Monthly Archives: April 2009

Pox On Both Houses

In the latest American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Arthur Diamond presents a very disturbing result:

Polywater, one of the most famous mistaken scientific research programs of the past half-century, is used as a case study to examine whether polywater researchers later experienced lower citation counts, or less favorable job mobility. The primary result is that simply writing on polywater, either pro or con, has a negative impact on future citations, in comparison with those who never wrote on polywater. The lifetime value of the lost citations is roughly in the range of $13,000 to $19,000. However writing on polywater did not affect the probability of a scientist leaving university employment.

Once polywater was considered a failure, not only were those who had written in its favor punished, but those who had written against it were punished just as strongly!  If this is a typical outcome, we can conclude that academic incentives are to just ignore contrarian claims that you do not believe will become mainstream.  Try to refute a contrarian claim, and even if you succeed you will be treated just like its defenders.  Together with last week's debating result:

If your side is currently favored, you don't want to debate the other side!

we can see that intellectuals have little incentive to engage contrarian views.  One possible cause here may be like "You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read".  Diamond suggests another cause:

Even if a scientist sets out to refute a theory and succeeds, the scientist might pay a penalty in that the refutation may become a forgotten dead end, not generating any further citations to the scientist who correctly authored the refutation.

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You Don’t Know Why You Act

Psychologists document choice blindness:

As anyone who has ever been in a verbal disagreement can attest, people tend to give elaborate justifications for their decisions, which we have every reason to believe are nothing more than rationalisations after the event. …

In one recent study we invited supermarket customers to choose between two paired varieties of jam and tea. In order to switch each participant's choice without them noticing, we created two sets of "magical" jars, with lids at both ends and a divider inside. The jars looked normal, but were designed to hold one variety of jam or tea at each end, and could easily be flipped over.

Immediately after the participants chose, we asked them to taste their choice again and tell us verbally why they made that choice. Before they did, we turned over the sample containers, so the tasters were given the opposite of what they had intended in their selection. Strikingly, people detected no more than a third of all these trick trials. Even when we switched such remarkably different flavours as spicy cinnamon and apple for bitter grapefruit jam, the participants spotted less than half of all switches.

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Beware Panic Panic

Peter Sandman says it is officials, not citizens, who needlessly panic:

[There are] people who do think avian flu is serious but don't think the public should take it seriously. That's a position held by a number of people in the government and a number of people in a number of governments who argue that, yes, we the government are going to prepare, but for God's sake don't tell the public, because . . . they might get excessively frightened, and that might be bad for their psychology and bad for the economy. God forbid people should be afraid just because they're going to be dead. As the economists earlier on pointed out, it doesn't hurt the economy all that much for a lot of people to die, but if a lot of people get frightened, that's bad for business! So, there's a sense that we dare not frighten people. The other base in this argument says, "It's serious but let's not say so," [because] there's nothing for people to do anyhow. … What I want to do with the rest of my time is rebut those two arguments.

If you ask yourself which was a bigger problem in New Orleans, people so frightened they couldn't think straight, or people insufficiently frightened who didn't get out of town, I think you can make a very strong argument that the latter was a bigger problem than the former. … In the stairwells of the World Trade Center, people were more courteous than New Yorkers usually are, and more organized than New Yorkers usually are, and there were very few signs of panic among those who evacuated the Twin Towers. . . . When you interview the survivors, the vast majority tell you they panicked, but they didn't. They're wrong. They felt like panicking, and they did just fine.

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Female Orgasm as Screening

I talk often about "signaling," i.e., acting to show observers one's desirable qualities.  "Screening" is matching actions by observers, who can go out of their way to encourage signaling.  For example, you might insult someone to see how they react to insults.  Similarly, it seems evolution designed orgasms to help human females screen mates:

First suggested by David P. Barash nearly three decades ago, the idea is that orgasm might be a way a woman’s body speaks to her brain, “telling herself” that she has been having sex with a suitable partner—that is, one who is not worried about being displaced by a competitor, who is self-confident and unhurried enough to be satisfying to her.  When Barash was a graduate student more than ten years earlier, he observed that when subordinate male grizzly bears copulate, their heads are constantly swiveling about on the lookout for a dominant male, who, should he encounter a couple in flagrante, will likely dislodge his lesser rival and take its place. Not surprisingly, subordinate males ejaculate very quickly, whereas dominants take their time. …

Research on a large captive group of Japanese macaque monkeys is also suggestive. … During 238 hours of observations in which 240 copulations were observed, female orgasmic responses occurred in 80 (33 percent). Of these orgasms, the highest frequency took place when high-ranking males were copulating with low-ranking females, and the lowest between low-ranking males and high-ranking females.  … Maybe, [female orgasm] is designed to be more than a little hard to get, adaptive precisely because it can’t be too readily summoned, so that when it arrives, it means something. …

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Prestige Matters More For Smarts

There are many kinds of attractive attributes of people.  Some of these attributes, such as height, youth, beauty, or strength, are relatively easy for most anyone to observe.  Other attributes, such as cleverness, insight, or artistic judgment, are harder to observe.  In particular, people who have such hard-to-see attributes can usually better discern those attributes in others. 

If this were the end of it, hard-to-see attributes would just be less valuable, all else equal, in attracting mates and allies.  After all, hard-to-see attributes would then only be useful in attracting people with similar abilities, and those similar others would on average have more options.

But this analysis misses the possibilities of prestige and status.  Social institutions can let people translate their hard-to-see abilities into much easier to see prestige and status.  For example, other smart people might certify you as smart via an award that everyone can see.  So we should expect people whose best abilities are hard-to-see to focus more than most on achieving prestige, while those whose abilities are easier for all to see to focus more on just directly showing off their abilities.

This roughly explains, I think, an important part of the variation in who cares more versus less about degrees, awards, etc.  From a conversation with Helen Yang.

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Meta Institutions

Institutions are stable social contexts which make and coordinate actions.  Examples include elections, agencies, courts, clubs, debates, peer review, malls, games, media, etc.  It is by now an economic truism that institutions matter a lot.  Good institutions can induce good choices and info sharing, while bad institutions do the opposite.  

Rather than advise particular choices, economists prefer to advise on general policies, that apply to many choices.  We prefer even more to advise on choice of institutions, since an institutional choice can influence a great many policies.  Following this meta line of reasoning, we should prefer even more to advise on meta-institutions, i.e., institutions that structure our choices of institutions. 

We allow most of our familiar institutions to at least influence our institutional choices.  But no doubt we use some more often in that role, and some are better suited to that role.  While I'm excited that decision markets can help advise organization decisions, I'm most excited about their potential as meta-institutions, advising us on key policy and institutional choices.  Of course we'll have to demonstrate their effectiveness more on small issues before folks will rely on them for big issues.

Some basic questions:

  1. What institutions are especially good as meta-institutions?
  2. What institutions should we use to evaluate meta-institutions?
  3. What institutions are biased to prefer other institutions like themselves?
  4. How often do different institutions agree on particular institutional choices?
  5. What institutions can sensibly say if to rely on them as meta-institutions?
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Less Wrong: Progress Report

Less Wrong is emerging from beta as bugs continue to get fixed.  This is an open-source project, and if any Python-fluent programmers are willing to contribute a day or two of work, more would get done faster.

The character of the new site is becoming clear.  The pace of commenting is higher; the threaded comments encourage short replies and continuing conversations.  The pace of posting exceeds my fondest hopes – apparently not being able to post automatically on OB was a much greater barrier to potential contributors than I realized.

We've had 12,428 comments so far on 113 articles, 100 of them posted since contributing was enabled for all users over 20 karma on March 5th.

Browsing to the Top Scoring articles on Less Wrong will give you an idea of how things are developing.  A quick view of all posts can be found here, with the current top scorer being "Cached Selves" by Salamon and Rayhawk, followed by "Rational Me or We?" by Hanson.  If this looks like a blog you like, go ahead and add it to your blog roll now, please!

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Why Refuse To Debate

In my debate with Bryan Caplan (vid here), his position was a strong audience favorite before, and less so after.  When I heard that Tyler Cowen just had the same experience in his debate, I suggested to the lunch crowd that maybe in general debates move audiences toward a 50/50 opinion split.  The org that sponsored Tyler’s debate has done 27 of them so far, so I typed that data in and it is easy to see that their data supports my hypothesis:

Disfavored

 

The initially disfavored side almost always gains a lot (vs. the zero gain red line).  Alex Tabarrok weighs theories to explain this; my guess is that hearing half of a long hi-profile argument time devoted to something makes it seem more equally plausible.

But whatever the cause, one implication seems clear: if your side is currently favored, you don’t want to debate the other side!  At least you don’t if your refusal to debate can’t be too easily made public to be held against you.  If we could somehow overcome this problem, we could get a lot more debates, and substantially improve public opinion.  Any ideas?

 

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Wisdom of Rhode

Paul Rhode's "skeptical perspective" on corporate prediction markets:

In many ways, tapping of the wisdom of crowds within the firm is intended to overcome the information barriers created by the bureaucracy.  It is obvious that the upper management might want better access to selected information available down the organizational ladder, to stop having to listen to the self-serving lies of middle management.   But it seems to me, the individuals in an organization derive their power from the information under their exclusive control and will not easily give up this monopoly position.  What models we economists have about hierarchies largely concern controlling information flows, both up and down the organization.  This includes both having the higher-ups monopolize the firms’ secrets and strategies and preventing them from being overwhelmed by the day-to-day minutia.

With internal prediction markets, key questions include who will set the agenda, who decides what questions will be answered and how? It seems authority matters in whether this is done in a top-down or bottom-up manner. If the question is what is the best forecast for demand growth, will this deadline be met, or how will the product rank in quality tests, it is clear that upper management, the “deciders,” would be happy to learn from the collective wisdom of employees in contact with customers or doing the design work.  If the questions posed address how long before the company president is fired, whether this product is found defective and has to be recalled, or when the mass layoffs will begin, then upper management will be unhappy.

Prediction markets provide more information, but they do so in a public way.  What prevents competitors from spying, from gaining access to company secrets?  Besides making private information common knowledge, prediction markets undermined the mystique, the information monopoly of those in charge.

I agree completely and have said similar things many times.  So why am I called a "hyperbolic" optimist?  Today I speak at a corporate prediction markets summit in NYC.

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Score Your Beliefs

A new Games and Economic Behavior paper (ungated here) shows that just asking folks to estimate the chances of events, where they expect to be scored later for accuracy, induces more accurate beliefs about those events, but that what folks believe and say can still consistently diverge:

Belief elicitation in game experiments may be problematic if it changes game play. We experimentally verify that belief elicitation can alter paths of play in a two-player repeated asymmetric matching pennies game. Importantly, this effect occurs only during early periods and only for players with strongly asymmetric payoffs, consistent with a cognitive/affective effect on priors that may serve as a substitute for experience. These effects occur with a common scoring rule elicitation procedure, but not with simpler (unmotivated) statements of expected choices of opponents. Scoring rule belief elicitation improves the goodness of fit of structural models of belief learning, and prior beliefs implied by such models are both stronger and more realistic when beliefs are elicited than when they are not. We also find that “inferred beliefs” (beliefs estimated from past observed actions of opponents) can predict observed actions better than the “stated beliefs” from scoring rule belief elicitation.

Yet more evidence that we should try to get into the habit of collecting track records about our beliefs.

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