Intellectuals as Artists

Consider some related phenomena:

  1. Casual conversation norms say to wander across many topics, with each person staying relevant to each current topic. This functions well to test individual impressiveness. Today, academic and mass media conversations today follow similar norms, though they did this much less in the ancient world.
  2. While ancient artists and musicians tried to perfect common styles, modern artists and musicians seek more distinctive personal styles. For example, while songs were once designed to sound good when ordinary folks sang them, now songs are designed to create a unique impressive performance by one artist.
  3. Politicians often go out of their way to do “position taking” on many issues, even on issues they have little chance of influencing policy while in office. Voters prefer systems like proportional representation where voters can identify more closely with particular representatives, even if this doesn’t give voters better outcomes overall. Knowing many of a politician’s positions helps voters to identify with them.
  4. “Sophomoric” thinkers, typically college sophomores, are eager to take positions on as many common topics as possible, even if this means taking poorly consider positions. They don’t feel they are adult until they have an opinion ready for most common intellectual conversations. This is more feasible when opinions on each topic area are reduced to choices between a small number of standard “isms”, offering integrated packages of answers. Sophomoric thinkers love isms.
  5. We often try to extract “isms” out of individuals, such as my colleagues Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan. We might ask “What is the Caplanian position on X?” That is, we wonder how they would answer random questions, presuming that we can infer a coherent style from past positions that would answer all future questions, at least within some wide scope. Intellectuals who desire wider attention often go out of their way to express opinions on many topics, chosen via a distinctive personal style.

We pretend that we search only for truth, picking each specific position only via the strongest specific evidence and arguments. And in many mundane contexts that’s not a bad approximation. But in many other grander contexts we seek more to become and associate with distinctive intellectual artists. Such artists are impressive both via the wide range of topics on which they can be impressive, and via having a distinctive personal style that they can bring to bear on this range of topics.

This all makes complete sense as an impressiveness contest, but far less sense as a way for the world to jointly estimate accurate Bayesian estimates on each topic. I’m sure you can make up reasons why distinctive intellectual styles that imply positions on wide ranges of topics are really great ways to produce accuracy. But they will mostly sound like excuses to me.

Sophomoric thinkers often retain for a lifetime the random opinions they quickly generate without much thought. Yet they don’t want to just inherit their parents positions; they need to generate their own new opinions. I wonder which effect will dominate when young ems choose opinions; will they tend to adopt standard positions of prior clan members, or generate their own new individual opinions?

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  • Jacob Egner

    >Causal conversation

    I think you mean “casual”.

    >We often try to extract “isms” out of individuals, such as my colleagues
    Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan. We might ask “What is the Caplanian
    position on X?”

    I certainly see the word “Hansonian” plenty, though usually in reference to recurring themes of your posts and work.

    • Robin Hanson

      fixed; thanks.

    • sflicht

      RE: Hansonian arguments

      I also see “Hansonian” used with some regularity, to point out a perspective (often related to signalling) that is characteristic of Robin’s mode of thought and often under-appreciated. Seems like a feature not a bug, but maybe I’m just signalling to my in-group here.

      • Jacob Egner

        Yep, I hope for “Hansonian” to enter mainstream usage. Signaling is a societal blind spot that I’m glad Robin Hanson seeks to remedy.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    “isms” offer not only answers for appearing impressive, but also signal tribal affiliations.

    I’ve long wondered why people get emotionally upset when their ideas are challenged. Is it the difficulty of formulating arguments, or the challenge to their tribal affiliation?

    (Those able to consider contrary ideas without getting upset often seem to have weak social skills.)

    • oldoddjobs

      “Emotionally upset”? Maybe it’s rational

  • Some personal verification of this: some time ago someone told that they found some things on my blog to be “ugly.” I was far more offended by this than I would be by the claim that they found various things to be false. This would be very strange if I assumed that I was caring mainly about truth.

    • Einstein wouldn’t have liked for it to be said that his equations are ugly.

  • Lord

    Not just facts, but values, though these often end up hidden.

  • Nice post – I guess some of this is covered in the conversation chapter of Elephant in the Brain, but it seems important enough that it plausibly should have had its own chapter.

  • There’s an economics of superstars aspect to artists selecting distinctive styles. My kids like to watch shows like america’s got talent, or earlier american idol. And one thing I was surprised to learn from watching these shows is someone who is a technically an outstanding singer (someone who I thought should win), turns out to be mind numbingly boring on the radio. The reason is obvious in retrospect. And commonplace knowledge of course by professionals in the music industry. Technical excellence is perfect for a small group. But as you scale audiences up from 150 people, to 1000, to 10000 to millions to 100s of millions, you can pick the very very best to listen to. And a key aspect of this superstar selection process is being technically correct and right is commonplace at the 100M scale. So being singular with a distinct style is also needed. The market selects for this in a digital age where you can replicate music and video at will for no marginal costs. Economics of superstars. And once I realized this, in fact, I was surprised to find I definitely share that preference. I consume so much music directly or indirectly, I want my superstar musicians to be both technically exceptional, but also they must be distinctive enough to cut through the mundane or I just won’t listen. This related to your point #2 above.

    I’m not disagreeing with your post here. I think it’s quite correct to say that seeking distinction positions on every topic under the sun is helping us find truth. Rather I’m making a supporting point as to why this problem might get worse in an era of economics of superstars. There’s a relentless social pressure as social circles expand to global scale to create your own (pseudo) unique voice, or else feel washed away in the billion person clutter.

    Of course new tech gives and takes away at the same time. It’s easier to find those specialists who are experts. So the truth in fact becomes easier to find if you so desire. But at the same time the primary media attention will get drawn to unique voices, and once the media find them, get drawn into asking those voices to discuss topics outside their range of knowledge. That’s always happened, but arguable problem made worse now.

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  • Peter David Jones

    > Voters prefer systems like proportional representation

    Well, they rejected it in England.