Looking for a Hard-Headed Blogger

Two verses from Cat Steven’s classic "Hard Headed Woman":

I know a lot of fancy dancers,
people who can glide you on a floor,
They move so smooth but have no answers.
When you ask Why’d you come here for?
I don’t know Why?

I know many fine feathered friends
but their friendliness depends on how you do.
They know many sure fired ways
to find out the one who pays
and how you do.

Many people seem at first glance to be primarily interested in ideas, but if you look closely you will start to see little clues that they are more interested in social status than it seemed.  For example, they attend more than you would expect to boring well-funded topics, relative to fascinating orphan topics, to bad arguments by well-known people, relative to good arguments by obscure people, and to attention for their insights, relative to generating theirs or reading others’.  The more successful a group, the more of them that tend to be such "fine feathered friends."  To me, this is the main downside of associating with the successful. 

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  • William Newman

    You write ‘The more successful a group, the more of them that tend to be such “fine feathered friends.”‘ But my impression is that at least two of the three traits (preferring bad arguments by well-known people, and seeking attention for their insights rather than weighing promising insights) run all the way down the success spectrum. They seem very common even in policy debates on the elevator, or between bored junior high school students.

    I would basically agree with a weaker statement, “one of the disappointing things about even the most successful groups I’ve been in is that these traits are common all the way to the top.” But is the stronger form, that these traits are significantly more common at the top, really the case?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Robin,

    It’s a tricky issue because even our best ideas become even better when publicized, so others can try them out, point out their flaws, improve them, etc. (This is one of the main motivations for this blog, I assume.) In research as in other fields of life, this leads inevitably to “politics,” brown-nosing, and all the rest. I don’t know of any easy answers here.

    It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, especially since I used to work at a place where my most of my colleagues did not respect my research. This taught me an appreciation for pluralism, which in statistical research implies having respect for methods that I probably wouldn’t use myself.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Andrew,
    Do you think they ACTUALLY didn’t respect your research, or do you think they PERFORMED a lack of respect for your research? Because one may be irrational and could reduce their odds of retaining relative heirarchical advantage relative to their zero sum heirarchy competitors, whereas the other could be a rational self-interest optimizing move for various reasons.

  • http://www.qinfo.org/people/nielsen/blog Michael Nielsen

    An amusing piece of data in this regard: when Australia’s main academic funding body announced special “priority areas” that would receive more funding, the number of applications in those areas pretty much doubled from 16% to 33%. I personally knew many people who all of a sudden became “interested” in those areas.

    Paul Graham has some interesting related thoughts here.

  • http://wakanaka.blogspot.com Paul

    Creative people have to make a living too. Its a lot harder to find an income as an academic when your subjects are obscure people and orphan topics, fascinating as they may be. Certainly some do and we are all the better for it, but for many it is not an option as there is by definition a smaller pool of jobs to support obscure and unfunded subjects. Perhaps it easiest late in one’s career, once you have already established a record doing work on popular people and boring well-funded topics.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Hopefully A.,

    I think they actually didn’t respect my research. There are a lot of different ways to solve statistics problems, and it’s natural among people who have success using method A to aasume that method B won’t work so well. Then there’s the usual groupthink that goes on. But, yeah, I think they were sincere in their disrespect. They just became overcommitted to their position and weren’t looking for disconfirming evidence. Also, unfortunately, their social setting at that time encouraged outrageous attitudes.

    For more on my motivations for pluralism, see these remarks on an article from 1997 called “No Bayesians in foxholes.”

  • _Felix

    Being interested in ideas, at all, may itself be motivated by material considerations, and not as holy and worthy as you set it up to be. I contend that in the most ideal world I can imagine, I wouldn’t ever have to concentrate. Though I expect I’d get my kicks from creativity of some kind, I’d prefer that it came to me intuitively, without my ever particularly thinking about anything (I find it a strain). Therefore my interest in ideas is material, even mercenary, because realism requires me to pay attention now and again in order to have a nice time and get the good stuff.

    This somewhat excuses people who “sell out”.

  • Nathan Iver O’Sullivan

    Robin,

    You have always struck me as a sort of academic iconoclast, shunning the easily attainable academic spotlight in favor of a life of pure intellectual excursion. If I’m right, you are a fitting counterexample of the “fine feathered friend.” Given your predisposition, have you considered that you might be biased to see status-seeking where none exists?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    William, I agree these traits are common at all levels; but it is my weak impression that they are more common to stronger degrees at higher levels.

    Paul, yes even someone only interested in ideas would find an instrumental value in income and status. But such people could be distinguished by their showing less interest in income and status.

    Michael, yes nice example, and nice article by Graham.

    Nathan, the more likely bias of mine would be to not appreciate the kinds of status I may acheive by pursuing ideas my way.

  • http://ww.yahoo.co.uk Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD

    Looking for a Hard-Headed Blogger

    Sir. You will not find any. Bloging is the think tank. we blog to put our thought to others and think what they think of our thoughts while you in turn churn up the best and put this in your white paper or blue papers format and sell this to all.
    Is this fair?

    I thank you.

    Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    Dar-Es-Salaam
    Tanzania
    East Africa.