Monthly Archives: July 2008

Posting May Slow

Greetings, fearless readers:

Due to the Oxford conference on Global Catastrophic Risk, I may miss some posts – possibly quite a few.

Or possibly not.

Just so you don’t think I’m dead.


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Bias in Political Conversation

University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz’s book "Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy looked at survey evidence as to how often people had conversations with others of differing political viewpoints.  In her words:

One logical conjecture would be to expect this form of political behavior to be much like any other.  In other words, it would be disproportionately the province of well-educated, high-income populations.  Indeed, the frequency of general political discussion tracks closely with these characteristics of high socioeconomic status.  But the correlates of cross-cutting conversation are strikingly different.  As shown in Figure 2.3, there are clear patterns of difference with respect to race, income, and education, but they are not in the usual directions.  Nonwhites are significantly more likely to engage in cross-cutting political conversation than whites.  And as income increases, the frequency of disagreeable conversations declines.   Exposure to disagreement is highest among those who have completed less than a high school degree and lowest among those who have attended graduate school.

As sociologist William Weston notes in discussing Mutz’s findings:

I can testify to how easy it is for conversation among academics, the most educated group of people, to turn into a one-position echo chamber. Liberalism is taken to be an IQ test, and the rare conservative is encouraged to be quiet or go elsewhere. For political disagreement I go to the coffee house, which in our town draws a broader range of people than the faculty club contains.

Of course, one explanation would be that what looks like herd behavior and social conformity is really just what happens when a bunch of superior intellects independently settle on the objectively correct viewpoint.  But that’s rather a self-serving explanation, isn’t it?

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Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Fiction

One of my pet topics, on which I will post more one of these days, is the Rationalist in Fiction.  Most of the time – it goes almost without saying – the Rationalist is done completely wrong.  In Hollywood, the Rationalist is a villain, or a cold emotionless foil, or a child who has to grow into a real human being, or a fool whose probabilities are all wrong, etcetera.  Even in science fiction, the Rationalist character is rarely done right – bearing the same resemblance to a real rationalist, as the mad scientist genius inventor who designs a new nuclear reactor in a month, bears to real scientists and engineers.

Perhaps this is because most speculative fiction, generally speaking, is interested in someone battling monsters or falling in love or becoming a vampire, or whatever, not in being rational... and it would probably be worse fiction, if the author tried to make that the whole story.  But that can’t be the entire problem.  I’ve read at least one author whose plots are not about rationality, but whose characters are nonetheless, in passing, realistically rational.

That author is Lawrence Watt-Evans.  His work stands out for a number of reasons, the first being that it is genuinely unpredictable.  Not because of a postmodernist contempt for coherence, but because there are events going on outside the hero’s story, just like real life.

Most authors, if they set up a fantasy world with a horrible evil villain, and give their main character the one sword that can kill that villain, you could guess that, at the end of the book, the main character is going to kill the evil villain with the sword.

Not Lawrence Watt-Evans.  In a Watt-Evans book, it’s entirely possible that the evil villain will die of a heart attack halfway through the book, then the character will decide to sell the sword because they’d rather have the money, and then the character uses the money to set up an investment banking company.

Continue reading "Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Fiction" »

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Fear, God, and State

A stunning hypothesis from the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

High levels of support often observed for governmental and religious systems can be explained, in part, as a means of coping with the threat posed by chronically or situationally fluctuating levels of perceived personal control. Three experiments demonstrated a causal relation between lowered perceptions of personal control and … increased beliefs in the existence of a controlling God and defense of the overarching socio-political system.  A 4th experiment showed … a challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to increased illusory perceptions of personal control. … A cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal control are associated with higher support for governmental control.

It seems we hope a stronger and more benevolent God or State will protect us when feel less able to protect ourselves.  I’d guess similar effects hold for medicine and media – we believe in doc effectiveness more when we fear out of control of our health, and we believe in media accuracy more when we rely more on their info to protect us.  Can we find data on which beliefs tend to be more biased: confidence in authorities when we feel out of control, or less confidence in authorities when we feel more in control?

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Probability is Subjectively Objective

Followup toProbability is in the Mind

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away."
        — Philip K. Dick

There are two kinds of Bayesians, allegedly.  Subjective Bayesians believe that "probabilities" are degrees of uncertainty existing in our minds; if you are uncertain about a phenomenon, that is a fact about your state of mind, not a property of the phenomenon itself; probability theory constrains the logical coherence of uncertain beliefs.  Then there are objective Bayesians, who… I’m not quite sure what it means to be an "objective Bayesian"; there are multiple definitions out there.  As best I can tell, an "objective Bayesian" is anyone who uses Bayesian methods and isn’t a subjective Bayesian.

If I recall correctly, E. T. Jaynes, master of the art, once described himself as a subjective-objective Bayesian.  Jaynes certainly believed very firmly that probability was in the mind; Jaynes was the one who coined the term Mind Projection Fallacy.  But Jaynes also didn’t think that this implied a license to make up whatever priors you liked.  There was only one correct prior distribution to use, given your state of partial information at the start of the problem.

How can something be in the mind, yet still be objective?

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Rebelling Within Nature

Followup toFundamental Doubts, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, No Universally Compelling Arguments, Joy in the Merely Real, Evolutionary Psychology

"Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it."
        — T. H. Huxley ("Darwin’s bulldog", early advocate of evolutionary theory)

There is a quote from some Zen Master or other, who said something along the lines of:

"Western man believes that he is rebelling against nature, but he does not realize that, in doing so, he is acting according to nature."

The Reductionist Masters of the West, strong in their own Art, are not so foolish; they do realize that they always act within Nature.

You can narrow your focus and rebel against a facet of existing Nature – polio, say – but in so doing, you act within the whole of Nature.  The syringe that carries the polio vaccine is forged of atoms; our minds, that understood the method, embodied in neurons.  If Jonas Salk had to fight laziness, he fought something that evolution instilled in him – a reluctance to work that conserves energy.  And he fought it with other emotions that natural selection also inscribed in him: feelings of friendship that he extended to humanity, heroism to protect his tribe, maybe an explicit desire for fame that he never acknowledged to himself – who knows?  (I haven’t actually read a biography of Salk.)

The point is, you can’t fight Nature from beyond Nature, only from within it.  There is no acausal fulcrum on which to stand outside reality and move it.  There is no ghost of perfect emptiness by which you can judge your brain from outside your brain.  You can fight the cosmic process, but only by recruiting other abilities that evolution originally gave to you.

And if you fight one emotion within yourself – looking upon your own nature, and judging yourself less than you think should be – saying perhaps, "I should not want to kill my enemies" – then you make that judgment, by…

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Ask For Help

From a new study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

People underestimated by as much as 50% the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help, across a range of requests occurring in both experimental and natural field settings. … Experimentally manipulating a person’s perspective (as help seeker or potential helper) could elicit this underestimation effect. … Help seekers were less willing than potential helpers were to appreciate the social costs of refusing a direct request for help.

We don’t like to ask for help, men especially, because asking threatens our status.  Believing that others won’t help lets us "sincerely" avoid asking.

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Fundamental Doubts

Followup toThe Genetic Fallacy, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom

Yesterday I said that – because humans are not perfect Bayesians – the genetic fallacy is not entirely a fallacy; when new suspicion is cast on one of your fundamental sources, you really should doubt all the branches and leaves of that root, even if they seem to have accumulated new evidence in the meanwhile.

This is one of the most difficult techniques of rationality (on which I will separately post, one of these days).  Descartes, setting out to "doubt, insofar as possible, all things", ended up trying to prove the existence of God – which, if he wasn’t a secret atheist trying to avoid getting burned at the stake, is pretty pathetic.  It is hard to doubt an idea to which we are deeply attached; our mind naturally reaches for cached thoughts and rehearsed arguments.

But today’s post concerns a different kind of difficulty – the case where the doubt is so deep, of a source so fundamental, that you can’t make a true fresh beginning.

Case in point:  Remember when, in the The Matrix, Morpheus told Neo that the machines were harvesting the body heat of humans for energy, and liquefying the dead to feed to babies?  I suppose you thought something like, "Hey!  That violates the second law of thermodynamics."

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Biases of Elite Education

From a thoughtful essay by William Deresiewicz:

An elite education … makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely – indeed increasingly – homogeneous.  … My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. … Elite universities … select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. … social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. … There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. … Students … get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State.  ..

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The Genetic Fallacy

In lists of logical fallacies, you will find included "the genetic fallacy" – the fallacy attacking a belief, based on someone’s causes for believing it.

This is, at first sight, a very strange idea – if the causes of a belief do not determine its systematic reliability, what does?  If Deep Blue advises us of a chess move, we trust it based on our understanding of the code that searches the game tree, being unable to evaluate the actual game tree ourselves.  What could license any probability assignment as "rational", except that it was produced by some systematically reliable process?

Articles on the genetic fallacy will tell you that genetic reasoning is not always a fallacy – that the origin of evidence can be relevant to its evaluation, as in the case of a trusted expert.  But other times, say the articles, it is a fallacy; the chemist KekulĂ© first saw the ring structure of benzene in a dream, but this doesn’t mean we can never trust this belief.

So sometimes the genetic fallacy is a fallacy, and sometimes it’s not?

The genetic fallacy is formally a fallacy, because the original cause of a belief is not the same as its current justificational status, the sum of all the support and antisupport currently known.

Yet we change our minds less often than we think.  Genetic accusations have a force among humans that they would not have among ideal Bayesians.

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