Reinventing Idea Futures

From the April Physics World:

A key problem, suggests mathematical physicist Eric Weinstein of the Natron Group, a hedge fund in New York, is that it is too easy for scientists in the “establishment” of any field to cut down new ideas, and to do so without really putting anything at risk, thereby leading to a culture that is systematically biased toward caution. …

Weinstein suggests another idea — that we should borrow some ideas from financial engineering and make scientists back up their criticisms by taking real financial risks. You think that some new theory is utterly worthless and deserving of ridicule? In the world Weinstein envisions, you could not trash the research in an anonymous review, but would buy some sort of option giving you a financial stake in its scientific future, an instrument that would pay off if, as you expect, the work slides noiselessly into obscurity. The money would come from the theory’s proponents, who would similarly benefit if it pans out into the next big thing.

Weinstein’s point is that markets, in theory at least, work efficiently and — putting the current financial meltdown to one side — lead to the accurate valuation of products. They exploit the “wisdom of crowds”, as a popular book of the same title recently put it. Take the famous electronic prediction markets at the University of Iowa, which pool the views of thousands of diverse individuals and consistently seem to give better predictions than any expert. …

“It would be more efficient,” he says, “if the maverick could demand of the critic, if my theory is so obviously wrong, why don’t you quantify that by writing me an options contract based on future citations in the top 20 leading journals secured by your home, furniture, holiday home and pension?”

This article makes it seem like Eric reinvented idea futures.  Except that Eric and I discussed the concept last May, when we had two phone conversations and exchanged seven emails.

In 1996, a Russ Ray published a paper in Futures Research Quarterly that was basically cut and paste from my Idea Futures paper.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?  Hat tip to Jef Allbright.

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  • William

    The point of the scientific method is to disprove, not prove. Yes it does make sense based upon the philosophical underpinnings of science. Try this

    To easily undercut any idea irrespective of if it is new, old, from a newcomer, or from the establishment SHOULD be a quality that science has. The proposal undercuts this basic idea that people using the scientific method should be a doubting Thomas and replaces it with blind faith in the researchers skill.

    Thus I am not too fond of the idea that there should be an barrier to entry to criticize the work of another. Wouldn’t this prevent those without means from entering into science if they were trying to disprove a notion?

    The term “efficiency” also depends on ambiguity to make it work in this context. For some it is efficient to not have their ideas challenged even by seemingly unimportant issues, however these should be easily addressed. For others, it is more efficient to have something that works and withstands any criticism no matter how seeming frivolous.

  • Jim Simons

    After being thoroughly thrashed by Moldbug and Nick Szabo, is this the best you can come up with?

    Sputtering that other scientists, no doubt as myopic and Aspie as you are, agree with you and are copying your idea?

  • http://www.eric-weinstein.net Eric R Weinstein

    Hi Robin,

    Ok! So let’s make this interesting for you and your readers. You are implying in a public forum that I/Mark Buchanan am/is misrepresenting your work as my own? This is important because the talk that this article derived from mentions 17 years of history directly in its title. But, nevermind.

    Further, In email you curtly push me to produce reference [10] of my dissertation from the early 1990s which apparently stole ideas of yours from a conversation in May 2008?

    Well, this could get interesting! So given that you intend to make this a public matter, let me make a proposal that will appeal to you given that you want to be the father of scientific gambling.

    I flat out don’t believe you. I think you know full well from our interaction that you will find I have been trying to use wagers (derivatives) as citable contracts from long before we spoke.

    Since you rushed to your blog to make yourself feel better rather than gathering the facts, I propose the following: That if the ‘Glashow contract’ of which I wrote and spoke isn’t cited as claimed in my Harvard Dissertation (predating our interaction by more than a decade), then I will agree that you were ripped off as you imply, based on our May 2008 conversation, and contribute $10,000.00 to your favorite charity.

    If on the other hand, it is in my bibliography as I claim (still a completely non-standard citation BTW which was technically forbidden), you pay me the paltry sum of $1 plus $100 to my charity, sign the 1 dollar bill “No Lo Contendere” just as Robert Openheimer did for Freeman Dyson with your initials R.H., and post even more prominently that you unfairly attacked the reputation of a supportive colleague as well as the marvelous author Mark Buchanan. I will be happy to accept in advance as I see this fight you are picking as completely counterproductive to the interests of all concerned.

    So that’s it. You want me to pressure me to produce the citation and I am happy to do so as part of a ‘reputation derivative’ which you no doubt believe you invented.

    Naturally as economists, given the deliberately over generous terms of the proposal your readers will be in a position, via revealed preference, to interpret any quibbling short of public acceptance to mean that you have neither the guts nor the grit nor command of the high ground to be out here attacking otherwise supportive colleagues. Given your tone and approach, I will not participate in counterproposals.

    I (disbelievingly) await your reply,

    Eric R. Weinstein

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

    Eric, I reacted to the article I saw, and said the article “makes it seem.” If you can show that appearance is deceptive, I’m all ears. I over the years I have tried hard to search for any publications related to my idea futures proposal, which I published in ’90 at Foresight Update, in a ’90 gambling conference proceedings, in ’92 in Extropy, and in ’95 in Social Epistemology. If you say you referenced something in an “early 90s” dissertation, I’ll believe you. But I’d still like to know what exactly it is that you cited; where was it published?

  • Jim Babcock

    The people who have the relevant knowledge and who currently do scientific peer review are university professors, who don’t exactly have much money to throw around. The most likely outcome of adopting this strategy would not be to extract better information, but to remove most peer reviewers from the system entirely.

  • http://reactionwheel.blogspot.com Jerry

    “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” — Truman

    Which is it you’d both rather, the credit or the accomplishment?

  • fGI

    Eric, as much as I’d love to sip the Hanson Haterade, I’m staring at the CV on your website and also your list of publications. I just don’t see any reference to the “dissertation” you’ve claimed.

    Your dissertation “Extension of Self-Dual Yang-Mills Equations Across the 8th Dimension” seems quite groovy but t’ain’t no references to markets in it that I can see. Please post the cite to this mysterious market document if only so we can see Hanson cry as you ram massive public crow down his throat.

    Otherwise, he’s kicked your ass solid on both sides of the street and we’ll all be forced to mock you savagely henceforth. To prove your point, you’ll need to cite published work from before ’89. Thanks!

  • http://www.eric-weinstein.net Eric R Weinstein

    Hi Robin,

    Sorry, but I’m not responsible for the article. But, perhaps you simply have me confused for someone who owes you something or that you expect I recognize an obligation to meet a series of vague and shifting challenges. Sorry for your confusion.

    But I have a feeling that you’re a fellow well practiced at the art
    of perching on the fence between appologizing and making actual allegations, so this really isn’t the first time you’ve been here, is it?

    I’ve read your new stance and have now poked around enough to see that you are a devotee of the ‘burden of proof’ style of argument where you are careful to achieve by insinuation what would normally need to be factually supported (if rendered fairly through actual allegation). You can often provide the dots as a helpful service leaving it to others to connect them or prove that they are not configured correctly.

    I confess to having little patience with this tiresome style of academic conduct. Forgive me; I thought you might be someone else. The error is clearly mine.

    Eric

  • Cyan

    Let’s strip this down.

    RH: This article makes it seem like Weinstein originated an idea that I published eighteen years ago and that we discussed a year ago.

    EW: You malign me — I wrote about that idea in my dissertation in the early 90s.

    RH: I was talking about the article, not you personally. I believe you about your dissertation; can I have the reference?

    EW: I don’t owe you anything.

    My verdict: EW is a bitch.

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

    Eric, does this mean you won’t be revealing more about this ‘Glashow contract’ you cited in your early 90’s dissertation?

  • fGI

    Eric Eric Eric, here I was daydreaming all afternoon of finally being able to shove it in Hanson’s face – when you let us all down! You offer no link to this supposedly existent document. I could cry into my martini.

    Ok, let’s make it interesting. $20 on the table this document can’t be produced period – and another $20 that you’re a fraud. This fuzzy cuddly little ladies-bridge-and-physics-periodical got hoaxed it seems to me.

    C’mon Eric! Prove me wrong. Rub some mud in Hanson’s eye. Produce this “Glashow contract” or any published market paper you’ve written before ’89. Thanks & lotsa hugs!

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I’d like to hear more follow-up from Eric, but seems like Eric himself and several commenters have decided they’d rather inject hostility and ensure the conversation ends.

  • Constant

    Who wouldn’t be pissed off? First Hanson misspells “futures” as “futues”, in the title no less, and then, adding insult to injury, he misspells “imitation” as “immitation”. That would tick anybody off.

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

    Constant, thanks for catching the typos – fixed them.

  • Arthur B.

    Even if the article doesn’t do justice to Robin (I am no real interest in diving in the argument), complaining that one didn’t get properly credited makes one look like a sore loser. Oh mind you, I’d be the first to whine in public if it happened to me… but people would instinctively look down on me for doing so. Yup, it’s totally unfair and mean, but it’s a natural feeling. Interesting bias.

  • fGI

    TGGP, ooh I feel so slapped! Not.

    Why would you want to hear more from Eric? If his claims had truth, he’d come forward with the document. I put $40 on the table for a link as well.

    Eric has the nerve to come to a site devoted to honesty and, as best we can now tell, lie to us. When we catch him, he throws insults instead of offering his documents or apologizing like a gentleman.

    Even Hanson(!) has been known to admit he was wrong in public. Further, like Gary Hart, Eric tells his apparent lie in the place that most assures he will be caught.

    Everyone who is anyone in the prediction market space reads OB. If his claims had truth, some readers here would know. But notice no one has appeared to defend Eric, to offer his docs, or to say they have heard of his work.

    He might be able to fool Physics World, but he can’t fool OB readers, who are collectively the premier market experts. I’m happy to honor my $40 like a gentleman anytime Eric produces his pre-89 documents. I’ll even pay $20 just for this “Glashow” nonsense.

    But having beaten his chest and tossed his tree branches, Eric seems to have slunk off, unable to offer these links.

  • TGGP

    instead of offering his documents or apologizing like a gentleman.
    Either outcome would have been more likely in the absence of chest-beating and branch-throwing.

  • Mark Buchanan

    Hi Rob,

    Just thought I’d post a short comment as my article in Physics World has stimulated this debate. I certainly didn’t mean for the article to imply that Eric is the first person ever to have this idea. It’s really just one idea discussed among many in the article in a general consideration of how to stimulate higher risk/reward research.

    Having said that, I’m sure I would have mentioned your work if I had known about. No slight intended.

    Mark Buchanan

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

    Mark, thanks for the note; I understand that reporters must rely heavily on their sources.

  • Dan

    Eric says:

    “I’ve read your new stance and have now poked around enough to see that you are a devotee of the ‘burden of proof’ style of argument where you are careful to achieve by insinuation what would normally need to be factually supported (if rendered fairly through actual allegation). You can often provide the dots as a helpful service leaving it to others to connect them or prove that they are not configured correctly.”

    Then you do exactly what he has suggested:

    “Mark, thanks for the note; I understand that reporters must rely heavily on their sources.”

    Did I miss something? Are you being ironic? Because it looks to me like you are engaged in exactly the sort of conduct you claim detest—by de facto leveling accusations, without explicitly leveling or supporting them, you are exploiting the very defect you are demanding credit for curing. You win on the off chance things stick, loose nothing when you’re wrong, and do damage in the mean time that is safely external.

    So, what gives? Out with it. If it’s a joke, let’s get to the funny part. If it’s a lesson of some kind then, we are overdue for the light bulb part.

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

    Dan, I don’t know what you think I should be saying. It should be obvious that I only know what they tell me about who knew or said what when.

  • Mark Buchanan

    Just to be absolutely clear, Eric didn’t at all try to sell me the idea as “his idea” nor did we even talk about “idea futures.” I don’t think he tried to mislead me in any way, actively or passively.

    On a more interesting note, I haven’t yet seen anyone address a serious potential problem with the approach (which I didn’t have space to explore in the article), namely the potential for the introduction of monetary incentives to “crowd out” beneficial scientific behaviour based on prevailing social norms. Surely many scientists currently work very hard to get to the truth because they care about science, not because they aim for a monetary payoff from it. It’s worth considering how this kind of effort might be undermined in subtle ways by the “put your money where your mouth is” approach. Indeed, there’s quite a literature on crowding out effects in economics, where monetary incentives can have perverse effects quite the opposite of what is intended (i.e. pay people to donate blood, and they donate less frequently). This matter, as far as I can tell, hasn’t really been mentioned. Would we really want market norms to become the prevailing norms for science?

    Mark

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Robin, I think Dan’s complaint is that you seem to be (1) avoiding saying in so many words that Eric is trying to steal the credit for your idea, but (2) taking care to imply it.

    Whatever your actual intentions, it’s clear that to some readers it looks as if you are trying to give the impression that Eric is dishonestly trying to claim credit for an idea that he really got from you. It might be helpful if you were to clarify how likely you think it is that he is doing that (and, if you don’t think it’s likely, just what it is that you think is going on and why you think it’s worthy of comment).

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

    Mark, I accept your account. Most scientists very clearly do accept monetary payoffs for their work, and large amounts of it, and these payments do depend, at least crudely, on their scientific contributions. I’m not proposing that more total money go to science, just proposing a closer connection between contributions and payment.

    g, I’m trying to be careful not to say more than I know. Eric hasn’t said whether during the interview he recalled (or knew) that I had published the same idea twenty years before, an idea that helped to start today’s prediction market industry.

    Arthur, yup.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Robin, I’m sure you’re being careful not to say more than you know; but you don’t appear to be being careful to avoid implying more than you know. And it sure looks as if you want your readers to go away harbouring (at least) dark suspicions that Eric Weinstein is trying to steal credit for your ideas.

  • Dan

    Robin,

    You write in response to my comment:

    “”Dan, I don’t know what you think I should be saying. It should be obvious that I only know what they tell me about who knew or said what when.”

    What?

    Either the seven emails you reference have damning content in them (invalidating this recent claim) or they do not (invalidating the impression you most deliberately left in the minds of those who have not seen them). Either way, you are now divided against yourself.

    By going to the extraordinary length of publicly enumerating the exact number of private messages exchanged in 2008, you signaled to all of your readers that you believed these emails to be decisive. This is why Eric’s response to you was so striking. Were they damning, he would surely not have remained bold. And had he continued on, you surely would have put an end to this by now by sharing what you claim to hold. Given the actual progression, I now believe that if pushed you will acknowledge that there is nothing particularly damning in that interchange, and will probably blame readers for inferring exactly that thing you clearly implied–as if that were a bias in need of overcoming. That would, of course, prove Eric’s point about your style of argument yet again.

    So let me put the question to you directly: is the content of these 2008 emails damning? Or is it instead the number and the existence which you wish to wield to trigger bias from inference in your readership? On the off chance that it is somehow unclear to you, you owe an explicit answer.

    Let’s be frank. If I look up ‘idea futures’ on Wikipedia, you are mentioned in the entry, not as the originator of prediction markets, but as follows:

    “Around 1990 at Project Xanadu, Robin Hanson used the first known corporate prediction market. “

    Having nothing to do with Eric, you are not generally being credited with the invention of prediction markets, the market place of ideas, or any such concept many of us imagine to be in the public domain. Further, Eric nowhere appears to claim credit for that piece you may actually have added.

    As an exercise, let’s look at the health of the idea market here on your very own blog:

    In calling your bluff, Eric says that whatever idea you insinuate he ‘stole’ from you in correspondence, derives from his own experience and is even referenced in his own dissertation from much more than a decade prior to your contact with him. Had you leveled your allegation explicitly and honestly in the first place, you would have then either had to produce the emails, or back down and apologize. In the event you chose to do neither, you would naturally have suffered an even bigger cost to your reputation—as a person who makes wild, unsubstantiated allegations. That’s how the market should work. But it didn’t work that way in this case because you reduced your exposure by deftly utilizing implicit, rather than explicit, accusations.

    Some intrigue then followed over the question of whether Eric fabricated a checkable reference in an extraordinary act of illegitimate self-defense. How dumb and desperate would a person have to be to make up a readily investigated fact like that in a charged and dangerous context like this? I looked into it for myself, and you might be interested to know that Eric has actually spoken publicly—on web-accessible video, no less—about the very reference in question.

    In the end, though you remain steadfast and vehement in your initial insinuations about his character, your factual claim has shifted—rapidly, but without acknowledgment—from Eric having stolen ‘your’ idea, conveyed to him personally by you in 2008, to him having failed to properly cite (in a talk or interview under the control of a third party) some paper you wrote in 1990 which an honest observer would have to acknowledge may well rise to a level of importance in the estimation of others somewhat lower than the level you seem to ascribe to it. In any case, it is anything but clear that you were even owed a citation in the event this had been a formal paper authored by Eric. In a talk or interview? Good god, man! Get a hold of yourself. As for the remarkable insinuation that you have been the victim of outright theft of intellectual property? What is Greek for ‘good god, man’ times 1000?

    Or to put it another way, the disconnect is massive between your initial post (and the implicit accusation it carried) on the one hand, and your current factual claim on the other—the unprovoked naval attack you claimed was occurring against your nation turned out to be a toy boat. The disconnect between your initial insinuation, and the facts you are now clinging to is so stark, in fact, that I’m inclined to coin a term in your honor. You are ‘moonwalking’. That is, you are attempting to leave the impression that you are advancing your position, even as you are rapidly and cryptically backing away from it.

    But it’s worse than that. The toy boat is not even military, it is a sailboat distorted by a smudge on your glasses. The idea in question—that an efficient marketplace of ideas, in which people rise by generating and identifying good ideas, and by betting against bad ideas—is old as the hills. It is implied by the very phrase “marketplace of ideas,” which Wikipedia seems to think arises first in a 1967 Supreme Court Decision (Keyishian v. Board of Regents). I’ll save your readers the trouble. Your 1990 paper does not cite the decission. You also fail to cite, John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Socrates, all of whom apparently made important contributions to the concept prior to its naming.

    Eric isn’t calming credit for ‘your idea’, anywhere. You, on the other hand, appear to be seeking to extract substantial rent from anyone who finds the ‘marketplace of ideas’ compelling enough to search for ways to get good ideas to pay, and bad ideas to cost. It looks to me like you have attacked an innocent person for the crime of being like-minded. And you appear to be holding him to a citation standard you either massively fail to meet, or to which you do not yourself aspire.

    You asked me what I think you should say. To write it for you would diminish its value unduly. But it should start something like:

    Eric, I’m terribly sorry and I hope you can forgive me…’ And if it is not obvious to you, your apology should be at least as public as your attack on his character. It should also be permanently (hot)linked directly to it, for obvious reasons. Its an object lesson in ‘idea markets.’ I’m sure you get the point.

    Dan

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    So, I asked an acquaintance at Harvard to look up Eric Weinstein’s thesis, and I did a bit of poking around on the web. Here are the facts.

    1. EW’s thesis does indeed have a reference [10] concerning a transaction between EW and Sheldon Glashow.

    2. The reference reads, in toto: “Glashow, S., and Weinstein, E. Wager on the Containment (or Non-containment) of SU(3) within G2, April 1991.” The only reference to it in the thesis appears to be in the acknowledgements: “I would like to remind Sheldon Glashow that he owes me a dollar. See [10].”

    3. EW gave a talk at the Perimeter Institute, entitled “Sheldon Glashow Owes Me A Dollar”, in which he describes what happened. (This talk seems to be the one EW says Buchanan’s article relates to.) He had an idea about theoretical physics; he went to see Sheldon Glashow, and described it; EW and SG disagreed about a pertinent question in pure mathematics; EW offered to bet “anything”; SG offered to bet $1. (EW turns out to be correct on this point.)

    4. According to EW’s telling of the story, he proposed the bet in some words like these: “Hey, you’re a physicist. You’re supposed to make bets.”. (Perhaps he was thinking of the famous Hawking/Thorne bet about Cygnus X-1, which had been decided not long before.)

    5. I have no idea what was in the phone calls and emails between RH and EW.

    And here, for what it’s worth, is my interpretation of the facts.

    1. EW did indeed have a transaction of sorts with SG, which amounted to taking a sort of financial stake in an idea.

    2. But it doesn’t appear to have been a “contract” in the usual sense; neither does it appear to have been thought of, or framed, as anything more than a bet; neither was the sum it ended up involving at all substantial. (Though perhaps EW really was anticipating a much more substantial wager until SG chose a nominal sum.)

    3. If EW is claiming that his bet with SG (rather than, say, any encounter with RH’s publications) is what long ago started him thinking about financial derivatives involving ideas, then this seems eminently plausible to me.

    4. If EW is claiming that his bet with SG constitutes an independent invention of what RH calls idea futures, then this seems perfectly ridiculous to me.

    5. I’d guess that EW really did come up with the idea independently of RH. (And I’d guess that plenty of other people have done so too.)

    6. MB’s article does give the impression that no one other than EW had ever thought of the idea before. That’s a pity. I’d guess that EW didn’t make any such claim, and in fact didn’t say anything about who has priority. Whether that would count as unscrupulous credit-grabbing or mere disinterest in questions of credit, I shall leave for others to judge as they see fit.

    7. As MB says, the article wasn’t all about EW and his (original or other) ideas, and it’s not that surprising that it didn’t attempt to track down the first person to think of every idea it mentions.

    8. It sure seems like there might have been better ways to resolve this than RH’s apparent public accusation of plagiarism and EW’s tub-thumping response.

    9. This exchange has not improved my opinion of either participant.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    One other thing I should have made more explicit: Besides not being a contract and not involving a substantial sum of money, the feature most conspicuously important in “idea futures” and absent in the EW/SG bet is that the main point of the transaction is that it happens in a framework set up to enable third parties to extract information from the bets made.

    This feature seems to me, in fact, to be (1) central to RH’s view of this stuff and (2) entirely absent from EW’s view (and also from the description in MB’s article), which makes it seem pretty weird to me to see MB’s article as claiming that EW (re)invented idea futures.

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

    A 900 word comment by Dan has been removed. See the About page for comment policy.

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