Tag Archives: Academia

The Future Of Intellectuals

Back in 1991, … [a reporter] described Andrew Ross, a doyen of American studies, strolling through the Modern Language Association conference … as admiring graduate students gawked and murmured, “That’s him!” That was academic stardom then. Today, we are more likely to bestow the aura and perks of stardom on speakers at “ideas” conferences like TED. …

Plenty of observers have argued that some of the new channels for distributing information simplify and flatten the world of ideas, that they valorize in particular a quick-hit, name-branded, business-friendly kind of self-helpish insight—or they force truly important ideas into that kind of template. (more)

Across time and space, societies have differed greatly in what they celebrated their intellectuals for. Five variations stand out:

  • Influence – They compete to privately teach and advise the most influential folks in society. The ones who teach or advised kings, CEOs, etc. are the best. In many nations today, the top intellectuals do little else but teach the next generation of elites.
  • Attention – They compete to make op-eds, books, talks, etc. that get attention from the intellectual-leaning public. The ones most discussed by the snooty public are the best. Think TED stars today, or french public intellectuals of a generation ago.
  • Scholarship – They compete to master stable classics in great detail. When disputes arise on those classics, the ones who other scholars say win those disputes are the best. Think scholars who oversaw the ancient Chinese civil service exams.
  • Fashion – They compete to be first to be visibly associated with new intellectual fads, and to avoid association with out-of-fashion topics, methods, and conclusions. The ones who fashionable people say have the best fashion sense are the best. Think architecture and design today.
  • Innovation – They compete to add new results, methods, and conclusions to an accumulation of such things that lasts and is stable over the long run. Think hard sciences and engineering today.

Over the last half century, in the most prestigious fields and in the world’s dominant nations, intellectuals have been celebrated most for their innovation. But other standards have applied through most of history, in most fields in most nations today, and in many fields today in our dominant nations. Thus innovation standards are hardly inevitable, and may not last into the indefinite future. Instead, the world may change to celebrating the other four features more.

A thousand years ago society changed very slowly, and there was little innovation to celebrate. So intellectuals were naturally celebrated for other things that they had in greater quantities. The celebration of innovation got a big push from World War II, as innovations from intellectuals were seen as crucial to winning that war. Funding went way up for innovation-oriented intellectuals. Today, however, tech and business startups, and innovative big firms like Apple, have grabbed a lot of innovation prestige from academics. Many parts of academia may plausibly respond to this by celebrating other things besides innovation where those competitors aren’t as good.

Thus the standards of intellectuals may change in the future if academics are seen as less responsible for important innovation, or if there is much less total innovation within the career of each intellectual. Or maybe if intellectuals who are better at doing other things besides innovation to win their political battles within intellectual or wider circles.

If intellectuals were the main source of innovation in society, such a change would be very bad news for economic and social growth. But in fact, intellectuals only contribute a small fraction of innovation, so growth could continue on nearly as fast, even if intellectuals care less about innovation.

(Based on today’s lunch with Tyler Cowen & John Nye.)

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Academic Stats Prediction Markets

In a column, Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken note that academia has a problem:

Unfortunately, statistics—and the scientific process more generally—often seems to be used more as a way of laundering uncertainty, processing data until researchers and consumers of research can feel safe acting as if various scientific hypotheses are unquestionably true.

They consider prediction markets as a solution, but largely reject them for reasons both bad and not so bad. I’ll respond here to their article in unusual detail. First the bad:

Would prediction markets (or something like them) help? It’s hard to imagine them working out in practice. Indeed, the housing crisis was magnified by rampant speculation in derivatives that led to a multiplier effect.

Yes, speculative market estimates were mistaken there, as were most other sources, and mistaken estimates caused bad decisions. But speculative markets were the first credible source to correct the mistake, and no other stable source had consistently more accurate estimates. Why should the most accurate source should be blamed for mistakes made by all sources?

Allowing people to bet on the failure of other people’s experiments just invites corruption, and the last thing social psychologists want to worry about is a point-shaving scandal.

What about letting researchers who compete for grants, jobs, and publications write critical referee reports and publish criticism, doesn’t that invite corruption too? If you are going to forbid all conflicts of interest because they invite corruption, you won’t have much left you will allow. Surely you need to argue that bet incentives are more corrupting that other incentives. Continue reading "Academic Stats Prediction Markets" »

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`Best’ Is About `Us’

Why don’t we express and follow clear principles on what sort of inequality is how bad? Last week I suggested that we want the flexibility to use inequality as an excuse to grab resources when grabbing is easy, but don’t want to obligate ourselves to grab when grabbing is hard.

It seems we prefer similar flexibility on who are the “best” students to admit to elite colleges. Not only do inside views of the admission process seem to show careful efforts to avoid clarity on criteria, ordinary people seem to support such flexibility:

Half [of whites surveyed] were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state. When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions—apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (more)

Matt Yglesias agrees:

This is further evidence that there’s no stable underlying concept of “meritocracy” undergirding the system. But rather than dedicating the most resources to the “best” students and then fighting over who’s the best, we should be allocating resources to the people who are mostly likely to benefit from additional instructional resources.

But this seems an unlikely strategy for an elite coalition to use to entrench itself. If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most by objective criteria like income or career success, we could use prediction markets. The complete lack of interest in this suggests that isn’t really the agenda.

Much of law is like this, complex and ambiguous enough to let judges usually draw their desired conclusions. People often say the law needs this flexibility to adapt to complex local conditions. I’m skeptical.

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Beware Star Academia

I recently saw the show Old Jews Telling Jokes, and was reminded of a big change in humor over the last century. The show was full of old-style jokes, i.e., jokes designed to be funny given only a moderate level of showmanship. Once upon a time the jokes we heard were mostly jokes that got passed around because lots of pretty ordinary folks could tell them and get laughs. Today, instead, most jokes we hear are told by professional comics, who mostly tell their own unique jokes integrated with their life story and personality. Few others, even professional comics, can get such laughs from these jokes.

A similar change happened in music. Once upon a time the songs we heard were mostly songs that got passed around because many relatively ordinary folks could sing them and sound good. Today instead we mostly hear songs designed to show off the particular abilities of particular musicians. We are less tempted to sing these songs to our friends, or even to ourselves. Further in the past, a similar change happened with stories. Once, the stories we heard were passed around because many story tellers could enthrall listeners with them, even with many details changed. Then after the invention of writing we have preferred to pass around the exact words of particular story-tellers.

These changes seem driven by the ability to pass around more exactly the particular performances of particular artists. When we have that option, we take it eagerly. While we might think we mainly like the jokes, songs, and stories, and that artists are just a vehicle for getting to those. But it seems instead that we more care about admiring the abilities of particular artists, and that jokes, songs, and stories mostly vehicles to showcase artists.

If, as I have suggested, academia mainly functions to let us affiliate with impressive intellectuals, then academia should be at risk of suffering the same trend. That is, once upon a time we passed around the intellectual arguments and claims that a wide range of speakers could use in many contexts to persuade many listeners. But as we have gained better abilities to pass around the particular ways that particular speakers argue for claims, the above trend in jokes, song, and stories suggests that we did or will switch to focus more on the particular ways that particular intellectuals express and elaborate claims and arguments, and less on the claims and arguments themselves.

This is a problem because we have stronger reasons to expect that the arguments and claims that many people can use in many contexts to persuade varied listeners are more likely to be true, relative to those designed more to be parts of overall impressive displays by particular persons in particular contexts. If listeners actually care less if claims are true than if claimers are impressive, we should expect that when the audience for intellectuals can get better access to a rich personal display of attempted persuasion, they will lose much of their derived interest in the truth of claims. After all, maybe the audience never really cared that much if the claims were true – they mainly cared about claim truth as evidence of claimer impressiveness.

I’ve actually seen a lot that looks like this in my intellectual travels over the years. For example, many famous classic texts, especially in philosophy, are said to be popular because they can’t be effectively summarized or rephrased for a modern audience; to assimilate their insights, one must read the original authors in the original voices, even if their issues and styles are strange to us. We should suspect that folks read these classics less for insights and more for admiring and affiliating with impressive minds.

Also, I have seen people take arguments that others have made and express them with a bit more elegance and status, perhaps using more difficult methods, and get famous for originating such arguments, even when they mostly repeated what others said. It seems that people pretend that they celebrate these folks for originating certain arguments, but really want to admire and affiliate with their impressiveness.

Where could you go if you wanted to get the robust arguments, instead of affiliating with impressive intellectuals? First, read textbooks. I heartily recommend textbooks in most any subject. In fact, it is hard to do better than just sitting in a university bookstore and reading all the intro texts they have. Long ago I spent many days in the Stanford bookstore doing just that. Once you are done with textbooks, review articles are the next most robust option. And beware when interest in a topic seems to focus mainly on a particular author, and doesn’t transfer much to others who write on that same topic.

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Impressive Power

Monday I attended a conference session on the metrics academics use to rate and rank people, journals, departments, etc.:

Eugene Garfield developed the journal impact factor a half-century ago based on a two-year window of citations. And more recently, Jorge Hirsch invented the h-index to quantify an individual’s productivity based on the distribution of citations over one’s publications. There are also several competing “world university ranking” systems in wide circulation. Most traditional bibliometrics seek to build upon the citation structure of scholarship in the same manner that PageRank uses the link structure of the web as a signal of importance, but new approaches are now seeking to harness usage patterns and social media to assess impact. (agenda; video)

Session speakers discussed such metrics in an engineering mode, listing good features metrics should have, and searching for metrics with many good features. But it occurred to me that we can also discuss metrics in social science mode, i.e., as data to help us distinguish social theories. You see, many different conflicting theories have been offered about the main functions of academia, and about the preferences of academics and their customers, such as students, readers, and funders. And the metrics that various people prefer might help us to distinguish between such theories.

For example, one class of theories posits that academia mainly functions to increase innovation and intellectual progress valued by the larger world, and that academics are well organized and incentivized to serve this function. (Yes such theories may also predict individuals favoring metrics that rate themselves highly, but such effects should wash out as we average widely.) This theory predicts that academics and their customers prefer metrics that are good proxies for this ultimate outcome.

So instead of just measuring the influence of academic work on future academic publications, academics and customers should strongly prefer metrics that also measure wider influence on the media, blogs, business practices, ways of thinking, etc. Relative to other kinds of impact, such metrics should focus especially on relevant innovation and intellectual progress. This theory also predicts that, instead of just crediting the abstract thinkers and writers in an academic project, there are strong preferences for also crediting supporting folks who write computer programs, built required tools, do tedious data collection, give administrative support, manage funding programs, etc.

My preferred theory, in contrast, is that academia mainly functions to let outsiders affiliate with credentialed impressive power. Individual academics show exceptional impressive abstract mental abilities via their academic work, and academic institutions credential individual people and works as impressive in this way, by awarding them prestigious positions and publications. Outsiders gain social status in the wider world via their association with such credentialed-as-impressive folks.

Note that I said “impressive power,” not just impressiveness. This is the new twist that I’m introducing in this post. People clearly want academics to show not just impressive raw abilities, but also to show that they’ve translated such abilities into power over others, especially over other credentialled-as-impressive folks. I think we also see similar preferences regarding music, novels, sports, etc. We want people who make such things to show not only that they have have impressive abilities in musical, writing, athletics, etc., we also want them to show that they have translated such abilities into substantial power to influence competitors, listeners, readers, spectators, etc.

My favored theory predicts that academics will be uninterested in and even hostile to metrics that credit the people who contributed to academic projects without thereby demonstrating exceptional abstract mental abilities. This theory also predicts that while there will be some interest in measuring the impact of academic work outside academia, this interest will be mild relative to measuring impact on other academics, and will focus mostly on influence on other credentialed-as-impressives, such as pundits, musicians, politicians, etc. This theory also predicts little extra interest in measuring impact on innovation and intellectual progress, relative to just measuring a raw ability to change thoughts and behaviors. This is a theory of power, not progress.

Under my preferred theory of academia, innovation and intellectual progress are mainly side-effects, not main functions. They may sometimes be welcome side effects, but they mostly aren’t what the institutions are designed to achieve. Thus proposals that would tend to increase progress, like promoting more inter-disciplinary work, are rejected if they make it substantially harder to credential people as mentally impressive.

You might wonder: why would humans tend to seek signals of the combination of impressive abilities and power over others? Why not signal these things separately? I think this is yet another sign of homo hypocritus. For foragers, directly showing off one’s power is quite illicit, and so foragers had to show power indirectly, with strong plausible deniability. We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

So does anyone else have different theories of academia, with different predictions about which metrics academics and their customers will prefer? I look forward to the collection of data on who prefers which metrics, to give us sharper tests of these alternative theories of the nature and function of academia. And theories of music, stories, sport, etc.

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School Status Stops Kids

More support for the theory that fertility has fallen because status now puts more weight on having well educated kids:

Discussions … typically assume that the poor have more children than the rich. Micro-data from [62,146 women in] 48 developing countries suggest that this assumption was false until recently. …

In earlier birth cohorts (mostly of the 1940s and 1950s), both the number of ever-born siblings and the number of surviving siblings are positively associated with years of education in 25 countries and negatively associated in two. In contrast, in later birth cohorts (mostly of the 1980s), 20 countries exhibit negative associations between both measures of sibship size and education, while seven show the opposite. …

Changes in women’s labor force participation, sectoral composition, GDP per capita, [urbanization,] and child mortality do not predict changes in the education-sibship size association. Instead, one variable stands out …: the average educational attainment of the parent generation. …

Two explanations … stand out. … The first involves subsistence consumption constraints. … This explanation is somewhat difficult to square with the finding that economic growth is uncorrelated with changes in the education-sibship size association. … The second explanation is … that mass education induces widespread change in fertility norms … [and so] increases the importance of child quality relative to quantity in the utility function, [with] the preferences of the most educated couples [being] most sensitive. (more)

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Reward or Punish?

Many reality TV shows, like Project Runway, Hell’s Kitchen, or Survivor, focus on punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. Not only do viewers seem to find that more interesting, it actually works better to incentivize performance (many quotes below). Punishment works better to encourage lone behavior, to encourage behavior in a group, and as a tool for letting some group members encourage others.

The puzzle is that in most of our social worlds we instead focus on rewarding the best, not punishing the worst. If you search for “punish reward” you will mostly find the issue raised about how to treat kids; we are mainly willing to use punishment flexibly on them. And this when young kids are the main exception – for them punishment works worse. For adults, we tend to limit punishment’s use to extreme behavior that we all strongly agree is bad, like crime. And when you ask adults, they much prefer to be part of a group that uses rewards, not punishment.

As a college teacher, I expect that I’d get more effort from most students by regularly pointing out the worst student in the class than the best. But I also expect students to hate it and give me low evaluations. Similarly, I expect that if I wrote the occasional post criticizing a bad blog commenter here, instead of praising a good one, I’d get more change in commenting behavior. But I also expect that person to complain long and loud about how I was biased and unfair, and others to come to their defense. I expect a lot less complaining about bias in picking the best.

In both the class and comment cases, I expect people to see me as mean and cruel for punishing the worst, but kind and generous for rewarding the best. This even though all of these effects are relative – punishment would raise the rest of the class, or the rest of the commenters, up above the worse.

Note that rewarding the best is in practice more elitist than punishing the worse; punishing creates an underclass, not an overclass. And in fact our hyper-egalitarian forager ancestors were quite reluctant to overtly reward or praise; they focused their social coordination on having the group punish norm violators. Our hyper sensitivity to being punished, and our elaborate instinctual strategies to give excuses and to coordinate to retaliate against any who might suggest we should be punished, are probably human adaptations to that forager history. And they make us especially unwilling to accept punishment by an authority, instead of by the informal consensus of the group.

This seems an interesting example of our seeking to avoid aspects of the forager way of life. Our forager evolved aversion to being singled out for social shame is so strong that we’d rather create elites instead. At least this applies when we are relatively rich and comfortable. If we really feared being destroyed for lack of sufficient efforts, as farmers often did, we’d probably be a lot more eager to raise overall efforts by punishing the worse. I suspect that foragers themselves didn’t punish much in good times; punishment was invoked more, and mattered more, in hard times. In good times foragers probably more tolerated praising some as better, and weak forms of bragging.

In a more competitive future, with organizations and individuals that compete harder to survive, I’d expect more use of punishment, in addition to reward.

Today if you have a group that really needs to succeed, and to induce strong efforts all around, consider paying the social disruptions costs of punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. You will probably get more effort that way, even if people end up hating you and calling you evil for it. And if your group doesn’t punish and fails, know that your reluctance to punish was probably a contributing factor.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Reward or Punish?" »

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Best To Mix Odd, Ordinary

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories.” … Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview. (more; HT Tyler)

Some people just like to be odd. I’ve noticed that those who tend to accept unusual conclusions in one area tend to accept unusual conclusions in other areas too. In addition, they also tend to choose odd topics on which to have opinions, and base their odd conclusions on odd methods, assumptions, and sources. So opinions on odd topics tend to be unusually diverse, and tend to be defended with an unusually wide range of methods and assumptions.

These correlations are mostly mistakes, for the purpose of estimating truth, if they are mainly due to differing personalities. Thus relative to the typical pattern of opinion, you should guess that the truth varies less on unusual topics, and more on usual topics. You should guess that odd methods, sources, and assumptions are neglected on ordinary topics, but overused on odd topics. And you should guess that while on ordinary topics odd conclusions are neglected, on odd topics it is ordinary conclusions that are neglected.

For example, the way to establish a new method or source is to show that it usually gives the same conclusions as old methods and sources. Once established, one can take it seriously in the rare cases where they give different conclusions.

A related point is that if you create a project or organization to pursue a risky unusual goal, as in a startup firm, you should try to be ordinary on most of your project design dimensions. By being conservative on all those other dimensions, you give your risky idea its best possible chance of success.

My recent work has been on a very unusual topic: the social implications of brain emulations. To avoid the above mentioned biases, I thus try to make ordinary assumptions, and to use ordinary methods and sources.

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High Road Doubts

According to the intellectual norms that I learned when young, there is a high road and a low road for proposing reforms. The low road is populist and pandering – you ignore critics and try anything to get folks who could do something excited about your idea – sex appeal, group loyalties, demonizing opponents, overselling gains, whatever it takes. The high road is elitist and analytical – you carefully write up arguments, ideally with math models, randomized trials, and stat analysis, and present them to elites for evaluation.

Academics usually see the low road as deceptive – by ignoring critics and refusing to present careful arguments for evaluation, you admit your arguments are weak. Low road advocates counter that academic models and trials are often quite distant from actual applications — what really matters is that people try and evolve ideas in realistic contexts, and see how they feel about them there.

Twenty-five years ago, as a thirty year old wondering how to devote my life to pushing prediction markets, a mentor I respected basically suggested a low road – I should write a popular book to get lots of people excited. Instead I mostly chose a high road, going back to school to get a Ph.D., doing math models, lab experiments, etc.

Today I have reached a notable milestone along that road; my paper arguing for futarchy, a form of governance based on decision markets, is now published in the leading academic journal in the field of political philosophy: the Journal of Political Philosophy. This would be the abstract, if that journal had them:

Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs?

Democracies often fail to aggregate information, while speculative markets excel at this task. I consider a new form of governance, wherein voters would say what we want, but speculators would say how to get it. Elected representatives would oversee the after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare. Those who recommend policies that regressions suggest will raise GDP should be willing to endorse similar market advice. Using a qualitative engineering-style approach, I consider twenty-five objections, and present a somewhat detailed design intended to address most of these objections.

Of course I might do even better someday, perhaps publishing top journal articles on math models or lab experiments. Even so, this seems a good time to ask: is the high road really better?

I have doubts. What futarchy and decision markets mainly need, and have long needed, are organizations to try them out on small scales, to work out the little details that general ideas need for practical application. Small scale successes might then lead to larger trials, perhaps eventually at very large scales. And I doubt that publishing this paper, or further top journal papers, will do much to induce such trials.

A pandering popular book might do much more, if it actually got people to try the idea. They wouldn’t have to do it for the right reasons, by correctly evaluating pro and con arguments. In fact, it would be fine if the book gave most folks much worse estimates, as long as it induced a thicker high tail of enthusiasm to actually do something. A better idea for reform, with a big pool of rational advocates, might add much less value to the world than a worse idea for reform, matched with fewer less rational advocates willing to actually try and evolve their idea.

After all, beliefs mainly matter for inducing relevant actions. The high road might produce more accurate beliefs, but the low road may often get more things done.

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Ask Questions That Matter

I know a lot of people who think of themselves as intellectuals. That is, they spend a substantial fraction of their free time dealing in ideas. Most of these people are mainly consumers who take in ideas, but don’t seem to do much with them, at least as far as anyone else ever sees. But others are more outward facing, talking and writing about ideas, often quite eagerly.

Oddly however, most of these idea dealers seem to define themselves mostly in terms of the answers they want to promote, instead of the questions they want to answer. Most idea-oriented Facebook status updates seem like this – saying yay for some answer they agree with. The few that deal in questions also seem to be mainly promoting them, saying yay for the sort of people who like that question.

Now yes, in addition to question-answering the world also needs some answer indexing, aggregation, and yes, sometimes even promotion. And yes, sometimes the world needs people to generate and even promote good questions. But my guess is that most intellectual progress comes from people who focus on a question to which they do not currently know the answer, and then try to answer it. Yes, people doing other things sometimes stumble on a new answer, but in general it helps to be looking in order to find.

I also know lots of academics, and they all have one or more research topics. And if you ask them they can usually phrase these topics in terms of questions they want to answer. And this is a big part of what makes academics more intellectually productive. But alas, few academics are able to articulate in much detail why it is important to the world that their questions get answered. They usually just invoke some vague associations, apparently considering it sufficient that some journal is willing to publish their answers. They seem to think it is someone else’s job to decide what questions are important. Unfortunately, most academic journal articles are answering pretty uninteresting questions.

So the important intellectual progress comes down to the rather small fraction of intellectuals who both define their focus in terms of a question, rather than an answer, and who bother to think about what questions actually matter. To these, I salute, and bow. They are the sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress.

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