Tag Archives: Religion

Peak Religion

The US watches more TV per day than any other nation, and a total of 60 hours of e-media per week. Time devoted to this sort of thing has been increasing for decades. Much of this  media is filled with stories directly, and much of the rest, such as news, is framed to fit story norms. And as I quoted two years ago, stories in effect reinforce a belief in God:

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives. (more)

So in the quite literal sense of direct immersion in a religious world view, we are the most religious people of the most religious generation ever. What unusual features of our place and time in history can be explained by this unusual feature?

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Bowing To Elites

Imagine that that you are a politically savvy forager in a band of size thirty, or a politically savvy farmer near a village of size thousand. You have some big decisions to make, including who to put in various roles, such as son-in-law, co-hunter, employer, renter, cobbler, or healer. Many people may see your choices. How should you decide?

Well first you meet potential candidates in person and see how much you intuitively respect them, get along with them, and can agree on relative status. It isn’t enough for you to have seen their handiwork, you want to make an ally out of these associates, and that won’t work without respect, chemistry, and peace. Second, you see what your closest allies think of candidates. You want to be allies together, so it is best if they also respect and get along with your new allies.

Third, if there is a strong leader in your world, you want to know what that leader thinks. Even if this leader says explicitly that you can do anything you like, they don’t care, if you get any hint whatsoever that they do care, you’ll look closely to infer their preferences. And you’ll avoid doing anything they’d dislike too much, unless your alliance is ready to mount an overt challenge.

Fourth, even if there is no strong leader, there may be a dominant coalition encompassing your band or town. This is a group of people who tend to support each other, get deference from others, and win in conflicts. We call these people “elites.” If your world has elites, you’ll want to treat their shared opinions like those of a strong leader. If elites would gossip disapproval of a choice, maybe you don’t want it.

What if someone sets up objective metrics to rate people in suitability for the roles you are choosing? Say an archery contest for picking hunters, or a cobbler contest to pick cobblers. Or public track records of how often healer patients die, or how long cobbler shoes last. Should you let it be known that such metrics weigh heavily in your choices?

You’ll first want to see what your elites or leader think of these metrics. If they are enthusiastic, then great, use them. And if elites strongly oppose, you’d best only use them when elites can’t see. But what if elites say, “Yeah you could use those metrics, but watch out because they can be misleading and make perverse incentives, and don’t forget that we elites have set up this whole other helpful process for rating people in such roles.”

Well in this case you should worry that elites are jealous of this alternative metric displacing their advice. They like the power and rents that come from advising on who to pick for what. So elites may undermine this metric, and punish those who use it.

When elites advise people on who to pick for what, they will favor candidates who seem loyal to elites, and punish those who seem disloyal, or who aren’t sufficiently deferential. But since most candidates are respectful enough, elites often pick those they think will actually do well in the role. All else equal, that will make them look good, and help their society. While their first priority is loyalty, looking good is often a close second.

Since humans evolved to be unconscious political savants, this is my basic model to explain the many puzzles I listed in my last post. When choosing lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, pundits, teachers, and more, elites put many obstacles in the way of objective metrics like track records, contests, or prediction markets. Elites instead suggest picking via personal impressions, personal recommendations, and school and institution prestige. We ordinary people mostly follow this elite advice. We don’t seek objective metrics, and instead use elite endorsements, such as the prestige of where someone went to school or now works. In general we favor those who elites say have the potential to do X, over those who actually did X.

This all pushes me to more favor two hypotheses:

  1. We choose people for roles mostly via evolved mental modules designed mainly to do well at coalition politics. The resulting system does often pick people roughly well for their roles, but more as a side than a direct effect.
  2. In our society, academia reigns as a high elite, especially on advice for who to put in what roles. When ordinary people see another institution framed as competing directly with academia, that other institution loses. Pretty much all prestigious institutions in our society are seen as allied with academia, not as competing with it. Even religions, often disapproved by academics, rely on academic seminary degrees, and strongly push kids to gain academic prestige.

We like to see ourselves as egalitarian, resisting any overt dominance by our supposed betters. But in fact, unconsciously, we have elites and we bow to them. We give lip service to rebelling against them, and they pretend to be beaten back. But in fact we constantly watch out for any actions of ours that might seem to threaten elites, and we avoid them like the plague. Which explains our instinctive aversion to objective metrics in people choice, when such metrics compete with elite advice.

Added 8am: I’m talking here about how we intuitively react to the possibility of elite disapproval; I’m not talking about how elites actually react. Also, our intuitive reluctance to embrace track records isn’t strong enough to prevent us from telling specific stories about our specific achievements. Stories are way too big in our lives for that. We already norms against bragging, and yet we still manage to make our selves look good in stories.

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Why We Believe

Long ago, I first believed in religion as a young kid because I believed what I was told. Then I also believed because religious claims seemed to explain the strong emotions that religious contexts induced. This is how religion works – you feel strong emotions due to candles, buildings, clothes, music, well crafted and button-pushing words, charismatic empathetic leaders, social support and status. And if respected leaders and supporters around you then claim that your emotions are caused by God, well that makes sense. Even though many religious claims are transparently crazy, at least to people who well understand the world, they are easy for the young or inexpert to accept.

Recently while watching an emotional movie with political and moral overtones, I was reminded that the same is true for art. Art can make us feel strong emotions via all the same mechanisms. When high status artists and art supporters around us tell us these emotions are caused by our recognizing the emotional truth of art’s moral, political, and legal claims, that can make sense to us. Yet most of the channels by which art makes us feel emotions are irrelevant to the truth of its key claims. When we come to see this, we usually make excuses and tell ourselves that we aren’t fooled by all that other stuff; we really are just evaluating only the key moral/political/legal arguments. But the many correlations we see between features of art and who is persuaded when make it hard to believe this applies to most people most of the time.

The same likely also holds for essays like this one, or academic papers. While such writings may contain logical arguments, they also transmit writing styles, author charisma, status, and impressiveness, and clues about who supports or opposes them. You might think that you correct for all those influences when you read such writings and evaluate their claims, but the patterns above in religion and art suggest this is unlikely. The fact that people aren’t very interested in the accuracy of their pundits suggests we usually give a high priority to presentation style.

Could we do better? On subjects that have implications for future observations we could use prediction markets. But what about other subjects? Well, we might try to control for presentation variation by having a group of neutral writers rewrite common arguments in a standard style. That is, a single neutral writer could present all the different arguments on some subject, all using the same writing style. Readers of such presentations would have a better chance of drawing conclusions on each subject based on the logic of arguments, instead of writing styles. The fact that we aren’t very interested in these sort of presentations suggests that we aren’t very interested in reducing the influence of other writing style related factors.

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Pretty Smart Healthy Privilege

In our social world, people who are prettier (or hotter) can wear a wider range of clothing and still be seen as socially acceptable. For example, when less pretty people wear especially form-fitting or revealing clothes, they are likely to face social disapproval. They can’t “pull it off.”

Similarly, people who are smarter (or wittier) can talk in conversation about a wider range of topics. If you are not clever or witty, and you bring up a sensitive topic, you are likely to seem awkward and inappropriate, and induce social disapproval. But if you are clever or witty, you can often bring up such subjects in a way that makes people around you laugh and approve.

People who are healthier also have a wider range of socially acceptable activities. People who try to join a group hike or club dance, but who don’t have the energy or coordination to keep up with others, are often frowned upon.

These are three examples of privilege based on familiar kinds of inequality. Not only are these sorts of privilege quite widely accepted, rarely causing much embarrassment or guilt, but we often go out of our way to celebrate and revel in them. In fashion runways, lecture halls, and sporting events we select the most pretty smart healthy people we have, and give them extra attention and approval, thereby increasing social inequality resulting from differences in these features.

An even more dramatic example is inequality based on species. Humans today are gaining huge advantages relative to other species. And most people seem quite okay with celebrating and encouraging these advantages.

When you hear concerns expressed about privilege or inequality, you don’t usually hear these features mentioned. Instead the focus is more often on inequalities tied to income, parental wealth, dominant vs. marginal cultures and ethnicities, rich vs. poor nations, or dominant vs. marginal gender or sexual preferences and styles. Many people seem to find it quite easy to get worked up over privilege and inequality tied to those features.

Now while I can sorta empathize with such resentment and indignation, they don’t feel much more compelling to me that related feelings about the privileges of pretty, smart, or healthy people. Or even humans relative to other species. So while I could sort get behind efforts to mildly reduce the worst extremes caused by all forms of privilege and inequality (or by total inequality, weighing all things), I can’t get behind efforts to focus much more on some forms relative to others.

I have tried to make sense of why people treat these things differently. For example, people seem more concerned about the kinds of inequality that concerned their distant forager ancestors. People seem more eager to express indignation about kinds if inequality would more support more easy grabbing. And people seem more suspicious of inequality resulting from more opaque larger-scale social processes (like labor markets), rather than from more transparent biological and smaller-scale social processes.

But none of these explanations seem to me good reasons to actually worry much more about these kinds of privilege and inequality. Yes disapproved processes like wars, slavery, and theft have contributed substantially to some cultures or sexual styles becoming dominant in our world. But disapproved processes also contribute substantially to some people becoming prettier, smarter, or healthier in our world. And in neither case am I willing to conclude that disapproved processes are the overwhelming cause of such inequality.

As things are counted in today’s political calculus, this apparently makes me a “conservative,” in that I’m less concerned about the sorts of inequalities that greatly concern “liberals.” But I see this less as taking a political position than as remaining uncertain – until I see a good reason to care differently about different kinds of inequality, I’m going to consider them as similar. I see this as like being agnostic about religion. Some people consider a religious agonistic as taking a strong position against religion, and as being almost the same as an atheist. But I think it is worth distinguishing people who take a position against a common view, from people who are uncertain about that view.

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Fundamentalists Are Not Traditionalists

In my last two years of college I rebelled against the system. I stopped doing homework and instead studied physics by playing with equations (and acing exams). In this I was a “school fundamentalist.” I wanted to cut out what I saw as irrelevant and insincere ritual, so that school could better serve what I saw as its fundamental purpose, which was to help curious people learn. I contrasted myself with “traditionalists” who just unthinkingly continued with previous habits and customs.

One of the big social trends over the last few centuries has been a move toward reforming previous rituals and institutions to become more “sincere,” i.e., to more closely align with stated purposes, especially purposes related to internal feelings. For example, the protestant revolution tried to reform religious rituals and institutions toward a stated purpose of improving personal relations with God. (Christian and Islamic “fundamentalists” continue in this vein today.) The romantic revolution in marriage was to move marriage toward a stated purpose of promoting loving romantic relations. And various revolutions in government have been justified as moving government toward stated purposes of legitimacy, representation, and accountability.

In all of these cases advocates for reform have complained about insincerity and hypocrisy in prior practices and institutions. Similar sincerity concerns can be raised about birthday presents, or dinner table manners. Kids sometimes ask why, if gifts are to show feelings, people shouldn’t wait to give gifts until they most feel the mood. Or wait for when the receiver would most like the gift. Kids also sometimes ask why they must lie and say “thank you” when that is not how they feel. Here kids are being fundamentalists, while parents are traditionalists who mostly just want the kids to do the usual thing, without too much reflection on exactly why.

We economists are deep into this sincerity trend, in that we often analyze institutions according to stated purposes, and propose institutional reforms that seem to better achieve stated purposes. For example, in law & economics, the class I’m teaching this semester, we analyze which legal rules best achieve the stated purpose of creating incentives to increase economic welfare.

I’ve been made aware of this basic sincerity vs. tradition conflict by the sociology book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. While its sociology theory can make for hard reading at times, I was persuaded by its basic claim that modern intellectuals are too quick to favor the sincerity side of this conflict. For example, even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other. We’d get a lot fewer presents if people only gave them when in the mood.

Similarly, while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not. Also, my wife, who works in hospice, tells me that people today often reject traditional bereavement rituals which don’t seem to reflect their momentary sincere feelings. But such people often then feel adrift, not knowing what to do, and their bereavement process goes worse.

Of course I’m not saying we should always unthinkingly follow tradition. But I do think our efforts to reform often go badly because we focus on the most noble and flattering functions and situations, and neglect many other important ones.

From Ritual and Its Consequences I also got some useful distinctions. In addition to sincerity vs. tradition, there is also play vs. ritual. This is the distinction among less-practical “as-if” behaviors between those (play) that spin out into higher variance and those (ritual) that spin in to high predictability. Ritual in this sense can help one to feel safe when threatened, while play can bring joy when one doesn’t feel threatened. One can also distinguish between kinds of play and ritual where people’s usual roles are preserved vs. reversed, and distinguish between kinds where people are in control vs. out of control of events.

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More Stories As Religion

Most people who say they are atheist or agnostic still believe in supernatural powers:

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power. While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. …

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

This is plausibly reinforced by fiction, which (as I’ve said) serves similar functions to religion:

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show. (more)

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Gopnik on Religion

We’ve seen a long-run decline in prayer, church attendance, identification with particular religions, and belief in God or the importance of religion. I tend to attribute such trends to increasing wealth. Adam Gopnik agrees:

What if, though, the whole battle of ayes and nays had never been subject to anything, really, except a simple rule of economic development? Perhaps the small waves of ideas and even moods are just bubbles on the one great big wave of increasing prosperity. It may be that the materialist explanation of the triumph of materialism is the one that counts. … The daily miseries of the Age of Faith scarcely exist in our Western Age of Fatuity. The horrors of normal life in times past, enumerated, are now almost inconceivable: women died in agony in childbirth, and their babies died, too; operations were performed without anesthesia… . If God became the opiate of the many, it was because so many were in need of a drug. As incomes go up, steeples come down. … Happiness arrives and God gets gone. “Happiness!” the Super-Naturalist cries. “Surely not just the animal happiness of more stuff!” But by happiness we need mean only less of pain. You don’t really have to pursue happiness; it is a subtractive quality. Anyone who has had a bad headache or a kidney stone or a toothache, and then hasn’t had it, knows what happiness is. The world had a toothache and a headache and a kidney stone for millennia. Not having them any longer is a very nice feeling. On much of the planet, we need no longer hold an invisible hand or bite an invisible bullet to get by. (more)

Even so, almost everyone is religious to some degree:

Most [who say they don’t believe in God] believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

So religion will remain a big influence on the world even if we keep getting richer. And if wealth per person falls a lot, as I forecast, religion may well resurge to near its former levels of importance.

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Joiners v. Middlers

Kelley … traced the success of conservative churches to their ability to attract and retain an active and committed membership, characteristics that he in turn attributed to their strict demands for complete loyalty, unwavering belief, and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle. … [Such] a group limits and thereby increases the cost of non-group activities, such as socializing with members of other churches or pursuing “secular” pastime. …

Seemingly unproductive costs … screen out people whose participation would otherwise be low, while at the same time they increase participation among those who do join. As a consequence, apparently unproductive sacrifices can increase the utility of group members. Efficient religions with perfectly rational members may thus embrace stigma, self-sacrifice, and bizarre behavioral standards. …

When we group religions according to the (rated) stringency of their demands, … [we see that] compared to members of other Protestant denominations, [high-demand] sect members are poorer and less educated, contribute more money and attend more services, hold stronger beliefs, belong to more church-related groups, and are less involved in secular organizations. … Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reveal patterns of interdenominational variation virtually identical to those observed within Protestantism. (more)

I see these tendencies in opinions:

  1. Those with more opinions on some topic categories have more on other categories.
  2. Those with more opinions overall have more extreme opinions on each topic.
  3. Those with more extreme opinions on some topics have more extreme opinions on others.
  4. Those with more extreme opinions are more eager to express their opinions, and vice versa.
  5. Those with more extreme opinions are more eager to join groups and attend their meetings.

(All these could have instead been expressed in terms of less extreme opinions, and “extreme” means noticeably away from the distribution middle.)

One might try to explain these by saying that opinions on a few key topics drive most other opinions. Folks with weak opinions on key topics thus have fewer opinions on other topics, and less interest in expressing opinions or in joining groups to spread the word. Yet there is little evidence that such key opinions exist; most people show little correlation of opinion across topics, or even on the same subject across time.

A more plausible explanation follows the quote above on religion. Religions, ideologies, and other idea-affiliated social groups vary in the level of commitment they ask of members. High commitment groups produce stronger community bonds, and people vary in their taste for such strong bonds. Some folks are “joiners,” with a taste for more strongly bonded groups. Joiners have an induced taste for groups with extreme opinions, and thus an induced taste to have their own more extreme opinions, in order to better fit with stronger groups. Thus joiners tend to let themselves have more opinions and more extreme opinions on many topics.

The opposite group are “middlers,” who prefer to get along mildly well with most everyone, instead of bonding more tightly with a smaller group. Middlers have fewer opinions, fewer extreme opinions, and tend not to join groups that are clearly distinguished by being associated with unusual opinions.

The opinions habits of both joiners and middlers come mainly from social preferences, instead of a preference for belief accuracy. While it isn’t obvious which group is more wrong, it is more obviously wrong to embody the opinion correlations described above.

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Beware Value Talk

Decisions depend on both values and facts. Values are about us and what we want, while (beliefs about) facts are about everything else, especially the way everything else changes how what we get depends on what we do. Both values and facts are relevant to decisions.

But honestly, facts usually matter far more. Yes, sometimes we err by mistaking our values, and sometimes our values are more complex than we realize. But for the vast majority of our decisions, we have a good rough idea of what we value, and most of our decision problem (on the margin) is to figure out relevant facts. (If you review the last ten decisions you made, I think you’ll see this is obvious.)

Even when learning values is important, talking values with others usually helps less. To learn what we value, we mostly just need to try different things out and see how we feel about them. So compared to thinking about values, talking values seems even less useful for informing decisions. That is, we have better ways to coordinate to discover the world we share than to coordinate to learn our individual values. Yet we seem to spend an awful lot of time discussing values. Especially on grand topics like politics, religion, charity, sex/love, the arts, the future, etc., we seem to spend more time talking values than facts. (We also love to drop names on these topics.) Why?

Such topics tend to put us in a far mental mode, and far modes focus us on basic values relative to practical constraints. Which makes sense if far modes function more to manage our social impressions. That is, value-focused talk makes sense if such talk functions less to advise decisions, and more to help us look good. By talking values we can signal our loyalties and the norms we support, and we can covertly hint about norm violations we might overlook. (Dropping names also lets us covertly signal our loyalties.)

This is what bugs me personally about most discussions of grand topics — they are so full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and so empty of info to improve decisions. The modes that we prefer for such topics, such as stories, music, testimonials, and inspirational speeches, are much better for transmitting values than facts. Worse, people love to revisit the same value topics over and over, even though their values rarely change; it is info about facts that change, and so justify revising topics often. Also, the “experts” we prefer on these grand topics are mostly those whose main celebrated credentials are about their values and their abilities to move values, not about their understanding of facts.

I’m glad to be an academic, since our standard mode of talk is better suited to discerning and sharing facts than values. And I’m especially glad to be an economist, since our using a standard value metric lets us focus most of our disagreement on differing views about facts. Of course even so most academic discussion isn’t very well targeted at improving decisions; we are far more interested in getting better credentialed as being impressive. But at least we mostly talk facts.

If you think you are one of the rare folks who actually cares more about making better decisions than about signaling loyalties, and if you wanted to find other like minded folks to work with, I’d think you’d tend to avoid talking values, as that would be a bad sign about your interests. But in fact most folks who say they are the rare ones who care mainly about better decisions, and who take lots of personal time talk about it, seem in fact to spend most of their time talking values. They even tend to prefer the value focused modes and experts. Why are so few folks willing to even pretend to focus on facts?

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Rah Second Opinions

What many people like about being religious is being part of a community built on the idea of being and doing good. They can meet and discuss how to be and do good, share practical tips and sometimes just do good together. That sure can feel great.

What many people dislike about other people being religious is their habit of presuming that if you aren’t religious in their way, you aren’t being or doing good; you are bad. Religious people often prefer similarly religious people to be their teachers, grocers, leaders, etc., because they can’t trust bad people in such roles and shouldn’t support bad people even if they can.

Many non- or otherly-religous folks say they have nothing against doing good, but say it is laughable to presume that people who are religious in your way are actually much better than others. Most religions do little to actually sort people by how much good they are or do; they mostly sort by loyalty, conformity, impressiveness, and local social status. Religions could sort people better if they spent lots of time together doing things most everyone agrees are clearly good, like healing the sick, but that is pretty rare.

My ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsy left this blog in 2009 to start the Less Wrong (LW) blog, which helped seed a growing community that sees itself self-consciously as “rationalists”. They meet online and in person and often discuss how to be more rational. Which is a fine goal. I’ve supported it by listing recent LW posts on the sidebar of this blog, and I’ve attended many LW-based social events. Some high status members of that community now offer (not-free) workshops where they teach you how to be more rational.

As with religion, the main problem comes when a self-described rationalist community starts to believe that they are in fact much more rational than outsiders, and thus should greatly prefer the beliefs of insiders. This happens today with academia, which generally refuses to consider non-academic beliefs as evidence of anything, and with political ideologies that consider themselves more “reality-based.”

Similarly, I’ve noticed a substantial tendency of folks in this rationalist community to prefer beliefs by insiders, even when those claims are quite contrarian to most outsiders. Some say that since most outsiders are quite irrational, one should mostly ignore their beliefs. They also sometimes refer to the fact that high status insiders tend to have high IQ and math skills. Now I happen to share some of their contrarian beliefs, but disagree with many others, so overall I think they are too willing to believe their insiders, at least for the goal of belief accuracy. For the more common goal of acceptance within a community, their beliefs can be more reasonable.

Some high status members of this rationalist community (Peter Thiel, Jaan Tallin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Michael Vassar) have a new medical startup, MetaMed, endorsed by other high status members (Eliezer Yudkowsky, Michael Anissimov). (See also this coverage.) You tell MetaMed your troubles, give them your data, and pay them $5000 or $200/hour for their time (I can’t find any prices at the MetaMed site, but those are numbers mentioned in other coverage). MetaMed will then do “personalized research,” summarize the literature, and give you “actionable options.” Presumably they somehow try to stop just short of the line of recommending treatments, as only doctors are legally allowed to do that. But I’d guess you’ll be able to read between the lines.

Of course that is usually what you pay doctors to do – study your charts and recommend treatment. And if you didn’t trust your main doctor, you could always get a second or third opinion. So why use MetaMed instead? The main evidence offered at the MetaMed site is data on high rates of misdiagnosis and mistreatment in medicine. Which of course means there is room for improvement via second and third opinions. But it doesn’t tell you that MetaMed is a relatively cost effective source of such opinions.

I wrote this post because I know several of the folks involved, and they asked me to write a post endorsing MetaMed. And I can certainly endorse the general idea of second opinions; the high rate and cost of errors justifies a lot more checking and caution. But on what basis could I recommend MetaMed in particular? Many in the rationalist community think you should trust MetaMed more because they are inside the community, and therefore should be presumed to be more rational.

But any effect of this sort is likely to be pretty weak, I think. Whatever are the social pressures than tend to corrupt the usual medical authorities, I expect them to eventually corrupt successful new medical firms as well. I can’t see that being self-avowed rationalists offers much protection there. Even so, I would very much like to see a much stronger habit of getting second opinions, and a much larger industry to support that habit. I thus hope that MetaMed succeeds.

Added 8:45p 23Mar: Sarah Constantin, MetaMed VP of research, replies to this post at Marginal Revolution (!):

Investigating your condition in depth, in the context of your entire medical history, genetic data, and personal priorities, may well turn up opportunities to do better than the standardized medical guidelines which at best maximize average health outcomes. That’s basically MetaMed’s raison d’etre. … Fundamentally the thing we claim to be able to do is give you finer-grained information than your doctor will. …

Robin Hanson seems to be implying that MetaMed is claiming to be useful only because we’re members of the “rationalist community.” This isn’t true. We think we’re useful because we give our clients personalized attention, because we’re more statistically literate than most doctors, because we don’t have some of the misaligned incentives that the medical profession does (e.g. we don’t have an incentive to talk up the benefits of procedures/drugs that are reimbursable by insurance), because we have a variety of experts and specialists on our team, etc. (more)

I was asking why pick MetaMed over ordinary medical specialists. I expect most doctors will disagree strongly with the claims that they don’t give patients personalized attention, only improve average health outcomes, and don’t offer the finest-grain advice available. But they could be wrong, and it would be great if MetaMed could show that somehow. On misaligned incentives, a reason to ask a different ordinary doctor for a second opinion is exactly that they can know they won’t get paid for any treatments they recommend.

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