Endearing Sincerity

Honestly demands I admit that soon after penning that sincerity is overrated, and that fiction typically distracts from reality, I fell in love with a fictional movie celebrating sincerity:  Once, depicting people who really love music, more than money or sex or anything.  It resonated with my cherished memories of being a teen religious cultist (~’74), and a young adult in an idealistic tech community exploring the web, nanotech, and more (’84-93).  People feel tied especially tied to others with whom they share a deep love of an unpopular or unrewarded hobby.  When other rewards loom larger, such as money, fame, sex, etc., we are less sure of our associates’ motives.

I’m lucky to be a professor, but alas since this job pays money and prestige, most of the people I deal with seem to primarily seek such rewards.  Gordon Tullock (office next to mine) in 1966:

An investigator wholly motivated by induced curiosity is different in many ways from one motivated by either curiosity or a desire to make practical application of new knowledge.  … If he could establish and maintain his reputation, and hence his job, by reporting completely fictional discoveries, this would accomplish his end.  … Those administering a system of induced research …  must make certain that [such] investigators are induced to pay attention to the real world.  As we have seen, the actual system used by administrators in our present setup is simply to count the number of papers published by a man in journals of various degrees of reputation.  The reputation of the journals, again as we have seen, is determined by their readers.  … A self-perpetuating process might be set in motion in which a journal read only by people motivated by induced curiosity gradually slipped away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects.  In most sciences this does not happen. … One symptom of the existence of this condition is the development of very complex methods of treating subject which can be readily handled by simple methods (pp56-57).

It is worse that Tullock thought.  Few academic topics are dominated by topic lovers; intellectual progress is largely a side effect of prestige seeking.  And even "sincere" topic love is directed by our ancient evolved coding designed to gain us more basic rewards.  But even so, I miss being part of a community primarily tied by a common love of a topic or activity, vs. wider prestige or money.  Not sure how consistent this is with anything else I’ve written.

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  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    Maybe we’re biased by what we like to do. We want to understand our loved hobbies might bias us, but doing this might be a buzz kill. Maybe there’s a tension between enjoying ourselves fully and not getting carried away. What might be ways of dealing with this tension?

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    I think that one quantitative way of measuring the predominance of reputation-seeking over curiousity, and of self-sustaining cyles of reputation-seeking, is to
    1. estimate the fraction of (papers published in reputable journals | professors employed at reputable universities) that (come from | graduated from) the most reputable universities,
    2. find an objective measure of ability for graduates of different universities, such as GRE scores,
    3. estimate the mean and standard deviation of the fraction mentioned above, that would be expected if it were distributed according to your objective measure, and
    4. compute the probability that the observed fraction comes from the distribution defined by your objective measure.

    I’ve taken informal random samples a few times, and find that about 90% of the faculty from reputable universities in the US is drawn from the (very roughly; I’ve made no serious attempt to find the right number yet) 1 or 2% of the students who attended the most prestigious schools. If we suppose that the percentage of students from prestigious schools is 2%, and that there is a student-teacher ratio of 30 (again, a wild guess), and that profs are perfectly selected, and that profs teach in school for 4 times as long as a student stays at a school, then the profs represent the top .0165% of the students. This means they would be everyone over about 3.6 standard deviations above average.

    The mean and standard deviation on the verbal GREs is 465 and 117, respectively. 3.6 stdev’s out would be 886.

    The max score is 800. Moving our cutoff from 886 down to 800 takes us from z=3.6 to z=2.86, multiplying the number of people over that z-value by 13. So instead of doing that, I’ll pretend that scores extend above 886, since all I’m trying to do is estimate the number of students who /could/ have scored 886, if the test went that high.

    A study of Yale psychology students (http://www.21learn.org/arch/articles/sternberg.html) found a mean of 653 and a standard deviation of 96 on the verbal test. This gives z=2.43, so we expect .75% of Yale psych students could have scored 886 verbal. If we suppose this holds across other ivy-league schools, then the number of students produced by ivy-league schools is just sufficient to account for 91% of professorships at ivy-league schools.

    They must compete with the top .0165% of students from all other universities. The number of these students is slightly larger than the number of students in the top .75% of ivy-league schools (the ration is 165/150).

    So, we see that the hypothesis that university profs at elite schools are selected according to merit is false; whereas the hypothesis that they are taken first from elite schools until there are no more qualified elite-school candidates left exactly predicts the data. (The prediction accuracy is much higher than the accuracy of some of the numbers guessed, so I wouldn’t read too much into the closeness of the match.)

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Anonymous

    Robin, I don’t don’t see any real tension with your other posts. Sincerity isn’t a sufficient condition for epistemic or operational reliability, but it would at least serve the function of checking the kind of prestige biasing you’re concerned with here (and that without unwanted filtering — cf. Morningstar’s joke about marrying for money).

  • michael vassar

    WOW! Heartfelt post Robin. I haven’t seen something like this from you before. Thanks!

    Honestly though, “It is worse that Tullock thought. Few academic topics are dominated by topic lovers; intellectual progress is largely a side effect of prestige seeking. ” doesn’t actually match my impressions. I would say that few academic topics are dominated by topic lovers but that prestige seeking produces noise that impedes intellectual progress while contributing little to it.

    This really deserves to be written up as a post. Why don’t you ask Robin to do exactly that.
    I really value your commitment to neither overly nor insufficiently respecting elite education.

  • Aaron


    Would a consequence of that analysis be that reputable schools are granting PhD’s to people who will be at a distinct disadvantage for the rest of their career? That hardly seems a reputable thing to do, but it does seem to describe how the real world works.


  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Phil, I see no reason to expect number of jobs or papers to be anything close to linear in GRE scores.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Thanks for the sincere post.

    Your observation that you, in your youth, were motivated by idealistic groups that you joined should be a clue that the default libertarian economics position, that people are (or should be) primarily motivated by rational individualistic self-interest, is just plain wrong. Rather than saying “politics is the mind-killer” (a Yudkowskism, maybe you don’t believe that), you should recognize that politics and group-formation is an essential part of how humans function and think.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: surely not close to linear, but he’s claiming to find no correlation, which hardly seems plausible either, especially how low GRE averages are even at good schools and given the GRE’s high ‘g’ loading and the pervasive impact of ‘g’. My prior for the GRE being predictively worthless with respect to quality of output after controlling for school of attendance with respect to this sort of matter is considerably lower than my prior for the good schools having selective processes that are predictively worthless after controlling for GREs (identical with GREs being predictively with respect to career success worthless after controlling for school of attendance). However, Phil has failed, in his above post, to address the possibility that elite schools create high performance, as opposed to just predicting it, by teaching better than non-elite schools. Many people doubt that they do this, but I think it more likely than not that they actually do, and Phil’s research dumps probability mass into this hypothesis as well as into the “no merit consideration other than a threshold effect or two” hypothesis that Phil seems to favor.

  • komponisto

    Rather than saying “politics is the mind-killer” (a Yudkowskism, maybe you don’t believe that), you should recognize that politics and group-formation is an essential part of how humans function and think.

    Is-Ought conversion alert!

    Of course it’s an essential part of how humans function and think. The point is, that’s bad.

  • dearieme

    The young may be taught that the point of the controlled experiment is in its power to reveal truth. But much of its power lies in the fact that its being reproducible serves to keep scientists honest. Where controlled experiments are not possible, honesty is less common – see, for example, Global WarmMongering.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Your observation that you, in your youth, were motivated by idealistic groups that you joined should be a clue that the default libertarian economics position, that people are (or should be) primarily motivated by rational individualistic self-interest, is just plain wrong. Rather than saying “politics is the mind-killer” (a Yudkowskism, maybe you don’t believe that), you should recognize that politics and group-formation is an essential part of how humans function and think.

    The very name of this blog should make it clear they don’t believe people are completely rational. Recognizing that politics and group-formation are pervasive to our thinking does not entail endorsing them.

  • Caledonian

    We have a word for letting political concerns interfere with the function of rational analysis: “groupthink”.

    It is always fatal to intellectual endeavor. Always.

    Politics is a great servant but a terrible master. Unfortunately for us, we are almost incapable of stopping it from taking control. The only way to defeat it is to deny it battle.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I refuse to declare my allegiance to some or other standard political position – deal with it. I may or may not take particular political positions as the topics arise.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Of course it’s an essential part of how humans function and think. The point is, that’s bad.

    I don’t think that eliminating the effects of social groups in cognition is either possible, or desirable. Humans do their thinking in groups, that’s just the way it is. That’s why scientists congregate at universities, conferences, and journals, and even the radical individualists can’t seem to stay away from groups like the Libertarian party (or worse, the Ayn Rand cult), and fora like this blog.

    The idea that rationality is something produced by isolated individuals is laughably naive.

  • http://bizop.ca Michael Webster

    Robin, that was a very interesting post. I hope that I have understood it.

    I wish I had a snappy reply. But instead, I will share my own story of curiosity and academic rewards.

    Thirty years ago, studying game theory, I presented to my undergraduate supervisor a new solution concept for a small subset of 2 person games. I thought it was pretty neat. But, he asked me “what do you mean by ‘solution’?”

    I was floored and had no answer, suspecting a trap. The question haunts me yet.

    In due course, I obtained a PhD in decision theory, my external supervisor was a Nobel Prize winner who said very nice things about my results. Not nice enough to automatically catapult me into a preferred tenure track stream – but nice enough to have a decent reputation to capitalize on.

    But I didn’t capitalize on it – I could not come to grips with the fact that the project I had started and “finished” for the thesis just didn’t work well enough. Also, that question about “solution” still bugged me.

    Instead, I became a lawyer.

    The academic curiosity never died. I continue to plug away, learn and acquire new technical skills. Some day it may make a difference, or not. I can probably live with either result.

    But the academic institutions that turned me away did so correctly.

    Institutions cannot reward pure curiosity -they must reward results and not good tries.

    It is too difficult to design an institution which a) awards “points” for the undertaking of very difficult problems, and b) gives those rewards out for failures, which were worth taking.

    Whatever way we end up making our economic living, academic or professional, we can always make time for those ideas that pervade our way of being – whether we get a result or not.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Robin: Do you think that increasing the salaries of professors would increase or decrease the quality of the applicants?

    You seem to be saying that increasing the salaries decreases the average quality of applicants, but that’s at odds with libertarian principles. There must be a way to show the free market leading to bad results if increasing the price offered decreases the quality of the good received.

    (BTW, number of papers written has a power-law distribution. I would guess that grant money received does also, tho I have no data on that. So neither is going to be a linear function of any normally-distributed property.)

  • bambi

    Perhaps the biases we do not overcome, by choice or nature, are important.

    Cameraderie is born of uncertainty, which we ruthlessly extinguish as part of our success.

  • http://www.frankhirsch.net Frank Hirsch

    Hmmmm… when I was young I was very preoccupied with my computer. (So much so, in fact, that I missed to make certain experiences at the age where they ought to be made.)
    Somehow, when I later met my fellow students and some said things like “I don’t like this, or even care about it. I heard it would bring a well-paid job, that’s why I want that diploma.”, somehow I felt offended. Some didn’t even want to learn anything – they just wanted the diploma (and ultimately, only money).
    I think I am feeling with Robin.

  • http://www.frankhirsch.net Frank Hirsch

    Actually, come to think of it:
    If we interpret “Blessed are the poor in spirit” as “If someone favours mental development over financial development, they may be striking a good deal.” that might make some sense (no matter the source of the quote).
    I am inclined to think that there is a bias for learning, that there is a reward mechanism that makes learning an end rather that a mean. Think “reward shaping”.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    I recently was reading ‘Boyd’ by Robert Corram about a fighter pilot who developed influential ideas in fighter jet design and maneuver warfare doctrine, named John Boyd.

    Boyd seemed to be allergic to money. He was offered a job by a friend at the Pentagon but turned down the money while taking the job (he lived off a government pension). He also didn’t charge for lectures and only charged for travel expenses, IIRC, and even then he didn’t cash checks sometimes–after he died thousands of dollars of these checks were found in a drawer in his house, never cashed, IIRC.

    It seemed like money had a poisonous quality to Boyd. He had a close knit group of friends called “Acolytes” that were involved in the US military establishment, who he was intensely close to. It seems to me Boyd was very motivated by a sense of connection to individuals in his “tribe”, as well as following his muse.

    His interest in military stuff could be seen as a a form of consideration for “protecting the tribe”, the tribe being America.