Monthly Archives: June 2007

Applaud Info, Not Agreement

Bryan Caplan makes the point:

Almost everyone takes this for granted, but it still freaks me out: Audiences in presidential debates applaud just because a candidate says something they agree with.  … Audiences are giving speakers powerful psychological incentives to conceal any information that challenges their beliefs. Why not just hold up big signs that say: "TELL US WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR"?

Yup. 

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Risk-Free Bonds Aren’t

I’ve always been annoyed by the term "risk-free bonds rate", meaning the return on US Treasury bills.  Just because US bonds have not defaulted within their trading experience, people assume this is impossible?  A list of major governments in 1900 would probably put the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary well ahead of the relatively young United States.  Citing the good track record of the US alone, and not all governments of equal apparent stability at the start of the same time period, is purest survivorship bias.

The United States is a democracy; if enough people vote for representatives who decide not to pay off the bonds, they won’t get paid.  Do you want to look at recent history, let alone ancient history, and tell me this is impossible?  The Internet could enable coordinated populist voting that would sweep new candidates into office, in defiance of prevous political machines.  Then the US economy melts under the burden of consumer debt, which causes China to stop buying US bonds and dump its dollar reserves.  Then Al Qaeda finally smuggles a nuke into Washington, D.C.  Then the next global pandemic hits.  And these are just "good stories" – the probability of the US defaulting on its bonds for any reason, is necessarily higher than the probability of it happening for the particular reasons I’ve just described.  I’m not saying these are high probabilities, but they are probabilities.  Treasury bills are nowhere near "risk free". 

Continue reading "Risk-Free Bonds Aren’t" »

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Adam Smith on Overconfidence

The over-weening conceit which the greater part of men have of their own abilities, is an ancient evil remarked by the philosophers and moralists of all ages. Their absurd presumption in their own good fortune, has been less taken notice of. It is, however, if possible, still more universal. There is no man living who, when in tolerable health and spirits, has not some share of it. The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men under-valued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth. …

The contempt of risk and the presumptuous hope of success, are in no period of life more active than at the age at which young people chuse their professions. How little the fear of misfortune is then capable of balancing the hope of good luck, appears still more evidently in the readiness of the common people to enlist as soldiers, or to go to sea, than in the eagerness of those of better fashion to enter into what are called the liberal professions.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 10, paragraphs 29 and 32.  (Hat tip to Econtalk.)

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Ethics, Applied Vs. Meta

During my recent visit to Oxford I had occasion to talk to many philosophers who do applied ethics, and who do meta-ethics.  They confirmed for me these two facts:

  1. Applied ethicists pursue their work, trying to coordinate views on specific moral conclusions and general moral principles, as if there were no study of meta-ethics or moral psychology.
  2. Meta-ethicists, and also I presume moral psychologists, see their work as quite relevant for the applied ethics.

These two communities thus seem to disagree on the relevance of meta-ethics (and probably also moral psychology) to applied ethics.  This disagreement could be attributed to bias on either side – to increase their autonomy and importance, academic fields may well be biased to see other fields as less relevant to theirs, and to see theirs as more relevant for others.  But as usual in a dispute, at least one of these communities must be very wrong. 

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Wandering Philosophers

Philosophy is the "miscellaneous" academic discipline.  Once upon a time all abstract topics were philosophy, dealt with by a common set of methods, which made it relatively easy to relate any two topics.  Then one by one various academic disciplines broke away, gaining advantages of focus and a topic-specific mix of methods, at the expense of more difficulties relating topics across disciplinary boundaries.   

Philosophy now deals with the hardest topics, that no other discipline wanted to take away, and applies general methods – mostly clarifying claims and identifying the arguments that connect them.  The more ambitious I get intellectually, the more I find myself crossing paths with philosophers.  But as I do so the more puzzled I am to see  philosophical practice mostly avoid a standard general method: concise summary claims.

To me, an ideal paper first clearly and concisely states a claim it will defend, in its title and abstract.  The introduction quickly reviews the context and restates the claim, summarizing its supporting argument.  The body of the paper makes good on those promises, filling out the detail, clearly flagging all required assumptions.  And then the conclusion restates the claim and argument and points to further implications.  This standard approach gives readers full warning, so that they can lookout for rhetorical tricks favoring the claim.

In contrast, most philosophy papers today have no abstract.  They instead start by introducing a topic or question, and then they critique other philosophers’ views on it.  As unsatisfactory views are discarded, new views may be proposed and also discarded, and the question may be rephrased.  The author’s preferred phrasing and answer is usually only described near the end of the paper, and then with only moderate detail or attention to counter arguments. 

I presume there must be important advantages of this style, but still don’t see how the advantages can outweigh the disadvantages.

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Randomly Review Criminal Cases

This Slate article suggests that prosecutor Mike Nifong’s unethical actions in the Duke Lacrosse case might not be that unusual among prosecutors.  The article argues that the only reason Nifong’s unethical behavior was uncovered was because the Duke case generated an extraordinary amount of scrutiny.

I propose that we randomly select a few criminal cases for intensive review.  The review would give us an indication of how honest prosecutors are and would provide some deterrence against unethical prosecutorial conduct.

Over 90% of criminal cases settle through plea bargaining.  These cases never reach trial.  So, as the Slate article points out, any prosecutorial misconduct that might have occurred in these cases would almost certainly go undetected.  For my proposal to succeed plea bargained cases would have to be eligible for random intensive review.

Ideally, at least one person participating in the review would have subpoena power.  But if the government was unwilling to go along with my random review idea, private organizations could conduct it by themselves.  Each year, for example, law schools could randomly select, say, 30 criminal cases that were concluded in the past year.  These schools could then have their students investigate every aspect of the case to determine if justice was done.

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Functional Is Not Optimal

If you look at what a random animal is doing at a random time, you will usually find a complex behavior, with many correlated parts.  Similarly if you look at a random physical part of an animal, you will find a complex structure, with many correlated parts.  The best way to make sense of such structures is usually to look for the functions they might perform, i.e., the way that they might contribute to survival and reproduction, now or in the past, of the animal or its parasites.  Sure, some structures are "spandrel" side effects of other functional structures, but (at the aggregate level) most are not. 

This, however, does not at all imply that most such structures are anything close to optimal, giving the best possible outcomes.  Consider that when we transplant plants or animals to a new continent, they often handily out-compete existing species.  This could not happen if the existing species were close to optimal.  Often their structures worked in the past, but have not adapted enough to changing context. 

It is similar for most human organizations.  A good way to understand what a random organization is doing at a random time, or to understand a random part of its physical or communication structure, is to ask how such structures once functioned to help the organization or its parasites to survive or grow.  But this hardly means that every organization is optimal; many are clearly dinosaurs losing to new rivals. 

A lot of human behavior does not immediately make sense in terms of survival and reproduction.  We sing, dance, joke, worship, collect, chatter, decorate, party, dribble, travel, argue, blog, and much more.  With a little thought, we can come up with functional explanations, such as signaling theories, for most of this behavior.  Many people, however, reject such explanations, saying functional explanations would imply human behavior is optimal, which it is clearly not.  Thus, they argue, odd human behavior must instead be due to random mistakes, spandrels, or our changing environment. 

This "head in sand" attitude is so contrary to what we know about animals and organizations that I have to conclude that not only is it seriously wrong, but that humans seem built to self-deceive about the functions of their behavior.  While our behavior may be far from optimal, there is surely a detailed correspondence between our behavior and the functions they perform.  But we prefer to be innocently unaware of the signals our behavior functions to send and receive.

From a lunch conversation with Mike Makowsky, Bryan Caplan, and Alex Tabarrok.

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Were people better off in the middle ages than they are now?

G. K. Chesterton writes, at the end of his celebrated book on George Bernard Shaw:

I know it is all very strange.  From the height of eight hundred years ago, or of eight hundred years hence, our age must look incredibly odd.  We call the twelfth century ascetic.  We call our own time hedonist and full of praise and pleasure.  But in the ascetic age the love of life was evident and enormous, so that it had to be restrained.  In a hedonist age pleasure has always sunk low, so that it had to be encouraged. 

How high the sea of human happiness rose in the Middle Ages, we now only know by the colossal walls that that they built to keep it in bounds.  How low human happiness sank in the twentieth century our children will only know by these extraordinary modern books, which tell people that it is a duty to be cheerful and that life is not so bad after all.  Humanity never produces optimists till it has ceased to produce happy men. 

It is strange to be obliged to impose a holiday like a fast, and to drive men to a banquet with spears.  But this shall be written of our time:  that when the spirit who denies beseiged the last citadel, blaspheming life itself, there were some, there was one especially, whose voice was heard and whose spear was never broken.

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Selling Overcoming Bias

I recently met a Brit who studies the psychology of environmentalism.  Quick summary:  To get people to act on environmental ideals, first make those beliefs salient, such as by making salient an in-group identity associated with the environment.  For example, you might remind a Brit that Americans (the out-group) are less environmental than Brits (the in-group).  Second, in such a moment of weakness, get people to declare their intention to take certain specific environmental actions, such as recycling each plastic bottle they use.  Third, remind them of this intention when that action is to be taken, such as by having recycle logos near trash cans. 

Can we apply this to overcoming bias?  While at the most abstract level many people will point out general advantages of bias, once you get to particular topics it is rare to hear someone say approvingly that their beliefs on that particular topic are biased.  So our ideal of overcoming bias has very wide support at this middle level.  But once we get down to the level of the particular thoughts people have at particular moments, their devotion to overcoming bias tends to disappear; they can’t be bothered to actually overcome their biases.

Thus, like environmentalism, overcoming bias is an ideal for which people are more likely to declare moderately abstract support than to display moment-to-moment adherence.  So could mechanisms similar to those used by environmentalists be useful in trying to get people to live up to their anti-bias ideals?  What would be the relevant in-groups, action declarations, and local reminders?

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Tell Me Your Politics and I Can Tell You What You Think About Nanotechnology

Ronald Bailey has a column in Reason where he describes the results of the paper Affect, Values, and Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions by Dan M. Kahan, Paul Slovic, Donald Braman, John Gastil, Geoffrey L. Cohen. The conclusion is that views on risks of nanotechnology are readily elicited even when people know that they do not know much about the subject and these views become strengthened along ideological lines by more facts. Facts do not matter as much as values: people appear to make a quick gut feeling decision (probably by looking at the word "technology"), which is then shaped by their ideological outlook. Individualists tend to see the risks as smaller than communitarians. There are similar studies showing the same thing about biotechnology, and in my experience the same thing happens when the public gets exposed to discussions about human enhancement.

The authors claim that this result does not fit with "rational weigher" models where people try to maximize their utility, nor with "irrational weigher" models where cognitive biases and bounded rationality dominates. Rational  individualists and communitarians ought not differ on their risk evaluations, and the authors claim it is unlikely that different cultural backgrounds would cause differing biases. They suggest a "cultural weigher" model where individuals don’t simply weigh risks, but rather evaluate what one position or another on those risks will signify about how society should be organized. When people learn about nanotechnology or something similar, they do not update instrumental risk probabilities but develop a position with respect to the technology that will best express their cultural identities.

This does not bode well for public deliberations on new technologies (or political decisions on them), since it seems to suggest that the only thing that will be achieved in the deliberations is a fuller understanding of how to express already decided cultural/ideological identities in regards to the technology. It does suggest that storytelling around technologies, in particular stories about how they will fit various social projects, will have much more impact than commonly believed. Not very good for a rational discussion or decision-making, unless we can find ways of removing the cultural/ideological assumptions of participants, which is probably pretty hard work in deliberations and impossible in public decisionmaking. 

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