Tag Archives: Meta

Why Speak Truth?

The title of this blog, Overcoming Bias, marks a theme here: I try to look past appearances and correct biases, to see and say things as they are.  Periodically someone will ask: what’s so great about truth?  They commonly presume I’ve made a strong claim, such as that it is always better to believe and say the truth, no matter what the cost or topic.  I make no such claim.

Instead I’ll just note that it is a big world, and people vary in many ways.  A great many people give lip service to the truth, talking as if it was their highest allegiance.  Far fewer folks, perhaps none, are actually this way.  But since folks vary, there will be a furthest tail of this distribution, and those most-truth-seeking folks might appreciate relevant things to read.

In the vastness that is the web, there should be some places where folks who most want to see and say truth can congregate.  Of course far more folks want to claim the mantle of truth-teller than want to pay its real costs.  So you should treat with skepticism any claim that I’ve actually achieved this status far more than most folks.  And I make no such claim.

I will, however, suggest that truth seeking and telling can make useful and important contributions to the world.  The tendencies that we have inherited, genetically or culturally, to deceive ourselves and others no doubt contain wisdom, at least about when such behavior is in our personal interest.  But since the world is changing rapidly, our inherited tendencies can’t always get it right; someday they may go very wrong.  Somewhere, someone should think carefully and truthfully about recent or upcoming changes, ready to warn others about where our inherited self-deceptions could go off the rails.

This post dedicated to the high quality comments of TGGP.

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Efficiency Disclaimers

Though I generally avoid disclaimers, since Bryan Caplan calls my latest claim that econ efficiency is a good tool for finding win-win deals “complete nonsense,” let me try to clarify:

  • We have many purposes when we talk about “what to do”, and making deals is only one of our purposes.
  • Getting what we want is only one of many reasons we try to achieve deals; we also want to signal our features, for example.
  • Analysis aids are only one of many sorts of aids that can help us to make deals; aids can also to organize negotiations, enforce deals, etc.
  • Most useful deal aids are relatively specific to a particular context, such as real estate sales, or marriages; when available, more specific tools tend to be more useful.
  • Deal aids can specialize in what groups that they best assist.  A particular aid might be best suited for couples, club, firms, or nations.  Wider aids specialize in assisting larger groups.

Economic efficiency is our best wide general analysis tool for finding win-win deals that get people what they want.  That isn’t everything, but it is a lot.  I’m glad I mastered this tool and am eager to apply it.  Efficiency can:

  • Suggest Deals – Efficiency analysis suggests policies to make “the biggest pie.” A deal also needs folks to agree on a way to divide the pie, such as via cash transfers between the parties.  Even so, knowing better ways to make bigger pies should make parties more eager to agree to deals to lock in such gains.
  • Be Part Of A Deal –  Groups can make explicit deals to adopt the results of efficiency analysis.  For example, legal systems can adopt a general accident rule that puts responsibility on the least cost accident avoider, and government agencies can be instructed to make policy decisions on a cost-benefit basis.  Most can reasonably expect to gain from such policies, even if they do not expect to gain from each particular application.


  • Efficiency analysis is a rough guide, and does not determine exact implications with certainty for each possible situation.
  • The policies efficiency recommends depend on particular modeling assumptions and parameter estimates, for example, and those depend on particular analysts and sources used.
  • Even when negotiators have access to solid analyses, deals can fail for many other reasons; good analysis doesn’t ensure good deals.
  • Most deals are not between all possible parties, and each deal may well disadvantage those not included in the deal.
  • People may expect to gain from a deal, but end up not actually benefiting.
  • As a wide general tool, efficiency is less useful for small deals or for contexts where specialized tools are available.
  • Efficient deals may well be immoral, or unattractive for other purposes of deal-making, or of “what to do” talking.

Few deals can guarantee to get everyone more of what they want, but by encouraging and enabling more better wider deals, the use of efficiency analysis sure seems to me to tend to get most everyone more of what they want.  Isn’t that good enough?

OK, now that I’ve tried this exercise of explicitly listing many possible disclaimers, when is this sort of exercise actually worth the effort?

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Show, Sort, Shill

The point of writing is to help others see, but what exactly do we help others see?  Consider:

  • Show – Show the world new ideas (or insights).
  • Sort – Attach quality signals to shown ideas.
  • Shill – Push ideas, via other sorts of influences.

Many new ideas or insights can be expressed clearly in just a few paragraphs.  Others may take a few pages; a few need whole books.  With more work, one can express ideas in different ways, for more chances to connect to different readers, and attach good descriptors and connections, so that folks searching for such things can find your idea.

The vast majority of intellectual effort, however, is not such “showing”, but instead “sorting” and “shilling.”  Advocates push ideas via repetition, celebrity endorsement, etc., pundits are witty, engaging, elegant, etc, and academics make impressive-looking math models, theorems, data collections, stat studies, prototypes, etc.

When readers have good reasons to think that ideas with certain associations are objectively more true or valuable, I’ll say efforts to create such associations “sort” ideas.  Otherwise, such efforts “shill”, i.e., they direct attention or belief but not preferentially to objectively better ideas.

Now sorting is no doubt a required function — we need to know where to focus attention and belief.  But while intellectuals often suggest that their effort is efficiently directed toward this goal, I am skeptical.  Instead, I suspect audiences of pundits and academics mainly want to affiliate with credentialled-as-impressive folks.  Academics are mainly rewarded for doing impressive-looking idea-work, that can be credentialled as such.  Pundits, wonks, columnists, etc. are similarly rewarded for writing that is witty, engaging, elegant, etc.

Now academics and pundits do sometimes have original ideas and news, and such contributions can add a bit to impressiveness.  And many audiences, all else equal, prefer to hear news.  But mostly the finding and showing of such ideas and news is a side effect of trying to be and affiliate with impressiveness; institutions designed primarily to achieve that function would do it far more effectively.

To me, the great charm of blogging is that I can think about interesting things, have an apparently-original insight about something, and then in a few paragraphs I can show that insight to the world.  If an idea seems especially valuable, I can re-express it again in future posts, to better explain and index it.

My great anxiety about blogging is my fear that merely-blogged ideas will not get the attention or belief they deserve, if they do not get the usual quality signals, and that if I don’t give my ideas such quality signals, no one will.

I could take a ton of time and effort to give very standard quality signals, but I can only do this for a tiny fraction of my ideas and I might really just be trying to seem impressive.  I could work to make more efficient signals of quality for a selection of my ideas, signals that do indicate their truth or value of an idea, but that do less well at showing impressiveness.  But how many would attend to such signals, and would that be worth the neglect of other insights I could instead find and show via more blogging?

Which of these options is the most fun, and how much do I really care about anything else?  I remain honestly torn and uncertain here.

Added 8a: Both sorting and shilling both have positional aspects that concern me; they both raise ideas only at the expense of other ideas.  Overconfidence could easily trick one into over-estimating the value of such efforts.

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Real Rationality

Bayesian probability is a great model of rationality that gets lots of important things right, but there are two ways in which its simple version, the one that comes most easily to mind, is extremely misleading.

One way is that it is too easy to assume that all our thoughts are conscious – in fact we are aware of only a tiny fraction of what goes on in our minds, perhaps only one part in a thousand. We have to deal with not only “running on error-prone hardware”, but worse, relying on purposely misleading inputs. Our subconscious often makes coordinated efforts to mislead us on particular topics.

But at least many folks are aware of and try to deal with this; for example, I’ve seen a lot of good related posts on this at Less Wrong lately. There is, however an even bigger way in which the simple Bayesian model is extremely misleading, and I’ve seen no discussion of it at Less Wrong. We may see one part in a thousand of our minds, but that fraction pales by comparison to the fact that we are each only one part in seven billion of living humanity.

Taking this fact seriously requires even bigger changes to how we think about rationality. OK, we don’t need to consider it for topics that only we can influence. But for most interesting important topics, it matters far more what the entire world does than what we personally do. For such topics, rationality consists mainly in the world having and using good systems (academia, news media, wikipedia, prediction markets, etc.) for generating and distributing reliable beliefs on which everyone can act.

When seven billion minds are involved, the overwhelming consideration must be managing a division of labor, so that we don’t each have to redo the same work. Together we must manage systems for deciding who should be heard on what. Given such systems, each of us will make our strongest contributions, by far, by fitting into these systems.

So to promote rationality on interesting important topics, your overwhelming consideration simply must be: on what topics will the world’s systems for deciding who to hear on what listen substantially to you?   Your efforts to ponder and make progress will be largely wasted if you focus on topics where none of the world’s “who to hear on what” systems rate you as someone worth hearing.  You must not only find something worth saying, but also something that will be heard.

Yes, existing who-to-hear systems are far from perfect, but that fact simply does not make it rational for you to work on topics where a better system would approve you, if only such systems existed. Wishes are not horses. It might make sense for you to work on reforming our systems, but even then your best efforts will work through channels where current systems can rate you as a person to hear on that meta topic.

When what matters is how the world acts, not how you act, rationality on your part consists mainly in improving the rationality of the world’s beliefs, as determined by its main systems for deciding who to believe about what.  Just wishing we had other systems, or acting as if we had them, is delusion, not rationality.

From a conversation with Steve Rayhawk.

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Status Audit

Breathing is very important to us.  Even so, it is hard to say that we do much of what we do just to breathe.  Instead, we adjust what we do to make sure we can breathe.  We do this mostly unconsciously, but we do it.

Similarly, status is very important to us.  But it looks bad to do things to directly for status; that seems too desperate.  So usually we have other conscious motivations, and unconsciously adjust our behavior to manage status. This lets us avoid showing or seeing how much status matters to us.

With this in mind, I thought I’d try a quick status audit of my blogging behavior, using this fascinating list of status moves.  I’ve listed the 41 of them that plausibly apply below.  Considering my usual blogging style, I’ve tried to code as red moves where what I tend to do or not do typically raises my status or lower others’, and as blue moves that typically lower my status or raise others’.  Black moves were harder to code.

A. High-status behaviors

  1. Having no visible reaction to what the other person said.
  2. Speaking in complete sentences.
  3. Talking matter-of-factly about things that the other person finds displeasing or offensive.
  4. Speaking authoritatively, with certainty.
  5. Giving or withholding permission.
  6. Evaluating other people’s work.
  7. Speaking cryptically.
  8. Being surrounded by an entourage. Continue reading "Status Audit" »
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SF Area Meetup Friday

If you are in the mood, join other readers of this blog (and me) this Friday, from 7pm on, at 3755 Benton St., Santa Clara, CA 95051.

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Why Comments Snark

Katja Grace asks:

Commentary on blogs usually comes in two forms: comments there and posts on other blogs. In my experience, comments tend to disagree and to be negative or insulting much more than links from other blogs are. In a rough count of comments and posts taking a definite position on this blog, 25 of 35 comments disagreed, while 1 of 12 posts did, even if you don’t count another 11 posts which link without comment, a seemingly approving act. Why is this?

She suggests:

Commenters are visible only to others in that particular comments section. Nobody else there will be impressed or interested to observe that you read this blogger or story, as they all [do]. So the choice of whether to affiliate doesn’t matter, and all the fun is in showing superiority within that realm. Pointing out that the blogger is wrong shows you are smarter than they.

I don’t see why comments can’t affiliate as easily as posts, but I agree comments often disagree to gain status at the expense of post authors. Constant comments:

One’s correction of error tends typically to be much more throw-away than one’s original thoughts. If you want to correct an error, and if you do not think the correction particularly interesting, you might choose to do it in the comments of the blog that committed the error.

My explanation is related, but darker: Comments disagree more than responding posts because post, but not comment, authors must attract readers.  Post authors expect that reader experiences of a post will influence whether those readers come back for future posts.  In contrast, comment authors less expect reader experience to influence future comment readership; folks read blog posts more because of the post author than who they expect to author comments there.

This induces snarkier comments for two reasons:

  1. Intelligent post authors can usually anticipate the main post “corrections.”  Posts written for readability simply cannot mention every related disclaimer, caveat, alternate interpretation, or follow-on question.  This leaves a huge opening for comments to seem smart by pointing out such things, even when they are boring.
  2. When you post a friendly response to someone else’s post, you can hope for reciprocal posts later, where they respond to one of your posts.  This is less likely when your post is critical, or if you just comment on their post; they may not even know you have a blog.

A similar theory explains why large email lists and usenet groups were often so harsh; each contributor had relatively little influence over the subscriber experience.  This theory also suggests a fix: let blog readers mark comment authors they like, and read all blog post comments via an interface that emphasizes authors they personally like.  Comment authors would then face incentives similar to post authors to please readers.

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Forum = Meta-Method

  1. How to pick city policies, vs. how to pick the mayor.
  2. How to cook a meal, vs. how to pick a restaurant.
  3. How to win a game, vs. how to decide which team won.
  4. How to do a study, vs. how to pick a study to publish.

These are four examples of methods vs. forums.  Methods are ways to do things; forums are ways to pick who decides what to do.  Yes, in a sense forums are methods, since choosing who decides indirectly picks what to do.  But that is what makes forums powerful; good forums induce people to find good methods.  Good  elections induces good city policies, good restaurant competition induces good cooking, good game rules induce good play, and good journal review induces good articles.

To me, prediction markets are mostly interesting as forums, not methods.  Alas many seem to confuse the two.  E.g., Ian Ayres at Freakonomics:

One of the great unresolved questions of predictive analytics is trying to figure out when prediction markets will produce better predictions than good old-fashion mining of historic data. … We are about to have a test of these two competing approaches … a cool Supreme Court fantasy league, where anybody can make predictions about how Supreme Court justices will vote on particular cases. …

[Will aggregate] predictions of the league [be] more accurate than the predictions of a statistical algorithm developed by [five stat experts?] … The fantasy league predictions would probably be more accurate if market participants had to actually put their money behind their predictions. … Statistical predictions could probably be improved if they relied on more recent data and controlled for more variables.

More meta-methodological comparisons like these … will also shed light on whether market participants will learn to efficiently incorporate the results of statistical prediction into their own assessments. At the moment, individual decision-makers tend to improve their prediction when given statistical aids; but they still tend to wave off the statistical prediction too often.

James Surowiecki’s book seems responsible for so many folks equating “prediction markets” with “wisdom of crowd” averages of non-expert more-intuitive opinion, vs. formal expert analysis.  Averaging popular opinion may be an interesting method, as is statistical analysis, but comparing these does not evaluate prediction markets as forums.

“Prediction markets” started from speculative markets, e.g. stocks, where accuracy comes much less from non-expert participation and much more from participants with incentives to self-select as experts.  Any team that considers itself expert enough can pay to prove itself, but in fact most teams stay away and prices tend to be dominated by real experts, who get paid and really know better than most.

Prediction markets aren’t about emphasizing ordinary Joes over credentialed bigshots; they are about emphasizing whomever tends to be right.  Simple opinion averages maybe be reasonable indicators of crowd wisdom, but they have too little of the forum-ness of letting self-selected expert teams come to dominate.

It seems to me that when academics like Aryes call for academic studies of prediction markets as methods, instead of as forums, they are implicitly suggesting that current academic institutions should be the forum in we choose forecasting methods.  If academic journals prefer a method, they suggest, that’s the method the world should use.

In contrast, I suggest prediction markets may be a better forum than academic journals for choosing forecasting methods.  Maybe the world shouldn’t use a method just because academics say its great; maybe those impressed with a method should have to put their money where their mouth is and trade on that method’s forecasts in prediction markets.  Maybe the rest of us should just accept prediction market prices as our best estimates; if and when prediction market prices become dominated by traders using a method, that is when the rest of us will have implicitly accepted that method as best.

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Shoo Libertarian Knights

Dear libertarian knight seeking to win honor via comment battles with heathen blogger dragons:

I range pretty widely in topics here at Overcoming Bias, and sometimes I consider government policies.  Sometimes I even consider policies that, gasp, violate your favorite libertarian moral axiom, something like no one must ever affect anyone without a notarized consent form.  At which point many of you feel an apparently overwhelming urge to comment on this crucial fact (often smugly).  As if this were some sort of news.

Its not, so please don’t.  I know about your favorite axiom, and I usually notice when something violates it.  I get that you are really really convinced by it, more so than of anything ever.  But listen: I’ve heard that argument and I’m not moved.   Your position is so predictable that I can easily anticipate your response.  I have usually anticipated it, and rejected it.  Liberty is a fine heuristic, but efficiency is more what I want, so I’m willing to consider sometimes violating your liberty axiom.  Like you I am wary of big government, but because of bad consequences that often follow, not a liberty axiom violation.

We get it that you disagree, but when you just declare that fact again (and again and again), intelligent readers, well aware of the existence of libertarian axiomatists, learn only of your continued willingness to impose costs on unwilling others, to signal your continued devotion to your cause (which supposedly relates to preventing imposing costs on unwilling others).

So please, save your breath.  If there must be one post here at OB where you repeat your concerns yet again, thinking we just haven’t heard them enough, about my considering violations of your liberty axiom, please, just make it this one post, and leave the rest be.

Now back to our regularly scheduled wild speculations. …

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OB Ads?

I have not accepted any compensation for anything I’ve done on this blog.  But folks keep offering to pay me to put their ads on this blog.  I wonder: am I being too prudish?  Presumably the more money I make blogging, the more I’ll blog.

So let me ask you all:  how many readers would think less of me or my writings if had a special Ads sidebar, but promised that ads would not influence what I blogged?  How selective should I be; am I implicitly “endorsing” the advertised products?  And how much should I charge?

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