Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that haven’t appeared in recent posts.

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  • Sean

    This may be spurious (I have only anecdotes), but I feel as if people who are very intelligent but not at the very top of the intelligence distribution tend to overestimate the importance of intelligence in the accomplishments of others (i.e. these people undeweight the importance of diligence, luck, etc.), and I’ve never fully understood why.

    This may just be a Lake Wobegon thing where people talk up the importance of traits on which they are strongest, but I feel like there’s something else.

    Or it may just be sampling error.

    • I have noticed the same thing, there are many factors involved though.

      1. Intelligence is the single most important factor, though it doesn’t explain that much by itself. Among other things because it is positively correlated with other factors, such as diligence and persistence.

      2. Intelligent people tend to over estimate the intelligence of people they deal with on only a casual basis. Somewhat similarly as to how we over estimate their honesty and how much they agree with us on various issues.

      3. People tend to stratify based on work and shared interests, and those working together or sharing interests also tend to be similar in other ways, including intelligence.

      I am in a peculiar situation. At an IQ of 156, I am near the top of the distribution, but I am somewhat autistic, and have ended near (or at) the bottom of income distribution, so I have had a very broad view of society (even if I don’t understand as much of the “internals”, the individuals’ motivations, for what I see).

      • Incognitus

        I like people who self-diagnose themselves autistic. 😀 Welcome in the club. ;PPP

      • you don’t seem to have an iq of 156 to me. I’d place you under 140, maybe under 130.

    • Ray

      I might be misreading your definition “intelligence distribution” but it seems from anecdote, and from what I’ve read that the more successful a person – highly intelligent or not – the more they tend to discount luck and happenstance in their accomplishments.

      Those intelligent folks who do not make it to the top are usually painfully aware of the need for some good fortune, and even more importantly, the costs of bad or lazy decisions.

  • nw3

    Hi Robin. I’ve been reading Daniel Goleman’s work on the importance of “emotional intelligence” (the ability to understand feelings) versus “rational intelligence” (traditional IQ, the processing of information). The movie Inception touches on some of these topics.

    It seems people don’t unconditionally seek truth. People like the truth if it confirms their gut feeling and people like the truth if it makes them happy. Otherwise people would rather hear lies. This is why scientists have a hard time communicating concepts like global warming, which if true, portends lower living standards.

    • “Scientists”, though mostly politicians and religious greens, have a hard time communicating global warming because it is mostly unsupported by real evidence. So when people question it they resort to ad hominems and arguments from authority.

  • I’d like to suggest adding more tags, or allowing readers to add tags, to essays. I just spent some time trying (and failing) to find an old essay I remember on the very long term Malthusian future, to link as a response to this comment on HN.

  • I’m a fan of your “dealism” approach, aka “give people what they want”. I saw this a little while back. It’s the most straight-forward (not to say persuasive) attack on the concept I can recall.

    • Not sure what more there is to say that I don’t want only the good. I want to coordinate with others to get us all what we want. Good would then be achieved only to the extend some people want good.


    Freedom to be modestly corrupt a good form of compensation for people charged to police corruption in society?

  • Robert Koslover

    The state governments of California, Illinois, and New York are in severe distress and are on the verge of financial collapse, i.e., they are becoming unable to pay their bills. What is the best way for the USA as a whole to handle this? Should our federal laws be changed to allow these states to declare bankruptcy? Should the other 47 states be taxed to pay for the mistakes caused by the incompetent fiscal managers of these “failing” states? If the latter, what rights, properties, territories, etc., should these mismanaged states have to sacrifice in exchange for benefiting from the generosity of other states that did not mismanage their state governments? And if there are to be no penalties imposed upon them, what will prevent these states from continuing to mismanage their budgets and to endlessly drain the resources of the other states?

    • Danny Chapman

      Robert –

      A wonderful fiscal question for 2011. Though I do not know the answer, I do know that the citizens of states like Texas (where I am a fourth generation) will be extremely agitated and upset should these fiscally irresponsible states be bailed out by the federal government.

      One can look at history and see that one result of a declining and bankrupt country (i.e. the U.S.) is the breaking apart of certain regions and states. For this, I see the rebirth of the Republic of Texas within the next 50 years – should the spoiled, labor-union heavy states and federal government not get their fiscal houses in order.

  • Kelly

    I’ve been rereading Manuel de Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and it seems to have a lot to say about the farmer/forager dichotomy. The book uses French-Theory terminology, but it’s largely about spontaneous order and the oscillation between a nomadic, forager, kind of war-making and an agriculturalist style of war-making. Here’s a passage from page 49 in which de Landa speculates about the origin of cities:

    Some military historians see in the great fortified walls of the Neolithic period, such as those at Jericho, the possible origin of agriculture. They invert the traditional causal chain in which the existence of a grain surplus motivates a defensive move to fortify a settlement with the aid of stone walls. It appears now as if the military requirements of hunters and gatherers could have created the walled space within which agricultural techniques might have been discovered. We will meet again this form of ‘inverse causality’ as we investigate the evolution of the military-industrial complex in history. We will find that military needs are often at the origin of economic structures. Some military theoreticians go so far as to say that the city itself is not of mercantilist origin but simply a product of the geometrical needs of the walled space of war. And this is especially true for the evolution of cities after 1494, once the ‘private castle’ began to be replaced by the more complex ‘State fortress.’

    It’s a great book… and one I appreciate more now that I’ve read and thought about F.A. Hayek than I did when I was in graduate school reading Deleuze (in a humanities discipline, of course!)

  • Alan Watson

    Forgive me if I’ve missed some of your thoughts on the return to forager mores. I think this is a wonderful idea, but I have two questions:

    (1) Are you not perhaps excessively Rousseauian in describing iconic foragers as “promiscuous, artistic, professional, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, with few kids”? Is there good evidence for this? I would imagine that life in a small group could be very stultifying, with severe peer pressures to conform. Stephen Pinker’s descriptions of violence in hunter-gatherer societies suggests that an instinct to be cosmopolitan and well-travelled would be rapidly bred out of the gene pool.

    (2) If the cultural constraints of agricultural social structures dramatically altered our instinctive attitudes and behaviors, why would you not expect living in an industrial society to impose other constraints? In other words, rather than reverting to forager mores, why wouldn’t we be expected to move toward a third configuration, in some ways perhaps more forager like, but in other ways perhaps less so?

    Thank you for sharing your imagination and insights. Life is wonderful!

  • From time to time one observes the false consensus effect coupled with wishful thinking. Is there a term for this? Any research?

    • Eliezer’s “happy death spiral” sounds a bit like that.

      davidc, James Scott talks a bit about the hostility of settled society to nomads in “The Art of Not Being Governed”. But he’s mostly focused on slash-and-burn horticulturalists who also hunt & gather rather than more urban-adapted groups dependent on the rest of society like gypsies.

  • is down and has been so for several days. I want to read about the next Big Thing :<. Btw your cato unbound articles were awsome.

  • Do expressions of confirmation bias correlate with an increased risk of cancer mortality?

  • In relation to foragers and farmers. What does the treatment of foragers in modern societies tell us?
    If you look at nomadic groups in various cultures whether they be Irish Travellers, Gypsies, Sami or even (i’m told) Carnival folk in the US they have been treated with suspicion and hostility.

    If nomadism is seen as a threat to farmer values what will happen to these people is forager values become more common?

  • Karl Hallowell

    I don’t normally contribute to these threads because I read Overcoming Bias intermittently. However, your contining discussions of commitment and obligation bring up an idea. Suppose you try to devise an economic system that attempts to reduce legally enforced commitment and obligation as much as possible, perhaps even to the point of elimination, You can still have obligation, but it’s no longer enforced by whatever authority manages the economic system.

    A relatively extreme example of this is a massively multiplayer space opera game called “Eve Online”, It basically is a fairly extreme, hypercapitalist game with few externally imposed rules. Here, scams, theft, piracy, etc are in large part legal (there are certain regions of space where certain acts are unlawful and met with near instant annihilation by a highly advanced police force, though players often can benefit from the illegal action despite the consequences).

    The core is a financial and modest legal infrastructure that is near impossible to break (and leads to elimination of the player’s characters, true death in the sense of a game, if a means is found and the player caught). In this framework have developed a number of “efficient breach” contracts.

    For example, a player can issue a “courier contract” in which specified cargo is shipped from point A to B. A reward is offered and the shipper has to submit an amount of collateral specified by the original player. Once that is done, the shipper is under no legal obligation to complete the contract. They can choose to break the contract, in which case the original player gets the collateral. Ultimately, it provides a limited means for a player to offer services for another player.

    The system has some very serious problems. A key one is simply that a lot of otherwise criminal behavior is allowed with little recourse (the offended parties can hunt the original thief or scammer down, but they can’t do very much to them, especially given that the money or assets can easily and covertly be transferred to other characters that the offender has).

    Still it leads me to wonder if true efficient breach contracts might play a useful role in the workings of society. For example, if you can’t renege on a contract, then that keeps some human interactions from ending up in an expensive court system.

  • Sister Y

    On the “just world fallacy” and global warming – subjects induced to think about the world as fair (just world) express more skepticism about global warming and less willingness to reduce their carbon footprint than matched subjects induced to think about the world as sometimes unfair, after both groups were subsequently exposed to global warming PSAs portraying children as the victims of global warming (a depiction of an especially unfair situation, given the children did nothing to cause global warming).

    Our commitment to believing the world is fair undermines our ability to accurately perceive the world when it is unfair.

  • nw3

    The speed of light regulates radio waves, with a higher frequency offset by shorter wavelength.

    Urban living is similar with the trade-off between doing the simple things poorly and the complicated things well.

    You may actually gauge the desirability of a location by the difficulty of doing the simple things.

    Topeka Kansas may not have a world class cuisine, but washers and dryers aren’t status symbols either.

  • Ray

    Have you ever approached the subject of how many young people have serious plans to become artists, musicians, and in general, celebrities and more specifically, the downside to this? Sounds great to produce a generation of artists, but when most of them are not actually very talented nor do they possess the work ethic to obtain these lofty goals, we have a nation of “mere dabblers” to paraphrase Epictetus. But of course they have no real job skills, and they doubly damaging effects of being somewhat detached from the reality of why they’re drifting through life. (Epictetus goes on to compare the dabbler to a child playing soldier one day, and playing another fanciful role the next.)

    The obvious retort is that kids have always wanted to be “rock stars” but I would contend not in these numbers.

    • TheDarkestPassenger

      I have read at least one article suggesting that liberal arts majors and liberal arts programs at many universities are on the decline because of the increasing cost of getting a university education. So there might be fewer of these artists and dilettants you speak of based purely on economic forces and the rising cost of getting an education.

      But in fairness, our society has become (to my way of thinking) extremely focused on the “overnight success” mentality i.e. American Idol and every other reality TV series. There’s a great deal of attention paid by the various media sources to lottery winners, reality TV star contestants, and other people who got a lot of something, usually money and fame, without the expenditure of much sweat equity.

      I think colleges and high schools would provide a better service to their pupils if on occasion they say, ‘And this thing you’re striving for won’t happen overnight. Stephen King didn’t become a bestsellign author by banging out ‘Carrie’ one weekend at his beachfront estate in Maine. He spent years upon years getting rejected.’

      In reality, rejection, disappointment, and utter cruelty are going to be our constant companions. Learning to not be driven to despair, heartbreak, chemical dependency, and suicide are the things we must really focus on, and learning to get use to disappointment and to accept it as the standard human condition, that’s what we must all really learn and grasp. We must also integrate the fundamental lesson that achieving something great may ultimately be impossible, and that the best we’ll ever do is to just scrape by. But with a noisemachine media that emphasizes again and again the pure, super-lucky ones in our society, it becomes difficult to not want more for yourself, too. The Biblical fable of Cain killing Able was based on Cain’s envy of Able’s sacrifice being better liked by God. So envy was the first precursor to murder. And we have a society based on stirring up envy, and encouraging people to want more and more worthless crap, so we can impress worthless people about our own worthless lives.

      • Ray

        But in fairness, our society has become (to my way of thinking) extremely focused on the “overnight success” mentality i.e. American Idol and every other reality TV series.

        That’s what I was getting at, but you put it better.

        If the tendency was for a majority of our young people to suddenly want to be the next Shakespeare, Hemmingway or Picasso I think a lot of very valuable education would likely come with the effort. But as you said, they’re wanting microwave success so they can have all of the bling, etc.

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  • mjgeddes

    More wisdom from my experience on horse racing prediction markets:

    Updating for odds which are very low or very high is far more sensitive to new information. i.e., the lower the probability of an outcome, the greater the volatility of its odds on a prediction market.

    For instance, for a mid-range ‘average’ probablity of a horse winning (which in horse racing is around $5), the price is quite robust to new information coming in, even lots of new information and updating doesn’t change the odds that much in the short term. But for a very low priced runner (say $1.40), even updating with tiny amounts of new information can cause huge probability shifts (hence the greater volatility).

    This behaviour of prediction markets shows up the big problem with all discussions about extreme far-mode events (Singularity, AI, nano-goo, immortality etc. etc). The fact is that very low probability events are highly sensitive to new information – i.e., even tiny amounts of new information used to update can cause huge probability shifts. Perhaps this is the reason that futurist and ‘expert’ discourse about the far future isn’t that much more accurate than the man on the street?