on "statistical bias", "inductive bias", and "cognitive bias".)

"Bias" as used in the field of statistics refers to directional error in an estimator.  Statistical bias is error you cannot correct by repeating the experiment many times and averaging together the results.

The famous bias-variance decomposition states that the expected squared error is equal to the squared directional error, or bias, plus the squared random error, or variance.  The law of large numbers says that you can reduce variance, not bias, by repeating the experiment many times and averaging the results.

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Explain Your Wins

From yet another good article by Shankar Vedantam:

Winners discount information about lucky breaks and chalk up their right calls to superior judgment, whereas losers tend to emphasize the role of bad luck — rather than bad judgment — when their predictions go wrong.

Thomas Gilovich … said this is why a lot of water-cooler conversations among NCAA office-pool participants feature people explaining to others why their predictions went wrong. People don’t talk very much about predictions that went right, Gilovich said, because they automatically chalk up those results to brilliant insight. Wrong calls, however, are invariably seen to be caused by fluke events — which is why they need explaining. …

When psychologists once asked sports fans to visualize how a particular team might win a game, the volunteers became far more likely to later believe that the team would win — and to bet money on it. Essentially, psychologist Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University said, focusing on some part of a conundrum makes it much more difficult for people to keep in mind how much they do not know about all the other variables involved. …

Gibson has also found that gambling is one domain in which it may be wiser to have a pessimistic personality rather than an optimistic personality. Gamblers tend to be optimists in that they inherently believe good things are likely to happen to them. When a pessimist wins a bet, he is likely to walk away with his winnings because he can’t believe that his lucky streak will continue. … optimists were far more likely to throw good money after bad because they believed that, sooner or later, things would break their way

To do better:  focus more on explaining why you won, than on why you lost. 

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Beware of Information Porn

I hope this title doesn’t get the blog blacklisted. I assure you it is perfectly "SFW"!

I’m using "information porn" in a certain way based on an entertaining and informative Bloomberg article about investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors. The article discusses DFA’s warnings about "investment porn", by which they mean articles that tout some new company or investment as the next big thing. DFA are followers of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, and one of their directors is economist Eugene Fama, a pioneer of the EMH. DFA were among the first fund families to create index funds and promote "passive investing", a sharp departure from traditional active investing, where fund managers try to cleverly pick stocks and other investments that have exceptional value. DFA is almost fanatical about their philosophy and really puts investment advisors through the wringer before allowing them to sell DFA funds. I suppose this can be seen as an example of the EMH applied to marketing; if you have a high value product, the market will figure it out and so you can afford to be picky about your customers. That seems to be their philosophy, anyway, and they’ve been quite successful at it.

Investment porn is therefore material which is exciting and makes you think you’re getting inside information, an inside track and a chance to do well in the markets ahead of everyone else. But it’s basically public information, so you’re deluding yourself if you think this kind of data is really going to give you an advantage.

I’m generalizing this to information porn, which can play a similar misleading role in more general areas of controversy where you are trying to come up with an unbiased view of the truth. Information porn in this sense is data which will supposedly lead you to the truth, often by promoting or arguing for a certain position. But as with the investment porn case, the data is fundamentally public and available to everyone. Once again, you are fooling yourself if you think that relying on this data is going to give you an advantage over the consensus opinion, because that opinion will already have taken this data into account.

This obviously ties into the Majoritarian view, and I want to thank commenter ChrisA for pointing out the connection between Philosophical Majoritarianism and the EMH. From this perspective, arguments and data which support a controversial position are much like pornography, and should be viewed with similar skepticism. (Or consumed with similar eagerness, depending on taste.)

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Info Has No Trend

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, Illya Somin takes to heart Hal Finney’s suggestion that:

If you can make a case for progress even acknowledging that in the future your own practices may be seen as savage and appalling, you are much less likely to be manifesting self-satisfaction bias.

Ilya takes up the challenge:

I see at least three areas where there is a good chance of this happening: Animal Rights. … The Death Penalty. … Forced Labor. … If I am right about these predictions, should I revise any of my current moral views? … I am unmoved in my opposition to forced labor. … its increasing acceptance will say little about its rightness. I am less certain about the death penalty. … the fact that so many others are turning against it despite the lack of a clear self-interested or other biased reason for doing so does give me some pause. … I am least confident [regarding] animal rights. … My position is at least in part the result of a strong self-interested bias of my own: I like to eat meat. 

Hal similarly forecasts:

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Tsuyoku vs. the Egalitarian Instinct

Followup to:  Tsuyoku naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)

Hunter-gatherer tribes are usually highly egalitarian (at least if you’re male) – the all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment.  Among most hunter-gatherer tribes, a hunter who brings in a spectacular kill will carefully downplay the accomplishment to avoid envy.

Maybe, if you start out below average, you can improve yourself without daring to pull ahead of the crowd.  But sooner or later, if you aim to do the best you can, you will set your aim above the average.

If you can’t admit to yourself that you’ve done better than others – or if you’re ashamed of wanting to do better than others – then the median will forever be your concrete wall, the place where you stop moving forward.  And what about people who are below average?  Do you dare say you intend to do better than them?  How prideful of you!

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Libertarian Purity Duels

Many of my colleagues are reading Brian Doherty’s "Radicals for Capitalism," so I read the first chapter.  Doherty describes how movement libertarians competed to show who was more devoted to principle: 

Many a movement libertarians’s favorite pastime is reading others out of the movement for various perceived ideological crimes.   As Fred Smith, head of the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, says, "When two libertarians find themselves agreeing on something, each knows the other has sold out."  Libertarians are a contentious lot, in many cases delighting in staking ground and refusing to move on the farthest frontiers of applying the principles of noncoercion and nonaggression; resolutely finding the most outrageous and obnoxious position you could take that is theoretically compatible with libertarianism and challenging anyone to disagree.   If they are not of the movement, then you can enjoy having shocked them with your purism and dedication to principle; if they are of the movement, you can gleefully read them out of it.

Libertarians … have advocated … private ownership of nuclear weapons; the right of parents to starve their children; and that if you fell off a building and grabbed onto a flagpole and didn’t have the explicit permission of the person who owned the balcony, you ought to let yourself fall rather than violate their property rights by crawling to safety. 

Seems quite a bit like arguments leading to duels.  Duels signal ability and willingness to defend yourself, which women find attractive because it suggests you can and will defend them.   Perhaps women like men committed to principles, in the hope that such men stay more committed to their women as well.

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Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)

In Orthodox Judaism there is a saying:  "The previous generation is to the next one as angels are to men; the next generation is to the previous one as donkeys are to men."  This follows from the Orthodox Jewish belief that all Judaic law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai.  After all, it’s not as if you could do an experiment to gain new halachic knowledge; the only way you can know is if someone tells you (who heard it from someone else, who heard it from God).  Since there is no new source of information, it can only be degraded in transmission from generation to generation.

Thus, modern rabbis are not allowed to overrule ancient rabbis.  Crawly things are ordinarily unkosher, but it is permissible to eat a worm found in an apple – the ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple, and therefore was part of the apple.  A modern rabbi cannot say, "Yeah, well, the ancient rabbis knew diddly-squat about biology.  Overruled!"  A modern rabbi cannot possibly know a halachic principle the ancient rabbis did not, because how could the ancient rabbis have passed down the answer from Mount Sinai to him?  Knowledge derives from authority, and therefore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes.

When I was first exposed to the angels-and-donkeys proverb in (religious) elementary school, I was not old enough to be a full-blown atheist, but I still thought to myself:  "Torah loses knowledge in every generation.  Science gains knowledge with every generation.  No matter where they started out, sooner or later science must surpass Torah."

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Reporting Chains Swallow Extraordinary Evidence

In January I claimed:

An extraordinary claim is usually itself extraordinary evidence … I would be very unlikely to make such claims in situations where I did not have good reasons to think them true.  The times to be more skeptical of unlikely claims are when there is a larger than usual chance that someone would make such a claim even if it were not true. 

Eliezer responded, and then I outlined a formal model.  I now have a working paper.  In it, I consider the effect of people being organized into a reporting chain, such as up the levels of an organization, or from researcher to referee to editor to reporter to editor and so on.  The new interesting result:

When people are organized into a reporting chain, noise levels grow exponentially with chain length; long chains seem incapable of communicating extraordinary evidence.   

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