Tag Archives: Media

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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Beware Morality Porn

“Porn” stimulates strong sexual desire and satisfaction in ways detached from many of the contextual features that usually accompany such desire and satisfaction in real and praiseworthy sex. Critics complain that this detachment is often bad or unhealthy.

Metaphorical applications of this porn concept include food porn, gadget porn, shelter porn, and chart porn. “X porn” refers to stimuli that induce desires and/or satisfactions usually related to X, but detached in possibly unhealthy ways from context that ideally accompanies X. Food porn, for example, might entice you to eat foods with poor nutrition, or distract you from socializing while eating.

Of course how fair it is to call something “X porn” depends on how bad it is to desire X detached from some ideal context. For example, isn’t it ok to sometimes eat really tasty but unhealthy food, as long as you don’t do that too often? And what’s so wrong about loving cool-looking gadgets, even ones that aren’t very useful – everyone’s gotta have a hobby, right?  In fact, many use “X porn” terms not as criticism but to say they like a stimulation even though others may disapprove of its detachment.

But there’s one case where the “X porn” criticism seems to me especially solid: morality.  Let us call a stimuli “morality porn” if it gives people a strong desire to act morally, and a feeling of satisfaction of that desire, but without their actually acting morally. It seems an especially bad idea for people to feel moral, without actually acting moral.

For example, the Lord of the Rings movies are some of my favorites. They let viewers vicariously feel Frodo’s moral quandary – whether or not to sacrifice himself for the greater good – and then vicariously feel Frodo feeling good about himself for doing the right thing. Many war movies function similarly as morality porn.

But is this good? First it might be bad for people to feel good about their morality when they haven’t actually been moral – maybe this will make them feel like they’ve done enough when they’ve hardly done anything. Second, it is way too easy to imagine from the comfort of your seat that you would do the heroic thing in the situation on the screen, when in fact you would do no such thing.

Third, movie morality is often unhealthily detached from important moral context. For example, movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

I’m not saying all porn is bad, or even that any porn is bad. Or even that morality is good. But if I was going to worry about some sort of porn, I’d worry most about morality porn.

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Who Wants Accuracy?

A well-connected reporter (who I promised I’d keep anonymous) just told me that a major Washington media organization started a project studying major media pundits, and a big part of this project was assessing individual pundit forecast track records. After several months of several folks working on the project, it was killed, supposedly because management decided readers don’t care as much about pundit accuracy as they’d previous thought.

Of course that need not have been their real reason – perhaps some folks didn’t like the ratings it was giving to their favorite pundits. Or perhaps it died for any of a hundred random reasons projects are killed. Even so, I found this anecdote interesting.

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News You Can Use

If you want more evidence that people don’t read/watch news to get useful info, consider the low little interest in this, the most useful article I’ve ever read:

Pooping on a modern sitting toilet is a big part of where hemorrhoids come from, and it can also cause diverticular disease … A 2003 study observed 28 people pooping in three positions: sitting on a high toilet, sitting on a lower one and squatting like they were catchers at a baseball game … Pooping took about a minute less when done squatting and that participants rated the experience as “easier”. In fact, toilets that require you to squat that way have been the standard for most of human history and are still widely used in the non-Western world. …

Showering or bathing daily … wreaks havoc on something hilariously called the horny layer. Hot water, soap and abrasive surfaces strip off the horny layer, exposing living cells to the elements. … Damaging this protective layer of skin makes us more susceptible to disease. … Showering doesn’t kill bacteria or other microorganisms, though it does move them around. … For this reason, surgeons in many hospitals are not allowed to shower right before operating. … There are no measurable differences in the number of microorganism colonies a person is host to regardless of how frequently that person showers. … When you shower, use warm or cool water and a mild soap (if at all), and rehydrate the horny layer by rubbing on some moisturizer afterward. …

The muscle you’re supposed to use to breathe, your diaphragm, is under your lungs and closer to your belly….

Artificial light has pushed our normal bedtime back later and later, and this [natural] segmented sleep has been compressed into a single eight hours. … In a monthlong experiment, healthy subjects were given a long artificial “night” lasting 14 hours. They quickly reverted to the segmented pattern, waking up for an hour or two of “peaceful wakefulness” between two three to five hour stretches. …

Today, the majority of women in America are still directed to give birth in the “lithotomy” position, an odd pose that consists of lying flat on your back with your feet and legs raised, sometimes in stirrups. … This is pretty much the worst position imaginable to give birth in. … The World Health Organization has called use of the lithotomy position “clearly harmful,” and recommended that it be eliminated. …

Flossing is much more important than brushing. … Brushing twice a day is generally still believed to be the best practice. But you should do it away from mealtimes to give your teeth time to recover from acid wear — ideally, right before you eat or drink anything. … You should use a soft brush and focus on your gums more than your actual teeth. …

A study used an MRI to measure the spinal disk movement of three groups of people: one sitting, one slouching and one lying back at a 135-degree angle with their feet on the floor. The last group showed the least disk movement. By the way, this reclining position was common during the Roman Empire. (more; HT Rebecca Roache)

How do people yawn at this sort of article, stay riveted to the latest on Japan nuke plants, and yet tell themselves they read the news to get useful info?

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Choose: Help Or Show Concern

The Post has now given more media attention to damaged Japan nuke plants than to the entire rest of the earthquake, tsunami, etc. event.  I suspect lots of media worldwide act similarly. Yet, the tsunami was vastly more harmful. As MIT’s Josef Oehmen explains, there is very little chance that many will suffer much radiation harm.

There was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

In fact, the nuke media scare will itself cause far more harm!

Although radiation escaping from a nuclear power plant catastrophe can increase the risk of many cancers and other health problems, stress, anxiety and fear ended up in many ways being much greater long-term threats to health and well-being after Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and other nuclear accidents, experts said Monday.

“The psychological effects were the biggest health effects of all — by far.” … “After almost every radiological emergency, anyone or anything seen as or perceived as associated with the emergency came to be seen by others as tainted or something to be feared and even the object of discrimination.” … [After] a much less severe nuclear accident in 1999 in Tokaimura, Japan, … people in other parts of Japan refused to buy products from that region, and travelers were turned away from hotels and asked not to use public baths and swimming pools. … Studies of more than 80,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts have found that … only about 500 [cancer] cases could be attributed to the radiation exposure the people experienced. (more)

Now the media nuke emphasis does make business sense, since most ordinary folks I know seem quite eager to show each other their deep concern about those nuke plants. What sort of heartless person would not furrow their brow and express worry about those folks at risk? Some say this just shows nuke plants should not be built in earthquake zones.

Here is yet another example of where people tend to choose showing concern over actually helping. Shrugging your shoulders and saying this is no big deal, that would help. Loudly expressing deep “concern,” on the other hand, hurts.

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Beware “Consensus”?

If your doctor discourages you from seeking another opinion, you have even more reason to get one. (more)

Honest contrarians who expect reasonable outsiders to give their contrarian view more than normal credence should point to strong outside indicators that correlate enough with contrarians tending more to be right. (more)

Perhaps one strong outside indicator that a contrarian view is right is when the media goes out of its way to say that it is opposed by a “scientific consensus”! Ron Bailey in July:

Several [out of the eight media-declared] scientific consensuses before 1985 turned out to be wrong or exaggerated, e.g., saccharin, dietary fiber, fusion reactors, stratospheric ozone depletion, and even arguably acid rain and high-dose animal testing for carcinogenicity.

It seems to me that for folks with a contrarian bent, getting more better studies like this should be a high priority. More details from Ron: Continue reading "Beware “Consensus”?" »

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Why Not Censor?

An important kind of regulation is paternalism regarding individual behavior – we often prohibit or require certain choices, and say this is because people can make mistakes. The story told is that expert regulators can carefully consider the mistakes we are likely to make, and adjust our sets of available choices with an eye to reducing those mistakes. Paternalistic regulations now limit, for example, the investments you can make, the food and drugs you can consume, the professionals you can employ, the cars you can drive, etc.

When considering any particular regulation, officials should consider hoped-for gains from fewer mistakes on the one hand, and then on the other hand subtract expected losses from frustrating preferences, reducing innovation, and enforcement costs. When considering whether to allow regulation in some area, voters should also consider the possibility of incompetent, corrupt, or partisan regulatiors.

While public and elite opinion supports many kinds of regulation, there also appears to be a widely-held consensus against one kind of regulation: censorship. While we accept some limits on what kids can hear, and a few limits on extreme adult expressions, the standard view is that ordinary adults should mostly be allowed to speak and hear whatevever they want.

Yet the same human flaws that lead us to mistakenly consume investments, drugs, cars, or professionals can lead us to mistakenly consume claims, arguments, and opinions. And expert regulators have an apparently similar potential to help people by identifying and removing poor choices from their available consumption options. Why are we so eager to regulate so much individual behavior, yet so reluctant to endorse censorship?

It can’t be because our beliefs and opinions don’t matter – they often matter greatly. Yes, censorship can interfere with the competition of ideas and the evolution of better ones, but regulation can interfere with innovation in most any area. Yes, we do like to interfere in the competition of ideas by favoring some ideas via school curricula, public service messages, and subsidized art. But we still usually stop short of actually censoring messages opposed to those we favor and subsidize.

Actually, we don’t stop short as much with for-profit corporations. For example, we won’t let alcohol makers advertize the fact that most research finds those who drink more are healthier. But we are more reluctant to limit what non-profits can say about the subject. This suggests to me that one big thing going on is an anti-dominance instinct against for-profit firms. We are in general reluctant to limit choices, whether of ideas or other things, but we are more willing to make an exception for products and services offered by for-profit firms, especially big ones.

One big noteworthy exception to this pattern is reporters; we are reluctant to limit what large for-profit news firms can say. News firms have somehow sold themselves as being smaller opponents of bigger maybe-illicitly-dominating governments. When most firms are regulated against their will, they are also smaller opponents of bigger maybe-illicitly-dominating governments. But in those cases we side with the bigger governments against the smaller firms. So why side with big news firms against a bigger government?

I suspect there are multiple equilibria here.  When governments limit criticism we accept their claim that firms must not be allowed to speak freely, but when news firms are allowed to tell us they shouldn’t be censored, we believe and support this position.

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