Too Much of a Good Thing

When people are especially eager to show allegiance to moral allies, they often let themselves be especially irrational. They try not to let this show, but most aren’t very good at hiding it. One cute way to watch this behavior is to ask people if it is possible to have too much of a good thing, or too little of a bad thing. The fully rational answer is of course yes, it is usually possible to go too far in most any direction. But many seem to fear seeming disloyal if they admit this.

For example, I recently gave this poll to my twitter followers:

One of my followers, who has many more followers than I, asked hers a related poll:

While my and Aella’s followers similarly say we do too little on global warming, hers are far more likely to say that isn’t possible to do too much. And my followers who think we do too much tend to be less reasonable in that more of them think it isn’t possible to do too little.

(Note that the third option in Aella’s poll is a logical contradiction: if people actually do too much, surely it must be possible to do too much. )

This seems ripe for a larger more representative poll. Which side is more reasonable in admitting that one could go too far in their direction? And which other kinds of people are more reasonable? How does this can’t-have-too-much effect vary with the topic?

Added 3:30p: If you can understand the first question, on if we do too much or little, you should be able to understand the second question, on if such things are possible. I don’t get how you can be confused about the meaning of the second question, yet can easily answer the first question.

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  • Lord

    There is always a problem interpreting polls. How many believe you are actually interested in facts in an opinion survey? How many find extremal values even interesting? It is however quite easy to dismiss extremal values and replace them with realistic ones, making the question about whether it is politically possible to do too much, which is almost certainly no since their is a heavy bias to do too little.

    • Brian Slesinsky

      I agree, the question is simply too vague for most people to give a coherent answer. Even putting aside politics, is it technically or economically feasible to do too much? This is a question about what alternative scenarios count as “feasible” (which many people will treat as a synonym for “possible”), and people will have different opinions.

      On the other hand, I suspect that if you asked people whether it’s possible for a carbon tax to be too high, most people would say it’s possible, even if they don’t think it’s politically feasible.

      The specific wording of survey questions matters greatly. I wouldn’t trust the results to be robust unless several variations of the question were tested, to make sure it’s not some ambiguity messing up the results.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      See my added to the post.

      • Lord

        The problem is the second question is not really about facts but politics, so to answer it politically is appropriate. Ask a stupid question..

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        The first question is just as much about politics as the second one.

  • Ronfar

    There are always “ridiculous” ways to do too much – deliberately starting a nuclear war in the hopes of nuclear winter cooling the planet, for example – but whether that kind of thing counts as “possible” is a matter of opinion.

  • arch1

    Your 2nd Q is pretty ambiguous, Robin. Take a person who believes that no plausible concerted worldwide effort can avoid horrible temperature rise over the next 200 years. It might seem they should say No. But if they also believe the optimal cost-benefit mitigation strategy has diminishing benefits which are outweighed by its increasing costs at a certain still-feasible point, their answer might instead be Yes. They might also say Yes if they think a *non*-optimal mitigation strategy may be chosen, one which reaches diminishing returns even though the optimal one wouldn’t. There is also ambiguity around physical vs (physical + political) possibility, and around the timeframe to which the question applies.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Take a person who believes that no plausible concerted worldwide effort can avoid horrible temperature rise over the next 200 years. It might seem they should say No. But if they also believe the optimal cost-benefit mitigation strategy has diminishing benefits which are outweighed by its increasing costs at a certain still-feasible point, their answer might instead be Yes.

      But failure to consider the second aspect is precisely what is unreasonable about the No answer.

      Apart for those who simply don’t believe there’s climate change, the question seems like it could be a test question from an Econ 101 course regarding the law of diminishing returns.

      • arch1

        Thanks Stephen. I think that in practice many people will interpret “do too much about” as “overcorrect”, i.e. as a question about whether it is possible to trigger unacceptable global *cooling*. Such a results-oriented interpretation seems both common (impatient manager to complaining employee: “why don’t you stop complaining and *do* something about it?”) and a reasonable question to ask in the context of AGW mitigation discussions.

  • Riothamus

    People are often aware of the signalling value of extreme statements. I would guess the can’t-have-too-much effect is correlated with topics people feel are badly under- or over-valued.

    In other words, the more satisfied they are with the attention a problem gets, the more likely they are to acknowledge you can have too extreme a solution.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    It would be reasonable to deny the possibility of doing too little about climate change if one denies its existence. That creates an asymmetry.

    • Sigivald

      Or if one assumes its existence but assumes (or decides from the models!) that it is of low importance in its impact, or far cheaper to ameliorate*.

      “Do nothing” is certainly a possible decision. Nearly always, in fact, whether or not it’s wise.

      (* If we assume “do … about” is limited to prevention rather than response, that is.)

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I wonder what would constitute “too little” for Robin, given that he thinks amelioration is more efficient than prevention.

  • Philon

    The phrase “doing too much about global warming” seems too vague. Doing something that will reduce the global warming that would otherwise occur clearly comes under the phrase, but suppose we went beyond reducing global warming to zero and brought about actual global cooling: would that be “doing (even) more about global warming”? Arguably, instead it would be doing something that must be separated into two components: (a) reducing global warming (to zero) and (b) reducing global temperatures even further, below where they are now. (I am writing as if “global warming” means a temperature increase relative to the temperature *now*, but if people have in mind some other baseline temperature it can easily be inserted here.) The former would be “doing something about global warming,” the latter would not. If you also thought that global warming is occurring but that the best measures to bring it to zero pass the cost/benefit test, then *relative to these assumptions* we cannot do too much about global warming. (I am also assuming that adopting suboptimal measures to achieve the goal does not count as “doing more” than adopting optimal measures; i.e., that throughout we are, in effect, considering only measures that are maximally efficient.)

    Everyone knows that there are logically possible scenarios in which we could do too much “about” (i.e., to retard or eliminate) global warming. But I suspect that your respondents interpret your question to concern not logical possibility but possibility *relative to well-established facts* about our climatic situation, plus well-established theories in climatology and economics.

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  • Sebastian Nickel

    How little we can do is clearly bounded below. “We should do nothing at all” seems more reasonable than “we should allocate each working hour of every person to fighting GW”.

  • Jacob

    “Possible” is ambiguous. To a mathematician it’s any non-zero probability, to an average person I’m guessing it’s at least 1% probability.

    This survey didn’t include “possible” as an option but does exhibit how probabilistic statements can be ambiguous: https://github.com/zonination/perceptions

    • Curt Adams

      This is my thought. It’s theoretically possible to do too much about global warming, but it’s so far from likely that I might call it “not possible”. It’s like asking whether the Catholic Church will officially repudiate the doctrine of Jesus being literally the son of God. You can say it’s “possible” because there are churches that have said that and the Church leadership is physically capable of saying that, but it’s just not going to happen.

  • arch1

    “I don’t get how you can be confused about the meaning of the second question, yet can easily answer the first question”

    In my case, the answer is that every ambiguity I listed 21 hours ago applies to the second question but not to the first.

  • Sigivald

    What does the “about” mean?

    “Trying to stop it somehow” or “ameliorating its effects on people”?

    (The former’s not happening, meaningfully, short of forcing the developing world to either be poorer, or skipping straight to a huge investment in nuclear power, which powerful hippies hate.

    When Germany decides it’d rather burn coal than Save The Planet, as they’re doing right now, you have no chance of getting India and China to Just Go Solar, guys.

    The latter is not popular, because the former is better for fundraising. I mean, that’s been Lomborg’s stance for, what, nearly 20 years? And for it he gets called a “climate change denier”, despite actively affirming it!

    The issue – in human terms, that is – is not rational, nor are the common responses.)

    • Sigivald

      (Also, the idea that it “isn’t possible to do too much”?

      Taken literally, that’s completely insane; one assumes that they are implicitly leaving out options like “destroy the human race” or “a global police state enforcing stone-age living conditions” as options.

      So we have to decide what the discussion parameters between “not too much” and “unthinkable for the responders” actually are.)

  • JW Ogden

    A co2 tax might be good but the ethanol program is too much.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    This reminds me of Scott’s joke: “Suppose you went back to Stalinist Russia and you said “You know,
    people just don’t respect Comrade Stalin enough. There isn’t enough
    Stalinism in this country! I say we need two Stalins! No, fifty Stalins!”” http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/03/reactionary-philosophy-in-an-enormous-planet-sized-nutshell/

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