Monthly Archives: April 2010

Confidence or Silence

When prestigious academics evaluate the vita (i.e., publication list) of another academic, they want to see only top journals listed there.  A vita with five top journal articles and ten medium journal articles looks worse to them than a vita with just five top articles; if you can’t publish in the very top journals, they’d rather you didn’t publish at all.

Paul Davies is chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup.

Paul Davies, chair of the group that decides what SETI scientists will do if evidence of aliens is ever found, thinks similarly about science news: until scientists can say something to the public with great (~99%) confidence, they should say nothing.  (Quotes below.)  You see, frequent public updates on science issues of great popular interest, like evidence of aliens or asteroids headed toward Earth, would result in reporters bothering scientists at work with “mayhem”, disrupting their “lines of communication,” and disturbing their “dispassionate analysis.”  The fact that most early low-probability signs would end up being false alarms is “damaging to the credibility of science.”  So until scientists can confidently say that an asteroid will hit us or that we see aliens, they should just whisper to each other.

In the extreme case of receiving an actual alien message directed at us, Davies prefers scientists to kept quiet for the many years it would likely take to decode it fully.  And he prefers aliens to not send us any useful tech info, as then we would fight over who could decode it first.  How disruptive!

One might justify this confidence-or-silence policy by arguing either that non-scientists are biased to overreact to low confidence news, or that reporters are biased to present low probability news as if it were high probability, and non-scientists gullibly believe them.  I have not seen any systematic evidence presented in support of these claims, however.

Within academia, the bias against non-top articles seems like signaling.  Since folks confident they are great would not admit they’d ever done work that could not meet the highest standards, medium journal publications reveal a lack of confidence.  Similarly, I suspect signaling is behind the confidence-or-silence policy.  Since it is harder to credibly say something with great confidence than with low confidence, saying something with low confidence sends a bad signal about your abilities.  Keeping info secret is also a status move; info gives control and control marks status.

Quotes from Eerie Silence: Continue reading "Confidence or Silence" »

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Being Right Too Soon

Charles Peters … had a slogan … “If you’re not afraid of being right too soon.”  But of course, everyone is afraid of being right too soon. It’s bad politics, being out of step with the herd; it looks like you’re greedy if you profit from being wise while others suffer from their stupidity. People want to be “right” at the same time everyone else is — with the result that they delay action until the crunch hits with devastating force. Take the case of Goldman Sachs, this week’s favorite whipping boy. “Goldman Sachs sought to protect itself from a collapsing housing market by selling mortgage investments that it knew were likely to fail,” read the lead of a Post story posted on the Web Monday. Scandalous! Why didn’t they wait and get cratered like the folks at Lehman Brothers, R.I.P.?

The herd gallops toward the precipice for a simple reason: It’s lonely and unpopular to go the other way. Take the question of tax policies that could avert the next big U.S. financial disaster, which is our ballooning federal deficit. The sensible real-world answer, many economists argue, is a value-added tax that would encourage saving at the same time it pays down the deficit to manageable levels. But politicians are terrified of being right too soon on this one.

David Ignatius is right; this applies in politics, news, and even academia. Being into a topic or a position well before others gets you much less than being into it just as others are getting in. Arnold Kling echos:

Here are some of the phrases that are used to describe the Outsiders, the money managers who were right about the subprime bubble: “rude”  blunt” “bothers people” “socially cut off” “isolated” “not hearing the signals”.

More emphasis on institutions like prediction markets would create more incentives to be right before others.  But, alas, I suspect this is a big reason why folks are reluctant to create them; they don’t want people to be rewarded for being right before they were.  They don’t like Goldman Sachs being rewarded for being right first.

In general, we don’t mind rewarding the fashion-savvy; those who pick up a fashion just as it is getting popular signal that they are well connected with fashion leaders.  But be too far ahead and you just look random, weird, and lucky; not well connected.  We also don’t mind rewarding “leaders” who know when our crowd is going where, and who “lead” by jumping out and marching in front of us; forager leaders did that all the time.  But we distrust folks who are rewarded for opposing our crowd; they are not leaders but are outsiders and enemies, and must be crushed.

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Eerie Errors

Paul Davies’ new book The Eerie Silence is good overall, and probably great for someone who hasn’t read ten other SETI books.  Two gems:

1) Perhaps our descendants will not be forced to adopt future ways:

It is clear that different forms of microbes can complete in the same space for many of the same resources, without one form ever eliminating the other. [p59]

2) Opinions on big questions often fluctuate more than added info justifies:

In spite of these dampening facts, belief in extraterrestrial life is now widespread among scientists.  So what has changed since the days of pessimists like Crick, Monod and Simpson?  Curiously, very little on the actual scientific front. … None of the scientific discoveries of the past half-century have greatly altered what we know, or don’t know, about life’s seemingly freaky nature.  The change in sentiment is due, I believe, to fashion rather than discovery.  At a time when physicists freely speculate about extra dimensions, anti-gravikty and dark matter, and cosmologists propose multiple universes and dark energy, speculation about extraterrestrial life seems tame by comparison.  [p32]

I’ve similarly suggested opinions on if the universe is infinite also fluctuate too much.  Let me also point out some errors in the book:

A) This news on our ignorance of early Earth life isn’t reflected here: Continue reading "Eerie Errors" »

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Yell To The Sky?

Paul Davies disagrees with Stephen Hawking:

When British cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned against contact with extraterrestrials in a new Discovery Channel documentary, … [his] comparisons with Columbus … reflect the rampant anthropocentrism that pervades much speculation about alien life.  Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same. A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies, and may well have genetically engineered its species for harmonious living. Any truly bellicose alien species would either have wiped itself out long ago, or already taken over the galaxy.

By comparison, humans would quite likely be considered dangerous warmongers, posing a possible menace to our galactic neighbors in centuries to come. If so, then ET may act to eliminate the threat if we didn’t mend our violent ways. Ironically, the greatest danger from an alien encounter may be ourselves.

Many species here on Earth have endured for millions of years while retaining “aggressive” tendencies, and even very “mildly” bellicose aliens, ones who would only exterminate us if they could make a plausible case that we might pose a future menace, should still be of great concern to us.  I sure don’t want to be exterminated “just in case.”  Wouldn’t it make more sense then to shut up until either we don’t look so menacing, or until we are strong enough to defend ourselves?

If I didn’t know more about Paul Davies, I’d leave it at that.  But Davies has long been a well respected academic expert in this area, and I’ve come to respect him in my personal contacts.  I can’t claim he hasn’t heard contrary arguments; he invited me to present my “Burning the Cosmic Commons” work (more) at a workshop he held, and he covers it extensively in his (good) new book The Eerie Silence:

Hanson points out that whatever the motives a community may have for spreading, and whatever the parameters such as travel speed, length of sojourn at new colonies, order of priorities and level of incentive to continue, there will always be a fastest wave of of migration  Given a sufficiently rich plethora of diverse cultures vying for planetary pastures new, the leading edge of this wave will be determined purely by competitive selection effects.  [p127]

Davies even considers in great depth possible signatures that an alien colonization wave passed this way long ago:

How about this: aliens passed through our part of the galaxy a long time ago harvesting comets? … If the solar system is typical, and other stars have comet clouds too, then the comets ejected from them should sometimes come our way and enter the solar system.  If an extra solar comet paid us a visit, it would be seen traveling on a hyperbolic rather than elliptical orbit, i.e. moving too fast to be from the Oort cloud.  So far no such comet has been seen, which is a bit puzzling.  [p133] …

We can’t be sure the [puzzling] lack of monopoles is universal – maybe its just our region of the galaxy that is affected.  Are the aliens to blame?  Why would magnetic monopolies be of use to them?  Monopoles would be the power source of choice for any self-respecting super civilization. [p137]

But even though Davies accepts that selection could induce such rapacious alien expansion, he still sees any nearby aliens as unthreatening: Continue reading "Yell To The Sky?" »

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Unwanted Politicians

Here are two positions most any politician can take, yet few ever do:

  1. “If elected, every month I will impanel a new random jury of voters in my district.  I will inform them in detail about my upcoming decisions, and will ask them for their choices.  Then I will just do what they say.  In this way I can assure you that won’t act on my own interests or those of my cronies or donors; I will act as would random informed citizens from my district.”
  2. “I promise that, if elected, I will do X, Y, and Z.  But I don’t just make promises; I show you I am committed to keeping my promises.  My word isn’t my only bond; my house is also my bond.  I have contracted with ABC law agency; they will give my house away to the first person that can prove that I have broken any of these promises.”

These ideas have been around for many years, and they would seem to give voters more of what they say they want from politicians: less corruption and more kept promises.  Yet virtually no political candidates ever take these positions.  I have to conclude that these positions would somehow interfere with voters getting other things they want from candidates.  But what things?  Some possibilities:

  • We elect politicians to raise our status by affiliation.  Anyone can follow a jury, so that isn’t impressive, and our affiliation is weaker if we suggest we don’t trust them.
  • We prefer the hypocrisy of democracy where they tell us nice sounding things, making it look like we support them, but then actually do what we really want done.
  • Voters would reject a candidate whose campaign focused on such meta issues, and prefer to support a candidate who would better help them signal their particular positions on non-meta issues.
  • We elect elites we think are much better than us, and we don’t trust our own judgement relative to theirs.
  • By suggesting that voters might not trust you, you suggest you are especially untrustworthy.
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The Gift of Status Affiliation

Status affiliation is a common function of many of our activities – we like to make personal connections with high status folks, as that is commonly seen as raising our status.  Among their other functions, the personal contact in seeing a doctor, attending a lecture, hiring a sculptor, or meeting with a CEO, creates a status affiliation.

Relative to other possible gifts, giving the gift of a status affiliation has several advantages:

  1. It usually looks bad to try too hard or directly to affiliate yourself with high status folks.  It looks better if the effort is paid for and initiated by someone else, a gift giver.
  2. The act of giving affiliates the give giver, as well as the gift recipient, with the high status person.  They get two affiliations for the price of one.
  3. You reduce the strength of an affiliation if you examine too critically the quality of the product or service of the associated high status person.  Gift givers also have weak incentives to attend to private info about gift quality; common perceptions of quality matter more.  So both gifts and status affiliation avoid private quality info.
  4. Looking less critically at the other functions of the relation make it easier to hypocritically believe you care mainly about those functions, pretending that you don’t care much about the status affiliation.

This complementarity between gifts and status affiliations helps explain why our affiliations with high status folks, such as via medicine or education, are often treated as gifts.

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True Tolerance

Crush videos feature small animals … being slowly crushed or impaled by a woman wearing stiletto heels. … The Supreme Court decided … the law prohibiting such videos was too broad. As written, for example, the law could be construed to prohibit a deer-hunting video, which, though some might find cruel, relates to a legal activity. …

Obviously, no one ever intended that the free-speech provision of the Constitution protect the rights of deviants to torture animals and then to market videos for the sexual satisfaction of people who, by their tastes, are a probable threat to society. …

[Representatives] introduced a … [new bill] to narrowly focus the [overturned law]. … Although it specifically exempts hunting videos, animal rights advocates worry that it leaves a loophole. Hypothetically, a crush video could be built around a legitimate hunting scene and thus be protected from prosecution. …

The challenge to Congress is…: There is no argument ever to justify torturing animals and no defense — ever — for selling videos created to profit from that torture. Figure it out. Fix it.. (more)

This seems to argue that it should be illegal to distribute a video of a legal activity, e.g., hunting, because this might result in “sexual satisfaction of people who, by their tastes, are a probable threat to society.”  So the claim is either that it is bad to satisfy such tastes, even if no one else is affected, or that satisfying such tastes will intensify their “threat to society.” Perhaps such a threat intensification exists, but I’d need more concrete evidence of it before prohibiting otherwise harmless activities on that basis.

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means.  Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus.  But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest.  That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”

“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you.  Things that make you go “ick”, or that conflict with strong intuitions on proper behavior.  Once upon a time, the idea of gay sex made most folks quite uncomfortable, and yet many of those folks still advocated tolerance for gay sex.  Their argument was not that gay sex isn’t icky, but that a broad society should be reluctant to ban apparently victimless activities merely because many find them icky.

Someday soon, technology will allow an explosion of possible creatures and behaviors, many of which will seem icky to many others.  No doubt it will be appropriate for some communities to ban some of them, but we face a very real danger of insufficient tolerance threatening our peace and prosperity. The alternative to living peacefully with those we dislike, may be to instead die with them.

Please, in preparation, let us learn to practice tolerance with the smaller variations we face today.  Unless we see a clearer harm from letting some folks watch vids of cruel but legal hunting, let us tolerate it. Same for polygamy, polyandry, or digitally-created kid porn. You don’t have to like them, or approve them, to tolerate them.

Added: Alex suggests “social change is not much driven by changes in tolerance.”

Added 5p: Note that the people who are actually the most tolerant are marginalized folks with strong opinions, like fundamentalist Islamists in the US, or politically-right profs in academia. By necessity, most such folks frequently tolerate bothersome behaviors by others.

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What Tradition Knows

Bryan portrays himself as an intellectual elitist, but he has an oddly unflattering portrait of the elite.  When it comes to the dreamworld of political debate, elites are relatively rational but that is exactly the sphere in which individuals are least decisive over actual outcomes.  When it comes to the really big, important decisions, such as how many kids to have, individuals in the elite are highly decisive in steering outcomes yet quite irrational.  They underappreciate the joy of kids.

That is Tyler.  This seems a plausible example of where thinking goes wrong, i.e., where those who think less tend to make better decisions by following tradition and intuition, and those who rely more on explicit reasoning often take many decades to realize their mistake.  What are the clearest other examples of this, and what features do such examples have in common?  Ideally, we’d use these features to construct a coherent argument to warn young excess thinkers away from their most common mistakes.

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Why Pretend?

The homo hypocritus hypothesis I’ve been exploring lately is that large fraction of modern behavior is explained by our evolved capacities and tendencies to pretend to do X while really doing Y.  For each such X and Y, this raises a number of basic questions about how such a situation could be an equilibrium:

  1. Why is X not such a useful thing to do?
  2. Why is Y a particularly useful thing to do?
  3. Why do we like folks to think we usually do X?
  4. Why do we not like folks to think we usually do Y?
  5. Why do we tend to say we do X, and not Y?
  6. Why do we tend to say that our associates do X, not Y?
  7. Why do we tend to say that most people do X, not Y?
  8. Why are we oft unaware that we actually do Y not X?
  9. Why are we oft unaware associates are doing Y not X?
  10. Why are we unaware that in general folks usually do Y not X?
  11. Why do we start out in life assuming folks mostly do X?
  12. Why don’t we learn faster with experience that folks mostly do Y?
  13. Why don’t we believe those who tell us that most folks do Y not X?
  14. Why don’t those aware that folks do Y not X tell more other folks?
  15. Why do social norms tend to favor doing X over Y?
  16. Why do many norms make it easier to hide Y and pretend it is X?
  17. Why do some of us deviate, believing and saying most folks do Y not X?
  18. Why do some of us deviate, saying our associates do Y not X?
  19. Why do some of us deviate, saying we ourselves do Y not X?
  20. More??

I’ve broken this down into many specific questions to make it clear how much detail a full explanation must account for, and to admit I don’t have such a full explanation.  I’ve heard many plausible stories that address some of these questions, but such stories usually make assumptions about answers to other questions.  Some tentative explanation parts:

  • Forager norms cut overt Y of dominance, bragging, sub-coalitions.
  • Forager norms liked overt X of work, peace, sharing, bonding.
  • Those who tend to do X more are more impressive or attractive.
  • Those who better hide their Y, show their intelligence and social savvy.
  • It can be hard to consistently say one thing and believe another.
  • Unconscious communication and coordination is harder to see or verify.
  • Those who believe X is common make better associates, in junior roles.
  • X helps groups more than Y, giving group selection of X over Y norms.
  • Groups that succeed in inducing more X look better to outsiders.
  • Hidden coalitions can help each other hide their Y, and their coalition.
  • Exposing someone’s Y can lead to retaliation by a hidden coalition.
  • More??
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    Negative Backwaters

    [Researchers] obtained data from the National Science Foundation on the number of researchers per capita in each state, and then randomly selected research papers that contained the phrase “test* the hypothes*”.  Those papers were characterized as either confirming (positive result) or rejecting (negative result) the hypothesis. …

    “Those based in US states where researchers publish more papers per capita were significantly more likely to report positive results, independently of their discipline.” In other words, as local competition increases, the fraction of papers that confirmed a hypothesis went up.  The authors looked at a number of factors that could confound the effect—the total number of PhDs per capita, total publication output per state, and R&D expenditure per state—and found no correlation. …

    It’s possible that the most competitive research environments produce more perceptive scientists, who are better at choosing the correct hypothesis to test. … An alternate hypothesis: researchers in competitive environments are better at presenting their results in a [positive] way that’s likely to get them published.

    More here (study here). You might interpret “more papers per person” as either a higher personal ability, or as a higher investment per paper.  The post above gives the example:

    Knocking out a gene and finding a severely altered mouse (and thereby confirming the gene’s importance) can net you a paper in a high-profile journal; knocking it out and seeing nothing can make it really difficult to publish anything.

    If this searching-in-a-big-space is the typical case, then a natural interpretation is that more “able” researchers can either “see truth” better (less likely), or know better how to twist their data to look positive (more likely).

    On the other hand, if the typical hypothesis is a standard expected result, like “smoking causes cancer,” then a natural interpretation is that it takes more work to overturn a standard result than to confirm it.   Perhaps “mainstream” researchers tend to find expected standard results, while “backwater” researchers tend more often to overturn them.  This would be like how meeting talk is biased toward repeating  shared info that many have, instead of exposing unique info that only one person has.

    In either case this seems an endorsement of the social value of those supposedly “non-competitive” researchers.

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