Monthly Archives: April 2007

Meta Majoritarianism

Back in March, Hal Finney advocated "Majoritarianism":

In general, on most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment. ….. Given that we have so many intellectual and emotional biases pushing us towards overconfidence in our opinions, compensating for these biases requires that we give substantial preference to majoritarianism and only depart from it for very strong reasons.

Some of the challenges I raised are addressed in the 1981 book Rational Consensus in Science and Society, where Keith Lehrer and Carl Wagner outlined a position one might call "Meta Majoritarianism":

We shall present a theory of consensual probability … [as a] procedure for aggregating individual probability assignments.  … [that] involves … the computation of consensual weights assigned to each person on the basis of information people have about each other.  …  Our method for finding rational consensus rests on the fundamental assumption that members of a group have opinions about the dependability, reliability and rationality of other members of the group. … a member of the group is rationally committed to the consensual probability … once we agree that the method … is rational, we are rationally committed to the outcome. 

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Future Self Paternalism

Via Tyler Cowen, we hear Robert Fogel did not trust his future selves:

When I graduated from college, I had two job offers.  One was from my father, to join him in the meat-packing business.  That would have been quite lucrative. The other was as an activist for a left-wing youth organization.  I chose the latter and worked as an activist from 1948 to 1956.  At the time I was making that decision, my father told me: "If you really believe in that cause, come work with me.  You will make a much higher wage and you could give your extra income to hire several people instead of just yourself."  I thought, well, that makes some sense.  But I was convinced that this was a way to get me to change my views or at least lessen my commitment to an ideological cause that I found very important.  Yes, the first year, I might give all of my extra money to the movement, but every year I would probably give less, and finally reach the point when I was giving nothing at all.  I feared I would be co-opted. I thought this was my father’s way of indoctrinating me.

When I spent a few weeks at Oxford last summer, Toby Ord similarly said he wanted to commit his future selves to donating at least ten percent of income to third world charity; he did not trust his future selves to make that choice for themselves. 

These paternalism examples are striking, because paternalism is usually justified as a response to a combination of ignorance and irrationality, but Robert and Toby should expect their futures selves to be just as smart and rational, and even better informed than they.  How can they reasonably expect their future selves to be so much more biased that force is appropriate to constrain them?

Added: Tody Ord elaborates in the comments.

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Popularity Is Random

Sunday’s New York Times told of an experiment on music popularity randomness:

In our study, … 14,000 participants … were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of.  Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants. This second group – in what we called the "social influence" condition – was further split into eight parallel "worlds" such that participants could see the prior downloads of people only in their own world. …

In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. …

In fact, intrinsic "quality," which we measured in terms of a song’s popularity in the independent condition, did help to explain success in the social-influence condition. …. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song "Lockdown," by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.

No doubt this also applies to many other kinds of popularity, including in blogs or academia.  Beware of overconfidence about how good is the popular, or bad the unpopular. 

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Holocaust Denial

Many intelligent people, I suspect, believe that the Holocaust probably didn’t occur. This is likely because:

 

1) It seems very unlikely that a group now as powerful as “the Jews” could so recently have allowed themselves to be murdered on such a large scale, and

 

2) Many of their associates doubt that the Holocaust occurred, and

 

3) They live in countries where history books and newspapers promote obvious falsehoods. Thus, they have either read that the Holocaust was a myth, or they have reason to doubt the validity of writings that claimed the Holocaust happened.

 

If I met a Holocaust denier living in, say, Syria I would argue that nearly every sane person in the U.S., a nation with a free press, believes that the Holocaust did occur. But this Syrian could counter that the EU is considering criminalizing Holocaust denial. Such criminalization signals that many people living in the EU, also an area with a free press, doubt that the Holocaust occurred. Furthermore criminalization perhaps shows (from the viewpoint of the Syrian) that believers in the Holocaust want to foreclose debate on the subject and thus indicates that they fear they might lose an honest debate.

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Exercise Sizzle Works Sans Steak

I was stunned to learn from Psychological Science that exercise has an apparent placebo effect: 

84 female room attendants working in seven different hotels were measured on physiological health variables affected by exercise. Those in the informed condition were told that the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Examples of how their work was exercise were provided. Subjects in the control group were not given this information. Although actual behavior did not change, 4 weeks after the intervention, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. As a result, compared with the control group, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. These results support the hypothesis that exercise affects health in part or in whole via the placebo effect.

This could also plausibly be a status effect; status has huge health benefits, and perhaps good exercise jobs are seen as having higher status.  This result is stunning because exercise had previously been my clearest example of something people could do to improve their health.  Yes, the strong correlation between health and exercise is partly because healthy people feel more like exercizing.  But it seemed so plausible that exercise also improves health.  Now I am not so sure.

This is also stunning because we already saw that at least 2/3, and perhaps all, of the benefit of anti-depressant drugs is a placebo effect.

Added: The paper reports no apparent change in related health behavior:

The room attendants did not report any increase in exercise outside of work, nor did they experience any increase in workload over the course of the study. In addition, the subjects reported their habits had not changed over the past 30 days with respect to how much they ate (including servings of sugary foods and vegetables) and how much they drank (caffeine, alcohol, and water).

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The Shame of Tax Loopholing

In the movie Bubble, a woman visiting a man’s room waits until he goes to the bathroom, and then searches for cash, which she finds and keeps.  Abstractly I understand why someone might do this, but I would feel completely ashamed to do it.  It is not just that such theft is uncommon or illegal, or that I had a connection to the victim; I would feel ashamed even if it were legal, if most everyone did it, or if the victim were a stranger.  And I suspect most people feel this way.

I feel the same strong sense of shame about tax loopholing – the act of working to find a way to present myself on my tax form so that I pay less taxes.   The very idea revolts me, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.   But here I seem to be unusual – most people I know seem proud to find better tax loopholes.

As an economist, I can argue the consequences are similar – in both cases you use effort to transfer resources from other people to yourself.   Yes, perhaps you need the cash more than they do, or perhaps there is some "evolution in action" benefit of moving resources to the clever from the not-so-clever.  But usually such gains don’t seem worth the effort expended to create such transfers, or to prevent them.

I feel similarly about the idea of buying a bigger car to protect my family in a collision.   If small cars crashing together create the same casualties as larger cars crashing together, then buying a bigger car to avoid casualties is in essence working to move casualties from your family to other families.   

To the extent that an act’s shame should be tied to its consequences, being ashamed of taking cash from a stranger’s wallet, but not of tax-loopholing or big-car-protecting, seems biased to me.   But perhaps shame is just not about the consequences.

Added:  My complaint is mainly about lost effort, not so much the transfer itself.  The main effect of your efforts to pay less taxes is that others pay more later, via tax rate increases.  Any required adjustments to your behavior are unlikely to be social beneficial.  Any resulting change in tax emphasis will have little social benefit.  The resulting government spending reduction will be small compared to your gain, and most of that spending pays for services most people value.  It will not spark the great libertarian revolution, and your feeling less like a sucker will come at the expense of others feeling more like a sucker.

Also: The same applies to buying a taller car in order to see past other cars. 

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Vonnegut on Overcoming Fiction

Via Jonathan Witmer-Rich, we find (just deceased) Kurt Vonnegut writing on fiction biases:

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen.  And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results:  They were doing there best to live like people invented in story books.  This was the reason Americans shot each other so often:  It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as thought their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues?  Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in made-up tales.

And so on.

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Consolidated Nature of Morality Thread

My intended next OB post will, in passing, distinguish between moral judgments and factual beliefs.  Several times before, this has sparked a debate about the nature of morality.  (E.g., Believing in Todd.) Such debates often repeat themselves, reinvent the wheel each time, start all over from previous arguments.  To avoid this, I suggest consolidating the debate.  Whenever someone feels tempted to start a debate about the nature of morality in the comments thread of another post, the comment should be made to this post, instead, with an appropriate link to the article commented upon.  Otherwise it does tend to take over discussions like kudzu.  (This isn’t the first blog/list where I’ve seen it happen.)

I’ll start the ball rolling with ten points to ponder about the nature of morality…

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Irrationality or Gustibus?

de gustibus non disputandum
(there’s no accounting for taste)

Can Eliezer’s reasoning about lotteries be extended to something like sexuality? The goal of our sex drives is reproduction of the fittest members of the species. But today we have interrupted this process so that most sexuality does not lead to reproduction. The underlying logic of the drive is no longer functional. Does this mean that our sex desires are irrational, and that we should consider sex to be as pernicious and harmful as lotteries?

Another example is our love of sweet and fatty foods, which are harmful to our health in today’s environment. The fundamental reasons we seek these foods no longer apply today. In a sense, this kind of hunger is irrational, in that satisfying the drive is actually harmful to us.

Where do we draw the line in judging whether our desires are rational?

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Your Rationality is My Business

Some responses to Lotteries: A Waste of Hope chided me for daring to criticize others’ decisions; if someone else chooses to buy lottery tickets, who am I to disagree?  This is a special case of a more general question:  What business is it of mine, if someone else chooses to believe what is pleasant rather than what is true?  Can’t we each choose for ourselves whether to care about the truth?

An obvious snappy comeback is:  "Why do you care whether I care whether someone else cares about the truth?"  It is somewhat inconsistent for your utility function to contain a negative term for anyone else’s utility function having a term for someone else’s utility function.  But that is only a snappy comeback, not an answer.

So here then is my answer:  I believe that it is right and proper for me, as a human being, to have an interest in the future, and what human civilization becomes in the future.  One of those interests is the human pursuit of truth, which has strengthened slowly over the generations (for there was not always Science).  I wish to strengthen that pursuit further, in this generation. That is a wish of mine, for the Future.  For we are all of us players upon that vast gameboard, whether we accept the responsibility or not.

And that makes your rationality my business.

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