Arbitrary Silliness

When I visited Oxford a few weeks ago I brought up a subject which has been bugging me lately – we don’t understand what makes research topics “silly.”   For example:

Apparently most people the world over think aliens exist, think searches might find them, think that would be a very important discovery, but think the subject is way too silly to justify government funding.

Similarly, most people think futarchy (government by betting markets) is silly, even though most think it has a decent chance of performing well, and even though it isn’t obviously less likely to happen than a strong world government, which is not nearly as silly.  Or see this gigglefest on future robot threats.

At Oxford we listed possible obstacles to dealing better with global catastrophic risks, and we guessed the biggest obstacle is that the topic seems silly.  This puzzle of what makes topics silly seems to have stuck in the mind of Anders Sandberg:

Regarding some things as silly does not seem to result from an estimation that the probability is extremely low, it seems to be a direct rejection of it as unthinkable and irrelevant – not the same thing, although the rejector will quickly argue that the chances of the things happening are minuscule. The rejection has many similarities to the yuck reaction we see in ethics, where certain possibilities are rapidly rejected as immoral with little reflection (c.f. the work of Haidt). So maybe the best explanation of what makes a paper silly is just that it goes against the social intuitions we have built up about thinkable, serious subjects. Space travel is science fiction and science fiction has low status, so hence papers about the economics of space travel must be silly. Life extension is silly, so papers looking at its consequences must be silly. Framing world government in terms of non-silly globalisation makes it non-silly. (more)

This silliness-taboo has been a thorn in my side all my life, so I’m eager for any insight.

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  • anonymous

    Regarding some things as silly does not seem to result from an estimation that the probability is extremely low, it seems to be a direct rejection of it as unthinkable and irrelevant

    On the contrary, perhaps the “silliness” judgment might result from a combination of low-probability and some kind of “obviousness” or triviality, which raises the probability of the research being mistaken or fraudulent. One example is perpetual motion devices: a claim that perpetual motion had been achieved would only be accepted if overwhelming evidence was provided.

    Ironically, “silly” research topics may be unique in requiring extraordinary evidence to be believed, while most research claims can largely stand on their very extraordinarity.

  • Vladimir Golovin

    I thought about silliness too, albeit not in the context of research topics.

    Here’s my attempt: People consider things silly if they feel that these things are useless for propagating their own genes (or someone else’s genes, thanks to mirror neurons) into future generations in their own lifetime.

    Examples of silliness: playing in a garage band after you’re married, woodworking, reading science fiction, collecting post stamps, being a transhumanist — none of these things will attract reproductive females to you, increase your own sexual attractiveness, provide your body with nutrients, better protect you from the environment, increase your status within the tribe etc.

    As for the silliness of research topics, I think what people are thinking is “how this research can benefit (the gene propagation of) me and people like me, here and now”.

    19-th century music? Silly. Exoplanets? Silly. Fruit fly excrements? Silly.

    Better flu drug? Not silly — it increases my health (and therefore reproductive ability). Better miles per gallon? Not silly — I save money (which I can spend on reproduction). Et cetera.

  • spindizzy

    I think Vladimir’s post is a pretty accurate analysis.

    As for strategies to deal with the “silly” reaction, what is your strategy to deal with the “yuk” reaction?

    The ethical yuk is more problematic than judgements of silliness, because yukkers usually want to enforce their objections universally.

    For example, many people regard germline modification as yuk but they see cryogenics as silly. So if I mention my interest in the former, I should prepare for hostile reactions whereas if I mention my interest in the latter I will be considered a harmless loon.

  • The difficulty with Vladimir’s explanation is this: I can think of many research topics that most people would consider esoteric, useless, and detrimental to reproductive fitness, but not silly in the same sense as astrobiology (for example, the things I work on, and almost all of pure math for that matter).

    I find that my own silliness reflex has much more to do with whether “mundane progress” on the topic can be or is being made, or whether we’re talking about possibilities that (while imaginable) are so far beyond our current experience that anything we can say about them now is probably uninformed speculation.

    To give some examples:

    Silly: A paper investigating how many arms ET’s are likely to have, and whether they’re more likely to be friendly or hostile.
    Not silly: A paper giving a better algorithm for filtering SETI@home data.

    Silly: A paper advocating that all governments be dissolved and reconstituted based on prediction markets.
    Not silly: A paper studying the accuracy of prediction markets in the 2008 US elections.

    Silly: A paper about the best route to achieving superhuman AI by 2040.
    Not silly: A paper about training neural nets to distinguish male from female faces.

    There are plenty of unrelated kinds of scientific silliness: for example, unmotivated specificity (a paper about numbers that are palindromes when written in base 10), or the kind honored by the Ig Nobel prizes (a statistical analysis of belly-button lint). But the kind relevant to Robin’s examples seems to be the kind that mistakes a vision of the far unknown for a research contribution.

    I don’t claim that every paper that presents such a vision is silly — just that readers might have good reasons to assume as much, and that a strong burden falls on the author to convince them otherwise.

  • Silliness isn’t an intrinsic property – public perception of what is silly and what is not changes quite a bit over time. Good examples of recent marked changes in public perception have occurred around the threat from asteroids, the singularity, climate change, grey goo, each of which is perceived as considerably less silly today than 15 years ago. In each case, it seems to take apparently-credible people loudly and repeatedly banging a public drum to achieve a change in public perception. Examples are Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy.

  • michael vassar

    I think that Vladimir basically nails it with respect to the general populace’s attitudes, but that anonymous gives pretty much the correct answer with regard to the attitudes of the scientific community, which was, I believe, the subject of the post. The only thing I want to add is that we shouldn’t underplay snobbery. I think that any field of science that attracts serious public interest or attention is automatically silly unless it fits in a few clear “sacred” categories such as (or limited to) preserving the environment and preserving normal health.

  • Aaron

    I think the main issue is what’s considered silly in the scientific community. String theory is not considered silly, though it’s extremely esoteric and may even be a dead end. But people are taking part in it. I think that’s the key: critical mass. If you want to get people interested in a “silly” topic, you need some heavy hitters doing serious work on it. I think you’ll be seeing this with prediction markets. Sooner or later it will get a critical mass, most likely because it does have outcomes that would be tangible (this factor could lure people into a topic, but it doesn’t influence the perceived silliness – a topic could produce very little tangible results other than publications, but publications would be enough).

    I would focus on getting critical mass of one idea. Keep the other research interests on the side, maybe try to find a champion for them, as long as that doesn’t detract from the critical mass you’re currently building. And give it time. Look at Fourier, his stuff took quite awhile before people could make use of it.

  • athmwiji

    the probability that your solution to a problem is correct is not just effected by your ability and the difficult of the problem, but also by other people claiming to have a correct solution to a similar problem.

    If I claim to have created the chemical elements 137-141 and they are stable. From your perspective the chance that I am right is not very high, but It would not be considered silly. If lots of people last year had claimed to have created new large elements with extraordinary properties, and had later been shown to be fraudulent or delusional, it would make my claim seem much more silly.

  • Michael Nielson and Aaron seem right to me. ‘Silly’ in this context would then mean ‘politically impossible at present’. A tribe-member has a good idea but it doesn’t jibe with the status quo. It’s silly. He persuades other tribe members. The idea gets traction–the idea’s less silly. He gets a majority. The idea’s not silly at all anymore.

    This dovetails with my comment in another post here, pointing to Richard Posner’s idea about reasonableness as a standard for pragmatic judicial judgments. The pragmatic judge doesn’t want to disgust the public (wishes to avoid silliness perhaps), so looks for a judgment that is ‘reasonable’.

    Perhaps people might rebel against technocrats with good ideas that the people hate, much like I suspect people might not make use of an AI who would make better judgments for them than they would make themselves.

    Is the issue people want control and want to feel they’ve been consulted and that their approval matters? The silliness of an idea perhaps reflects the possibility that much of the public hasn’t been persuaded or consulted or attended to (perhaps that intellectuals with good ideas have not sufficiently ‘shown they care’).

  • tcpkac

    Never underestimate the silliness-by-association factor. For instance : futocracy based on prediction markets is considered silly because associated with the behaviour of stock markets : herd instinct, oversteer in any even slightly abnormal situation, the greed factor blinding players to any rationality, the need to be seen as in the game (a.k.a. herd instinct, btw). The basic lack of education or intelligence of most of the ‘barrow boy’ players. How long would futocracy resist those pressures, and how wrong are those that associate futocracy with silliness because of those concerns ?

  • Unknown

    I doubt that there is one common factor in all cases; things are thought to be silly for many different reasons, in many cases simply by association with something else which is thought to be silly, such as science fiction.

    I didn’t realize that people thought that futarchy is silly. But given that they do, I would suggest that there is one simple reason: the name “futarchy,” which strikes me as a little silly, for reasons unintelligible to me. I suspect that if you give up giving the thing a name and simply describe it in a roundabout way, people might be less likely to think of it as silly.

  • Aaron

    I think Unknown has a good point. I would categorize it as branding. Prediction-market based decision-analysis might be a wonky enough renaming.

  • Reminded me of this — McCain is not happy about “silly” project like studying bear DNA

    This example is the silliness idea taken to extremes…

  • poke

    I think the problem with Futarchy (besides the name) is that it doesn’t address the issues people have with government. There’s a bias involved. I think, regardless of the availability of alternative non-character-centric solutions, people always see institutional problems in terms of character. Thus, the only legitimate (none silly) change we can make in government is getting the right people in power; the only legitimate change we can make in education is finding better teachers; the only legitimate change we can make in medicine involves the quality of medical practitioners; etc. When it comes to institutions of this nature there always seems to be an artificial barrier to non-character-centric solutions. So, while alternative solutions may be perceived as workable, they’re always trumped by the need for “better” leaders/teachers/doctors/etc.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “People consider things silly if they feel that these things are useless for propagating their own genes (or someone else’s genes, thanks to mirror neurons) into future generations in their own lifetime. [graf break] Examples of silliness: […] none of these things will attract reproductive females to you […]”

    Of course people want to be healthy and sexually satisfied, but no one actually cares about fitness per se. “Adaptation-executers, not …” &c. Also, not everyone is seeking reproductive females.

  • I think ideas are declared “silly” in Robin Hanson’s sense when (1) they collide with “common sense” and (2) there isn’t yet an established body of experts commanding enough authority to make those ideas respectable. Action at a distance, string theory and the Everett interpretation of Quantum Mechanics all do violence to various commonsensical views about the world, but they are not generally thought to be silly because there are sufficiently many reputable physicists reassuring the rest of us that these views are worth taking seriously. By contrast, the simulation hypothesis, futarchy, or the abolitionist project are generally laughed out of court because as well as “not making sense” they are advocated by a tiny minority of enthusiasts.

    Of course, the basic question posed by Robin will remain unanswered until we specify what common sense is and hence what views offend it. But I think the notion of common sense lends itself more naturally to investigation than the elusive notion of “silliness”.

  • Brad Hutchings

    Agree with the concepts of “yuk” and “silly” above. There is also the problem when people have a lot invested in a particular line of thinking or political position. There is a strong bias toward dominant positions on settled issues. For example, being for selling organs is still a pretty whacky position. Not so whacky as 15 years ago, when I first thought encountered the issue, gave it some thought, and came to the whacky conclusion, but still enough to raise eyebrows at the dinner table. Or take “price gouging” in times of crisis, like raising the price of gas during a hurricane. One tine I defended the price gougers at the dinner table, my Dad (a good Republican) said I was a disgrace to my last name for even considering the idea that there could be benefits. One thing I’ve concluded is that you have to be a different kind of cat — a very different kind of cat — to even dig into the opposite sides of so-called settled issues. It’s probably a kind of specialization, in that when you see how one of these settled issues breaks down, you start seeing how a lot of settled issues break down. And then you find yourself drawn to settled issues that beg to be broken down. And so, yeah, your curiosity bias makes the continual rebukes of your interests seem like groundhog day.

  • Vladimir Golovin

    >>> Of course people want to be healthy and sexually satisfied, but no one actually cares about fitness per se.

    I agree — nobody cares about their gene propagation per se. What people care about is maximizing the values of certain “indicators” built into them by the evolution, which correspond to things like orgasms, full belly, clean water around, shelter, company of reproductive mates (not necessarily females, of course :), smiling children, cohesion with the tribe etc etc. Dawkins has an excellent paragraph on this somewhere in his books, I’m just too lazy to look up the actual quote.

    Also, I fully agree with previous posters who included the conformity factor into their definition of silliness. Conformity, as demonstrated by the experiments Solomon Asch, is definitely one of the things I’d like to add to my definition I posted earlier.

  • Social dynamics of the Silly stigma

    Robin Hanson is a clever man with interesting ideas so he has been forced to consider the question of why certain ideas get rejected out of hand as “silly”. He asks for answers on Overcoming Bias.
    Silliness is an unstable social circularity. …

  • Compiling the list so far seems to suggest four categories of silliness:

    Epistemic silliness:
    Not common sense/low prior probability
    Apparently obviously/trivially wrong (or right)
    Evidence similar cases involve fraud/does not work
    Not enough credibility supporting experts or other evidence

    Practical silliness:
    No benefit to fitness or clear practical use

    Social silliness:
    Associated with low status groups/ideas/signals/categories
    Wrong branding

    Political silliness:
    Lack of critical mass giving support
    Politically impossible
    Sacred values being violated

    Maybe it is enough to trigger one of the categories to get yuck-factor like triggering of the others as rationalisation.

    Beside the instructive stories about how silly things have become non-silly, we should look at how non-silly things become silly. Fortunately both areas sound like exactly what historians regard as non-silly.

  • Marci

    Not much is intrinsically silly. Like Schroedinger’s cat, the judgement seems to occur at the moment of observation and is wholly dependent on the observer. That said, clown shoes and mutton-chop sideburns are absolutely and unavoidably silly.

  • LP

    I’m willing to agree that there are probably all sorts of reasons certain research areas are ‘silly,’ but in my experience this often happens when the first person into the area (or the first well-known person to get into the area) makes wild claims that are not borne out by evidence, thus making themselves look foolish. Once this happens, everyone gets very nervous about the whole area because they’re afraid of looking foolish like that first guy. And in order to provide a rationale for ignoring an entire area of research, they marginalize it.

  • Dr. Jeffry Smith

    Speaking of “wonky”, one proposed research paper that came across my desk was: “The Impact of the Amazon Phenomenon, Wherein Some Women Have One Breast Removed In Order To Identify With Empowered Feminism”. And that was to be a dissertation topic for a Ph.D. in Education…

  • There are things that many people in this community consider silly, that society at large does not.

    – The ontological argument
    – Tariffs
    – Christianity
    – Either American political party
    – Caring about professional sports
    – Fashion
    – Smoking cigarettes
    – Macintosh computers

    Are the reasons this community has for considering things silly, different from the reasons the world at large has for considering things silly?

    When I tried to make a list of ideas that people who read this blog consider silly, that I don’t; and of ideas that I consider silly, that people who read this blog don’t, the lists both consisted entirely of ideas hated or advocated by libertarians. This suggests to me that ideology may be the largest component in bias about silliness.

    Then again, the difference between what Americans consider silly, and what Japanese consider silly, is large enough that culture may be the largest component. (Saying this made me realize that I don’t know how to distinguish between culture and ideology.)

  • Mikaela

    In general, I think silliness is a reflection of how (non) ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’ something might seem to be. So in one end of the spectrum we have things that appear so far fetched and distant they seem irrelevant to the present or mid term future(like in Scott’s examples) and on the other we have things that seem so ‘obvious’ and proximal (I’m really not sure if this is the right anyway..I’m thinking of the belly buttons) that they also seem irrelevant. Then theres a big mesh in the center of things people consider to be silly because of this lack of relevance.. Now, what determines if something is useful and/or relevant to individuals (or groups..)? we may have some universal wants and needs (things that reflect in higher fitness for example-Vladimirs post) but then theres a great mesh thats influenced by culture…. i also think, as Phil says, that culture is the largest component..
    I was tempted to say that people who have never heard of science fiction per se, when asked what they thought of research on aliens might also say it is very silly.. but then again maybe not and maybe they would not deem it silly at all (as they have no contact with the stereotypes of science fiction and believe in creatures-aliens that harm livestock, crops..etc.)… but if you ask it compared to other research topics (tests on flu-drugs) then the silliness might kick when considering it in research topics that ‘relative’ silliness might be quite important.

    I also agree (Phil) that even though someone mentioned above that string theory is not considered silly (here), I would say that probably the majority of people, at least in western countries (where I have been) still consider it silly.. and thats where McCain comes in saying studies of bears DNA is also silly. I dont think it is..but how could we (can we) convince him otherwise? because of its use? (relevance..)-maybe. I might say because of bears inherent right to exist but he might think thats silly so where do we go from there?


  • SteveR

    The problem with Vladimir’s definition of silliness as (being in part) that which doesn’t attract reproductive females (playing in garage bands, collecting stamps etc) is that the reason these reproductive females aren’t attracted is because they think these are silly pursuits. So we haven’t actually made any progress in our definition here, beyond that we should trust the good sense of women regarding what qualifies as silly.

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