‘About’ Isn’t About You

Imagine you told people:

  1. What looks like the sky above is actually the roof of a cave, and trees hold it up.
  2. The food we eat doesn’t give us nutrition; we get nutrition by rubbing rocks.
  3. The reason we wear clothes isn’t for modesty or protection from weather, but instead to keep cave frogs from jumping on our skin.

Imagine that you offered plausible evidence for these claims. But imagine further that people mostly took your claims as personal accusations, and responded defensively:

“Don’t look at me. I’ve always been a big supporter of trees, I’ve always warned against the dangers of frogs, and I make sure to rub rocks regularly.”

Other than being defensive, however, people showed little interest in these revelations. How would that make you feel?

That is how I feel about typical responses to my saying politics isn’t about policy, medicine isn’t about health, charity isn’t about helping, etc. People usually focus on proving that even if I’m right about others, they are the rare exceptions. They offer specific evidence on their personal behavior to prove that for them politics is about policy, medicine is about health, charity is about helping, etc. But aside from that, they show little interest in what such hypotheses might imply about the world in which they live. (They are, however, often eager to point out that I may have illicit motivations for pointing all this out.)

To which I respond: really, “X is not about Y” is not about you. Yes, your forager ancestors were hyper-sensitive to being singled out by public accusations of norm violations, and in fact much of our reasoning and story abilities may have evolved to help us defend against such accusations, and to make such accusations against others. So yes your instincts naturally push you to react this way.

But I’m talking about ways that we all violate the norms to which we all give lip service. I’m not trying to shame some of us, or even all of us, into trying harder to live up to our professed ideals. I’m focused first and foremost on making sense of our world. If I really believed that the sky might really be the roof of a cave held up by trees, or that we wear clothes to protect against frogs, I wouldn’t focus first on making sure that I was very publicly pro-tree and anti-frog; I’d instead ask what else I must rethink, given such revelations.

Once we better understand the basics of what we are doing in areas like policy, medicine, charity, etc. then we might start to ask if we should be doing more or less of those things, and if invoking norms, and shaming norm violators, will help or hurt on net. But first someone needs to figure out the basics of what we are doing in these areas of life. I implore some of you to join me in this noble quest.

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  • I implore some of you to join me in this nobel quest.

    So that’s what you’re after.

  • Ben

    Maybe change the formulation to: “Politics usually/often isn’t about policy”? Not quite as bumper-stickery, but more accurate, and closer to what you’re trying to say. When you make the absolute claim, it only takes one exception to refute it.

    • And maybe to be even more precise I should say “many things that by some definitions are seen as ‘politics’ may not be as much as many people think about other things that by some definitions are ‘policy'”?

      • Well, your formula is pretty vague for science. What about, ‘Folks participate in politics mostly for reasons other than the pursuit of policy preferences.’

        The ambiguity isn’t the matter of degree. It’s the notion for an institution being “for” something.

      • arch1

        Robin, I think this reply off-base as to both tone (sarcasm in response to a well-intentioned comment) and substance (not all utility functions are straight lines). I’m beginning to think that *lots* of folks got up on the wrong side of the bed yesterday (myself included:-)

  • J

    Don’t let self-selection bias in your commenters get you down. I mostly just lurk, but I read all your posts and regularly spread the word to my friends when they get perplexed about the weird things people do.

  • Philo

    “Once we better understand the basics of what we are doing in areas like policy, medicine, charity, etc. then we might start to ask if we should be doing more or less of those things, and . . . .”
    But you think you already understand the basics, and that they undercut the rationale for doing a lot of what we’re doing in policy, medicine, charity, etc. And how could you doubt that “invoking
    norms, and shaming norm violators, will help . . . on net?” Do you think (a) that shaming wouldn’t work *at all*, or (b) that our professed ideals are so bad that living up to them would make our behavior *worse*? If not, a bit of shaming on your part would be a public service.

  • You ignore many substantive political claims (which are sometimes supported by evidence), to focus on the illicit motives you discern. (‘Politics isn’t about policy.’) But when folks question the presumption that ‘Hanson is about the noble quest for truth,’ you complain.

    • arch1

      This isn’t inconsistent. Robin in both cases isn’t interested in facts specific to a single individual.

      • Why is the scope of the claim important? It seems a distinction without a difference when the single individual in question is a public intellectual whose influence has been politically welcomed by his allies. (Recent post by Bryan Caplan.)

      • arch1

        Stephen, I find it hard to believe that you don’t see important differences between the evaluation of claims concerning (say) humans in general, and the evaluation of claims concerning individual humans (hoewever influential). So I guess that either I’m missing your point, or you just woke up cranky yesterday.

      • Robin’s attitudes toward claims about individuals and those about humans in general are inconsistent (in this piece) in this respect: he demands that human institutions not be taken for what they claim to be; but he asks to be accepted at face value himself.

        That is to say, it is inconsistent in that he applies anti-idealism to society (or humanity) but idealism to himself (in his scholarly role).

        It’s logically possible that idealism applies to considerations of society and anti-idealism to individuals, but it doesn’t seem defensible. After all, the core idea of anti-idealism is that humanity isn’t what it pretends or seems, and this applies at all levels. [The discipline of History can be idealist or anti-idealist as much as economics or sociology.]

      • brendan_r

        Rousseau claimed that he accepted charity as a favor to the giver:

        “When I surrender to prolonged entreaties to accept an offer, repeated over and over again, I do so for the sake of peace and quiet rather than my own advantage. However much it may have cost the giver, he is actually in my debt-for it costs me more.”

        He also liked to yap about parenting as his biological kids rotted in orphanages.

        Sincerity and self-deception obviously varies.

        Obviously Robin sees himself as imperfect but more sincere than most. You can challenge that view but there’s no logical contradiction here.

      • So what’s the problem?

        One of the main sources of bias (I think the main source) is subconscious illicit motivation. Intellectuals should welcome attention to their illicit motives.

        [I’m waiting to read the chapter on author biases in Robin’s em book. Will Robin discuss his potential illicit motives?]

      • Hanson’s essay on meta-cynicism (one of my favorites) suggests we should be cynical both about societ and its critics like Hanson.

  • Are you saying that medicine is about signaling that we’re helping poor folks although more medicine does not lead to better outcomes?

    • He maintains it’s “about” the signaling of care, not just to the poor, although that may play the dominant role in socializing medical care.

      [I think he makes a good case that medical spending is driven primarily by signaling. But does that mean medicine is “about” signaling care? I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. Medical care, it might be maintained, evolved culturally so that societies having better health expanded at the expense of diseased folks.

      [Medical care might be sought largely for signaling reasons, whereas medical institutions evolved for the sake of health. This makes it a less counter-intuitive a claim (although it remains insightful). I think many folks wouldn’t disagree that we engage in politics mainly for nonpolicy motives, yet they might think politics is still somehow “about” policy. (That is to say, one reason Robin doesn’t get the response he expects is that his claims aren’t as important as he thinks.)]

  • arch1

    It’s interesting that some categories of human dysfunction (e.g. optical illusions, or cognitive errors of the kind described at length in Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”) are not reacted to in the same way as are dysfunctions in your category.

    To a certain extent, assertions in your category are untrue.
    The true parts of your assertions might still tend to produce different reactions because the most emotionally salient method of verification – first-person experience – is systematically unavailable to your category (because the stigma of hypocrisy makes acknowledgement particularly painful, and the complexity of hypocrisy makes it particularly easy to explain away).

    The story might be different in alternate universe A in which people have much stronger incentives to deny optical and cognitive errors in themselves, *and* much greater ability to do so (and different still in alternate universe B in which hypocrisy is considered no big deal).

  • Robert Koslover

    And… good luck with that. You know, you might find it illuminating to have conversations about very ordinary topics with people who suffer from dementia. I’ve done some of that. The utility of that communication is perhaps similar to what you can achieve here, when you attempt to discuss politics divorced from the positions that people actually hold. I.e., Ain’t. Gonna. Happen. But hey, I salute you for trying! Then again, I’ve always admired Don Quixote, too…

  • Dave Lindbergh

    First- at least speaking as somebody one or two rungs lower on the intellectual ladder, I think your analogy is poor. The sky is obviously not a cave roof, etc.

    A better analogy would be statements that are true – for example:

    1 – The earth is really round (tho everyone thinks it’s flat).

    2 – Disease is caused by tiny animals (not curses).


    So you say that, and get responses “I have nothing against round objects” and “I didn’t feed any tiny animals”? Is that it?

    If so, I think you’re misreading the responses you get.

    People are simply saying they think you’re wrong.

    They can’t speak for the motivation of others, but they (think they) know their own motivations – and you’re wrong about them. So, while you _might_ be right about others, probably not.

    And that’s why “they show little interest in what such hypotheses might imply” – because you haven’t convinced them such hypotheses are correct.

    It’s been 35 years since I was in high school, but I don’t recall anybody giving a damn about who was class president.

    • Andrei Luchuk

      While i dont disagree with your statement, a few rungs may be an understatement for the lot of us :p j.k

      I believe RH is trying to inspire thought in new directions. Reevaluating our views by asking sometimes nonsensical questions may be just what the doctor ordered. Or it may provoke reaction from lower parts of the brain, unfiltered and/or enhanced with experience in herd mentality.

      I would like to see where this goes. Im on the quest wagon, paying attention to the wheels.

      P.S. maybe not your class president, but i dont believe any president is ever a dropout. There may be some merit to public acceptance and exaltment.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Depends on how far apart the rungs are. 🙂

        I’m not trying to say _I_ think Robin is wrong, just that the reactions he’s getting seem to me more compatible with disbelief than denial. I think he needs to make a stronger case.

        Personally I think there’s something to what Robin is saying (tho perhaps not as much as he thinks – people have mixed motives).

    • Sly

      I think you are probably right.
      For example: When I was sick two weeks ago, I went to the doctor because of my terrible cough and other symptoms. That was medicine for health. Thus my thinking on the matter when I hear “medicine isn’t about health” is not that I am special, but that Robin is wrong.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Right. But Robin is talking about the motivations of providers and funders and supporters of the medical system, not the motivations of patients.

        But the slogan “Medicine isn’t about health” doesn’t make that clear.

      • I completely disagree that Robin means to exclude patient motivations.

      • IMASBA

        Robin is actually right when you look at the bigger picture. A lot of society’s resources are wasted on medicine and treatments for things that can either not be cured or would just go away if people sat it out, resting. In addition a lot of resources are spent trying to extend the lives of very old or very sick people by marginal amounts. This is true of all rich and medium income countries, though some are worse than others. Wanting to “care” even when “care” is harmful, useless or wasteful compared to some other way you could be helping society is a big motivator for such health care systems.

      • Peter David Jones

        Fear of litigation could also be a motivation.

  • Obvious Troll

    What if ‘about’ isn’t about finding the truth but getting attention by promoting controversial theories? We already know from Philip Tetlock that experts who make extreme predictions are more likely to show up on TV and less likely to make accurate predictions.

  • zarzuelazen

    I think there’s a ‘middle of the road’ position that accounts for the facts, a position between pure cynicism on the one hand, and pure idealism on the other.
    I agree that for example, academia isn’t about truth seeking, politics isn’t about policy etc.etc, but I still don’t think we need to jump to the conclusion that peoples motives are mainly are about signalling.
    Basically, my theory is that people mainly want to celebrate personal excellence and the flourishing of personal virtues. So for example, I’d say that academia is about developing the virtues of intellect in smart folks, politics is about developing the virtues of leadership in folks that show leadership abilities and so on and so forth.
    My ‘personal virtue’ theory is an alternative to Robin’s ‘signalling’ theory that avoids unrealistic idealistic conceptions of what people are doing (it acknowledges that people are mainly focused on self-interest), but at the same time it avoids cynicism.

    • Carinthium

      Avoiding cynicism is not an epistemic virtue in and of itself. One should aim for a true position, whether cynical or not.
      If you have other evidence fine, but it seems you only believe your theory because you don’t want to be cynical even if cynicism is more likely to be true.

      • zarzuelazen

        OK, my point is that there are alternatives to Robin’s signalling theory. Robin’s points consist of two sets of claims:
        (1) X not about Y
        (2) X is about Z
        Well, (1) is easier to show than (2), because (1) is just refuting common intuitions (eliminating one possibility, falsifying a theory). You might easily be able to show that X is not about Y, but its much harder to come up with a correct theory as to what X is actually about, since there are any number of possibilities (A,B,C,D,E …..).
        I suspect that most people agree with Robin that ‘X is not about Y’, but don’t find his claims that ‘X is about Z’ to be convincing.

  • Belief and opinion are not about facts and logic. Certainly, voting isn’t.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Hm. Just read this in the 4 April _Economist_ (p. 25):

    Michael Barone, author of a book on how migration shaped America, writes that his great-grandfather explained his vote for the Republicans in 1944 by saying, “The Confederates burned our barn.”

    Reminds me of an engineer friend who hates Republican Party for a special reason – Ronald Reagan’s administration made some small change to the B-1 bomber program that resulted in him losing a job he really liked.

    So maybe politics isn’t mostly about policy.

    Robin – in a comment below you gave a sarcastic reply to @Ben re the wording of this idea.

    You should take such comments more seriously. The people you want to convince are not nearly as smart as you, and don’t “get it” without more explication.

    Hyper-smart people, like you, often have trouble communicating with people of normal high intelligence. They either undercompensate and talk over their heads (as in this case), or overcompensate and insult them. I suspect that’s why you have more trouble than you should getting people to listen (new ideas are hard enough to deal with – if they’re poorly presented you’ve little chance at all).

    Maybe you need a co-author or editor to help with public policy writeups.

  • amacfie
  • David Condon

    I feel as though the statement politics isn’t about policy isn’t much of a revelation. Anybody who reads beyond the mainstream of political discourse will probably notice the senselessness of most political opinions. What I find more interesting are the examples. When you claim it’s the pecan trees holding the sky up, and I think it’s the sycamores; that’s the most interesting part of your argument to me.

  • Your post is badly written: in order for the analogy to apply, the listener would have to respond that your explanations DON’T apply to them. Otherwise it would be like someone admitting that their actions are more directed at signalling than anything else. Personally, I am completely unafraid of any frog and relish the thought of a particularly slimy one jumping on my shoulder.

    • I agree that the analogy is not as direct as one might like.

      • It’s direct all right. Directly in the opposite direction 🙂

      • Not to speak of its grandiose quality.

  • The Meteuphoric blog recently committed the “me fallacy.” [I don’t think I completely appreciated Robin’s point until I read Katja Grace’s piece.]

    The bias is the exclusive use of introspective data, oblivious to the reality that, if a given anti-idealist claim applies to an individual, he or she will initially resist.

    The bias involves the determined use of the inside view.

  • Curt Adams

    Historically, politics has been mostly about distribution. Naturally under those circumstances it makes sense for people to support their group and not push for policies that benefit society as a whole. Perhaps, for the first part of the 20th century, society-wide improvements from better policy were large enough that distributional issues were secondary. Perhaps. But, if so, that period is over. For the the past 40 years, there have been large improvements in productivity – but they’ve essentially all been captured by rentiers. We are currently in a situation where distribution is more important than policy, and so people should be expected to support their groups.

  • Ken Arromdee

    Or maybe people are correctly being Bayseian and figuring out that the probability is high that you’re trying to shame them about frogs and rubbing rocks. You’re not–but they don’t know that, and based on the information they do know, their reaction is rational.

    It’s like being a Nigerian prince who really does need to deposit some money to someone’s bank account. If they disbelieve you and delete your email, they’re being completely rational, even if you’re telling the truth.

  • zylstra

    I am dumbfounded every day by the average human’s myopic viewpoint.

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  • DescartesWorld

    Interesting post, Robin. However, I’m not sure what you’re driving at in your discussion about norms. If you are dreaming of a paradise where there are no norms that sounds a bit extravagant.

    My guess is that some norms or other are inevitable. Does overcoming bias necessitate no norms? The very idea that we can be free of bias sounds unrealistic.

    Still, I’m interested in seeing where you’re trying to take this.

  • DescartesWorld

    It does seem to me that people’s opinions are too often informed by what they call ‘rational ignorance’

  • SanguineEmpiricist

    I’m with you Mr.Hanson, but you need to give out more reading lists and agendas and try to build a personal school of thought. You’re only writing blog posts at this point. You should be trying to assemble an army.

    This is NOT “Empire Bias”.