Tag Archives: Media

Anxiety Du Jour Books

Imagine that you wanted to write a popular book on the anxiety de jour, and that this anxiety happened to be increased moral depravity. Well there’d be an easy time-tested recipe to follow.

First, give some plausibility arguments for why moral depravity is a big deal. Since everyone already thinks so, weak arguments would be fine. Second, give lots of concrete examples of people and orgs affected by moral depravity, examples readers can relate to. Especially examples about high status and new things – people love to read about those. Third, mention important recent worrying trends backed up by serious research, and vaguely suggest that these trends are caused by increased moral depravity. No need for concrete arguments, you just need to show you are a serious person tracking serious trends. Finally, recommend a bunch of policies to deal with moral depravity, policies many of your readers already support, and that you would have supported even if every one of those recent trends were opposite.

Most important: have your book come out just as talk about moral depravity was peaking, and be an author with a lot of status in reader eyes. Your readers would mainly just want a book they could point to as they argue the topic, so they’d mainly just want an easy read without subtle arguments that they could fail to understand.

This is the recipe that Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee follow in their new book The Second Machine Age. They are high status authors, and their book arrives just as computer anxiety is peaking. First, they suggest that computers will cause an economic revolution as big as the industrial revolution, which they say was caused by the steam engine. Second, they review lots of fashionable new computer products, demos and hoped-for revolutions. Third, they review serious recent trends backed up by serious research, including decreasing labor fraction of income, and increasing wage variance. They vaguely suggest that these trends are caused by computers, but offer relatively little evidence in support of this claim. Finally, they offer a bunch of standard policy recommendations that they would have made anyway, even if all these trends had been the opposite.

While reviewing trends, the book points to this graph (taken from this paper):

ElectricVsComputers

It compares recent US productivity growth to growth during the era of electrification, 1890-1940, and suggests that growth might increase soon, if it follows the same pattern. But if this is the growth effect size to expect from computers, it is vastly smaller than the industrial revolution, which sustainably increased growth rates by over a factor of fifty (and is not at all well summarized as caused by steam engines). Of course these book authors are careful not to make strong explicit claims – they are content to vaguely suggest.

So how is one supposed to evaluate a book like this, without original contributions, strong claims, or explicit central arguments to evaluate? The standard intended seems to just be popularity: it is a success if people buy it and mention it lots as they anxiously discuss how computers might change society. And then push for the same policies they would have pushed for anyway, regardless. And by that standard, this book will probably be a success.

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Why Not Pre-Books?

I’m planning to write a book, a book I want to both be engaging to a wide audience, and to adequately defend some complex non-obvious intellectual claims. It feels quite daunting to write with both of these goals in mind at once. So I’m thinking of achieving these two goals in two steps. First I’d write a pre-book, which states my main claims and arguments directly and clearly, using expert language, for an expert audience. I’d then circulate that pre-book privately among experts and useful thinkers of various sorts, seeking criticism of my arguments. Then using their feedback, I’d revise my claims and arguments, and write an engaging accessible book that can be circulated widely.

While this strategy seems to make sense, I rarely hear of anyone doing it. Why? Some possible explanations:

  1. Lots of writers do this; they just don’t let it be known, as that makes them seem unconfident.
  2. Most writers think they know what experts will think about each opinion they will express, and see little value in getting expert feedback on the package of opinions they will express.
  3. A pre-book nearly doubles a writer’s effort, and few writers of accessible books are willing to do this just to get a more intellectually defensible argument.
  4. Far fewer experts are willing to comment on a private pre-book than are willing to publicly criticize a published book. The main way to get feedback is to publish things.
  5. The readers of the pre-book will be offended that their feedback don’t much change the writer’s opinions.
  6. If the pre-book is circulated too widely, that will cut too far into the book sales.
  7. Critics with access to the pre-book might embarrass the author by pointing the many changes of opinion in the book.
  8. Good writers don’t find it very hard to simultaneously write both defensibly and accessibly.
  9. Writers choose a book concept based on what they think will sell. Getting expert feedback on a pre-book might change author opinions too much, making it harder to sincerely write the initial book concept.
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Me on Al Jazeera again

I’ll be on Al Jazeera again at 3:30p EST today , this time with George Dvorsky and Ari Shulman; the topic: ethics of transhumanism.

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Med Media Mangle

The media holds medicine to a lower standard than it holds alternative medicine, such as say crystal healing. No way would an article in a major paper complain that we aren’t subsidizing crystals enough for poor folks, based on the observation that rich folks buy more crystals and rich folks are healthier. But for medicine, that sort of correlation is enough.

For example, this week the Post has not one but two long articles celebrating a new breast cancer study, which it says shows:

“Nearly five black women die needlessly per day from breast cancer” because they don’t have information about the importance of breast screening and they don’t have access to high quality care.

But in fact, the study shows only that across 25 US cities, the ratio of the black vs. white breast cancer death rates correlates (barely significantly) with median city income and a measure of city racial segregation. It is a huge leap to conclude from these correlations that black women don’t have enough info or care!

The very robust health-status correlation predicts more health for higher status folks, and thus more race-health disparity when there is a higher race-status disparity. It seem quite plausible that the race-status disparity is higher in cities where races are segregated and incomes are low.

More from the Post:

It would be nearly nine months before she told herself it was time to act. By then, the lump was the size of a small egg. … Doctors and advocates say the fear that kept her from acting quickly is all too common among black women. It is among the factors that contribute to a disturbing trend: Although they are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, black women are more likely to die from it. … Poverty and racial inequities are the primary factors driving the disparity, according to a study. … The study, which compared mortality rates between black and white women in the nation’s 25 largest cities, states that “nearly five black women die needlessly per day from breast cancer” because they don’t have information about the importance of breast screening and they don’t have access to high quality care. The authors … said genetics play only a small role in the disparity.

More from the study:

[In] the 25 largest cities in the US, … non-Hispanic Black : non-Hispanic White [breast cancer death] rate ratios (RRs) were calculated … Almost all the NHB rates were greater than almost all the NHW rates. … From among the 7 potential correlates, only median household income (r = 0.43, p = 0.037) and a measure of segregation (r = 0.42, p = 0.039) were significantly related to the RR.

Note that white women may seem to “get” more breast cancer because they are tested more often for it.

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You’d Take The Million

Imagine that a month ago you inherited or won a million dollars. You haven’t spent much, but you did tell people you know and you’ve been thinking about how you will spend it. (Probably including quitting your job.) Today you learn that your favorite pet will die unless you spend a million dollars on medical treatment. Ask yourself: would you spend it? What would most people you know do? In this situation, I’m pretty sure most folks wouldn’t spend a million to save their pet.

Now consider a new Vanity Fair survey:

Questions: Would most people you know kill their favorite pet for $1 million? What about you?
Answers: Most people: Yes (23%) No (72%); Yourself: Yes (11%) No (83%).

Matt Yglesias (Hat tip Sir Charles):

I don’t believe it for a minute. Saying you wouldn’t kill your favorite pet for $1 million is cheap talk. Actually declining an offer of $1 million in exchange for the life of your pet, by contrast, costs $1 million. How many people would really turn that offer down in these cash-strapped times?

Actually, my guess is that if no one you knew had ever taken such an offer, and if you took it you’d be in the news so that most folks you know would hear of it, most of you wouldn’t take the offer. But once a few associates had taken the offer, and such offers weren’t newsworthy anymore, most folks would take such offers.

This just shows how much we hate seeming weird. Accepting a million to kill your pet is weird, but then so is paying a million for your pet’s medical treatment. In each case most will do the non-weird thing.

(I posted in July on how you’d take a million to give up the internet.)

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Me On Ideas In Action

In this half-hour episode, Jim Glassman interviews Martin Ford and I on Will Robots Take Our Jobs?. (I posted on Tyler and Ford here.) You might think we’d go into more argument detail in a half hour show, but alas we seem to just repeat the same top level points. This was in part due to an interview, rather than a debate, format. Glassman also seemed more interested in getting Ford to make dramatic claims than in hearing rebuttals – Ford got to say 40% more words than I.

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Theory And Fashion

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was. If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. …

The real cause may be information itself. … In the past, we collected information … to convert it into … ideas that made sense of the information. … But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to. … If a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention. (more)

While this article adds little to the basic concept, it is a basic concept worth pondering: are big ideas actually less popular today, and if so why? This claim fits with my perception of idea fashion today vs. my memory of thirty years ago, but I have personally changed so much that I don’t trust such memory comparisons.

If this trend is real, I don’t find the “more information” explanation compelling. The amount of available information has been increasing relatively steady for centuries, yet this trend, if real, has only been going for a half century or less. I expect this is more just a long term cycle in intellectual fashion. Once the old established elites get really good at theory, new “young turks” can better make their mark via switching to a fashion where details matter most, and then once those folks are old established elites, there’s a new opening for a fashion favoring theory. Alas for me that, being more a theorist, I happen to reach my peak when theory is most out of fashion.

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My Stossel Clip

My five minute pro-blackmail segment appeared on the Stossel show Thursday:

 

I gave a simple version of my gossip-plus argument. Alas they cut the part where I made it personal, telling John Stossel that, with legal blackmail, be would personally have to be more careful. A moment of delicious silence followed.

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Respect Forecast Accuracy

The topic at Cato Unbound this month is “What’s Wrong with Expert Predictions.” Dan Gardner and Philip Tetlock’s lead essay points out a puzzling lack of interest in forecast accuracy:

Corporations and governments spend staggering amounts of money on forecasting, and one might think they would be keenly interested in determining the worth of their purchases and ensuring they are the very best available. But most aren’t. They spend little or nothing analyzing the accuracy of forecasts and not much more on research to develop and compare forecasting methods. Some even persist in using forecasts that are manifestly unreliable. … This widespread lack of curiosity … is a phenomenon worthy of investigation.

My response essay considers this puzzle. The editor summarizes:

Robin Hanson argues that most people aren’t interested in the accuracy of predictions because predictions often aren’t about knowing the future. They are about affiliating with an ideology or signaling one’s authority. … He suggests that one way to make predictions more accurate might be to lift both the social stigma and legal prohibitions against gambling.

Key quotes:

Even if disinterest in forecast accuracy is explained by forecasting being only a minor role for pundits, academics, and managers, might we still hope for reforms to encourage more accuracy? …

Hope … mainly comes from the fact that we pretend to care more about forecast accuracy than we actually seem to care. We don’t need new forecasting methods so much as a new social equilibrium, one that makes forecast hypocrisy more visible to a wider audience, and so shames people into avoiding such hypocrisy. …

It isn’t enough to devise ways to record forecast accuracy—we also need a new matching social respect for such records. Might governments encourage a switch to more respect for forecast accuracy? Yes: by not explicitly discouraging it!

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They’d Take The Million

A survey [in 1992] indicated that 46 percent of Americans would be unwilling to give up television for the rest of their lives in return for a million dollars. (more)

How much would someone have to pay you to give up the Internet for the rest of your life? Would a million dollars be enough? Twenty million? How about a billion dollars? ”When I ask my students this question, they say you couldn’t pay me enough.” (more)

I believe that most people think they wouldn’t give up TV or the internet for a million. They might even actually reject such an offer if it came out of the blue with little time to consider. And I’m happy to admit people get a lot of value out of tv and internet relative to the price they now pay. But reframe this offer so that it has more time to generate social support, and no way would most people reject it.

At 5% interest, a million dollars pays ~$4000 a month. So let’s imagine offering people $4000 to give up TV or internet for one month, and then renewing the offer every month afterward – they could go on or off the plan at will. Furthermore, let the offer be made to every member of a median-income community of one thousand folks, all of whom know several other folks in the community. This community might be a neighborhood, a workplace, a church, etc.

Under these circumstances I predict that within ten years over 80% of them would be on the plan in any given month. First they’d see that the offer is real, and they’d also see all the fun their associates have splurging or quitting work and enjoying their leisure in non-tv/internet ways. Then they’d try it themselves and like it, and mostly stick with it.

Thus I think the survey questions above are quite misleading on the value people actually place on tv and internet. Misleading features of these survey questions:

  1. They require a sudden commitment regarding one’s entire future life, rather than giving people a chance to learn and adapt to this new possibility. Most people are commitment averse.
  2. They ask people to become weird, accepting an offer made to no one else, and leaving the familiar world of their associates’ options and actions.
  3. They put people in a far (vs. near) frame of mind and then ask them to affirm a high value on money. In far mode people are idealistic, and so think they care less about money.

Even today a million dollars is a lot of money, enough that most people would do a lot to get it.

Added 7p: Commenters are eager to declare they wouldn’t take the internet deal, and seem uninterested in my claim that 80% of median income folks would take the deal, which pays median household income (~50K$/yr) just to not use the internet. It seems important to many commenters’ identity to declare their allegiance to the internet, i.e., that without it they might as well shrivel up and die.

Added 12July: Tyler Cowen reviews the academic lit on willingness to pay for internet – its about 2% of income, or less than $100 a month.

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