Monthly Archives: December 2017

Automatic Norm Lessons

Pity the modern human who wants to be seen as a consistently good person who almost never breaks the rules. For our distant ancestors, this was a feasible goal. Today, not so much.To paraphrase my recent post:

Our norm-inference process is noisy, and gossip-based convergence isn’t remotely up to the task given our huge diverse population and vast space of possible behaviors. Setting aside our closest associates and gossip partners, if we consider the details of most people’s behavior, we will find rule-breaking fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We seem to live in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin, with most people getting away unscathed with most of it. At the same time, we also suffer so many overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply.

Norm application isn’t remotely as obvious today as our evolved habit of automatic norms assumes. But we can’t simply take more time to think and discuss on the fly, as others will then see us as violating the meta-norm, and infer that we are unprincipled blow-with-the-wind types. The obvious solution: more systematic preparation.

People tend to presume that the point of studying ethics and norms is to follow them more closely. Which is why most people are not interested for themselves, but think it is good for other people. But in fact such study doesn’t have that effect. Instead, there should be big gains to distinguishing which norms to follow more versus less closely. Whether for purely selfish purposes, or for grand purposes of helping the world, study and preparation can help one to better identify the norms that really matter, from the ones that don’t.

In each area of life, you could try to list many possibly relevant norms. For each one, you can try to estimate how it expensive it is to follow, how much the world benefits from such following, and how likely others are to notice and punish violations. Studying norms together with others is especially useful for figuring out how many people are aware of each norm, or consider it important. All this can help you to prioritize norms, and make a plan for which ones to follow how eagerly. And then practice your plan until your new habits become automatic.

As a result, instead of just obeying each random rule that pops into your head in each random situation that you encounter, you can actually only follow the norms that you’ve decided are worth the bother. And if variation in norm following is an big part of variation in success, you may succeed substantially more.

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Automatic Norms in Academia

In my career as a researcher and professor, I’ve come across many decisions where my intuition told me that some actions are prohibited by norms. I’ve usually just obeyed these intuitions, and assumed that everyone agrees. However, I only rarely observe what others think regarding the same situations. In these rare cases, I’m often surprised to see that others don’t agree with me.

I illustrate with the following set of questions on which I’ve noticed divergent opinions. Most academic institutions have no official rules to answer them, nor even an official person to which one can ask. Professors are just supposed to judge for themselves, which they usually do without consulting anyone. And yet many people treat these decisions if they are governed by norms.

  1. What excuses are acceptable for students missing an assignment or exam?
  2. If a teacher will be out of town on a class day, must a substitute teacher always be found or can classes sometimes be cancelled? How often can this be done?
  3. Is there any limit on how much extra help or extra credit assignments teachers can offer only to particular students?
  4. Should students be excused for misunderstanding questions due to poor understanding of English?
  5. Is it okay in college to teach students to just remember and then spit back relatively dogmatic statements, instead of trying to teach them how to think about more complex problems?
  6. Is it okay to assign a final exam, but then toss the exams and give out final grades based on all prior assignments?
  7. Is it okay to give all grad students A grades, and to praise all their papers as brilliant, as a way to compete to get students to pick you as their PhD advisor?
  8. Is it okay to lecture while stumbling drunk?
  9. Must you cite the work that actually influenced your work if it is lowbrow like blogs, wikipedia, or working papers, or if it is outside your discipline?
  10. Can you cite prestigious papers that look good in your references if they did not influence your work?
  11. Is it okay to write as if the first work of any consequence on a topic was the first to appear in a top prestige venue, in effect presuming that lower prestige prior work was inadequate?
  12. Should you cite papers requested by journal referees if you don’t think them relevant?
  13. How much searching is okay, searching in theory assumptions or in statistical model specifications, in order to find the kind of result you wanted? Must you disclose such searching?
  14. Is it okay to publish roughly the same idea in several places as long as you don’t use the exact same words?

I expect the same holds in most areas of life. Most detailed decisions that people treat as norm-governed have no official rules or judges. Most people decide for themselves without much thought or discussion, assuming incorrectly that relevant norms are obvious enough that everyone else agrees.

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10 Implications of Automatic Norms

My last post observed that we seem to have a meta-norm that norm application should be automatic and obvious. We are to just know easily and surely which actions violate norms, without needing to reflect on or discuss the matter. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. If true, this has many implications:

1) We rarely feel much need to think about or discuss with others whether our own behavior violates norms. We either feel sure that we are innocent, or we feel at risk of being guilty. If we end up being seen as guilty, we’d rather be able to claim that we forgot, were distracted, or were overcome by passion. Any evidence that we discussed or thought carefully about the choice would instead suggest that we consciously choose to be guilty.

2) We aren’t much interested in ethics and misbehavior discussion or training for the purpose of helping us to figure out what to do personally. We may, however, be interested in using such things as a way to show others that we are devoted to good norms, and that we despise those who violate them. We are far more interested in norm preaching than learning or analysis.

3) We feel justified in accusing others of bad motives when they seem to us to violate norms. It seems to us that either they intended to be guilty, or they were inexcusably sloppy or lacking in control of their passions. We usually don’t need to wonder how they framed the situation, what norms they applied, or how they interpreted those norms. Of course we may not feel obligated to point out their violation, but we’d feel justified if we did.

4) We feel justified in describing those who claim to disagree with us about particular cases as either stupid or mean, or perhaps lacking a proper moral upbringing. With a proper upbringing, they are probably trying to excuse what they know to be their own guilty behavior.

5) We actually face a high risk of framing effects when interpreting particular acts as norm violating. We first learn norms by examples, and then we later apply learned norms to new examples. In both situations the result can depend on the particular examples, their context, and how we framed all this in our minds. If these were the main cognitive processes that produced norm application, then we’d all need to learn from a lot of pretty similar examples in order to reasonably have much confidence that we were all applying the same norms the same way.

6) In a relatively simple world with limited sets of actions and norms, and a small set of people who grew up together and later often enough observe and gossip about possible norm violations of others, such people might in fact learn from enough examples to mostly apply the same norms the same way. This was plausibly the case for most of our distant ancestors. They could in fact mostly be sure that, if they judged themselves as innocent, most everyone else would agree. And if they judged someone else as guilty, others should agree with that as well. Norm application could in fact usually be obvious and automatic.

7) Today however, there are far more people, and more intermixed, who grow up in widely varying contexts and now face far larger spaces of possible actions and action contexts. Relative to this huge space, gossip about particular norm violations is small and fragmented. So it isn’t very plausible that we’ve all converged on how to reliably interpret most norms in most contexts. Thus today we must quite frequently make different judgements on whether actions violate norms. We may converge in judgement with our closest associates and gossip partners, at least on our most common topics of gossip. But for everyone else, if we consider the details of most of their behavior, we will find fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We are usually sure that we are innocent, but in fact that’s not how many others would categorize us.

8) We must see ourselves as tolerating a lot of norm violation. We actually tell others about and attempt to punish socially only a tiny fraction of the violations that we could know of. When we look most anywhere at behavior details, it must seem to us like we are living in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin. Compared to the ancient world, it must seem a lot easier to get away for a long time with a lot of norm violations. Selection effects in who chooses to complain about which violations, and which violations others are willing to punish, may seem plausibly to make a big difference to who actually gets punished how much.

We must also see ourselves as tolerating a lot of overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply. They may not complain out loud about us each time, but we know that they often judge us privately as violating norms, and for no good reason from our point of view. They should just butt out, we think.

9) Random effects of who frames which particular actions as norm violating or not may contribute substantially to who succeeds or fails overall. Some people don’t see a serious violation, and then find themselves punished for what they consider a triviality. They conclude someone had it in for them. Others see a serious potential violation, and pay substantial costs to avoid it, when they in fact faced little risk of punishment. Compared to the ancient world, today larger gains go to those with the social savvy to discern what norm violations others can more easily observe and are likely to punish, and the moral flexibility to act on that savvy.

10) Many norms apply only to particular professions, and are mainly intended to protect outsiders from those professionals. For example, norms about how teachers should treat students, or how bankers should treat customers. Strong competition to become a professional can easily select for those with the ambition and social savvy to pretend to follow all such norms, but to only actually follow the norms with sufficient enforcement. Outsiders may then consistently be fooled to mistakenly believe that these professionals follow certain norms, as those outsiders believe that they would naturally follow such norms, if they had been assigned to be such a professional.

In the next posts: examples of all this, and life lessons to learn from it.

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Automatic Norms

Some new ideas I want to explain start with a 2000 paper on Taboo Tradeoffs. (See also newer stuff.) So I’ll review that paper in this post, and then I’ll explain my new ideas in the next post.

In Experiment 2 of the 2000 paper, each of 228 subjects were asked to respond to one of 8 scenarios, created by three binary alternatives. All the scenarios involved:

Robert, the key decision maker, was described as the Director of Health Care Management at a major hospital who confronted a “resource allocation decision.”

Robert was either asked to make a tragic tradeoff, where two sacred values conflicted, or a taboo tradeoff, where a sacred value was in conflict with a non-sacred value. The tragic tradeoff:

Robert can either save the life of Johnny, a five year old boy who needs a liver transplant, or he can save the life of an equally sick six year old boy who needs a liver transplant. Both boys are desperately ill and have been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of the shortage of local organ donors, only one liver is available. Robert will only be able to save one child.

The taboo tradeoff:

Robert can save the life of Johnny, a five year old who needs a liver transplant, but the transplant procedure will cost the hospital $1,000,000 that could be spent in other ways, such as purchasing better equipment and enhancing salaries to recruit talented doctors to the hospital. Johnny is very ill and has been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of dire shortage of local organ donors, obtaining a liver will be expensive. Robert could save Johnny’s life, or he could use the $1,000,000 for other hospital needs.

Robert was said to either find this decision easy or difficult:

“Robert sees his decision as an easy one, and is able to decide quickly,” or “Robert finds this decision very difficult, and is only able to make it after much time, thought, and contemplation.”

Finally, Robert was said to have chosen to save Johnny, or to have chosen otherwise. Subjects were asked to rate Robert’s decision and describe their feelings about it in 8 ways. They were also asked to make 3 decisions on actions regarding Robert, including dismiss from job, punish, and end friendship. Using factor analysis all these responses were combined into an outrage factor, mainly weighted on 6 of the ratings and feelings, and a punish factor, mainly weighted on the 3 actions. These factors were on a 1-7 point scale. Here are the average factor values for the eight possible scenarios:

In the case of a taboo tradeoff, Robert is less likely to be punished for saving Johnny than for not.  We have a strong social norm against trading sacred things for non-sacred things, and Robert is to be punished if he violates this taboo. When Robert makes a sacred tradeoff, it is as if he must violate a norm no matter what he does. In this case, he is punished much more if he treats this as an easy choice; norm violation must be done in a serious thoughtful manner.

However, when Robert makes a taboo tradoff, he is punished much more if he treats this as a difficult choice. In fact, he is punished almost as much for saving Johnny after much thought as he is for not saving Johnny after little thought! It is worse to do the wrong thing after careful thought than after little thought.

Years ago, this result helped me to understand the political reaction when in 2003 my Policy Analysis Market (PAM) was accused of trying to let people bet on terrorist deaths.

PAM appeared to some to cross a moral boundary, which can be paraphrased roughly as “none of us should intend to benefit when some of them hurt some of us.” (While many of us do in fact benefit from terrorist attacks, we can plausibly argue that we did not intend to do so.) So, by the taboo tradeoff effect, it was morally unacceptable for anyone in Congress or the administration to take a few days to think about the accusation. The moral calculus required an immediate response.

Of course, no one at high decision-making levels knew much about a $1 million research project within a $1 trillion government budget. If PAM had been a $1 billion project, representatives from districts where that money was spent might have considered defending the project. But there was no such incentive for a $1 million project (spent mostly in California and London); the safe political response was obvious: repudiate PAM, and everyone associated with it. (more)

Today, however, my interest is in what these results imply for our awareness of where our norm feelings come from, and how much they are shared by others. These results suggest that when we face a choice, the categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. Unless we notice that all of the options violate similarly important norms, we are supposed to be sure of which options to reject, without needing to consult with other people, and without needing to try to frame the choice in multiple ways, to see if the relevant norms are subject to framing effects. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied.

Apparently the legal principle of “ignorance of the law is no excuse” isn’t just a convenient way to avoid incentives not to know the law, and to avoid having to inquire about who knows what laws. Regarding norms more generally, including legal norms, we seem to think “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.”

If this description is correct, it seems to me to have remarkable implications. Which I’ll discuss in my next post. (Unless of course you figure them all out in the comments now.)

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News As If Info Mattered

In our new book, we argue that most talk, including mass media news and academic talk, isn’t really about info, at least the obvious base-level info. But to study talk, it helps to think about what it would in fact look like if it were mostly about info. And as with effective altruism, such an exercise can also be useful for those who see themselves as having unusually sincere preferences, i.e., who actually care about info. So in this post let’s consider what info based talk would actually look like.

From an info perspective, a piece of “news” is a package that includes a claim that can be true or false, a sufficient explanation of what this claim means, and some support, perhaps implicit, to convince the reader of this claim. Here are a few relevant aspects of each such claim:

Surprise – how low a probability a reader would have previously assigned to this claim.
Confidence – how high a probability a reader is to assign after reading this news.
Importance – how much the probability of this claim matters to the reader.
Commonality – how many potential readers this consider this topic important.
Recency – how recently this news became available.
Support Type – what kind of support is offered for a reader to believe this claim.
Support Space – how many words it takes to show the support to a reader.
Definition Space – how many words it takes to explain what this claim means.
Bandwidth – number of channels of communication used at once to tell reader about this news.
Chunk – size of a hard-to-divide model containing news, such as a tweets or a book.

Okay, the amount of info that some news gives a reader on a claim is the ratio of its confidence to its surprise. The value of this info multiplies this info amount by the claim’s importance to that reader. The total value of this news to all readers (roughly) multiplies this individual value by its commonality. Valuable news tells many people to put high confidence in claims that they previously thought rather unlikely, on topics they consider important.

A reader who knew most everything that is currently known would focus mostly on recent news. Real people, however, who know very little of what is known, would in contrast focus mostly on much less recent news. Waiting to process recent news allows time for many small pieces of news to be integrated into large chunks that share common elements of definition and support, and that make better use of higher bandwidth.

In a world mainly interested in getting news for its info, most news would be produced by specialists in particular news topics. And there’d be far more news on topics of common interest to many readers, relative to niche topics of interest only to smaller sets of readers.

The cost of reading news to a reader is any financial cost, plus a time cost for reading (or watching etc.). This time cost is mostly set by the space required for that news, divided by the effective bandwidth used. Total space is roughly definition space plus support space. If the claim offered is a small variation on many similar previous claims already seen by a reader, little space may be required for its definition. In contrast, claims strange to a reader may take a lot more space to explain.

When the support offered for a claim is popularity or authority, such support may be seen as weak, but it can often be given quite concisely. However, when the support offered is an explicit argument, that can seem strong, but it can also take a lot more space. Some claims are self-evident to readers upon being merely stated, or after a single example. If prediction markets were common, market odds could offer concise yet strong support for many claims. The smallest news items will usually not come with arguments.

Given the big advantages of modularity, in news as in anything else, we need a big gain to justify the modularity costs of clumping news together into hard-to-divide units, like articles and books. There are two obvious gain cases here: 1) many related claims, and 2) one focus claim requiring much explanation or support. The first case has a high correlation in reader interest across a set of claims, at least for a certain set of readers. Here a sufficient degree of shared explanation or support across these claims could justify a package that explains and supports them all together.

The second case is where a single focal claim requires either a great deal of explanation to even make clear what is being claimed, or it requires extensive detailed arguments to persuade readers. Or both. Of course there can be mixes of these two cases. For example, if in making the effort to support one main claim, one has already done most of the work needed to support a related but less important claim, one might include that related claim in the same chunk.

For most readers, most of the claims that are important enough to be the focus of a large chunk are also relatively easy to understand. As a result, most of the space in most large focused chunks is devoted to support. And as argument is the main support that requires a lot of space, most of the space in big chunks focused on a central claim is devoted to supporting arguments. Also, to justify the cost of a large chunk with a large value for the reader, most large focused chunks focus on claims to which readers initially assign a low probability.

So how does all this compare to our actual world of talk today? There are a lot of parallels, but also some big deviations. Our real world has a lot of local artisan production on topics of narrow interest. That is, people just chat with each other about random stuff. Even for news produced by efficient specialists, an awful lot of it seems to be on topics of relatively low importance to readers. Readers seem to care more about commonality than about importance. And there’s a huge puzzling focus on the most recently available news.

Books are some of our largest common chunks of news today, and each one usually purports to offer recent news on arguments supporting a central claim that is relatively easy to understand. It seems puzzling that so few big chunks are explicitly justified via shared explanation and justification of many related small claims, or that so man big chunks seem neither to cover many related claims nor a single central claim. It also seems puzzling that most focal claims of books are not very surprising to most readers. Readers do not seem to be proportionally more interested in the books on with more surprising focal claims. And given how much space is devoted to arguments for focal claims, it is somewhat surprising that books often neglect to even mention other kinds of support, such as popularity or authority.

While I do think alternative theories, in which news is not mainly about info, can explain many of these puzzles, a discussion of that will have to wait for another post.

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Exclusion As A Substitute For Norms, Law, & Governance

Hell may not be other people, but worry sure is. That is, what we worry most about is what other people might do to us. People at the office, near our home, at the store, on the street, and even at church.

To reduce our worries, we can rely on norms, law, and governance. That is, to discourage bad behavior, we can encourage stronger informal social rules, we can adopt more formal legal rules, and we can do more with complex governance mechanisms.

In addition, we can rely on a simple and robust ancient solution: exclusion. That is, we can limit who is allowed with the circles we travel. We can use exclusion to limit who lives in our apartment complex, who shows up at the parties we attend, and who works in a cubicle near us.

Now the modern world tends to say that it disapproves of exclusion. The bad ancient world did much gossiping about what types of people could be trusted how, and then it relied a lot on the resulting shared judgements within their norms, law, and governance. We today have instead been trying to expunge such judgments from our formal systems; they are supposed to treat everyone equally without much reference to the groups to which they belong.

In addition, we’ve become more wary of using harsh punishments, like torture, death, or exile.  And we are more wary of using corruptible quick and dirty evaluations within our norms, law, and governance. For example, we have raised our standards for shunning neighbors, pulling over drivers, convicting folks at court, and approving large bold governance changes. And people today seem less willing to help the law via reports and testimony. Oh we may be more willing to apply norms to people we read about on social media; but we apply them less to the people we meet around us.

As a result of these trends, many people perceive that we have on net weakened the power of our systems of norms, law, and governance to constrain bad behavior. In response, I think they’ve naturally increased their reliance on exclusion. They look more carefully at who they allow into their schools, firms, apartments, and nations. And they are less willing to give a marginal person the benefit of the doubt.

Since we don’t want to look like we are excluding on the basis of simple group affiliations, we instead try to rely on a more intuitive and informal aggregation of many weak clues. We try to get a feel for how much we like them or feel comfortable with them overall. But that need not result in more mixing.

For example, colleges that admit people just on GPA and test scores can be more open to lower class students than colleges that require applicants to have adopted the right set of extracurricular actives, and to have hit on the right themes in their essays. Lower class people can find it is easier to get good grades and scores than to track the new fashions in activities and essays.

Similarly, Tyler Cowen makes the point somewhere that when firms had simple and clear rules on dress and behavior, someone with a low class background could more easily pass as high class; they just had to follow the rules. Today, without such simple rules, people rely more on many subtle clues of clothes, conversation topics, travel locations, favorite music and movies, and so on. Someone with a lower class background finds it harder to adopt all these patterns, and so is more obviously outed and rejected as not one of us.

The point seems to apply more generally. The net effect of our today relying less on norms, law, and governance, and avoiding simple group labels in exclusion, is that we rely more on exclusion based on an intuitive feel that someone is like us.

This may be a cause of our increasing class and political polarization, at home and work. Feeling less protected by norms, law, and governance, and shy of using simple group identifiers, we are more and more surrounding ourselves with others who feel comfortably like us. We can tell ourselves that we aren’t excluding Joe or Sue because they are Republicans, or don’t have a college degree. Its just that those sort of people tend to give off dozens of other off-putting signs that they are just not people like us.

We would call it an outrage if society as a whole excluded them explicitly and formally because of a few simple signs. Only ignorant and rude societies do that. But we feel quite comfortable excluding them from our little part of the world based on our just not feeling comfortable with them. Hey, as anyone knows, in our part of the world it is just really important to have the right people.

Consider this another weak argument for relying more on stronger norms, law, and governance. That could let us rely less on exclusion locally. And mix up a bit more.

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Capturing The Policy Info Process

Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles’ book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality came out November 10. Steven Pearlstein titled his review “What’s to blame for slower growth and rising inequality?” Robert Samuelson says:

As societies become richer, so does the temptation for people to advance their economic interests by grabbing someone else’s wealth, as opposed to creating new wealth. … This sort of economy may be larger than you think. That’s the gist of the provocative new book …

And so on. The book’s marketing, intro, and reviews all suggest that the book is about who to blame for bad trends. And on how exactly (i.e., via what bad policies) bad guys have achieved their nefarious ends. Which to my mind is a dumb topic. Yes, it is what everyone wants to talk about for moral posturing purposes. But it is a far less useful topic than what exactly are the fundamental causes of our problems, and what we could do to address them.

However, sometimes when people play dumb, and observers treat them as dumb, they are not actually dumb. And this book in fact contains a brief but thoughtful analysis of the political obstacles to solving our many policy problems. It also suggests solutions. The problems: Continue reading "Capturing The Policy Info Process" »

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On Thought Leaders

All through the world and history, and across most areas of life, we empower and choose leaders. As usual, we have things we say about the sort of leaders we want, and when choosing we act on preferences. And the two are usually not quite the same.

We tend to actual want leaders who have good family or institutional pedigrees, who give us our desired degrees of flattery and hypocrisy, who will use raw politics in the right ways to gain and keep power, and who are pretty/handsome, energetic, smart, articulate, charismatic, socially savvy, and have other impressive abilities. We also want leaders that others will treat as leaders. But we usually don’t say these things.

For example, we might say we want religious leaders who can help us to be more spiritual, firm leaders who will increase profits, or political leaders who will create peace and prosperity. And while the ancient world didn’t care much about them, in the modern world we often say that we want thought leaders.

Thought leaders lead our conversations and thoughts on particular concepts, ideas, and claims. And we prefer to say that such leaders actually developed original insights on those thoughts. That makes a nice convenient story. “Person P developed thought X; when we heard about X we had to start talking about it, and P has been helping us with that.”

But the pool of people who are inclined to and able to develop each thought X is far larger than pool of people that we consider to be acceptable thought leaders on X. So to get the sort of thought leaders that we want, we tolerate and even encourage qualified leaders to take credit for thoughts developed by others. We let the charismatic people we prefer as leaders pretend to have developed the ideas they talk about.

Yes, each of us personally can’t do the research to find out who actually developed each thought X. Yet there are people who can do such research, and if we cared enough we’d reward them for exposing thought leaders who take origin credits due to others. But we don’t.

Yes, some thought areas have stronger property rights in ideas. With precise and unique enough terminology to enable you to show that you had the same thought before someone else. But even then they can give you only a minor footnote. It is easy enough to find some detail by which their discussion differed from yours, and then claim that detail makes all the difference to why your contribution was small while theirs was big.

So know that unless you are in a thought area with strong property rights, or have the rare features that people actually want in thought leaders, you can influence the world of ideas by coming up with new thoughts, but you are unlikely to be celebrated as a key thought leader. If enough people cared, we could create stronger property rights in thoughts, to increase the rewards to developing thoughts. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

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Dragon Debris?

Apparently the causal path from simple dead matter to an expanding visible civilization is very unlikely. Almost everything that starts along this path is blocked by a great filter, which might be one extremely hard step, or many merely very hard steps. The most likely location of this great filter is that the origin of life is very very hard. Which is good news, because otherwise we’d have to worry at lot about our future, via what fraction of the overall huge filter still lies ahead of us. And if we ever find evidence of life in space that isn’t close to the causal path that led to us, that will be big bad news, and we’ll need to worry a lot more.

One of the more interesting future filter scenarios is a high difficulty of traveling between the stars. As we can easily see across the universe, we know that photons have few problems traveling very long distances. And since stars drift about at great speeds, we know that stars can also travel freely suffering little harm. But we still can’t be sure of the ease of travel for humans, or for the sort of things that our descendants might try to send between the stars. We have collected a few grains of interstellar dust, but still know little about them, and so don’t know how easy was their travel. We do know that most of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy that we understand quite poorly. So perhaps “Here Be Dragons” lie in wait out there for our scale of interstellar travelers.

Many stars, like ours, are surrounded by a vast cloud of small icy objects. Every once in a while one of these objects falls into a rare orbit where it travels close to its star, and then it becomes a comet with a tail. Even more rarely, one should fall into an orbit that throws it out away from its star (almost always without doing much else to it). Such an object would then travel at the typical star speed between stars, and after billions of years it might perhaps pass near one other star; the chance of two such encounters is very low. And if the space between stars is as mild as it seems, it should arrive looking pretty much as it left.

Astronomers have been waiting for a while to see such an interstellar visitor, and were puzzled to have not yet seen one. They expected it to look like a comet, except traveling a lot faster than do most comets. Well within roughly a year of a new instrument that could see such things better, we’ve finally seen such a visitor in the last few months. It looked like what we expect in some ways. It is traveling at roughly the speed we’d expect, its size is unremarkable, and its color is roughly what we expect from ancient small space objects. But it is suspiciously weird in several other apparently-unrelated ways.

First, its orbit is weird. Its direction of origin is 6 degrees from sun’s motion vector; only one in 365 random directions are closer. And among the travel paths where we could have seen this object, only one in 100 such paths would have traveled closer to the sun than did this one (source: Turner). But one must apparently invoke very strange and unlikely hypotheses to believe these parameters were anything but random. For now, I won’t go there.

Second, the object itself is weird. It does not have a comet tail, and so has apparently lost most of its volatiles like water. If this is typical, it explains why we haven’t seen objects like this before. The object seems to be very elongated, much more than any other natural object we’ve ever seen in our solar system. And it is rotating very fast, so fast that it would fly apart if it were made out of the typical pile of lightly attached rubble. So at some point it experienced an event so dramatic as to melt away its volatiles, melt it into a solid object, stretch it to an extreme, and set it spinning at an extreme rate. After which it drifted for long enough to acquire the usual color of ancient space objects.

This raises the suspicion that it perhaps encountered a dangerous “dragon” between the starts. Making it “dragon debris.” If the timing of this event were random, we should see roughly one a year in the future, and with new better instruments coming online in a few years we should see them even faster. So within a decade we should learn if this first visitor is very unusual, or if we should worry a lot more about travel dangers between the stars.

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Join The Debate

If you’ve laughed at “X is not about Y”, now is the time to take it seriously, as an equal.

Over the years, many seem to have found my “X is not about Y” arguments to be enjoyably mockable. As if I would be equally likely to say “Toasters are not about toast” or “Napkin holders are not about napkins.” Which seems to suggest that while my claims might be important if true, they are too silly to take seriously.

Now I don’t mind people having fun, but I do worry about the human habit to dismiss as unworthy of attention things that have been wittily mocked. (See the movie Ridicule.) If you worry about that too, and if you’ve at least smirked some at “X is not about Y” jokes, then perhaps I can appeal to your guilt or concern to take the time now to engage the argument.

Because as of today, you can download from Kindle for $22 (or Google for $14), the readable and carefully argued book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. by myself and Kevin Simler.

Now publishers and the media usually coordinate to talk about new books near the day when hardback copies are officially released. Which for our book is January 2. Usually ebooks are also withheld until near that date. As a result, usually the only people who can say much about a book at its official release date are elites who have been given special access to pre-release copies. Those who talk about a book weeks or months later are clearly revealed as less elites, and get less attention.

But now for our book all of you can participate more as equals in that release date book conversation. If you read our book now, and then publicly post a review or engage our argument near the release date, and indicate that you’d like us to publicly engage your response, then we will try to do so. When time is limited we will of course focus more on responses that we think are better argued. But we will try to engage as many of you as possible, without giving undue priority to media and other elites.

So please, go read, and then join our debate. Just how often is it plausible that “X is not about Y”?

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