Tag Archives: Academia

Three Types of General Thinkers

Ours is an era of rising ideological fervor, moving toward something like the Chinese cultural revolution, with elements of both religious revival and witch hunt repression. While good things may come of this, we risk exaggeration races, wherein people try to outdo themselves to show loyalty via ever more extreme and implausible claims, policies, and witch indicators.

One robust check on such exaggeration races could be a healthy community of intellectual generalists. Smart thoughtful people who are widely respected on many topics, who can clearly see the exaggerations, see that others of their calibre also see them, and who crave such associates’ respect enough to then call out those exaggerations. Like the child who said the emperor wore no clothes.

So are our generalists up to this challenge? As such communities matter to us for this and many other reasons, let us consider more who they are and how they are organized. I see three kinds of intellectual generalists: philosophers, polymaths, and public intellectuals.

Public intellectuals seem easiest to analyze. Compared to other intellectuals, these mix with and are selected more by a wider public and a wider world of elites, and thus pander more to such groups. They less use specialized intellectual tools or language, their arguments are shorter and simpler, they impress more via status, eloquent language, and cultural references, and they must speak primarily to the topics currently in public talk fashion.

Professional philosophers, in contrast, focus more on pleasing each other than a wider world. Compared to public intellectuals, they are more willing to use specialized language for particular topics, to develop intricate arguments, and to participate in back and forth debates. As the habits and tools that they learn can be applied to a pretty wide range of topics, philosophers are in that sense generalists.

But philosophers are also very tied to their particular history. More so than in other disciplines, particular historical philosophers are revered as heroes and models. Frequent readings and discussions of their classic texts pushes philosophers to try to retain their words, concepts, positions, arguments, and analysis styles.

As I use the term, polymaths are intellectuals who meet the usual qualifications to be seen as expert in many different intellectual disciplines. For example, they may publish in discipline-specific venues for many disciplines. More points for a wider range of disciplines, and for intellectual projects that combine expertise from multiple disciplines. Learning and integrating many diverse disciplines can force them to generalize from discipline specific insights.

Such polymaths tend less to write off topics as beyond the scope of their expertise. But they also just write less about everything, as our society offers far fewer homes to polymaths than to philosophers or public intellectuals. They must mostly survive on the edge of particular disciplines, or as unusually-expert public intellectuals.

If the disciplines that specialize in thinking about X tend to have the best tools and analysis styles for thinking about X, then we should prefer to support and listen to polymaths, compared to other types of generalist intellectuals. But until we manage to fund them better, they are rarely available to hear from.

Public intellectuals have the big advantage that they can better get the larger world to listen to their advice. And while philosophers suffer their historical baggage, they have the big advantage of stable funding and freedoms to think about non-fashionable topics, to consider complex arguments, and to pander less to the public or elites.

Aside from more support for polymaths, I’d prefer public intellectuals to focus more on impressing each other, instead of wider publics or elites. And I’d rather they tried to impress each other more with arguments, than with their eliteness and culture references. As for philosophers, I’d rather that they paid less homage to their heritage, and instead more adopted the intellectual styles and habits that are now common across most other disciples. The way polymaths do. I don’t want to cut all differences, but some cuts seem wise.

As to whether any of these groups will effectively call out the exaggerations of the coming era of ideological fervor, I alas have grave doubts.

I wrote this post as my Christmas present to Tyler Cowen; this topic was the closest I could manage to the topic he requested.

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Minds Almost Meeting

Many travel to see exotic mountains, buildings, statues, or food. But me, I want to see different people. If it could be somehow arranged, I’d happily “travel” to dozens of different subcultures that live within 100 miles of me. But I wouldn’t just want to walk past them, I’d want to interact enough to get in their heads.

Working in diverse intellectual areas has helped. So far, these include engineering, physics, philosophy, computer science, statistics, economics, polisci, finance, futurism, psychology, and astrophysics. But there are so many other intellectual areas I’ve hardly touched, and far more non-intellectual heads of which I’ve seen so little.

Enter the remarkable Agnes Callard with whom I’ve just posted ten episodes of our new podcast “Minds Almost Meeting”:

Tagline: Agnes and Robin talk, try to connect, often fail, but sometimes don’t.

Summary: Imagine two smart curious friendly and basically truth-seeking people, but from very different intellectual traditions. Traditions with different tools, priorities, and ground rules. What would they discuss? Would they talk past each other? Make any progress? Would anyone want to hear them? Economist Robin Hanson and philosopher Agnes Callard decided to find out.

Topics: Paradox of Honesty, Plagiarism, Future Generations, Paternalism, Punishment, Pink and Purple, Aspiration, Prediction Markets, Hidden Motives, Distant Signals.

It’s not clear who will be entertained by our efforts, but I found the process fascinating, informative, and rewarding. Though our audio quality was low at times, it is still understandable.

Agnes is a University of Chicago professor of philosophy and a rising-star “public intellectual” who often publishes in places like The New Yorker. She and I are similar in both being oddball, hard-to-offend, selfish parents and academics. We both have religious upbringings, broad interests, and a taste for abstraction. But we differ by generation, gender, and especially in our intellectual backgrounds and orientations (me vs. her): STEM vs. humanities, futurist vs. classicist, explaining via past shapings vs. future aspirations, and relying more vs. less on large systems of thought.

Before talking to Agnes, I hadn’t realized just how shaped I’ve been by assimilating many large formal systems of thought, such as calculus, physics, optimization, algorithms, info theory, decision theory, game theory, economics, etc. Though the core of these systems can be simple, each has been connected to many diverse applications, and many larger analysis structures have been built on top of them.

Yes these systems, and their auxiliary structures and applications, are based on assumptions that can be wrong. But their big benefit is that shared efforts to use them have rooted out many (though hardly all) contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherences. So my habit of trying when possible to match any new question to one of these systems is likely to, on average, produce a more coherent resulting analyses. I’m far more interested in applying existing systems to big neglected topics than in inventing new systems.

In contrast, though philosophers like Agnes who rely on few such structures beyond simple logic can expect their arguments to be accessible to wider audiences, they must also expect a great many incoherences in their analysis. Which is part of why they so often disagree, and build such long chains of back and forth argumentation. I agree with Tyler, who in his conversation with Agnes said these long chains suggest a problem. However, I do see the value of having some fraction of intellectuals taking this simple robust strategy, as a complement to more system-focused strategies.

Thank you Agnes Callard, for helping me to see a wider intellectual world, including different ways of thinking and topics I’ve neglected.

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What I Hold Sacred

Someone recently told me that I stood out compared to other writers in never seeming to treat anything as sacred. Which seemed to them awkward, odd, and implausible, as much as the opposite writers who seem to treat most all topics and issues as sacred. More plausibly, most people do treat some minority of things as especially sacred, and if they don’t reveal that in their writing, they are probably hiding it from others, and maybe also from themselves.

This seems plausible enough that it pushes me to try to identify and admit what I hold sacred. When I search for ways to identify what people hold sacred, I find quite a lot of rather vague descriptions and associations. The most concrete signs I find are: associating it with rituals and symbols, treating it with awe and reverence, unwillingness to trade other things for it, and outrage at those who disrespect it.

The best candidate I can find is: truth-seeking. More specifically: truth-seeking among intellectuals on important topics. That is, the goal is for the world to learn more together on key abstract topics, and I want each person who contributes substantially to such projects to add the most that they can, given their constraints and the budgets they are willing to allocate to it. I don’t insist anyone devote themselves wholly to this, and I’m less concerned with each person always being perfectly honest than with us together figuring stuff out.

I admit that I do treat this with reverence, and I’m reluctant to trade it for other things. And I’d more often express outrage at others disrespecting it if I thought I’d get more support on such occasions. Yes, most everyone gives great lip service allegiance to this value. But most suggest that there are few tradeoffs between this and other values, and also that following a few simple rules of thumb (e.g., don’t lie, give confidence intervals) is sufficient; no need to dig deeper. In contrast, I think it takes long-sustained careful thought to really see what would most help for his goal, and I also see many big opportunities to sacrifice other things for this goal.

How can you better affirm this value? Its simple, but hard: Continually ask yourself what are the most important topics, what are the most promising ways to advance them, and what are your comparative advantages re such efforts. Do not assume that answers to these questions are implicit in the status and rewards that others offer you for various activities. The world mostly doesn’t care much, and so if you do care more you can’t focus on pleasing the world.

So why do I seem reluctant to talk about this? I think because I feel vulnerable. When you admit what is most precious to you, others might threaten it in order to extort concessions from you. And it is hard to argue well for why any particular value should be the most sacred. You run out of arguments and must admit you’ve made a choice you can’t justify. I so admit.

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An ‘Amazon’ of Online College?

Once upon a time, stores sold things. Some stores specialized in selling particular things, while “department” stores sold a wider range of things. While there were some scale economies in branding and distribution, they were mild enough to allow many different department stores. With the internet, however, much bigger stores have been favored. Not only can huge online stores hold more variety, with scale economies in storage and distribution a single store can dominate that industry. Hence, Amazon.

While the internet favors a few huge platforms for some types of products and services, the strength of this effect varies with the kind of product or service. For example, there seems to be room for many movie streaming services, as there seem to be fewer scale or scope economies there. Yes, one can better price discriminate by selling many movies rather than just one, but that still leaves room for many services each of which has many movies. Though perhaps the current variety of streaming services won’t last long.

What about college? In the past, students attended class in person, and so each college arranged to have many classes all close enough that one could live nearby and travel to all of its classes. So travel time between classes set a maximum feasible size for a college. But now there are (for many non-lab-or-hands-on topics) online classes which one can attend from anywhere in the world. In a future of online college classes (and tests), will we still have the same size colleges, or will much larger platforms take over?

Clearly there is a big potential for much larger individual classes. Instead of a thousand profs teaching the same class all over the world to thirty students each, maybe only ten profs will teach to three thousand students each. At least when individual grading and talk isn’t the main cost. And if students can choose from classes made all over the world, a far wider variety of classes can be made available to each student, classes on more topics, at more levels, and with more different teaching/learning styles.

Yes, the most elite colleges would probably be the last to contribute their courses to large online catalogs of courses. They’d say, “if you want the very best college experience, you should come here and limit yourself to our classes.” But that pitch wouldn’t work so well coming from mid-rank colleges.

Still I wonder: will the thirty or so classes on a future student college transcript be mostly from teachers who all produce their classes near each other at the same “college”, or will student transcripts instead contain classes from twenty or more different sources? And if the latter, how many distributors or platforms will there be? That is, will there be a single “Amazon” from which most all students select their classes, or will there be many different strongly competing distributors of classes, more like movie streaming services today. Another way to ask this question is: what are the scale and scope economies that might favor a few big college class distributors, instead of the thousands of colleges we have today?

As mentioned above, price discrimination offers one scope economy, but this runs out near the scale of a typical college, so won’t push for much larger units. A similar logic applies to other scale and scope economies that mostly run out near the scale of typical colleges today. For example, an online college class platform may want to select and evaluate the classes that if offers, to judge which classes could serve as prerequisites for which other classes, and maybe also to select and evaluate students for their suitability for various classes. And yes, these tasks look easier for larger platforms. But such effects still seem to allow a lot of room for many competing platforms.

However, here is a scale and scope effect that may push more toward a more Amazon-like scenario: giving students grades that are comparable over wide scopes. Today employers mostly look at a college graduate’s school and major, and sometimes also at their GPA. This works because schools have known reputations, and majors are pretty similar across many colleges.

This is in stark contrast to most jobs that students might take instead of going to college; it is much harder to know how to compare letters of recommendation based on typical job performance. Even US military veterans face this problem; employers find it hard to know what school/major/GPA record is comparable to 2 years as a “helicopter repairer”. Superior college comparability is a big reason many go to college instead of starting work (or the military) right after high school.

Imagine a college class platform that gives you a transcript showing what classes you took, and what grades you got in each class, but that doesn’t do much to help employers know how to compare the grades obtained from different sources. That wouldn’t be so valuable. In contrast, a college platform is much more valuable to future employers, and thus to students, if it can rank and categorize student performance in comparable and meaningful ways.

One simple way to do this is to sometimes randomize which classes students take. That is, flatter, pay, or cajole many students into letting the platform sometimes pick which particular class they take, out of a set of similar classes offered on the platform. With enough students taking enough classes that give enough feedback on student performance, standard statistical models could estimate individual student abilities and specializations. Which helps not only future employers, but also the providers of classes when deciding which students to admit into their classes. It also helps to estimate student satisfaction in particular classes as expressed by student evaluation of classes.

Yes, if all student class performance info were made available to all platforms, many of them could produce similar statistical estimates. But the largest platforms may use privacy excuses to successfully resist efforts to force them to share their customer info, as have social media giants today. Yes, platforms with less data might claim that they had found clever uses of machine learning etc. that give similar quality evaluations of students. But it isn’t clear why students and employers should believe such claims.

Scale economies in using customer data to make student performance comparable across a wide scope of classes may push toward a single huge Amazon-like catalog of online college classes.

From a conversation with Phil Magness.

Added 9a: College admissions and grading has recently become a political battleground. While today such battles are limited by the fact that colleges must compete with each other, such limits might be less when one of a few big orgs dominated the online college catalog market.

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What Are Universities For?

We have many social institutions, which each serve many social functions. Sometimes people make arguments about how we should judge or see each one based on claims about what each one is “really” for. For example, Agnes Callard on universities:

Let me tell you now what I didn’t have the presence of mind to say [when the college-admissions scandal broke]. I’ll start with what universities are not for. First, they are not for perpetuating the ruling or elite class. Second, they are not for achieving social justice. Doubtless they do perpetuate the ruling class; many institutions do this. And probably they could do more to bring about social justice. But those things are not what they are for.

Third, universities are not for making money—though they do call for careful financial stewardship. Fourth, they are not for producing better citizens. Fifth, they are not for producing happier human beings. If I had to measure the worth of my classes in my students’ subsequent civic virtue or life satisfaction, I couldn’t afford to lose touch with most of them after graduation. I am sometimes saddened when I lose touch with them, but it never causes me to wonder whether their education was worthwhile.

Those five points cover basically all the criticisms levied against the university, which means all the critics who said it was not doing its job had failed to identify what its job was in the first place. But that is step one of the criticism process. You can’t be failing at what you’re not in the business of doing. …

Now I grant that the university is easy to misinterpret, because its innermost parts are hidden from view. What’s visible is who gets in and who is excluded; the fates of its graduates; clashes between townies and gownies; five-year completion rates; public-relations catastrophes; IRS 990 forms. If you go on a campus visit, you see the buildings, but not what happens inside them. …

That doesn’t really get the pundits off the hook, because they tend to be college-educated. The real scandal, if I may, is the fact that so many people who attended one seem to have no idea what it’s for. So let me come out and tell you what a university is for: a university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods. A university is a place of heterodidacticism. …

This was one of the best classes I’ve ever taught. … That’s what I wish I could’ve communicated to those embroiled in the admissions-scandal brouhaha; I wanted to break down the walls around my classroom, throw a spotlight on it, and tell everyone to stop talking, look and listen: “It is happening right here—this is what universities are for: reading Aristotle together.” All the arguments about elitism and corporatization and donations were as irrelevant as the ivy growing on the walls. I could give you a hundred more examples. …

There are strange people who somehow, through a series of accidents, get and stay keyed onto intellectual goods on their own—the autodidacts I mentioned earlier—but the rest of us need constant help reorienting, because just about every worldly temptation pulls us in the opposite direction. This, in the end, is the explanation of why the innermost parts of the university are hidden from view. (more)

So while Callard has enjoyed some experiences of intellectual interaction at universities, she agrees that these experiences don’t weigh greatly on the minds of most university graduates. Yet even so she still insists that this is what universities “are for”, and seems to suggest that we should structure, fund, and analyze universities primarily in terms of this aspect. Even though she offers no evidence or argument to support this focus, beyond her positive experiences.

I posted two sets of six Twitter polls (ave. 203 responses each), asking, out of eight different social functions, which one “has pressures to achieve it most shaped the details of universities” and which one “do you most want the details of universities to be shaped to achieve it”. Here are function weights that fit their responses, relative to 100 for the most common choice:

As you can see, Callard’s fav function, “get intellectual goods” is 2nd highest out of 8 for what people want to shape universities, but 4th lowest out of 8 for what people think has shaped them. So Agnes, what can it even mean to say that your fav function is what universities “are for”? And what evidence would you offer for that claim?

It seems to me that most complex social institutions just don’t have a single thing they are for; they are for many things. And the functions that most shape our institutions are usually substantially different from the functions we wish would shape them. Just focusing on what we wish would shape them seems to be, well, wishful thinking.

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Why Not Extend Formal Social Systems?

Once humans had only informal systems of gossip and norm enforcement, but now we also have formal systems of law. These formal legal systems supposedly have many features designed to overcome problems with prior informal norm systems. For example, with gossip we tend to support the claims of our immediate associates without investigating contrary evidence, but we require formal law judges to instead consider evidence from all sides before making their judgments.

We seem to believe these claims that formal law systems overcome informal system failings, because we are quite reluctant to give up our formal systems. Few of us support dropping our formal law systems, and replacing them with informal gossip and mobs. But if so, why do we still use informal norm systems to deal with so many topics, instead of law?

We often say that we rely on informal norms when formal law systems are too slow or expensive. But when offered specific proposals for ways to drastically reduce the time and expense of formal legal systems, so that they can be used more widely, most people seem quite reluctant to endorse such changes. But if law fixes serious problems with informal norms, and if we could replace such norms with law in more places, why not do so?

What makes this even more puzzling is the fact that centuries ago in the U.S. our formal legal systems were much simpler and lower cost. The law was simpler, most people could go to court without a lawyer, and juries made most decisions. All of which did allow the law to deal with more kinds of conflicts. The scope of law has declined over the last few centuries as we’ve allowed law to get more complex and expensive.

One theory is suggested by the idea of “snitches”. Children punish each other for complaining about each other to parents or teachers; they are supposed to instead rely on informal systems among children. Insiders complaining to outsiders can make any group look bad to outsiders, and thus loyalty to a group can require that one keep one’s complaints inside the group. Thus we may prefer informal systems as ways to show loyalty to our groups.

Just like we’ve added formal systems of conflict resolution to our prior informal systems of gossip and norms, we’ve also added formal systems of abstract conversation to our prior informal talk systems.

For example, in academia we have many norms regarding how we present abstract claims and arguments to each other in books and journal articles, and how we evaluate such things. For most of these norms, we have stories about how they fix problems with informal talk. And few academics would endorse getting rid of all these norms and just reverting entirely to informal talk.

And yet, as new mediums and genres of conversation have appeared over the last few decades, we’ve seen relatively little support for extending the usual academic norms into these new places. I expect many would offer knee-jerk explanations saying that academic norms take too much time and energy to apply to these new places. But that seems to me mostly an excuse; I doubt that they’ve actually thought much about actual time and energy costs.

Regarding both dispute resolution and abstract conversation, it seems that we mostly just want to continue with formal institutions in their current scope of application, but not to apply them more widely, even when that becomes feasible. Perhaps because we prefer to show loyalty to the communities that manage our informal norm systems. But loyalty signaling doesn’t seem a good reason to think this is better for the world, or for our larger societies.

Added 10a: Speculative markets are another area where we don’t want to get rid of the ones we have, but we also don’t want more of them, to aggregate info into consensus on more topics. The cost of creating them has come way down, allowing a lot more of them, that we don’t want.

Property registries is yet another area. The cost of managing them have come way down, yet we don’t have official registries for many more kinds of property than we once did.

Perhaps the simplest theory here is that we’ve lost our taste for social change. Whatever was continues, but nothing new shall be added.

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How School Goes Wrong

I’ve been teaching for over two decades, but haven’t yet posted much on my theoretical view of school. Talking recently to an entering education Ph.D. student has inspired me to fill that gap.

The obvious usual purpose for school is to help people learn how to do useful tasks in life. And the obvious way to help with that is to show students various useful tools, show examples of their use, and then have students practice trying related tasks with related tools. Finally, score students on how well they do these practice tasks, to help others judge their suitability for various positions.

In this view, the big question is: how far and in what ways should school tasks differ from the later life tasks for which students are preparing? School tasks can differ from life tasks in many ways, such as in how long they take, how wide a scope of subproblems they encompass, how clearly performance on them can be judged, how many others have previously completed similar tasks, how connected each new task is to one’s recent tasks, what sort of teams take on tasks, and what sort of other distractions one must deal with while working on each task.

It seem obvious to me that school tasks must differ greatly from life tasks, at least when kids are young. It is also obvious that choosing school tasks well is hard, but that this can offer huge gains. We should search well the vast space of possibilities for the best student tasks.

Furthermore, it seems obvious that student tasks often complement each other strongly. Often learning one task helps a lot in learning another task. So we want all the tasks that students eventually take on to fit into a total package where the parts fit well together, and where that package fits well with later life tasks. Which can justify a lot of coordination between the teaching of related topics, and between schools and those who manage life tasks. In addition, there are often scale and scope economies from having many students do similar tasks, especially regarding evaluation. (This coordination isn’t obviously better when governments run schools.)

Our simplest general task tool is inference, supported by related “facts”. That is, one tells students about key facts related to a task class, and shows them examples of drawing relevant inferences from such facts. This “book learning” is far from the only useful tool, but it is useful often enough to make fact-telling a big fraction of learning for most topics. Yes, it is somewhat possible to teach better general inference, but the scope for this seems vastly overrated.

Not only is it hard to choose the package of learning tasks well, it is even harder for non-experts to judge the quality of such packages. And even when one can judge the quality of particular school tasks, their fitting together into large integrated packages makes it hard to push for particular changes. (Such as the long-overdue switch from geometry to statistics in high school.) If schools competed fiercely on measured student outcomes, they might try harder to find the best packages. But such outcomes are usually not measured well, and many schools are funded and managed by customers who are not very outcome-oriented.

The net result is that teachers and schools can have a lot of slack regarding their choices of student tasks and supporting tools. Which suggests that schools may allow other priorities, besides preparing students for life tasks, to influence their choices. For example, when the world changes, teachers with status tied to their expertise regarding particular student tasks may have insufficient incentives to change those tasks to better fit a changed world. As another example, teachers who seek to push ideologies may over-emphasize teaching facts, and try to infuse those ideologies into the facts they present, even when that cuts student performance.

When schools face stronger selection pressures regarding the perceived quality of their students, relative to preparing students for life tasks, then such schools may pick tasks with less evaluation noise and higher perceived prestige, even if those tasks help less for common life tasks. Especially for students likely to go into industries where the main product sold to customers is affiliation with worker prestige. In that case, schools mainly just need to agree on how to prestige is measured, and then pick school tasks that fit well with those prestige concepts. Here the social value of such schooling seems far less than its private value; we should tax, not subsidize, such school.

When accusations of teacher bias are important, schools may emphasize tasks that can be more clearly and objectively evaluated, even if those tasks are otherwise less useful. And when an accusation of school bias against particular subgroups is salient, schools may emphasize tasks on which those particular subgroups do better. Some have suggested that accusations of bias against girls has induced schools to switch more to tasks on where girls do better. (Even though the direct measured biases seems to be against boys.)

Over the last few decades there seems to have been a move away from giving students “hard” tasks, where one cannot offer clear procedures to follow to succeed. On such hard tasks, teachers show students related tools and examples of prior successful performance, and can offer suggestions on how to improve tasks in progress. But students must flounder and search for how to achieve excellence, and most students will not so achieve. Some have claimed that such hard tasks favor boys, who are less risk-averse.

One of the main tasks for grad students is to write research papers. And my grad classes are focused overwhelmingly on this task. This is a hard task, where many will fail, and where evaluations are more subjective. And it is a big task chunk, which takes a long time and is not easily broken down into subtasks that can be evaluated independently. But it is also a task clearly and directly relevant to their future life, at least if they move near academic circles. While academics are willing to water down many school tasks to satisfy various outside pressures, they have so far drawn the line at how they train their own replacements.

When teaching undergrads, I usually split the class grade into four quizzes and four short papers. The quizzes are more fact-based, and have more parts and thus less noise in their overall evaluation. With quizzes, I more give students what they, their parents, and their schools want. The papers are harder and have more evaluation noise, but are closer to a life task that I value: using economic tools to argue for a policy position of their choice on a topic that I choose. For papers, I grade using a point system designed to ignore my personal opinions on paper topics.

My teaching strategy roughly matches my theory of teaching; I get as close as I can to having my students practice a real life task related to the class topic that I have been assigned. Even if those tasks are hard, even if that makes my evaluations of students more noisy, and even if students like it less. I accept that schools have mostly devolved to sorting students by prestige, instead of preparing them for life tasks. But in my classes, I do what I can to resist that trend.

Added 11a: The main obstacle to replacing college with real jobs is finding ways to standardize across such jobs the topics learned and performance evaluation. That will just require a lot of trial and error to figure out. Don’t invest in a firm that claims to know the answers if you aren’t willing to pay for lots of trial and error time.

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Shoulda-Listened Futures

Over the decades I have written many times on how prediction markets might help the intellectual world. But usually my pitch has been to those who want to get a better actionable info out of intellectuals, or to help the world to make better intellectual progress in the long run. Problem is, such customers seem pretty scarce. So in this post I want to outline an idea that is a bit closer to a business proposal, in that I can better identify concrete customers who might pay for it.

For every successful intellectual there are (at least) hundreds of failures. People who started out along a path, but then were not sufficiently rewarded or encouraged, and so then either quit or persisted in relative obscurity. And a great many of these (maybe even a majority) think that the world done them wrong, that their intellectual contributions were underrated. And no doubt many of them are right. Such malcontents are my intended customers.

These “world shoulda listened to me” customers might pay to have some of their works evaluated by posterity. For example, for every $1 saved now that gains a 3% real rate of return, $19 in real assets are available in a century to pay historians for evaluations. At a 6% rate of return (or 3% for 2 centuries), that’s $339. Furthermore, if future historians needed only to randomly evaluate 1% of the works assigned them, then if malcontents paid $10 per work to be maybe evaluated, historians could spend $20K (or $339K) per work they evaluate. Considering all the added knowledge and tools to which future historians may have access, that seems enough to do a substantial evaluation, especially if they evaluate several related works at the same time.

Given a substantial chance (1% will do) that a work might be evaluated by historians in a century or two, we could then create (conditional) prediction markets now estimating those future evaluations. So a customer might pay their $20 now, and get an immediate prediction market estimate of that future evaluation for their work. That $20 might pay $10 for the (chance of a) future evaluation and another $10 to establish and subsidize a prediction market over the coming centuries until resolution.

Finally, if customers thought market estimate regarding their works looked too low, then they could of course try to bet to raise those estimates. Skeptics would no doubt lie waiting to bet against them, and on average this tendency of authors to bet to support their works would probably subsidize these markets, and so lower the fees that the system needs to charge.

Of course even with big budgets for evaluations, if we want future historians to make reliable enough formal estimates that we can bet on in advance, then we will need to give them a well-defined-enough task to accomplish. And we need to define this task in a way that discourages future historians from expressing their gratitude to all these people who funded their work by giving them all an A+.

I suggest we have future historians estimate each work’s ideal attention: how much attention each particular work should have been given during some time period. So we should pick some measure of attention, a measure that we can calculate for works when they are submitted, and track over time. This measure should weigh if the dissertation was approved, the paper was published and where, how many cites did it get, etc. If we add up all the initial attention for submitted works, then we can assign historians the task of (counterfactually) reallocating this total attention across all the submitted works. So to give more attention to some, they’d have to take away attention from others.

Okay, so now they can’t give every work an A+. (And we ensure that bet assets have bounded values.) But our job isn’t done. We also need to give them a principle to follow when allocating attention among all these prior works. What objective would they be trying to accomplish via this reallocation of attention?

I suggest that the objective just be intellectual progress, toward the world having access to more accurate and useful beliefs. A set of works should have gotten more attention if in that case the world would have been more likely to have more quickly come to appreciate valuable truths. And this task is probably easier if we ask future historians to use their future values in this task, instead of asking them to try to judge according to our values today.

These evaluation tasks probably get easier if historians randomly pick related sets of works to evaluate together, instead of independently picking each work to evaluate. And this system can probably offer scaled fees, wherein the chance that your work gets evaluated rises linearly with the price you paid for that chance. There are probably a lot more details to work out, but I expect I’ve already said enough for most people to decide roughly how much they like this idea.

Once there were many works in this system, and many prediction markets estimating their shoulda-been attention, then we could look to see if market speculators see any overall biases in today’s intellectual worlds. That is, topics, methods, disciplines, genders, etc. to which speculators estimate that the world today is giving too little attention. That could be pretty dramatic and damning evidence of bias, by someone, evidence to which we’d all be wise to attend.

One obvious test of this approach would be to assign historians today the task of reallocating attention among papers published a century or two ago. Perhaps assign multiple independent groups, and see how correlated are their evaluations, and how that correlation varies across topic areas. Perhaps repeating in a decade or two, to see how much evaluations drift over time.

Showing these correlations to potential customers might convince them that there’s a good enough chance that such a system will later correctly vindicate their neglected contributions. And these tests may show good scopes to use, for related works and time periods to evaluate together, and how narrow or broad should be the expertise of the evaluators.

This whole shoulda-listened-futures approach could or course also be applied to many other kinds of works, not just intellectual works. You’d just have to establish your standards for how future historians are to allocate shoulda attention, and trust them to actually follow those standards. Doing tests on works from centuries ago here could also help to show if this is a viable approach for these kinds of works.

Added 7am 28Apr: On average more assets will be available to pay for future evaluations if the fees paid are invested in risky assets. So instead of promising a particular percentage chance of evaluation, it may make more sense to specify how fees will be invested, set the (real) amount to be spent on each evaluation, and then promise that the chance of evaluation for each work will be set by the investment return relative to the initial fee paid. Yes that induces more evaluations in state of the world where investments do better, but customers are already accepting a big chance that their work will never be directly evaluated.

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Do Your Thoughts Scale?

Most intellectuals don’t pick their topics based on fundamental value. They instead opportunistically read the many clues around them regarding on which topics they are more likely to be rewarded. Now if you, in contrast, have the slack and inclination to instead pursue what seems fundamentally important, I salute you. And to help you, I now review some related considerations that you might overlook:

  • Rewards: You don’t want to focus *only on topics where others offer rewards, but that does help, so don’t ignore it.
  • Impressive: In particular, if your work can help you look impressive, that can help you get more support later.
  • Generality: The more general your topic, the more different useful applications you and others might later find.
  • Approachable: It is not enough for insights on X to be valuable, you need some ideas for how to get insights on X.
  • Pioneering: Due to diminishing returns, the 10th insight in an area offers more gains relative to costs than the 1000th.
  • Advantage: If you will compete with others on your topic, seek some sort of comparative advantage relative to them.
  • Actionable: Cosmically big topics are insufficient; you also need key concrete actions which your results could inform.
  • Near-term: The sooner that relevant actions could be taken the better; actions in a century matter a lot less.
  • Scales-well: You want to join an intellectual community that will achieve big scale economies in accumulating insights.

This last consideration is so important, and so oft overlooked, that I will now spend the rest of this post on it. The world gains vastly more when intellectuals can organize themselves via a division of labor to each look into different topics and then combine all their efforts into a unified total perspective. So that over time their efforts accumulate into progress. Most intellectuals pretend that their usual habits ensure this, but this isn’t remotely true. Continue reading "Do Your Thoughts Scale?" »

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Our Default Info System: Status And Gossip

Around 1988-1990, I was working on the idea of “hypertext publishing”, which today we call the web. I was invited to give a talk to a few (<10) academics working on computer based info systems, I think at Xerox PARC. I argued that we then were hampered by our poor systems for finding out what other people had done and said.

One of the audience members said that, via gossip, he had no problem finding out what others were doing in his field. If anything was important, he’d hear about it via gossip, and if someone didn’t have enough status to get people to gossip about his work, it couldn’t be important enough for him to attend to.

Today, a physics academic told me (and a few others) that it isn’t a problem that physicists can’t be persuaded by contrarian arguments published in respectable peer reviewed physics journals, as they won’t read or consider it if it goes against their prior expectations. He said what really matters is your status, not whether you’ve published or where. Gossip about high status people gets their arguments considered even without publication, and no one else’s arguments matter anyway. Low status people can contribute by working out the details of high status people’s arguments.

And from a sociological point of view, of course, they are both correct. In a world that has decided that only arguments from high status people are worthy of considering, each one of them can safely ignore all the others. Even if some low status person somehow forces the world to hear and be persuaded by their argument, the high status people can and will close ranks to ensure that this low status person gains minimal concrete advantages from it, to make sure everyone learns the lesson about going through proper channels.

I presume you can see the social problem here, of insufficient information aggregation and intellectual progress. They can probably see it too, if forced to think on it. But why should they, and even if they saw the problem why should they risk personal prestige to change things, as success just makes it easier for others to compete with them.

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