What Is Your Sermon?

Here is a simple model of intellectuals. It is wrong, but insightful:

  1. Intellectuals discover insights, and better intellectuals find more and better insights.
  2. Insights can be ranked by net value of personal effort. This net value includes how much it would matter if the idea was taken more seriously, and a person’s marginal ability to achieve this.
  3. Insight value falls with the number of others well placed and motivated to pursue an idea, and by the effectiveness of effort to sustainably change opinions on the subject. Value tends to fall with costs to explain and explore a subject, and with the previous efforts already made.
  4. Insights vary greatly in value. Topics vary in how unequally distributed are their insight values, and with the potential for very large values.
  5. Usually, insight value is distributed so unequally that one’s best insight is a substantial fraction, even most, of the value of all one’s lifetime insights.
  6. When value is very unequal, intellectuals best help the world by following a career plan of first mostly searching for their one best insight, and then mostly promoting and developing that insight.
  7. Intellectuals following this search-then-promote career plan would do most preaching in the second half of their career. At least if a lot of promotion is possible.
  8. Greatly diminishing returns to promotion efforts might justify ending promotion of your best insight, and returning to a search for more, or promoting your second best insight.
  9. An intellectual uncertain about which insight is best might pursue several while studying them, but the world is better off if they soon focus on their one best guess.
  10. If “preaching” differs from “teaching” in focusing more on fewer bigger insights, then intellectuals promoting their one best insight are roughly “preaching” “sermons”.

In reality, the tendency to preach as a function of status seems to have a roughly slanted-N shape: /\/. While non-intellectuals preach little, amateur intellectuals preach a lot, and even more early in their career. Among academics, high status folks often find a new angle very early in their career, and then publish variations on that for the rest of their career. In contrast, low status folks tend to produce a steady stream of publications, which don’t much build on each other.

Getting the Nobel prize often triggers a burst of preaching, but mostly on the subject where the prize shows that their insight has long since won out, and doesn’t need promoting. The rest of their preaching is usually spread across many topics, rather than a single second best topic.

A lot of intellectual preaching is about the “insight” that one political ideology is better than others. Given the number of others motivated to promote each such idea, the marginal value of these promotion efforts by any one person must be very low.

Most of these deviations from the simple model can be seen as puzzles – we can ask what needs to be added to the simple model to explain them. Some possible missing elements:

  • Status – The freedom to preach may be seen as high status, with low status academics punished when they presume to take on this high status mark. Amateurs can more freely ignore such pressures.
  • Signaling – Common forms of preaching may be seen as too easy. If academics are mainly selected for being impressive, they need to do other things to show off.
  • Power – Academics tied to powerful social institutions could make such institutions uncomfortable by endorsing disruptive ideas. Preaching by such academics needs to be channeled into institutionally approved directions.

If you are an intellectual, occasionally ask yourself:

  1. Of all your insights so far, which is most worth devoting a life?
  2. If you are young and promoting, shouldn’t you keep looking instead?
  3. If you are old and not yet focused on promoting your best, isn’t it time?

That is: What is your sermon?

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  • vaniver

    Experience seems like an answer to the amateur puzzle- amateurs don’t yet realize that preaching about every opinion they have makes them less effective. People in the middle realize that they need to prune extraneous opinions to be taken as seriously as they want to be on their sermon, but haven’t developed their sermon well enough to preach it. People at the end have a well-developed sermon that they can push.

    I’m still young and looking, but the thing I notice myself pushing over and over again is comparative advantage. (Of the interpersonal variety, not then international variety.)

  • Siddharth

    Is this why you decided to write a book? 

  • OK, Robin, what’s your one best idea: prediction markets or homo hypocritus? How could you tell?

    • Grognor


      •  Why not quote it: “The most powerful insufficiently-appreciated insight I’ve ever learned
        is the one intellectual legacy I’d leave, if I could leave only one: we
        are often wrong about why we do things. Yes it is hardly original, and
        it might sound trivial, but few appreciate its full depth.”

        So, we go with homo hypocritus.

      • The most powerful insufficiently-appreciated insight I’ve ever learned is the one intellectual legacy I’d leave, if I could leave only one: we are often wrong about why we do things. – Robin

        A corollary is that if you live your life in near mode you’ll risk pursuing things for the wrong reasons–hence, pursuing the wrong things. (Of course, if the far mode is overwhelmingly devoted to hypocrisy, it can’t assist. The contrary view is that far mode serves to evaluate near mode direction. – http://tinyurl.com/7d2yh6x

      • Eric Falkenstein

        That’s related to the Gettier problem.

  • Comparative advantage also applies to looking and promoting. A good promoter should, therefore, start promoting earlier in life than a good looker.

  • Robert Koslover

    A slight nitpick here.  In science (at least, in real science), we are not supposed to “preach” our ideas.  We merely have to present them.  If the ideas themselves are persuasive, then one need not constantly defend them.  In particular, I recall reading that Einstein did not do much to defend his theories of relativity from critics (and there were very many, and some are still around).  After presenting his explanations, he chose to let the theories stand or fall without further defense, expecting that nature would ultimately make the truth clear.

    • In most social circles, including academia, there is a norm of not responding to criticisms by low status outsiders, but still responding to criticisms by high status insiders. The norm you describe doesn’t seem different. 

      •  But also, per my previous comment, Einstein was so great a looker that it would be a terrible wasted for him to self-promote. Darwin was the same: promotion could be left to those like Huxley.

        Robin, on the other hand, is a promoter par excellence.

  • JenniferRM

    I think you’re using “value” in a much *much* more precise sense than is normal.  SO much so that it is helpful to replace it with some other string of characters with more syllables.  Off the top of my head I’d suggest “creditable socio-political delta”.  If people swiftly adopt the idea without resistance or drama, then its not a very big delta.  If other’s can give the sermon just as easily without needing to attribute the content to the first promoter then it is hard for that person to take credit.  If you want credit for a delta, take heed of these factors and more!

    I would reserve the term “value” for more general and more intrinsic properties of an idea, such as the ability to adjust people’s behavior from low value outcomes to high value outcomes after hearing and understanding the construct.  Perhaps this could be called the idea’s “nourishment value” to distinguish it from its role in creditable socio-political deltas.

    The “nourishment value” is the logical thing to look at to decide whether a given idea should be included in a curriculum.  The “creditable socio-political delta” is the thing to look at if an intellectual is selfishly interested in making a “fame buck” off of their life’s cognitive labor.  (The fact that these are different from each other is probably part of why research universities aren’t very good at teaching.)

    QUOTE: “5. Usually, insight value is distributed so unequally that one’s best
    insight is a substantial fraction, even most, of the value of all one’s
    lifetime insights.”

    I think this is *very* false on a naive “nourishment value” reading, but true on the “creditable socio-political delta” reading.  Many ideas have relatively large nourishment value because the world is vast and deep and each idea helps one navigate some part of it more effectively. There is not *one idea* that is necessary and sufficient for a person to get along in life.  However, most academics who want fame and booty will need to tie their name to some good idea of theirs and using more than one good idea is liable to make their academic fame less secure for the same reason that a simple list of talking points repeated ad naseum by a team of people on CNN work to change the trajectory of political discourse.  Laser-like focus is what pays off in the short term PR game.

    This distinction seems important to me.  Conflating the two and pursuing personal credit without an eye towards the nourishment of the audience seems like a recipe for cultural disaster… like it would benefit a single generation of preachers, who would be famous for decades or centuries afterwards and leave intellectually puny weaklings in their wake.

    Consider the fox/hedgehog distinction.  The hedgehog’s strategy is probably the right one for a preacher to publicly convey.  The fox strategy is probably the right one for a business executive or a general… or a normal person living their life.

    • “Nourishment values” also seem to me to be commonly distributed quite unequally. The world being vast makes this more likely, not less likely.

      • JenniferRM

        If one were taking the distribution over all possible character strings of a certain length, then yes, it seems very likely that only a tiny tiny minority would have basically any value at all.  Up to that point I’m sure we agree 🙂

        Even if you take the distribution over all paragraphs made out of empirically-grounded true english sentences that have been uttered already, yeah sure, there are a huge number that are redundant and boring at best, and more likely full of trivial non sequitur.

        The thing I’m getting at is… hmm… I do not think there is any single wikipedia page that contains “the” core insight for getting along in life all by itself that would have as much nourishment value as all the others put together. 

        (This issue has applications to the “FOOM debate”, and in these comments I’m taking a moderately anti-FOOM position.)

        Suppose you randomly sampled two people from the top 1% of intellectuals with objectively useful expertise.  Now independently ask each member of your pair to pick 10 wikipedia articles with content that everyone in the world “needs to know” *without* purposefully directing them towards a schelling point in thought space.

        My median expectations is that the median number of articles appearing on both lists would be zero, but if you repeated this procedure on 1000 pairs, perhaps you’d get several hundred hits… and each hit would be more likely to be new than to be something a different pair already hit on.

        Economics, microbiology, positive psychology, newtonian mechanics, rhetoric, rational choice political science, turing machines, copy writing, neuroscience, erosion management… I see techniques and fields and heterogeneity everywhere, almost all of it useful in some contexts and worthless in others.  In the meantime, the truth mine is getting larger and larger and there seem to be many promising rock faces without even a single miner.

        If you know of “the wikipedia page to rule them all” (in terms of nourishment value), I’d really like to read it.

        I’m not saying that figuring out “your sermon” isn’t valuable for a professional intellectual… it just seems like the task is more akin to a technology startup figuring out a business model, and less akin to a programmer creating software that’s useful to some people.  Also, these are different tasks.

      •  An intellectual worthy of the title produces at least one insight above the “nourishment” level.

  • Arch1

    1) This model might pay insufficient attention to the fact that one’s status increases one’s ability to add value (obviously on the promotion side, but also on the search side to the extent that one can more effectively recruit and improve the search effectiveness of others), and vice versa.

    2) Somewhat related is the observation that a sufficiently influential person can have meta-insights (such as “topic x is a fruitful area ripe for investigation”) which are not themselves scientific results but which may ultimately yield huge scientific value for the investment.  Mathematician Steven Smale appears to be described as such a person in James Glieck’s “Chaos.”

  • dmytryl

    Note that tendency to preach would be a function of internal self evaluation, not of objective status. A narcissist could start entire career in little more than preaching, attaining status as a preacher.

  • Tim VH

    Robin: please explain what you mean when you state at the beginning of the post that the model is wrong (though insightful) — how is it wrong?
    You left that hanging.