Monthly Archives: February 2013

Personal experimentation: I’m wrong?

I’ve been wondering why experimentation seems worthwhile. I’ve given some explanations in my last few posts. The last category of explanations to consider are the ones in which my judgement is wrong. Where experimentation seems worth it because I don’t see the costs, or because I overestimate the benefits.

A lot of the cost from experimentation is plausibly nebulous and hard to account for well in a simple explicit analysis. Life can’t run smoothly on habits when they are always in flux. Mental effort is used up in keeping track. Every new thing takes a little while to do well, and to integrate into your lifestyle.

It’s easy count the costs of living in Oxford for a month in airfares and flight times, and forget the freezing afternoon you might spend negotiating to reclaim your foreign credit card from an ATM that ate it. Or the hassle of urgently buying boots, or of running up the high street looking for a working internet connection to finish your Skype call, or the sleep loss due to alien fire alarm policies at the college where you are staying. It seems to me that I have tended to underestimate such costs in the past substantially.

I mentioned in earlier posts some reasons I might overestimate the benefits. Innovation is less worth finding if it is quickly obsoleted by context specificity or further innovation. Informal data collection seems to see benefits too easily in every change. Nerds may underestimate the wisdom embodied in tradition. The first of these seems unlikely, given my experience. The others seem dangerous, but I do guard against them.

One might also overestimate the benefits if one is motivated to do so. Being willing to try new things is a telling sign about a person, or often taken to be one. Often it is a sign you should want to send. This hypothesis is supported in my case by the observation that many people I know seem to find experimentation particularly useful. However I rarely talk about this kind of stuff, and feel a bit silly when I do. Which doesn’t fit a signaling hypothesis well. Though this blog sequence undermines my claims some.

One might also be biased by other motivations. For instance if you badly hope that life can get much better, it might be hard to accept a route to that which involves sitting by and waiting when there are so many ways to aggressively search. I admit I would probably have some trouble accepting that this is as good as it gets, but I think I would at least be aware of discomfort around the topic if this was what was going on. So this seems unlikely to account for the observation.

To me underestimating the hidden costs seems by far the biggest danger.

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Beware Far Values

In the last four years I’ve posted often on construal level theory. First discovered in the context of how differently people think about the distant future, construal level theory says that people think either using a near (concrete) mode, or a far (abstract) mode, or some intermediate mix. In far mode we tend to assume things are further away in time, space, social distance, with fewer relevant categories that are each more uniform internally. In near mode we do the opposite. There are lots more correlates.

I’ve talked before a bit about how this biases our thoughts about the future, and on politics. Today I want to focus on a particularly important element: in far mode we emphasize basic values a lot more, relative to practical constraints; in near mode we do the opposite.

Consider some very near choices: if to scratch your nose, how soon to browse Facebook yet again, what to eat for lunch, or if to hit that snooze alarm again. Near mode could bias us toward paying too much attention to practical constraints in such choices, relative to basic values. But it is hard for me to see that we actually neglect basic values that much in such choices.

But if we basically get the practicality vs. values tradeoff right for near choices, and if we pay a lot more attention to basic values for far choices, then either basic values are in fact a lot more important for far choices, or we vastly over-emphasize basic values for far choices. And since I can’t see good reasons why basic values should in fact matter a lot more for far choices, I conclude that in far mode we are greatly biased to attend too much to basic values, and too little to practical constraints.

This certainly fits my more detailed opinions on large scale policy and the future. You have to pay attention to an awful lot of detail in order to figure out which policies are best, or what is likely to actually happen in the distant future. But most people seem to quickly form opinions on such topics using simple value associations. When they can identify a clear value association, people seem pretty willing to form opinions, which seems to me a vastly overconfident attitude.

Now when different people have opposing values on some topic, the average of their opinions isn’t necessarily too far in any one value direction. If some folks focus on the value of citizen freedom, while others focus on the value of reducing crime, we don’t necessarily get too much freedom or crime. It is when people largely share the same values that things seem to go the most wrong.

For example, when everyone agrees on the importance of medicine or education, or military defense, we get way too much of each of them. When futurists generally agree the democracy is good, we get too much confidence that nice futures will be democratic, or that non-democratic futures will be hells.

Really folks, think about all the details that are relevant for your ordinary near choices of when to knock off of work for the day, whether to plant a garden this year, or who to invite to a party. All those far choices of national policy have just as many if not more relevant details. And if you think about all the details relevant for guessing if you will like taking on a new task at work, realize that there are far more details relevant to deciding if you would like any particular distant future scenario. The world is complicated!

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Freedom to comment isn’t free

The standard policy for blogs and online forums is for everyone to be free to add comments unless they repeatedly violate rules against swearing or personal abuse. In the past I have taken this approach on my personal blog and Facebook profile and so only blocked a handful of people over many years. This policy ensures that all comments, even those judged negatively by the original author, can be found somewhere in the resulting thread. But it has some major downsides, and I now wonder if it was a mistake.

People who write outrageous things and get banned never last long enough to do much harm. The real damage is done by frequent commenters who are uninformed, thoughtless, long-winded, mean-spirited or uncharitable. I have inadvertently wasted a lot of time over the years reading and responding to the resulting comments. While I could ignore them, that allows incorrect claims or poor character to go unchallenged. Even if I knew I were wasting my time doing this, obnoxious comments preoccupy me and lower my productivity whether directed at me or others. Many readers start scanning comment threads and I imagine they can find the experience similarly draining.

The worst case scenario is the ‘comment thread death spiral’. The best comments typically come from those whose time is most valuable: busy professionals who actively study or work in a given field. But comments threads are naturally dominated by those who spend much of their life on the internet commenting on blogs and often bring no particular expertise. Each foolish comment lowers the signal-to-noise ratio and reduces the attention good comments receive. This wastes everyone’s time. But it is particularly particularly annoying for ‘busy but informed’ commenters who barely have time to read the original post, let alone wade through lengthy comment threads. They realise their remarks will be crowded out by others, or they will have to wrangle with uninformed responses, and rationally opt out. As a result, bad comments disproportionately drive away the best ones. The average quality of comments falls and the cycle repeats. This partly explains the negative correlation between the quantity and quality of comments between blogs.

Despite the damage they do, most authors refuse to warn or block those who leave lousy comments because they do not violate social norms, and in most cases mean no harm. It is impossible to set up clear rules to specify which comments are helpful and which are not. Instead, the author must exercise a lot of responsibility and discretion, which they do not want to do because it is time-consuming and opens them up to conflict and criticism.

A nice alternative is up- and down-voting, which has worked well on Reddit and Less Wrong. This allows (anonymous) readers to notify everyone else about whether something is worth reading before they bear the cost of doing so. Modules for this are tricky to set up, and rely on a large, active and intelligent audience of voters. But they are invaluable and ought to be the default. A simpler option would be ‘highlighted comments’, which would let the author pin the best comments at the top of the page.

Where those options are unavailable, should we worry about authors choosing which comments, or commenters, remain on their websites? I think not. Most writers want to offer readers a good experience in order to attract more of them. When choosing commenters they will bear this in mind, just as they do when choosing the content of original posts. If you find their writing worthwhile out of the millions of blogs and books available, you can probably also trust them curate comments effectively if given the chance. Where they don’t, you can seek responses elsewhere or vote with your feet and read someone else. Personally, I feel that the benefit of not having my time wasted vastly outweighs the risk that I will be prevented from reading good responses, or have my own removed.

We don’t let strangers without interesting things to say interrupt and talk over conversations with friends and colleagues. We invite the people we want to our seminars, parties, and so on. Despite some drawbacks this model works pretty well, and it should be acceptable online more than it is today.

Update: a similar point made by someone familiar.

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Is US gun control an important issue?

After the shocking massacre in Connecticut it looks like gun control is going to draw a lot of attention from Obama and Congress this year. This got me thinking about how important gun control might be as a political cause. The potential good achieved by focussing on this policy is in large part determined by the damage done by guns in the first place. In that light, does it deserve it?

A natural measure of the importance of the problem is the number of years of healthy life lost due to gun violence. At  the moment there are a bit over 8,000 murders with firearms each year in the US, some two thirds of the total. If we guess that the typical age of death from gun violence is 30, then the average survivor would have enjoyed another 50 years or so of healthy life. Firearm homicides would than lead to the loss of 400,000 years of healthy life each year. We would then have to add health problems among survivors of gun violence. To confirm that these figures are sensible I looked up the World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease, which suggest ‘intentional violence’ as a whole cost the US and Canada about 1,100,000 years of healthy life each year. Two thirds of this would be 650,000 years, a figure which amounts to about 0.8% of the total burden of disease and injury in the US.

Another even larger problem than murder – at least as far as years of healthy life lost – is suicide. Easy access to guns makes suicide attempts more likely to succeed. The US suicide rate is 12 per 100,000; tragically high, though sadly unexceptional by international standards. If the typical suicide victim would have lived another 45 healthy years, this amounts to an annual burden of 1,600,000 each year, roughly the WHO’s figure. [1]  Firearms are used for about half of these suicides, so we’ll say they have a burden of 800,000 years of healthy life, or about 1% of the total burden of disease and injury.

How much could the US hope to reduce these figures? Of course the relationship between the number of guns and violence is contested, and I don’t really want to get drawn into that debate. I will just assume, for the sake of argument, that gun control policies could indeed help reduce violence. For that purpose, let’s imagine it could get firearm violence and suicide down to the average of other OECD countries. [1] Doing so would reduce the gun death rate (and I will assume injuries too) by 80% from ~10 to ~2 per 100,000. This is wildly optimistic given the other drivers of violence and suicide in the US, and the timidity of any likely gun control laws under the Second Amendment. Even if guns did become hard to access, we would expect to see substitution to other weapons. Nonetheless, it offers a useful upper bound.

An 80% drop in firearm deaths and injuries would prevent the loss of 1.15 million years of healthy life each year, or around 1.4 per cent of all the damage done by disease and injury in the US. This falls inconveniently between ‘very little’ and ‘quite a bit’. How can we put this figure in perspective? One option would be to consider how much people claim to value their lives, while another would be to compare it to other available options for saving lives. Here I will use the latter to give some idea of how focussing on gun control compares to other policies or causes that might improve the health of Americans.

How much does it cost to save a life in the US?  The NHS in Britain conveniently uses £30,000 (around $US50,000) for each year of healthy life as the highest price at which a treatment is worth funding. The US has no central body for making these decisions, so no generic ‘marginal cost’ exists. A conclusion of the classic paper, Five-hundred life-saving interventions and their cost-effectiveness, is that the cost of extending lives varies across several orders of magnitude depending on the approach you take. Nonetheless, many interventions in medicine and general safety fell between $5-50,000 for a year of life, at least in the mid-90s. A quick search turns up vaccination of US girls against HPV, which buys a year of healthy life for about $44,000, total knee arthroplasty for $18,300, HIV screening for under $25,000 and flu vaccination at $8,000-52,000. The availability of all of these could be expanded. At a rounded $50,000 figure, the equivalent of 1.15 million years of healthy life could be saved for $57 billion, or 0.38% of US GDP – a significant sum, though under a fifth of long run annual growth. By comparison, the US Federal Government already spends about 24% of US GDP, and all healthcare spending accounts for some 15%. Based on Robin’s work on the inefficacy of much US healthcare spending, redirecting some of that enormous budget to truly life-saving activities would go a long way.

If American activists or voters currently preoccupied with gun control were willing to look farther afield in their desire to prevent unnecessary death, directing government spending to provide bed nets to protect children in developing countries against malaria could save 30,000 kids for a meagre $70 million, or 0.00000046% of GDP. Sadly, the effectiveness and size of US foreign aid is barely discussed.

Of course this health story is not the full picture of the damage done by gun violence. We ought also consider the:

  • Costs incurred in trying to stay safe
  • Costs of caring for the injured
  • Loss of human capital from adults dying
  • Resulting distress and fear
  • Reduced urbanisation as a result of crime (which lowers productivity, among other things).

I would appreciate attempts to quantify these costs but don’t have time to pursue them myself right now. I would note in passing that many other interventions that improve health and safety would also reduce these harms to some extent.

My interpretation of the above is that gun violence is a serious issue in the US. It is not being blown out of proportion like shark attacks or terrorism. At the same time, the impact of guns on US health-span is modest, and lower than many common and avoidable diseases or accidents which fail to inspire a national conversation. Guns have become a hot issue because of their grisly and visible results, as well as fierce identity politics, rather than the absolute scale of the damage they do. If the main goal of gun control advocates were to save lives, their cause would not stand out as low-hanging fruit, especially if they cared about foreigners as well as Americans. Given the host of major problems facing the US, the limited attention of Congress and the White House, and the improbability of achieving a significant reduction in the number of dangerous weapons available, it is not a cause I would jump on.

[1] Some would say that a death by suicide isn’t as bad as a murder, because someone who is preventing from committing suicide probably has a low quality of life. There is some truth to this but I will ignore it, consistent with my desire to define an upper bound.

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The SAEE: who was right?

Bryan Caplan argues that economists mostly agree with one another, compared to the general public, and reports results from the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy (SAEE):

The leading correlates of economists’ disagreement are political-ideology and, to a lesser extent, party affiliation. Liberal Democratic and conservative Republican economists disagree in expected ways about taxes, regulation, excessive profits and executive pay, and some employment-related issues. Conservative economists are also markedly more optimistic about the country’s economic future. Note, however, that there is little evidence of an ideological divide over the economy’s past or present performance. Economists
across the political spectrum can largely agree about the path of inequality, real income, and real wages over the past two decades.

I don’t find agreement about the past very comforting: the point of economic advice is to deliver good consequences in the future. However, I would point out that disagreements about predictions are an opportunity for retrospective assessment. Indeed, when Bryan’s paper was published, in 2002, the 5 year timeline of the predictions had already come and gone. But there’s nothing stopping us from checking now. [Note, I prepared this post up until this point with the intention of posting it before peeking at the data.] Results below the fold.

Continue reading "The SAEE: who was right?" »

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Real Drama

I’ve now seen all nine of the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees. rates Zero Dark Thirty highest at 95, but gives second highest at 94 to my favorite, Amour. (Intrade gives Argo, rated 84, a 72% chance, and Lincoln, rated 86, a 23% chance, to win.)

There’s an apt old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Which highlights the fact that while we like stories with drama, we don’t actually want drama in our lives. If you ignore the very end, and the fact that the characters are very high status artists, Amour is quite realistic and by far the drama most likely to actually be experienced by many of you. Which is why most folks don’t like it, because they don’t actually want to see realistic ordinary drama.

Amour is about a women who gets sick and then dies. I was stuck by the fact that what most bothered her and her husband were the insults to her pride. They could mostly handle the pain, the drudgery, and the loss of opportunity. But the loss of status, oh that stung.

I was struck by something similar lately while reading the classic Studs Terkel book Working, in which dozens of ordinary workers tell how they feel about their jobs. While they sometimes complain about being bored or tired, they seem mostly ok with this. What really bothers them is when other people don’t give them as much respect or pay as they think they deserve. Again, it is status that seems to drive them most.

I found this quote interesting:

I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to. (Studs Terkel, Working)

I’d guess that if building makers could get this if they were willing to take a 5% pay cut to pay for it, and that it doesn’t happen because such workers don’t want it that much. Anyone know how much of a pay cut people take to get their name in the credits of a movie? How much of a pay cut to get your name shown as author of a novel? Do artists care more about getting visible public credit more than construction workers? If so, why?

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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