Info As Excuse

When we try to justify our actions, we prefer to do so by citing a common general good that results from our actions. But of course we often have other stronger motives for our actions, motives that we are less eager to highlight.

One big category of examples here are info justifications. When we endorse a policy, we often point out how it may tend to encourage info to be generated, spread, or aggregated. After all, who could be against more info? But the details of the policies we endorse often belie that appearance, as we pick details that reduce and discourage info. Because we have other agendas.

For example:

  1. We say free speech is to elicit more better info, but for that it should instead be free hearing.
  2. We say meetings are to gain info, but they are more to show who controls, who allied with whom.
  3. We say we hire college grads because of all they’ve learned, but they don’t learn much there.
  4. We say court proceedings are to get info to decide guilt, but then rules of evidence cut out info.
  5. We say managers are to collect info to make key decisions, but they are more motivators and politicians.
  6. We say diverse groups are good as they get diverse info, but most kinds don’t, they just make distance.
  7. We say voting is to get info on better policies, but the better informed don’t get more votes.
  8. We say voting is to get info on better policies, but we don’t use random juries of voters, who would get more info.
  9. We say we travel to learn, but we can usually learn lots cheaper at home.
  10. We say we read news to gain useful info, but very little of it has much use to us.

Have more good examples?

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  • TheBrett

    2. I always figured they were management’s way of making sure that you’re Doing Something (same with all the unread reports), but that makes sense too.

    3. Mostly true, especially when you look at the earnings – people with “associates/some college” don’t make much more than people with “high school diploma only”, versus people with at least a bachelor’s. That seems like signaling to me.

    8. Come to think of it, why don’t we use completely randomized juries? It makes no sense in fairness terms that we should allow prosecution and defense to try and screen the jury pool for people they don’t like, and then have it come down to who did a better job vetoing jury members.

    • IMASBA

      The Netherlands does not use juries at all, only judges.

    • Peter David Jones

      Signalling what, how relevantly and how effectively? Finishing college signals ability to see things through, up to a point.

      • IMASBA

        It also signals socio-economic attitudes (including propensity for self control and crime) and intelligence (sure you don’t have to be a genius to finish college, but when you consider that officially a sixth of the population has an IQ below 85 even non-university college graduates suddenly become more attractive as employers), this of course in addition to all those majors that really teah you something relevant to the job or that are even essential to perform the job.

      • TheBrett

        That and a certain level of writing/organization skills.

  • This seems something of a buckshot argument, inasmuch as none is well-supported. (This is one reason for rules of evidence in law–the illusion of strong argument can be maintained by multiplication of reasons.)

    I would prefer that Robin commit himself, for consideration in depth by commenters, to one or two that he thinks strongest.

    • Michael Bishop

      Stephen, Your point about the first amendment is excellent so I appreciate more along similar lines. But you don’t explicitly state that whether or how you disagree with Robin’s central claim: that policies are justified based on their supposed tendency to generate/aggregate information despite serving other purposes. I guess it’s fine to make the meta comment, but if you’re going to criticize the type of post Robin is making it’d be nice if you shared your own beliefs on the central claim of the post.

      Similarly regarding prediction markets, do you disagree that they do genuinely help aggregate information? No doubt the success and perceived success of prediction markets is good for Robin academically and professionally, but since it seems obvious that prediction markets help aggregate information I have to ask if you’re arguing in good faith.

      See my other comment for my own views.

      • since it seems obvious that prediction markets help aggregate information I have to ask if you’re arguing in good faith

        I don’t see myself as qualified to have an opinion on whether prediction markets would help aggregate information. I only point to the drawbacks in information cost that Robin ignores–as you do implicitly. (I discuss this in a recent thread.)

        I’m more confident that a prediction-market society isn’t one I’d care to live in: I don’t think making profit by hoarding information brings out the best in man. So the ultimate differences go deep, and they don’t relate that much to information aggregation–they do relate to forager versus farmer values (one of Robin’s themes).

        Of course I agree that we justify things morally that we want for other reasons, and information aggregation, being regarded as a social good, is used for justificatory purposes. But Robin’s examples fail to make the case, each easily explainable otherwise. I think this is because “information aggregation” just isn’t a primeval human value. It isn’t usually one of the main justifications. (In fact, Robin has been somewhat original in locating information aggregation as a fundamental issue in politics.)

        Insofar as information aggregation can serve as justification, there’s reason to suspect that advocates of prediction markets, since they are expressly aimed at information aggregation. I think Robin focuses on the wrong kind of signaling to see this. His examples imply that we justify by information aggregation arrangements (like meetings) that serve our other wants (like hierarchy). But advocacy of prediction markets, in my view, serves a different kind of signaling function: the advocacy itself serves as a signal. What does it signal? Confidence in being right. Only if you’re confident that you’re more right than others would you want to bet in a prediction market. (And those who are against them are in the position of refusing institutions compelling them to put their money where their mouth is.) Confidence in being right is indeed a primeval good (itself signaling actually being right), well-suited for being a signaling target.

        Thanks for your direct feedback: such is very helpful.

      • brendan_r

        “I’m more confident that a prediction-market society isn’t one I’d care to live in: I don’t think making profit by hoarding information brings out the best in man.”

        Speaking of values and the effects on individuals of prediction markets:

        I’ve gambled since I was ~12 years old if you count fantasy football; fantasy sports, poker, pro sports, investing. There are three aspects of gambling that I love:

        1) Endless debate triggers me. Debate w/ out hard incentives to mean what you say is like baseball w/ out an umpire. Betting is a conflict resolver. Had your say? Fine, state your terms. That satisfies me enormously.

        2) Gambling hones rationality. It puts a little voice in the back of your head that says, “if you don’t know more than the other guy shut your mouth!”. It shifts your attention from big fashionable problems to low-hanging fruit. The fundamental rule of all gambling is to find a space you know best, and add your 2 cents.

        3) It nudges thinking from a “persuasive” mode, which comes naturally, to a truth-seeking one.

        Anyway, that’s the background I come from; undoubtedly it influences by optimism about prediction markets.

        I’m sure folks with many negative gambling experiences see prediction markets differently.

  • Michael Bishop

    I agree with Robin’s basic point, people have agendas and they advocate for them by appealing to more socially acceptable goals such as information gain. But to me this post gives the impression that institutions can/should be explained by their performing a single function. Institutions are compromises (as Robin surely knows) – just because institution A aggregates info more effectively than B doesn’t mean that the existence of A has nothing to do with information aggregation, it just means there are other (often less idealistic) factors involve as well.

    • I suggest that info aggregation is usually a minor function, as shown by how easily other considerations overrule it for determining details.

      • Michael Bishop

        Each potential but unrealized improvement in info aggregation shows there is a margin on which other goals dominate, but it seems to me harder to infer about how things work inframarginally… I suppose I need to do the next steps of asking how to do inframarginal analysis in this context and whether it really suggests anything more heart-warming than the marginal analysis suggests. Your thoughts always appreciated.

      • While clever infra-marginal analysis might reveal surprising, it seems to me that in the absence of that one should presume that it would reveal similar priorities to those shown by the more visible clues seen at the margin.

      • Really? Marginal utility is a clue to inframarginal utility? I would have thought the relationship between the marginal and inframarginal would be an object of some empirical study, but impressionistically, they seem independent, even negative. Some of the most valuable goods inframarginally are extremely cheap at the margin: air is free.

  • brendan_r

    Steve Sailer observes that pre-civil rights Blacks supported civil service exams, but opposed them later. Exam objectivity was a plus when Blacks were discriminated against, but a negative in the affirmative action era.

    We IQ test soldiers; we run NFL prospects through intrusive gauntlets of exams; yet the most rigorous testing we apply to politicians are debates structured to enable sticking to rehearsed scripts.

  • brendan_r

    Organizational travel (biz trips) to share info. Herbert Simon’s Travel Theorem:

    “Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year’s duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library. San Diego is not essential; you can substitute any other major city. (I conceived of the theorem when I was about to go to India, where I was supposed to acquire expertise in Indian management education and a good tan–in San Diego, I could have acquired both.) The theorem holds in spades if the traveler does not have a fluent knowledge of the language of the country visited.

    So most American adults, long before the grasp their first passport, have had contact with a wide range of human cultures. If they have been at all observant (if not, they will be no more so abroad), they will have learned what a peasant is, and what are his feelings toward the possession of land; they will have heard the political views of a blue-collar worker; they will have glimpsed the life of a Midwestern born-again Christian; they will have observed the flittings of Beautiful People, and the diligent journeys of salesmen.

    The theorem was discovered during a period when I was advising the Ford Foundation about its programs in management education. whevever the Foundation was considering a new program in a foreign land, it would send out an an American expert to survey the scene in two weeks and return with recommendation. The expert need not have any background of knowledge about the country to be visited–only about, for example, American management education, if that was the topic. The procedure was so obviouisly ridiculous that the travel theorem came to me in an immediate Aha!”

    • Yes, travel is a good example of something that is often justified in info terms, but where that doesn’t withstand further scrutiny. I’ll add it to the list.

    • IMASBA

      Bad example: it’s one thing to read about something, it’s another to get hit in the face by it. Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone who travels gains useful knowledge or even sets out to do that (there are a lot of people who just use that as an excuse to get travel money).

  • orthonormal

    I sure don’t say that we use voting to gain info; we use voting to ensure a nontrivial-to-game incentive structure for politicians. And your suggestions #7 and #8 both appear more susceptible to gaming than one-person-one-vote.

    • I don’t see what games you could have in mind.

    • IMASBA

      One function of democracy only needs the people to believe the system works to be effective. It’s often overlooked in our day but the fact that modern democracies do not have Game of Thrones/Roman style successions of leaders is in large part because the people see only people who won elections (or have ridiculous popular support) as legitimate for more than a very short period.

  • Great post, but as I wrote here (, what’s wrong with hypocrisy per se? Like everything else, is there not an “optimal level” of hypocrisy?

    • I point out the hypocrisy here, but don’t actually criticize it much. Do you worry I’ve exceeded the optimal amount of pointing out of hypocrisy?

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  • noname

    We say we read or watch the news to be informed, but it’s more a kind of entertainment in most cases.

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  • David Tufte

    It’s off the economics topic, but on for use of language:

    George Carlin joked that when planes almost hit each other we call it a “near miss” when in fact it’s a “near hit”.

    • It is “nearly a hit”, but among the misses it is much nearer than average.