Rah Arrogance

A month ago I wrote:

Would be innovators must now combine two risky decisions:

  1. What innovative ideas or projects are ripe and promising to purse now?
  2. Who is best placed or skilled to attempt the realization of each idea?

People who pitch project ideas to venture capitalists often focus on convincing them of #1, idea quality, not realizing that if you convince them of that but not #2, your team quality, they will just steal your idea and give it to another better team. Usually they hear from several teams pitching pretty similar concepts, so they are judging mainly on team quality. Knowing this, sophisticated innovators tend to neglect idea quality, and focus on team quality.

Alas, academics similarly pay much more attention to what teams and projects might achieve prestigious publications on currently fashionable topics, than to which topics should be fashionable, for intellectual progress and social value. Individual academic incentives are to publish well on current fashions, predict future fashions, and perhaps to nudge fashion toward topics where they can more easily publish.

There is little academic prestige in arguing that currently fashionable topics aren’t especially socially useful. Those who now publish in such areas know who they are and will oppose you, while those who would publish more in new areas, if they became fashionable, mostly don’t know who they are.

When other academics visit GMU econ, one of the most consistent and striking differences I notice is how few of them will say much about how their research fits into a bigger picture of what academia or the world needs overall. Even when directly asked. I’m proud that my colleagues usually have much more to say here. Why are we different? Perhaps we are arrogant, thinking highly of our own contributions. If so, I salute such arrogance. With it, at least some academics think of the big picture.

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  • Doug

    A Hayekian counter argument:

    Many more people should be focused on 2. rather than 1. If people focus on getting the small detail rights and accepting and optimizing around the general social consensus of the big picture, than the “right direction” for the big picture will naturally emerge and become clear from the balance of the many many small decisions.

    In general people are much more suited to capturing and utilizing local knowledge rather than predicting large-scale trends. There are a hell of a lot more clearly talented and value-adding local knowledge than there are consistently correct global big picture decision makers. Compare how many more successfully specialized entrepreneurs, industry analysts and domain experts there are against futurists, global macro traders, or technology revolutionaries.

    The big picture decisions usually have much more to do with getting the small details right and weighing the millions of aggregated costs and benefits, rather than requiring the super-incisive analysis of brilliant “renaissance men.”

    • mjgeddes

      Yes, the big picture is very very hard to get right working from the top-down. You need ‘super clicker’ intuition to do this succesfully, and even then, expect to spend years speaking gibberish before finally being able to clearly state all the correct general principles… case in point, me 😉

      Unfortunately, I suspect most of the big picture ‘answers’ given by the good folks at GMU econ (no disrespect intended guys) are just plain flat-out wrong… just like our erst-while friends at Sing Inst and their august ‘solutions’ for FAI. *cough* *chuckle* *cough*

      The ‘big picture’ is far mode, and we all know just how unreliable and prone to ideology and bias far mode is. Like I said, ‘super clicker’ intuition is needed, clearly, I’m one of the rare few that has it. Why am I different?

      • I would go farther and say it is impossible to get the big picture from the top down. The correct big picture has to have everything correct all the way to the bottom. The only way that can be done is to start from the bottom and work up.

        The way that social power hierarchies work, people at the top have the power, and they use that power to maintain the social power hierarchy with them at the top. The social power hierarchy they construct and enforce is only “correct” in so far as their enforcement defines it to be “correct”. A good example is the Divine Right of Kings. Because God determined the characteristics of individuals at birth, the first born male heir of the King was chosen by God to be the next King. People believed this because if they didn’t, the King would kill them.

        Humans really want and are compelled to generate a social power hierarchy with some people at the top and others at the bottom. The more power one has, the greater the compulsion to acquire more power and to use what power one has to acquire more. This is why the wealthy are always trying to acquire more wealth. It is harder to get it from other rich people, so they get it from poor people even though the poor people don’t have as much.

        Arrogance is a signal that one has power and is not afraid to use it to thwart any attempt to usurp it. It is only about social power and has nothing to do with being correct. When you are correct, it is not arrogant to assert that you are correct, it is merely truthfulness. The arrogant are unable to appreciate this.

        FAI is a deus ex machina. It is the attempt to “win” by creating a mechanical god with essentially infinite power. It won’t work (even if it was technically possible which it isn’t) because those at the top of the human social power hierarchy won’t let it.

      • mjgeddes

        By clearly distinguishing levels of abstraction its possible to work from the ‘top down’. The reason it’s so hard to speak sense working from the top-down is because ones vocab lacks the right concepts – working from the top down is largely about developing the correct ontology (the specification of new concepts and the logical relationships between them in the domain/s of interest). So the ‘super clicker’ has the ability to make the correct categorizations and hence see the relationships or analogies between different domains that allow them to ‘carve reality at the joints’ in the most effective manner.

        Cutting edge academic research requiring one to see the big picture (such as developing FAI ) boils down to a direct ‘super-clicker’ contest between the competing researchers. A powerful enough ‘super clicker’ can indeed over-throw an old social hierarchy and install a new one.

      • I completely disagree. Seeing a “big picture” is only useful if it is a correct big picture and you can’t know if that specific “big picture” is correct until all the details have been worked out. There are some degrees of freedom that can allow development of details that are compatible with a specific “big picture”, but there may be details that completely preclude a specific big picture.

        A “big picture” that requires something we know to be impossible, such as perpetual motion, action at a distance, time travel, or a logical contradiction isn’t going to be realizable. Individuals may postulate such a “big picture”, and that “big picture” may even come to dominate the social power hierarchy, but such a “big picture” was always and remains nonsense. The power of the social hierarchy may be able to enforce acceptance of a delusional “big picture”, as for example what many religions have done and what many politicians are doing now. An example of this is Stockholm Syndrome where a victim has the delusion that the perpetrator “loves them”, even as the perpetrator beats the crap out of her. Someone who beats the crap out of you doesn’t love you, but your brain may force you to have that delusion to avoid being killed.

        The major premise of FAI (which I think is wrong) is that an entity of a specific intelligence x can create an entity of higher intelligence x+y and verify that the entity is of higher intelligence and also verify that the entity has an acceptable utility function. The only way that something can be observed (an entity has intelligence x+y) is with pattern recognition. If the pattern recognition of entity x is limited to complexity x, it will be unable to analyze any pattern to greater resolution than x (which will take 100% of its computational resources). It will be unable to resolve the complete complexity of pattern x+y. It won’t be able to tell if pattern x+y has more or less of the property called “intelligence” than pattern x.

        If entity with intelligence x can’t make an entity with intelligence x+y, then entity with intelligence x+y can’t make an entity with intelligence x+y+z. The whole “Singularity” concept collapses.

        I think the reason humans have difficulty appreciating this is because they confuse “intelligence” with position on the social hierarchy and have as their default the idea that anyone higher than them has more of what ever it takes to be higher. This is the essence of groupthink. When agreeing with people higher on the social hierarchy is important for advancement, agreement is what gets selected for, not being actually correct.

        You are postulating a “super clicker” intuition that replaces the facts that come from the bottom up with the oracle of the “super clicker” intuition. With all due respect, that is nonsense. Identifying someone with a correct “super clicker” intuition from someone with an incorrect “super clicker” intuition requires someone with a “super-duper clicker” intuition.

        The definition I use for intuition is a non-algorithmic method for arriving at an answer when there is insufficient data or computational resources to use an algorithmic method (by algorithm I am meaning something like what a Turing machine does, the manipulation of facts with logic). An algorithmic method can always be checked, so it can be known to be correct. An intuitive method can’t be checked. If it could be checked it would be algorithmic.

      • mjgeddes

        Actually, super-clicker intuition can be perfectly sufficient to validate super-clicker intuition. The buck can stop there, no meta-intuition required. And the implementation of ‘intuition’ can still be wholly algorithmic, ‘intuition’ just means that the algorithm cannot be validated by formal methods alone.

        It makes perfect sense in light of all the puzzles Hanson has pointed out. Suppose more than one type of intelligence exists, near mode intelligence (rational intelligence, inductive reasoning, as measured by ‘g’/IQ) and far mode intelligence (creative intelligence, analogical inference, ‘super clicker’ intuition to see big picture).

        If we imagine that both types of intelligence were independent, that would account for all the puzzles Hanson mentions, where apparently very smart academics had all enormous cognitive blindness in particular areas. We can imagine that most academics have above average near mode rational intelligence, but aren’t ‘super-clickers’, that is, they lack far mode intuitive intelligence.

      • Ah no. Using intuition to justify intuition, superclicker or otherwise is circular reasoning. You can look at entrails to justify looking at entrails too, that doesn’t make looking at entrails valid.

        There is no such thing as “g”. That is a myth.


        Look especially at footnote 2.

        Trying to calculate g from n tests is invalid. You have n individual test weighting factors and the overall g to calculate n+1 variables but you only have n equations. The system is indeterminate and so can have infinitely many solutions. IQ researchers simply pick the solutions that give them the answers that they want.

        I appreciate that many researchers in the IQ field are unable to appreciate this because in their heart of hearts they know that IQ is real, they can measure it, and some people have more of it than others, and that it highly correlates with race, and is lower in those that are the race that the IQ measurers are not. It is no more valid than the idea that the Earth is 6,000 year old and that Noah had all the animals in a boat for a year.

        If you can’t “show your work”, then you can’t know if it is correct or not. You might believe it to be correct, but if you have any intellectual integrity you will acknowledge that beliefs (even your own) can be mistaken.

  • Robert Koslover

    In case you are curious, for proposals for R&D work to be funded by the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the US Government typically states that they will will be judged on the following three factors, in the following order of importance (excerpts below):

    a. The soundness, technical merit, and innovation of the proposed approach…
    b. The qualifications of the proposed principal/key investigators, supporting staff, and consultants…
    c. The potential for commercial (Government or private sector) application and the benefits expected to accrue from this commercialization…

  • Buck Farmer

    What drives fashionable ideas? Doesn’t appear to be purely internally reinforcing momentum since academic fashion changes like fashion everywhere.

    Picking up from Doug, a lot of small local nudges makes sense particularly if you think of academia as many many very small tournaments in separate subspecialities. There ought to be fairly gradual shifts.

    However, if you want to look at cross-specialty global fashion, then global tournament winners can shove trends around. Shifts should be larger and more chaotic.

    So is academia more localized or globalized? Is it one tournament or many insulated tournaments?

    How do external factors like Reality and non-academic Society interact with the existing institutional structure? How high is the Ivory Tower?

    Academia concentrates its risk in social approbation and eliminates risk around structural change by having very fixed peer-driven institutions…could basic research be supported by institutions that shifted the risk allocation away from peer recognition?

  • DK

    I’m proud that my colleagues usually have much more to say here. Why are we different?

    Because you are so smart and everyone else is so stupid.

    • Buck Farmer

      Naw. It’s good looks and youthful appearance.

    • What’s the pellet here? The satisfaction of attacking a challenger to the alpha male?

      • “pellet”?

    • “pellet” -what moved DK’s animal spirits?

  • J Storrs Hall

    “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”
    –Nicolo Machiavelli

  • Cyan

    Odd that this post is entitled “Rah Arrogance” and not “Rah Big Picture”.

    • Because arrogance is easy to see, a big picture is not.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Very much agreed. “Rah Big Picture” would have been a much closer match to the contents of this post.

  • the quiet one

    When other academics visit GMU econ, one of the most consistent and striking differences I notice is how few of them will say much about how their research fits into a bigger picture of what academia or the world needs overall. Even when directly asked. I’m proud that my colleagues usually have much more to say here. Why are we different?

    Why indeed?

  • Hyena

    GMU might have just gotten a high enough concentration of big picture faculty at some point to permanently shape hiring. Its relative prestige might play a role in sustaining that practice; it may be less interested both in maintaining or extending prestige because moves in either direction are likely to be small.

  • Qualified praise of arrogance, couched in terms of dissidence, from John Derbyshire here.