Beware Local Smoothing

In simple cultures, folks mostly have simple intuitive accounts of why people do things, and what is forbidden or required. Kids may be told stories about the origin or justification of various elements, but those stories are shallow and poorly integrated.

Attending an Episcopal wedding Saturday, I noticed how big an advance such churches represented. Their rules are more easily found and better standardized. And they come with larger more integrated stories about their origins and justifications.

Of course that larger story isn’t fully integrated, not by a long shot. But you do have to look at it on somewhat larger scales, or ask “why?” a few more levels deeper, to see the incoherences. I didn’t notice them much as a child, but by college they loomed larger.

Today, academia is treated by many as a standard source for official explanations and justifications. Academic explanations aren’t as entertaining or accessible as Episcopal stories, but they offer more coherence on why folks should believe what academics say, some mix of experiments and peer review. And academic stories are coherent on yet larger scales – you have to know more and look deeper to see the incoherences.

The general approach has been to smooth out local wrinkles, relative to distant reference points. In each topic area, one assumes the validity of some distant standard assumptions or beliefs, and then seeks local conclusions that more simply and reliably cohere both with local evidence and those more distant assumptions. For example, one might assume that medicine helps health, and that people prefer to insure against risks, and calculate co-insurance levels to recommend.

This sort of local-smoothing isn’t obviously likely to move much further away from the truth. But I worry that it better hides our ignorance when initial assumptions are pretty far from the truth. It has taken me twenty years in social science to become solidly convinced that there are huge incoherences in our standard accounts of human behavior. On the largest scales, our stories are quite jagged, and far from smooth. Many of the 2600 posts on this blog have been my attempts to point out such jags.

To me, humans seem quite mistaken about the main functions driving a great many important areas of human behavior. Yet because so many have worked so hard at local smoothing, it is now rather hard for college kids to see these broader incoherences. Also, local academic incentives mainly reward better local smoothing, and overconfidence in the insights that result. And our delusions may well have functions, so that we are built to punish those who try to expose or deny them.

Could it be that the main folks able to see the problem, and interested in solving it, are senior academics who are less inspired by local academic incentives, and in a mood to expose human delusions, even if they offend many by doing so? I despair, but will not yet quit hope.

Instead, I call out to capable intellectuals: join me in this holy and oh so neglected crusade, to understand who and what we are. Let us doubt as many standard assumptions as possible on why we do what we do. Let us stay close to evidence, and to basic solid conclusions such as standard statistics, physics, and that we evolved from other animals. Let us collect otherwise-puzzling stylized facts, and seek simple theories to simultaneously account for many such facts via a few new assumptions. Let us seek an account of what we are that is at least not so jagged on the very largest scales, and let us find better ways, like prediction markets, to coordinate to give ourselves incentives to reward large scale smoothness.

And let us steel ourselves to hold our gaze upon whatever we are, however pretty or ugly that may be.

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  • James D. Miller

    You should create a public database of puzzling stylized facts.

    Thinking of additions to the database could make an interesting classroom exercise.

  • David

    I think that Nicholas Nassim Taleb is very much on this wavelength, if I understood you right. But if not, a contrast with his approach to the human sciences might help me understand how you picture the more honest social science.

    • Michael Vassar

      I think Taleb is like me. He agrees with Robin’s factual beliefs but doesn’t object to things being as they are the way Robin does.

  • Rob

    Cf. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 230.

  • Robert Koslover

    So you seek to advance human knowledge at a faster pace?

    Excerpt: Theodoric of York: [steps toward the camera ] Wait a minute. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps I’ve been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a “scientific method”. Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! [thinks for a minute] Naaaaaahhh!

  • Kakun

    I think your idea that larger scales are more difficult to grasp may be inaccurate; it neglects the fact that larger scales inherently involve abstraction, and therefore aren’t necessarily much less understood. e.g. Politics involves a much larger scale (if I’m grasping what you’re saying) than economics, international relations, political science, etc, since it involved knowledge of all of these fields; would you say that popular knowledge of proposed policies is significantly worse than popular knowledge of economics?

  • mbk

    I wouldn’t say that ignorance of the “true” motivation behind much of human behavior necessarily means these behaviors ars dysfunctional in the context of society or the individual. All models are wrong, some models are useful, right? Examples of what I have in mind:
    – Evolution perfects organisms unaware of their evolution
    – Membership in a church can lead to fulfillment in life and success even if the purported metaphysical belief was rather in the service of social allegiance
    – For the time being my belief or non belief in string theory changes nothing to my socio-economic situation.

    To the contrary, the pursuit of this knowledge (of the “true” motivations) could well result in debasing certain behaviors in the eyes of people, when these behaviors are actually helpful.What I have in mind is Hayek’s argument the one should not attempt to abolish traditional behavior unless one is truly aware of all its ramifications (it could be better adapted than assumed at first). And all these ramifications are hard to follow. When you, say, document that a behavior is a social marker rather than an activity useful in its first degree purported meaning people may stop doing it. But the social marker had meaning too. It just wasn’t the meaning printed on the can.

    In terms of this research you propose, the giant looming often unacknowledged in this field is Mary Douglas. Her approach to anthropology, was pioneering what you propose. I am all for it. It’s curious that after all these years it’s not really broadly known outside academia.

  • richard silliker

    Me loins are girded and my bags packed. However, should we not be seeking an assertion as opposed to an assumption? Top down don’t work to good.

  • “Academic explanations aren’t as entertaining or accessible as Episcopal stories”
    Clearly I’m not up to date on the most accurate Episcopalian stereotypes.

  • Instead, I call out to capable intellectuals: join me in this holy and oh so neglected crusade, to understand who and what we are. Let us doubt as many standard assumptions as possible on why we do what we do.

    So, we should all write blogs like Roissy in DC?

    (I’m only half joking.)

  • Sam Bhagwat

    Re George’s comment. Robin’s point is correct, but insufficient to guide us to truth,

    There are various groups of people, all of whom believe they have identified the Complete Set of Flawed Modern Assumptions, many of whom try to rewrite history with their Corrected Set.

    Roissy believes he has found this set.

    So do I, and I’m a pretty devout Mormon convert. (Unmarried college student, for the record.)

    Clearly our views about the origin, reasons for and proper use of sex are going to differ. But who’s right?

  • Kevin Dick

    I’m a “capable intellectual”, but I can’t join you because I don’t want to be accused of being a “DIY Academic”! 🙂

  • Carinthium

    1- Agreeing with Kevin Dick’s basic point.

    2- I admit I’m rather ignorant on the subject, but could somebody who knows about them give me some examples of such disrepancies?

  • Buck Farmer

    I feel the sentiment of your post is correct and worth my whole-hearted support…

    …but I’m having trouble connecting the dots from the rhetoric to explicable differences from the current ideals we hold for science, knowledge, and learning.

    Does this boil down to more than, “Never stop asking why?”

    I’ll reread a few times and try for a clearer picture.

  • basic solid conclusions such as […] that we evolved from other animals

    And this might just be your main problem. You far too easily accept and make your own just-so stories comparing humans to various vaguely related animals.

    This leads you to nonsensical grouping (non-human primates, foraging humans) vs (farming humans) instead of correct grouping (non-human primates) vs (all humans). Transition from foraging to farming happened at least eight times independently, all back-and-forth transitions between foraging and farming probably have happened at least hundreds of times in various places. And we have zero reliable evidence suggesting that societies on both sides of the divide differ much.

    And yet you treat it like some sort of Neolithic singularity, based on your just-so stories, and insistence that Paleolithic humans must have been just like non-human primates (hypothesis not confirmed by any data, and in open conflict with everything we know).

    The world would be far better place if you forgot about all your forager-farmer theories, and focused on promoting prediction markets, or some other sensible activity where you can make a real difference.

  • Is this perhaps what is going on in physics as well? As physicists pursue models which fit local reality ever more tightly (space near to us, energies close to what our tech (particle accelerators) can get at), they ‘export’ inconsistencies to space/time/energy regions we cannot observe. But then, is this really a problem? What we are interested in is naturally what we can possibly experience anyway.

    Of course, with social science, unlike in physics, homo hypocriticus doesn’t get in the way of researchers trying as hard as they possibly can to pursue a global theory. But then, from the perspective of your average hypocritical human researcher, is this a problem? They only ever see what they can see anyway (since they refuse to entertain hypocritical explanations of human behavior), so a more global theory hardly seems necessary.

    We literalist/aspergers/systemizer types do see the hypocritical region though. So to us, this local smoothing does not suffice, because we can still see jaggedness.

    My point is that local vs. global is a function of what you can see. And most people simply don’t see the hypocrisy in human behavior.

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  • Philo

    At some level of consciousness we already know pretty well what people are like, so a well-articulated true account of the springs of human behavior should not strike us as *truly ugly*. The truth might fail to conform with a prettified account that has some quasi-official status, but this would be an account that most people show by their actions that they do not really believe.

    But how likely is it that the folk account of human psychology is radically mistaken, as opposed to being a bit crude and somewhat incomplete? Ordinary people, the ones who have constructed the folk account, have powerful incentives to get it right–much stronger than their incentives to prettify their own motivations. I’m betting that the folk account is broadly correct, and that you will have to content yourself with tweaking it rather than replacing it wholesale.

  • Alrenous

    “join me in this holy and oh so neglected crusade”

    I’m skeptical, but all right, I’ll play along.

    Q: Why is it that everyone is so convinced they came to their opinions rationally?

    A: Because it is fashionable.

    Good example: in 300, when the hunchback Ephialtes implores Leonidas to surrender. “Use your reason!”

    I’m sure this is an exact representation of the kind of thing that actually happened when ‘reason’ first became fashionable. To our ears, Ephialtes’ plea is hopelessly gauche. The errors are almost too many to list. For instance Leonidas wants to save Sparta, and surrendering would definitely fail that goal. Similarly, he doesn’t mind dying, so offering to let him live is to misunderstand him. And so on. To us Ephialtes’ plea is plainly self-serving…but his mistakes are not obvious to him, because he lacks sophistication in our culture. Just as we lack sophistication in his.

    Like anything that is done for reasons of fashion, nobody actually changes how they go about their day to day lives. In this case, opinions form as they have always formed, it’s just that it’s popular to dress them up as ‘reasonable.’

    The rise of science, far from benefiting humanity in this instance, has made it worse. It’s become even less fashionable to appear unreasonable, and at the same time even the layhuman has better tools for detecting illogic. Therefore a lot more work has to go into appearing fashionable, and it’s even less likely that anyone will admit, even to themselves, the true sources of their beliefs.

    In other words, the game has become complex and ossified. The hypocrisy module has to work overtime to deal with it. Parts of the brain that are often used tend to grow…

    Similarly, admitting that you’re wrong means you applied logic incorrectly. Now, you never used logic to come by your beliefs in the first place, but that’s irrelevant. The point is to never, ever admit you might be less than a saint of reason. Offer an inch, they take a mile and all that.

    Other applications:
    This is why refuting the ‘reasons’ someone offers for their beliefs never causes them to change their minds.

    It is similarly why most ‘logic’ is so bad. It’s only designed to fool/impress the peer group. Upgrading to impressing actual objective standards is a waste of time and effort.

    It’s why new atheist rhetoric is so juvenile, and indeed logic sniping in general. Yes, they’ve refuted the ‘reasons’ for believing in God. Good work, they were fake to start with. It was never intended for their consumption; they will generally not run into atheists. Upgrading to atheist-proof pretenses to logic is a waste of time.

    Or, more accurately, it’s atheist posturing, trying to look more fashionable than the theist. Problem is that the theist offends the things the theist actually cares about, and thus looks as gauche as Ephialtes to the theist.

    You can see a split in atheists along this line: those who want to impress the theists and are baffled by the contempt they evoke, and those who want to give up on the theists and have them all thrown out…but which is ultimately because they’re just too unfashionable to live. (To double check: making fun of someone is a less extreme response than ostracism, yes? I have trouble being sure, because my personal ranking is reversed. Avoid if possible, attack if forced.)

    It can be fun to watch the hypocrisy system break down, when someone forgets to pretend and applies actual reason. They tend to get pigeonholed into the ‘that one crazy uncle’ stereotype, because that one belief will be so radically different from the peer consensus. So you get a circle of monkeys all dancing the rationalist dance, throwing poop at the one guy who’s actually being rational.

    I once asked a few of the dancing monkeys what they privately thought, and found they agree. I’ve also read accounts of similar tests. So, tragicomedy.

    The actual reason for the poop tossing is because you’re supposed to just ‘get’ that these are lies, and play along. I’m sure you’re aware of the practical and social consequences of the inferior social skills that this indicates.

    The false self-perception of rationality required to run the hypocrisy module also contributes to overconfidence, as if there wasn’t enough of that going around already. After all, everyone has such good ‘reasons’ for what they’re doing! It’s like science and shit!

    This may also partially explain political belief clustering. Individuals accept the ‘reasons’ they hear on the news based on what their peer group would find impressive. So them and everyone in the tribe will end up converging on professing the beliefs of the tribe’s fashion leader.

    Of course humans are prone to rationalization regardless, which is how reason become fashionable in the first place. It’s a natural habit that has been cranked up to 11.

    So I’m offering this to you because I think you can take it further than I can.
    However, according to my (somewhat inexperienced) Bayesian analysis, I expect you’ll simply reject it, with probability 75% +/- 15%.

    Unfortunately, I chose this particular instance because of a forking strategy.
    So there’s two possibilities. I’m either mainly correctly, or mainly incorrect.

    If I’m mainly correct and you reject it, then your call is corrupt because (honest tine) you can’t reliably recognize competence or (dishonesty tine) you don’t actually want competition, but rather disciples.

    If I’m incorrect, then your call is probably hopeless.
    Nobody else even offered a submission, at least as far as I can see, and so the evidence shows that of those willing, you are the only competent one.

    You could of course (broadly) accept it.
    But then you’d be agreeing with me. So hey look: I can implement Xanatos strategies. And yes, it’s way fun.

    Full disclosure: this is actually a three level fork, of which I’ve explained the fork-on-fork tine and above. Sadly explaining the base fork would probably negate it, so perhaps that’s why I don’t feel like doing so.

    Possibly a three-level and recursive back-fed fork…or I’m just desperate to believe in my own cleverness. Cleverness is, after all, fashionable.

    • The actual reason for the poop tossing is because you’re supposed to just ‘get’ that these are lies, and play along.

      Thank you for reminding me why I hate to leave the house.

      I have to wonder though, is this a direct result because of how human minds are or a byproduct of something in the mind or as you put it…

      I’m sure you’re aware of the practical and social consequences of the inferior social skills that this indicates.

      … the fact the a lot of people are just retarded.

      • Alrenous

        If people weren’t generally retarded, human minds wouldn’t need to be put together this way and produce these kinds of byproducts.

        I think people are retarded because as a species evolves better brains, civilization results as soon as possible and A: interferes with further brain adaptation and B: cycles on a far shorter time scale than evolution.

        Thus, humans are as stupid as a civilized race can possibly be. Turns out that’s pretty fucking dumb…on average.

  • Alrenous

    I forgot:

    Accept, but you already thought of it so it’s redundant.
    Again, call == hopeless in this case.

  • I believe the rallying cry you are looking for is called science. Science, in addition to making *consistent* stories, attempts to establish whether they are true or not.

    To contrast, you are hampered by trying to defend academics as some sort of bastions of knowledge. Who says that academics do any better than Episcopalians? Both are likely to do excellent local smoothing, and neither has any particular incentive to worry about their fundamental assumptions.

  • I’ll give you some low hanging fruit.

    Officially, psychologists consider that an IQ of 70 or below is considered mentally retarded. Whereas an IQ of 130 or higher is considered mentally gifted, and is approximatively the score you need to enter a high IQ society such as MENSA.

    What does this have to do with just how different a gifted mind can be? For those of you good with numbers you’ll already notice something interesting about the scores mentioned. 70 is retarded, 100 is average, that is a 30 point difference. 100 is average, 130 is gifted; that is also a 30 point difference. Perhaps you are already seeing the implications of this, but let’s run a little thought experiment first.

    It has been commonly noted that gifted children and adults can present with a number of social and emotional problems. They can become withdrawn, not able to socially get along, and seem hypersensitive in their emotions, among other possible problems. Now, on to that thought experiment.

    Let’s pretend that you take an average child with an IQ of 100. Take this child and put them into a classroom where everyone else’s IQ is 70 and below. In other words you are taking an average child and putting him or her into a school environment where all the classmates are mentally retarded. Not only are these classmates mentally retarded but the curriculum is also geared for the mentally retarded children.

    Imagine this average child, day in and day out, for years of schooling in such an environment. Do you think this average child could form deep meaningful friendships with the mentally retarded children? Do you think this average child would become bored with the classwork which is geared for the mentally retarded? Do you think the retarded children will be able to relate to or understand the average child very well? Do you think the retarded children will see the average child as an outsider?

    How about the personal interests of this average child? Do you think that when this average child is ready for Harry Potter (or whatever the current craze) and the other children are still happy with Dr. Seuss, that the average child won’t feel as though they are alienated from the other children? As this average child grows older do you think he or she will be more or less connected to the world of the school around them?

    This is not to say that some friendships at some level cannot form. This also is not to say that this average child may not have some connection to the world of the school around them. But this average child will probably start to withdraw from the social environment. This average child will come to realize he or she is very different from the other children in class. Since doing the repetitive school work will become an act of fighting grinding boredom, should it come as a surprise that this child will underachieve?

    Now let’s end this thought experiment and return to that 30 point gap. The same distance in intelligence that this average child is away from his mentally retarded peers is also the distance a gifted child is away from his normal peers. To put it bluntly, in case you’re still not getting it, gifted people living in an average world are people surrounded by those who are mentally retarded compared to themselves. Insert the screams of existential horror here.

    You may say I’m not being completely fair because the mentally retarded often have other behavioral problems than just being low on IQ. At least I’m sure it looks that way for someone within the normal range of intelligence. To which I would have to respond, yes that is true the low IQ typically have other behavioral problems when they are measured against normal people. Just as normal people will be seen to have other behavioral problems when measured against people with a gifted level IQ.

    • Alrenous

      I’d like to thank you for an Ah-ha! moment.

      I prefer not to talk about it, but it’s necessary here: I’m gifted. I’m right on the official threshold, but I have the full symptomology, such as the enhanced emotions.

      Contrary to the vague overview, it’s entirely possible for a 130 IQ to communicate with a 100 IQ, though it does require some practise and experimentation.

      Unfortunately, the side effect is that I learned to model an entire 100 IQ person all but flawlessly. This means if one talks to me, I control their actions, within reason. Can’t make a non-depressed person suicidal, but I get to pick among anything they might have done anyway.

      There’s only two defences. First, be close-minded and don’t listen to anyone. Second, counter my influence with a second gifted person.

      This makes me responsible for their actions. Which I find scary. I’d much prefer to just give them the relevant information and let them decide, but I keep guessing right as to how they’ll respond to my delivery. In practice, they may as well just ask me what to do and then do it.

      But thinking about this, I realized I can indeed break the responsibility chain. If I inform them outright I can puppetmaster them, they’ll generally do a modern sign against the evil eye and then avoid me.

      I certainly don’t feel happy about intentionally causing people to ostracize me, which I suspect is why this didn’t occur to me before.

      But you know what? I really hate being responsible for people without their consent. Though…this is mainly because I can’t make good decisions for them without full information, which they can’t give me because they suck at both observation and communication.

      But still, problem solved. Woot and all that.

      • I joined MESA back in 2008 and read up a lot on what being “gifted” is about.

        If you’d like a good resource you should check out SENG. Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted has a pretty good article library, but don’t worry it’s not all as touchy feely as it sounds.

      • MoQingbird

        @ Alrenous:

        I’m hugely sympathetic to your ‘prediction’ experience. I’ve spent a lifetime saying, ‘But can’t you see that X is going to happen?!’ to work colleagues, only to be shouted down and ostracized for being a Cassandra. The really frustrating thing is that even when X happens (say, the project is exactly as late as you said it would be) they still don’t learn anything from the experience. My fault, I guess, for not realizing that I’ve been operating in a 100 world.

        On the other hand, I find your references to shit slinging monkeys are hilarious.

    • MoQingbird

      @ Walenty Lisek:

      Thanks for that illuminating 70-100-130 breakdown. It put my experiences, and those of both of my kids, in perspective. I look at my daughter’s experiences and I see something quite sad. Despite being given a load of ‘gifted child’ support by the school, she desperately just wants to fit in – to be happy and accepted by her school mates – because the 100 clade is the one that defines ‘normal’. Instead she’s bored witless by classes and incessantly picked on by the normative crowd. The only time I’ve seen her fully happy and accepted was on a weekend course for gifted children where she was surrounded by like minds.

      My gut feeling is that a 100 kid in a 70 classroom would do okay, because they have a 100 world outside of school to ground them. The 130 kid in a 100 world has a much more difficult time because just about everywhere they look, 100 is presented as the norm (though the rise of reality TV appears to be dragging the norm down towards the 70 end of the spectrum). Thankfully, she doesn’t pay much attention to what’s on the TV – with the notable exceptions of House and Sherlock where the hero is a 130 in a 100 world.

  • curmudge

    You seem to think any cost is worth it for more of your” truths”?? Fine. I plan to stand on the other side. If that means my personal search for truth must be reduced, so be it. Civilization is more important than aspergery consistency.

  • MoQingbird

    Wow… the number of ‘Yes, but…’ responses to your post is fascinating. Is it characteristic of your audience that so many of them have positions that trigger a defensive reaction when asked to look into their own nature? Or is there a silent majority that is in agreement with you?

    Anyway, I’m all for looking into the nature of Homo hypocractus, with the intention of explaining both the Homo and the hypocratus aspects of the species, so here’s a couple of ‘Yes, and…’ points to consider:

    1. The human brain is a pattern matching engine. It contains a gazzillion patterns that are all in competition with each other. Some of these are rational left-brain patterns of the ‘I should…’ variety. Others are reflexive and defensive right-brain patterns of the ‘I want…’ type. Jonathan Haight models these two alternative ‘brains’ as a rational, linguistically gifted Rider on a cryptically silent Elephant. The Rider thinks he’s in charge, but if the Elephant wants something then there’s bugger all the Rider can do about it. Hence the apparent hypocrisy when our words are held to account against our actions.

    2. Lakoff and Johnson’s book, Philosophy in the Flesh, uses the most recent findings of objective cognitive science experiments to answer some of the root questions of philosophy. Their main thesis is that the patterns with which we think are encoded metaphors. <a href=" “>For example, the Republican worldview is a version of The Strict Father metaphor, while the Democrat’s worldview is that of The Nurturing Parent. In trying to understand people and how they behave, it pays to seek out the conceptual frames or metaphors that dominate their thinking, for these usually explain why two people faced with the same evidence can come to very different conclusions.