Monthly Archives: March 2009

Kid’s Rights

Scott Aaronson confesses:

Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?

The above is a question that’s interested me for as long as I can remember, though I avoided blogging about it until now.  See, unlike many libertarian economist Ayn-Rand types, I don’t actually like asking social or political questions the very asking of which marks you as eccentric and Aspbergerish. I’d rather apply myself to proving lower bounds, popularizing quantum mechanics, or other tasks that are (somewhat) more respected by the society I depend on for my dinner. And I’d rather pick battles, like evolution or climate change, where truth and justice have well-connected allies on their side and a non-negligible chance of winning.  For years, I’ve been studying the delicate art of keeping my mouth shut when what I have to say will be deeply unpopular—and despite lapses, I’ve actually made a great deal of progress since (let’s say) the age of 14.

There are times, though, when a question strikes such an emotional chord with me that I break down and ask it in spite of everything.  Such a case was provoked by this story in the New York Times a few weeks ago (registration required), about a 17-year-old girl who was jailed for creating a MySpace page. …

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Status Prudes

Most people think a lot about sex, and often in relation to the people around them.  In some subcultures it is OK to say most such thoughts out loud, but most societies prudishly discourage sex talk, except in unusual circumstances.  This avoids awkward situations, but also forces people to use weaker clues to infer folks' sexual interests. 

Societies also vary in how "prudish" they are about status talk.  Social status, a shared perception of individual quality, is central to every society.  In some societies, like high school or the ghetto culture as depicted on The Wire, it is mostly OK to directly jockey for status; you can tell someone you are better than them, or that they have a loser car.  In contrast "egalitarian" societies  discourage such talk; such jabs must be made indirectly enough to allow plausible deniability.

Now as with sex, discouraging status talk avoids awkward situations; direct status jabs often escalate into challenges and battles.  But this prudishness also reduces the signals people have to infer the social status of others, and this influences what counts for social status; societies vary in the relative weight they put on wealth, beauty, physical power, achievement, awards and degrees, popularity, institutional affiliations, and so on.

Continue reading "Status Prudes" »

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More Getting Froze

Eliezer and I posted last fall on cryonics, and someone connected with the cryonics firm Alcor recently told us that 7-8 recent signing-up customers, a notable fraction of the total, mentioned Eliezer, I, or these posts!  OB reader Fortune Elkins was apparently also instrumental. 

I'm proud to have had some influence, though it is still sad that the numbers are so low that our modest effort could make such a difference.  I'll post more on cryonics soon.

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Wishful Dreaming

The NYT just reported on the JPSP article on dreams I reported on in January.  I wrote:

I'll bet we process dream experiences much like we process fictional experiences.  Our tendency to treat fictional and dream experience as real evidence helps us to credibly believe things that it is in our interest for others to think we believe.  

The NYT notes dreams interpretation is self-serving:

Even the nonbelievers showed a weakness for certain heavenly dreams, like one in which God commanded them to take a year off to travel the world. Agnostics rated that dream as significantly more meaningful than the dream of God commanding them to spend a year working in a leper colony. …

Dreamers’ self-serving bias … Once you see how flexible dream interpretation can be, you can appreciate why it has always been such a popular tool for decision-making. Relying on your dreams for guidance is like the political ritual of appointing an “independent blue-ribbon panel” to resolve an issue. You can duck any personal responsibility for action while pretending to rely on an impartial process, even though you’ve stacked the panel with your own friends and will ignore any advice that conflicts with your desires. Charity work, no; margaritas, sí. …

And dreams serve many social functions:

"It may also be a good idea not to tell people about their undesirable behavior in your dreams, as they may infer that your dreams reveal your true feelings about them.”  … You should still probably pay attention when, say, your romantic partner tells you about a dream in which you were caught in bed with your partner’s friend.
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Who Likes Band Music?

Smiling politely through yet another performance by my son's school band tonight, I wondered: why do school bands play music so different from what the kids, or even their parents, choose in their free time?  Music at parties, movies, etc. is pretty different.  The novels kids read in English class differ from the novels they or their parents read in their free time, but most people accept that school novels are deeper, subtler, etc., so that kids learn more by studying them.  But do most people really accept a similar claim about band music?  What gives?

Added: There are lots of high quality thoughtful comments here.  So is there a disagreement here, or do you guys pretty much agree?

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Loving Cranks to Death

From the latest Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion:

[David] Hume writes that clergy (at least those of radical sects) are inherently dangerous and that if allowed to compete with one another will inspire in their adherents "the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavor, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of [their] audience." He concludes that the solution is "to bribe their indolence, by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active, than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures". Hume, an agnostic if not an atheist, takes the position that religion is not a public good but its opposite — a public bad — and that government intervention will avert the pervasive negative externality of religious controversy, which clergy create and that threatens public safety.

My colleague Larry Iannaccone:

Looking at Figure 1, one immediately spots the exceptionally low levels of religiosity in the Scandinavian countries and, conversely, the high level of religiosity in the U.S.  As predicted by [Adam] Smith, these extremes correspond to different market structures.  A single state-run (Lutheran) church dominates the market in every Scandinavian country.  In contrast, the United States enjoys a constitutionally mandated free-for-all in which hundreds of denominations compete and none has special status.

Eliezer a year ago:

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As ye judge those who fund thee, ye shall be judged

"If it were not for the intellectual snobs who pay — in solid cash — the tribute which philistinism owes to culture, the arts would perish with their starving practitioners. Let us thank heaven for hypocrisy."
Huxley, Aldous

Robin is always keen to remind us how status-seeking humans are, and the above quote is a gem in that regard. Laced through it are the claims that art is valuable, that patrons are vital to art, and yet that these patrons should be disdained – especially compared with the poor-but-high-status artist.

This can be expanded into a general test for detecting self-serving status-seeking. It isn’t enough to show that people are attracted to high status professions (people’s opinions of status varies, and they may have decided that certain professions are worthwhile to the world, and thus accorded them higher status). It isn’t even enough to note that people’s everyday behavior is status seeking – unless we can estimate the marginal difficulties in making a “worthwhile” profession more worthy, versus the marginal difficulties in increasing status.

However Huxley’s quote gives us a way of controlling these variables. If a profession is deemed worthwhile to the world, then those who enable it, or fund it, are equally worthwhile. If someone would accord their own work a high status but disdains patrons/funding bodies/stockholders, then their own status seeking is plain to see.

The converse is also true; one artist, at least, gets it:

"If a patron buys from an artist who needs money (needs money to buy tools, time, food), the patron then makes himself equal to the artist; he is building art into the world; he creates."
Pound, Ezra

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Evaporated Cane Juice

The ingredient list of Trader Joe's Brand Spinach Pizza includes "Organic Evaporated Cane Juice (Natural Milled Cane Sugar)."  Just as grinding up oranges makes "orange juice", grinding up sugar cane plants makes "cane juice."  To get sugar, you evaporate this to get rid of the water.  

What fraction of folks who read such ingredient lists could really fooled by calling sugar "evaporated cane juice", especially when it is called "sugar" more directly just a few words later?  Could the gain from fooling this few really outweigh the loss of respect from all the other readers Trader Joe's should suffer?

My guess is that other readers are not much offended because they enjoy feeling superior to the fools mislead by such ingredient wordings.  The warm glow from feeling superior outweighs any lack of respect, or feeling insulted, and on net encourages such readers to continue to buy the product.

Added:  OK, uncle; I accept there are legitimate reasons for this wording, at least for some people.

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Be sure to mind when you change your mind

The biggest of blindspots spring up when our minds form opinions about our minds. Here the question is: when we change our opinions, are we aware of that fact? The obvious answer is yes; the true answer is hinted at by Goethals and  Reckman’s 1973 experiment:

High school students were asked their opinions on a variety of social issues, including on how children should be bussed to school and whether it would help with racial integration. […]

A couple of weeks later the students were invited back for a further discussion on the bussing issue. This time, though, they were split into two groups, one that was pro- and one anti- the bussing issue. […]

The two groups had separate discussions about the bussing issue, but amongst their number had been planted an experimental confederate. The confederate was armed with a series of highly persuasive arguments designed to change the participant's minds on the issue. Experimenters wanted to turn the pro- group into an anti- group and the anti- group into a pro-group.

The confederates turned out to be extremely persuasive (and/or the students were easy to sway!) and the two groups were successfully turned around.[…]

But what happened when they were asked about this change of opinion?

Continue reading "Be sure to mind when you change your mind" »

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Posting now enabled on Less Wrong

Posting is now enabled on Less Wrong, with a minimum karma required of 20 – that is, you must have gotten at least 20 upvotes on your comments in order to publish a post.  Or an adminstrator such as myself or Robin (by default you should bother me) can temporarily bless you with posting ability – in the long run this shouldn't happen much.

For those of you who haven't yet subscribed to / gotten in the habit of checking Less Wrong:

  • Test Your Rationality by Robin Hanson.  It's easy to find reasons to believe yourself more rational than others, but most people do this; what real ways can be found to test your rationality?
  • Unteachable Excellence and Teaching the Unteachable by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  The rare superstars are rare because their skills are currently hard to transfer.  A large number of Nobel laureates are students of other Nobel laureates.  How do you teach skills you can't put into words?
  • The Costs of Rationality by Robin Hanson.  Rationality can be useful for many things, but humans aren't really designed for it, and a true effort to believe truly can get in the way of many aspects of ordinary life.  Are you willing to pay the real costs of ratonality?
  • No, Really, I've Deceived Myself and Belief in Self-Deception by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  A woman I met who didn't seem to believe in God at all, while honestly believing that she had deceived herself successfully – which may bring most of the same placebo benefits.
  • The ethic of hand-washing and commuity epistemic practice by Steve Rayhawk and Anna Salamon.  Diseases become more virulent in the presence of poor hygiene, since they can jump hosts more easily.  Are there analogous effects for ideas?  What is the equivalent of washing our hands?

The five most recent LW posts now appear in OB's sidebar (and vice versa), but aside from this you shouldn't expect further regular summaries of LW on OB.

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