Monthly Archives: April 2007

Today Is Honesty Day

Today is Honesty Day.   I challenge you to engage in some self-experimentation and see how long you can go without lying today.   From a February Washington Post article:

Ordinary people tell about two lies every 10 minutes, with some people getting in as many as a dozen falsehoods in that period. … liars tend to be more popular than honest people. … A lot of research shows that serious lies are almost always told with the best of intentions. …  Saxe found in one experiment that nearly 85 percent of college students had lied in the course of a romantic relationship, most often about another relationship. (These were lies that people voluntarily admitted to Saxe, which means the actual number of lies and liars was probably higher.) Nearly to a person, the liars said they were trying to protect the feelings of someone they cared about. …

DePaulo once conducted a study in which she asked people to recall the worst lie they had ever told and the worst lie ever told to them. … many young people reported that the worst lie ever told to them was by a parent who concealed news that someone they loved was sick or dying. By contrast, DePaulo found, parents never thought of such deceptions as particularly serious ethical breaches — in fact, they saw them as acts of love.

We lie to ourselves, telling ourselves that we lie to protect others, but those others are not nearly as grateful as we think. 

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More On Future Self Paternalism

Robin recently wrote a post asking whether it makes any sense for your current self to take actions that "paternalistically" constrain your future self.  Below are some points in response, most of which were already mentioned in one form or another in the comments to Robin’s post.

1. Current you has no choice but to act in some sense paternalistically towards future you simply by virtue of the fact that current you came first.  It is inevitable that current you will make choices that set the stage for future you, which requires current you to make decisions based on what’s good for future you.

2. The standard that must be met for future self paternalism to be rational may not be that current you has to be systematically more rational than future you; the standard may only be that current you has to be more rational than future you at his weakest moment.  And that’s not a very hard standard to meet.

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Universal Law

Followup to:  Universal Fire

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier discovered that breathing (respiration) and fire (combustion) operated on the same principle.  It was one of the most startling unifications in the history of science, for it brought together the mundane realm of matter and the sacred realm of life, which humans had divided into separate magisteria.

The first great simplification was that of Isaac Newton, who unified the course of the planets with the trajectory of a falling apple.  The shock of this discovery was greater by far than Lavoisier’s.  It wasn’t just that Newton had dared to unify the Earthly realm of base matter with the obviously different and sacred celestial realm, once thought to be the abode of the gods.  Newton’s discovery gave rise to the notion of a universal law, one that is the same everywhere and everywhen, with literally zero exceptions.

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Universal Fire

In L. Sprague de Camp’s fantasy story The Incomplete Enchanter (which set the mold for the many imitations that followed), the hero, Harold Shea, is transported from our own universe into the universe of Norse mythology.  This world is based on magic rather than technology; so naturally, when Our Hero tries to light a fire with a match brought along from Earth, the match fails to strike.

I realize it was only a fantasy story, but… how do I put this…

No.

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The Fallacy Fallacy

People love to collect lists of "fallacious" argument forms, with which to club opponents.  But beyond a few logical errors, specialists have found little support for the idea that one can tell an argument is bad just by looking at its form.  From a Synthese article last September: 

Lists of so-called fallacies of argumentative discourse date back to Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations and his Topics, and have received further additions throughout the ages. … the kinds of things intended is clear: petitio principii (or `question begging’), arguments from authority, ad hominem arguments, or Locke’s argumentum ad ignorantium (argument from ignorance). These fallacies have accumulated in logic textbooks and have been dubbed "informal" fallacies because it has not been possible to give "a general or synoptic account of the traditional fallacy material in formal terms" … Such analytical treatment has seemed elusive because some of the fallacies are logically valid, but seem to fail as arguments nevertheless. For example, begging the question is deductively valid …  it is increasingly a problem endemic to the field of logic that, in some cases, arguments that seem to be of the same general type as the fallacies are (in some sense) reasonably good arguments, that are, and ought to be, acceptable as legitimate ways of rationally persuading someone to accept a conclusion.

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To Learn or Credential?

At school, students both learn and get credentials of learning.  But what if they had to choose between the two?  My students act as if they care mainly about grades, not learning.  But students who "love school" often tell themselves they are different, that credentials are just icing on their learning cake.  I learned years ago, however, that our choices tell a different story.   

As a researcher at NASA Ames Lab in the late 1980s, I found it easy to sit in on classes at nearby Stanford.  I sat in on many classes in many departments, participating often in class discussions.  I never applied for admission, or paid tuition, but no one ever complained.  One professor even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class.   

So anyone can learn at the very best schools for free, if they are willing to forego the credential.  This free ride would probably stop if more than a few people took advantage of it.  But in fact almost no one is actually interested in just learning, without the credential. 

Even official students face similar choices.  I tell grad students to focus on writing good papers, since no one will care what grades they get, as long as they pass.  I tell my teen sons to spend less homework time meeting anal formatting rules, and more on content.  But my students and sons rarely take my advice.

In my third year as a physics undergraduate at UC Irvine (in 1979), I found that my classes went over the same concepts we had learned in the first two years, just with more elaborate math.  So I decided to play with the physics concepts instead of doing the assigned homework.  I learned enough that way to ace the exams, but my grades often suffered from rigid grading formulas.  However, I had no trouble getting strong letters of recommendation.

So am I just weird, or do too many students neglect learning, relative to credentials?

Added: James Somers is more articulate than I on such matters.   

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Feeling Rational

A popular belief about "rationality" is that rationality opposes all emotion – that all our sadness and all our joy are automatically anti-logical by virtue of being feelings.  Yet strangely enough, I can’t find any theorem of probability theory which proves that I should appear ice-cold and expressionless.

So is rationality orthogonal to feeling?  No; our emotions arise from our models of reality.  If I believe that my dead brother has been discovered alive, I will be happy; if I wake up and realize it was a dream, I will be sad.  P. C. Hodgell said:  "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be."  My dreaming self’s happiness was opposed by truth.  My sadness on waking is rational; there is no truth which destroys it.

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Overconfidence Erases Doc Advantage

Medical expenses now eat 16% of U.S. G.D.P.  That percentage has doubled every thirty years; it was 8% thirty years ago, and 4% thirty years before that.   It will probably double again, to 32%, in the next thirty years. We don’t have many good prospects for reducing that growth, but one of our best is to replace doctors with cheaper alternatives.   Primary care doctors eat a big chunk of our medical budget (median salary 155K$) , yet (confirming previous findings) a randomized trial published in JAMA in 2000 found docs no better than nurse practitioners (median salary 77K$): 

1316 patients who had no regular source of care and kept their initial primary care appointment were enrolled and randomized with either a nurse practitioner (n = 806) or physician (n = 510). … No significant differences were found in patients’ health status … at 6 months … hypertension … was statistically significantly lower for nurse practitioner patients (82 vs 85 mm Hg; P = .04). No significant differences were found in health services utilization after either 6 months or 1 year. There were no differences in satisfaction ratings following the initial appointment (P = .88 for overall satisfaction). Satisfaction ratings at 6 months differed for 1 of 4 dimensions measured (provider attributes), with physicians rated higher (4.2 vs 4.1 on a scale where 5 = excellent; P = .05).

But docs are taught more medicine than nurses; why are they no better at primary care?  Probably because docs are famously overconfident.  For example, one study found that on average when docs were 88% confident that their patient had pneumonia, in fact only 20% of such patients had pneumonia.   And overconfidence is fatal in primary care.

Imagine you are a parent with a sick child, wondering whether to take that child to the hospital.  The key to doing well at this task is to know when you don’t know.  If you see nothing unusual, you should stay home, but if you see something unusual or extreme that you do not understand, you should ask for professional advice.   

It is the same in primary care; most patients are simple and boring: sniffles, rashes, and so on.  Doctors, nurses, or paramedics can all do primary care well if they know when they do not know, i.e., if they can recognize signs that a patient is unusual, and should be referred to a specialist.   And this is where overconfidence is fatal.   Someone who knows less medicine, but admits when they do not know, can do as well as someone who knows more, but is overconfident. 

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The Bleeding Edge of Innovation

What type of hospital should you use if sick?  Well none if possible; you suffer about a 1 in 400 chance of dying from a medical error during each hospital stay.  But what if your problem is bad enough to be worth this risk?

Studies of how often patients die during or after hospital stays, correcting for patient sickness, give many conflicting results.   There may be benefits from hospitals with more nurses per patient, and from private non-profit teaching hospitals.  But it seems there is no benefit from hospitals where more doctors are board-certified specialists.   The best advice I can offer comes from these conflicting observations:

  • Big hospitals have about the same overall death rate as small ones.
  • Big hospitals tend to do more and newer procedures, relative to small ones.
  • For any given procedure, hospitals that do it more have lower death rates.

My resolution:  Big hospitals are better at any given procedure/treatment, but they do more new ones, which tend to be bad.  So avoid the bleeding edge of medical innovation: go to a big hospital, but only accept procedures small hospitals also do.

Added:  Most new ideas are discarded; you want the ones that last. 

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Expert At Versus Expert On

A prosperous and successful plumber is an expert at plumbing.   Someone who is a good source for accurate information on plumbing is an expert on plumbing.  More generally, an expert at a topic is someone who has gained the most attention, praise, income, and so on via their association with the topic.   But this may not be the best expert on that topic.  He may have succeeded by not giving the most accurate information, but by telling people what they want or expect to hear, or by entertaining them.

We often rely on the heuristic of looking to an expert at a topic, when what we want is an expert on a topic.  In fact, most of the people we see being labeled as "experts" are primarily experts at topics.  For example, TV talking heads discussing topic X are usually people who have made a successful career in X.  We may see a general talk about war, or a CEO talk about business.   

But it a rare field where the best way to succeed is to always be completely honest with everyone about everything.   We could greatly benefit from better ways to determine who is really an expert on a topic.  Prediction markets are one possibility.

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