Category Archives: Media

My BHTV with Tyler Cowen

My "Blogging Frozen Heads TV" with Tyler Cowen is now available:

I found the conversation enjoyable but somewhat frustrating; I'll be interested to hear others' reactions.  Tyler is in general reluctant to test his reasoning by breaking it down into parts that match some analysis structure; this prevents us from exploring why he thinks cryonics working is less likely than Angels existing.  He says our choices to avoid or accept death risks say little about the value we place on our lives, and Tyler also flirts with saying economists are evil.

Tyler's readers' comments are here; Arnold Kling's are here

Added: Andy McKenzie weighs in here.

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Yes, Tax Lax Ideas

Politicians who really wanted to show they would keep their campaign promises would post bonds, judged by neutral third parties, forfeit if they broke their promises.  Similarly, pundits who really wanted to show they believed their punditry would offer to bet on their claims.  Pundit Tyler Cowen says this would be too much bother:

Bryan Caplan believes that scholars should be ashamed if they do not publicly bet their views.  In contrast I fear this requirement would become a tax upon ideas. How would you feel about an obligation (if only a moral one) for scholars and commentators to publicly reveal the content of their investment portfolios?  Those portfolios are their real bets.  Yet I still favor the privacy norm and I should note that Bryan never has (nor need he) revealed his portfolio to others at GMU, much less to the broader public.

Let's say that I, as a prolific blogger, express opinions on hundreds of economic policy topics, often involving either explicit or implicit predictions.  Then say that hundreds of people wish to bet with me.  Can I not simply turn them all down as a matter of policy and practicality?

If you're wondering, I practice "buy and hold and diversify," with no surprises in the portfolio and a conservative ratio of equity purchases.  But those investment decisions don't necessarily reflect my views on any given day.  I think it is intellectually legitimate (though perhaps not always prudent) to engage in mental accounting and separate those two spheres of my life.  I change my mind lots of times, on many economic issues, but does that mean I have to become an active trader?  I hope not and I'm not going to.

Yes, transaction costs keep investments from closely matching beliefs. For example, my investments have long been mainly in my house, family, job skills, and relationships; I don't have much money for more.  But that wouldn't prevent me, or Tyler, from having hundreds of small token bets on our public claims, at least the claims that lend themselves to bets.  Yes, a bit of a bother, but well worth it if our readers actually cared that we believe what we say, or wanted to track our accuracy.

Yes, most readers and voters probably don't care much about pundit and politician accuracy and sincerity; they mostly want to affiliate with a stately staccato stream of statusful statements.  Slowing this down to post bonds, make bets, or even just think carefully, would just not be worth the tradeoff.  But I'll join most of Tyler's commenters in saying that some of us do care about accuracy and sincerity.  I'm open to bets on my claims, even if that slows me down.

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Lying With Style

Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best book I've read in years, explains the virtues and lies of a very popular writing style.  Excerpts:

A [writing] style is defined by its conceptual stand on truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. … Classic style is in its own view clear and simple as the truth. It adopts the stance that its purpose is presentation; its motive is disinterested truth. Successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity. The idea that presentation is successful when language is aligned with truth implies that truth can be known; truth needs no argument but only accurate presentation; the reader is competent to recognize truth; the symmetry between writer and reader allows the presentation to follow the model of conversation; a natural language is sufficient to express truth; and the writer knows the truth before he puts it into language. …

Classic style is focused and assured. Its virtues are clarity and simplicity; in a sense, so are its vices. It declines to acknowledge ambiguities, unessential qualifications, doubts, or other styles. It declines to acknowledge that it is a style. It makes its hard choices silently and out of the reader's sight. Once made, those hard choices are not acknowledged to be choices at all; they are presented as if they are inevitable, because classic style is, above all, a style of presentation with claims to transparency. …

Classic style is neither shy nor ambiguous about fundamentals. The style rests on the assumptions that it is possible to think disinterestedly, to know the results of disinterested thought, and to present them without fundamental distortion. In this view, thought precedes writing. All of these assumptions may be wrong, but they help to define a style whose usefulness is manifest. …

Continue reading "Lying With Style" »

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Predictible Fakers

A Post review of Maliszewski's book Fakers:

Why are we so readily duped? The short answer is that con games confirm what we already want to believe. The made-up news stories and fudged memoirs fit certain "forms," as Maliszewski calls them: "Fictional journalism is essentially a careful imitation of journalistic forms. That is, the articles are convincing because they adhere closely to the unstated conventions, assumptions, and predilections of a particular publication, a particular kind of article, or a particular editor. Journalists who fake are extraordinarily sensitive to the ways in which their stories are a series of sometimes conventional, often routine forms."

Continue reading "Predictible Fakers" »

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Imaginary Positions

Every now and then, one reads an article about the Singularity in which some reporter confidently asserts, "The Singularitarians, followers of Ray Kurzweil, believe that they will be uploaded into techno-heaven while the unbelievers languish behind or are extinguished by the machines."

I don't think I've ever met a single Singularity fan, Kurzweilian or otherwise, who thinks that only believers in the Singularity will go to upload heaven and everyone else will be left to rot.  Not one.  (There's a very few pseudo-Randian types who believe that only the truly selfish who accumulate lots of money will make it, but they expect e.g. me to be damned with the rest.)

But if you start out thinking that the Singularity is a loony religious meme, then it seems like Singularity believers ought to believe that they alone will be saved.  It seems like a detail that would fit the story.

This fittingness is so strong as to manufacture the conclusion without any particular observations.  And then the conclusion isn't marked as a deduction.  The reporter just thinks that they investigated the Singularity, and found some loony cultists who believe they alone will be saved.

Or so I deduce.  I haven't actually observed the inside of their minds, after all.

Has any rationalist ever advocated behaving as if all people are reasonable and fair?  I've repeatedly heard people say, "Well, it's not always smart to be rational, because other people aren't always reasonable."  What rationalist said they were?  I would deduce:  This is something that non-rationalists believe it would "fit" for us to believe, given our general blind faith in Reason.  And so their minds just add it to the knowledge pool, as though it were an observation.  (In this case I encountered yet another example recently enough to find the reference; see here.)

Continue reading "Imaginary Positions" »

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Bad News Ban Is Very Bad News

The SEC … said in a statement early Friday morning it is halting short selling on 799 financial stocks. The ban, which is effective immediately, is set to last for 10 days, but could be extended for up to 30 days.

That is, they have banned speculators from giving bad news about 800 finance companies.  Which seems to me to be very bad news about those companies – sell!  If not for the first amendment, would they also ban TV, newspapers, etc. from saying anything bad about these companies? 

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‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’


This week is Big Bang Week at the BBC, with various programmes devoted to the switch-on of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Wednesday morning.  Many of these programmes are covered in this week’s issue of the Radio Times—the BBC’s listings magazine—which also features a short interview with Professor Brian Cox, chair of particle physics at the University of Manchester. Asked about concerns that the LHC could destroy the earth, he replies:

‘The nonsense you find on the web about “doomsday scenarios” is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic.  These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn’t land on the Moon.  Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world.  I’m slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design. [… A]nyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t.’ (Final word censored by Radio Times.) [1]

Who counts as a nutter and a t**t on this reckoning?  It is true that anyone who thinks there is a 100% chance that the LHC will definitely destroy the world is confused—but it’s probably also true that not many people really think this.  On the other hand, if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.  Among these are several of my colleagues: Nick Shackel has previously blogged about the risks of turning on the LHC, as has Toby Ord; and Rafaela Hillerbrand, Toby Ord, and Anders Sandberg recently presented on this topic at the recent Future of Humanity Institute-hosted conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. And, despite having chatted to each of these people about the LHC at some point or another, I’ve never heard any of them express sympathy for the view that the Theory or Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy or that nobody landed on the Moon.  So, are they t**ts or not?

Continue reading "‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’" »

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Cowen-Hanson Bloggingheads Topics?

Tyler Cowen and I, good friends who sometimes blog-spar, will tape a bloggingheads TV show this Monday.  What would folks like us to talk about? 

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BloggingHeads Hanson & Wilkinson

My BloggingHeads discussion with Will Wilkinson was posted today.  We talked about overcoming bias, cryonics, social status, self-deception, disagreement, and more.  I obviously need a better camera setup and more reliable phone line.  Oddly I guess, an hour seems a short time to talk – I could enjoy going on like that for a whole day.

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Charm Beats Accuracy

Freakonomics:

A seven-month study of weather forecasting at Kansas City television stations was conducted over 220 days … One [station manager] said, "There’s not an evaluation of accuracy in hiring meteorologists. Presentation takes precedence over accuracy." And when discussing accuracy (or the lack thereof) of a seven-day forecast, another station manager stated, "All viewers care about is the next day. Accuracy is not a big deal to viewers." …

The data show that stations are so consumed with ratings that accuracy in weather predictions takes an irrelevant back seat to snappy patter and charm. When directly asked if accuracy mattered in forecasting, every station manager and meteorologist said it did. But when asked what steps they had taken to measure and ensure accuracy, they were without answers.

No meteorologist or television station kept records of what they predicted, nor compared their predictions to actual results over a long term. No meteorologist posts their accuracy statistics on their résumé. No station managers use accuracy statistics in the hiring or evaluation of their meteorologists.  Instead, the focus is on charm, charisma, and presentation. Their words say they care about accuracy, but their actions say they do not.

Why should we expect this to be any better for other kinds of news?  If viewers can watch the same person day after day making predictions about something they care about and personally verify day after day, and still not care much about accuracy relative to looks and charm, how much can we really expect people to care about accuracy of news on unrest in Thailand, the credit crisis, or a new medical study?  Can we really expect people to track the accuracy of advice from their doctors, lawyers, or interior decorators, relative to their looks, charm, and general impressiveness?

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