Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

Preferred Unfair Evaluations

Imagine a company had a team of sales people, who were assigned to sales regions that varied in their promise and difficulty of sales. The people assigned to easy rich regions tended to have high sales, while those assigned to poor difficult regions tended to have low sales. And such sales figures were used to decide compensation, raises, promotions, etc.

You might imagine many would call this unfair, and that embarrassed leaders would change their evaluation system to control for the varying sales regions. They might rotate people between different regions, or change the size and location of regions to make them more similar.

But in a great many places, you’d just be wrong. They wouldn’t change the regions, and they’d feel fine using region sales to allocates praise and rewards. Don’t believe me?

Consider that we teachers are judged on student evaluations that do not control for the difficulty of our class or students. Consider that we judge students on GPAs that don’t control for difficulty of class or teacher or time of day. Consider that we academics are judged on our number and level of publications, but without controlling for what resources or obstacles we had re such things, like grants, teaching loads, student assistants, prestigious affiliations, etc.

It would be straightforward to start down the road of trying to control such things. Things might get harder somewhere down that road, but the first part of the road is pretty easy. Yet we don’t even start.

And consider that we all know that elections are distorted by the fact that many voters are not very well informed. It would be easy to correct for this, as Jason Brennan explains:

On Election Day, everyone gets to participate, and participate as an equal. However, when they participate, they do not merely vote for a candidate, party, or position on a referendum. Rather, they have to do three things:

1. Tell us who they are, by indicating their demographic information, such as sex, gender identity, income level, ethnicity, employment status, and so on. …

2. Citizens will take, say, a thirty-question quiz of basic political information.

3. Tell us … which candidate or party they support in an election, or which position they support in a referendum.

… Once we have all three sets of data, the data is anonymized and released to the public domain. The government electoral commission then uses the data to estimate, via predetermined methods, what the public would have wanted if it were demographically identical but had gotten a perfect score on the knowledge test. This result—the public’s enlightened preference—is then instantiated. For instance, if the enlightened public favors Remain but the actual public favors Leave, the country remains. Since the data is public, the government’s calculations can easily be verified or challenged. …

What goes on the test? Answer: Have the citizens decide using a deliberative poll. A month or so before preference voting day takes place, randomly select, say, five hundred citizens from around the country. Pay them to spend a few days deliberating to design the thirty-question battery of questions. Require their employers not to penalize them.

Yet people seem overwhelmingly opposed to such a policy. I’m not sure what to call it, but there’s something deep and important to understand here, on why we often don’t want to correct when we can for blatant unfairness.

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Sacred Distance Hides Motives

My book with Kevin Simler describes many hidden human motives, common in our everyday lives. But that raises the question: how exactly can we humans hide our motives from ourselves?

Consider that we humans are constantly watching and testing our and others’ words and deeds for inconsistency, incoherence, and hypocrisy. As our rivals are eager to point out such flaws, we each try to adjust our words and deeds to cut and smooth the flaws we notice. Furthermore, we habitually adjust our words and deeds to match those of our associates, to make remaining flaws be shared flaws. After a lifetime of such smoothing, how could much personal incoherence remain?

One way to keep motives hidden is to hide your most questionable actions, those where you feel you least control or understand them. If you can’t hide such actions, then try not to make strong claims about related motives. And I think we do follow this strategy for our strongest feelings, such as lust, envy, or social anxiety. We often try to hide such feelings even from ourselves, and when we do notice them we often fall silent; we fear to speak on them.

How easy it is to check deeds and words for coherence depends in part on how dense and clear are their connections. And as all deeds are concrete, and as concrete words tend to be clearer and more densely connected, it seems easier to check concrete priorities, relative to abstract ones.

For example, it is easiest to check the motives that lead to our conscious, often written, calculations of detailed plans. Our time schedules, spatial routes and layouts, and our spending habits are often visible and full of details that make it hard to hide priorities. For example, if you go out of your way to drive past the home of your ex  on your way home from work, it will be hard to pretend you don’t care about her.

We have more room to maneuver, however, regarding our more hidden and infrequent concrete choices. And when we are all in denial in similar ways on similar topics, then we can all be reluctant to “throw stones” at our shared “glass houses”. This seems to apply to our hidden motives re schools and medicine, for example; we apparently all want to pretend together that school is for learning job skills and hospitals are for raising health.

Compared to our concrete priorities, our abstract priority expressions (e.g, “family is everything”) are less precise, and so are harder to check against each other for consistency. And abstract expressions can be even harder to check against concrete actions; large datasets of deeds may be required to check for such coherence.

We ground most abstract concepts, like “fire”, “sky”, “kid” or “sleep”, by reference to concrete examples with which we have had direct experience. So when we are confused about their usage, we can turn to those examples to get clear. But we ground other more “sacred” abstract concepts, like “love”, “justice”, or “capitalism”, more by reference to other abstract concepts. These are more like “floating abstractions.” And this habit makes it even harder to check our uses of such sacred concepts for coherence.

This potential of abstract concepts to allow more evasion of coherence checking is greatly enhanced by the fact that our brains have two rather different systems for thinking. First, our “near” system is designed to look at important-to-us close-up things, by attending to their details. This system is better integrated with our conscious thoughts. For example, we often first do a kind of calculation slowly and consciously, and then later by habit we learn to do such calculations unconsciously. This integration supports coherence checking, as we can respond to explicit challenges by temporarily returning to conscious calculation, to find explanations for our choices.

Our “far” system, in contrast, is designed to look at less-important-to-us far-away things, about which we usually know only a few more abstract descriptors. This system uses many opaque quick and dirty heuristics, including intuitive emotional and aesthetic associations, crude correlations, naive trust, and social approval. If someone else is using this system in their head to think about a topic, and then you use this system in your head to try to check their thinking, you will have a hard time judging much more than if your system gives the same answers as theirs. If you get different answers, it will be hard to say exactly why.

As our minds tend to invoke our far systems for thinking about more abstract topics, that makes it even harder to check abstract thoughts for coherence. But, you might respond, if that system is designed for dealing with relatively unimportant things, won’t the other near system get invoked for important topics, limiting this problem of being harder to check coherence to unimportant topics?

Alas, no, due to the sacred. Our sacred things are our especially important things, described via floating abstractions, where our norm is to think about them only using our far systems. We are not to calculate them, consider their details, or mix them with or trade them off against other things. Our intuitions there are sacred, and beyond question.

Making it hard to check the coherence of related deeds and words. The main thing we can do there is to intuit our own answer and compare it to others’ answers. If we get the same answers, that confirms that they share our sense of the sacred, and are from our in-group. If not, we can conclude they are from an out-group, and thus suspect; they didn’t learn the “right” sense of the sacred.

And that’s some of the ways that our minds tend to hide our motives, even given the widespread practice of trying to expose incoherence in rivals’ words and deeds. Floating abstractions help, and the sacred helps even more. And maybe we go further and coordinate to punish those who try to expose our sacred hypocrites.

Note that I’m not claiming that all these habits and structures were designed primarily for this effect of making it harder to check our words and deeds for coherence. I’m mainly pointing out that they have this effect.

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Objectification As Emotional Labor

“Emotional labor … [is] activities that are concerned wit the enhancement of others’ emotional well-0being and with the provision of emotional support. … captures people’s attempts to effectively managed the emotional climate within a relationship. (more; see also)

Some complain that women do much emotional labor, labor which is overlooked and undervalued. Others point to male emotional labors that also seems overlooked: suffering more explicit rejection, suggesting options for others to shoot down, suppressing their own fears and complaints while indulging partners’, and flattering partners while doing without flattery themselves.

In this post I want to point out another kind of especially male emotional labor, a kind I have not heard others speak of: men pretend they love women for who they are, but let women admit they love men for those mens’ love. That is, men “objectify” women.

Let me explain. Usually the strongest things we all want from our mates is to be wanted and loved for our direct objective features, like our looks, personality, smarts, kindness, etc. Wanted at least by someone who is good enough in key ways. But two people who have this as their main mating motive are poorly matched. If the other person mainly loves you for the fact that you love them, then they aren’t loving you so much for your direct features, which is what you wanted them to love you for. So you aren’t getting what you wanted.

This problem is cut if one of the parties will at least pretend to mainly want the other for their direct features. And this men (tend to) do. Leading to stereotypes that male desires are simple and low and deceptive, allowing men to be freely denigrated and suspected of foul play. In contrast, the female desire to be loved is framed as deep, giving, and spiritual. For example, male consumption of porn is denigrated much more than is female consumption of romance novels.

Such pretense carries risks. Men who believe it too much can be surprised to find sex alone doesn’t satisfy, while women who believe it too much may withhold sex, demand too much for access to it, and be surprised when their man gives up on the pretense.

Added 7p: Maybe what all parties really want is to be matched with a high status partner, which would as a result raise their own status. So matches between similar status people do give people as much of what they want as they’d think feasible to get. Under this hypothesis, all the stuff they say about wanting to be wanted for features is misleading.

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Why Allow Line Cutting?

People often cut in line:

“May I use the Xerox machine?”—enabled them to cut 60% of the time. Adding that they were rushed allowed them to cut 94% of the time. And “May I use the Xerox machine, because I need to make copies?” was almost as effective, despite its flimsiness. …

The person directly behind an intrusion usually gets to decide whether to allow it. … If that person doesn’t object, other queuers tend to stay quiet. (more)

A person cutting in line has a 54% chance that others in the line will object. With two people cutting in line, there is a 91.3% chance that someone will object. The proportion of people objecting from anywhere behind the cutter is 73.3%, with the person immediately behind the point of intrusion objecting most frequently. Nevertheless, physical altercation resulting from cutting is rare. …

Some passengers who do not normally use a wheelchair request one, to pass through security checks quickly and to be among the first to board an aircraft. At the conclusion of the flight, these passengers walk off the aircraft, instead of waiting for a wheelchair and thus being among the last to disembark. (more)

Here are three related examples I’ve witnessed:

On a freeway traffic is moving swiftly, but at a particular exit there is a line of cars twenty long waiting to exit. But a third of the cars skip the line, go up to the front of the exit, and then try to cut in. Even if a given car won’t let them in, one of the next two cars in line usually will.

On an airplane, when it is time to disembark, as soon as the seatbelt light goes off some passengers jump out of their seat and rush as far forward as far as they can, before others have gotten up out of their seat to block such movement.

At the front of an airport, three rows of cars are basically parked waiting to take away passengers on arriving flights. They sit there for up to thirty minutes, blocking traffic, and once their passengers arrive they take up to ten minutes more in a happy reunion. Airports have rules against this, and officials often blow a whistle at such cars to move on, but are satisfied if they just move down a car length or two. None are arrested or penalized in any way.

Why do people let others cut in line? The main explanation I can find offered are that people are nice to those with stronger needs:

Experimenters equipped with small bills approached 500 people in lines and offered a cash payment of up to $10 to cut in. … line-holders allowed the person to cut in but most wouldn’t accept the money in return. … took this to mean that people will allow cuts if they perceive the queue jumper has a real need to save time. (more)

When customers play the game just once, the only possible priority rule that can emerge is first in, first out; cut-ins must be rejected. But when players engage in repeated games, the pattern changes. Individuals in the line give way to those who appear to have more urgent needs or will require only a minimum of service time. (more)

This all seems to me more likely an example of hidden motives. While we like to claim that we are being nice, I suggest that we are avoiding confrontation. When someone makes an apparently aggressive move at our expense, we can either oppose them and risk a confrontation, or give in and avoid confrontation. Giving in is much easier for us when we have the excuse of how doing so is in fact us being nice.

We will often let people walk all over us as long as we can pretend we are thereby being nice. Even those tasked with enforcing rules against line cutting prefer to avoid confrontation. We all somehow seem to embrace the norm that those willing to risk confrontation should get their way, even if at others’ expense. We accept the dominance of the willing to try to dominate.

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We economists, and also other social scientists and policy specialists, are often criticized as follows:

You recommend some policies over others, and thus make ethical choices. Yet your analyses are ethically naive and impoverished, including only a tiny fraction of the relevant considerations known to professional ethicists. Stop it, learn more on ethics, or admit you make only preliminary rough guesses.

My response is “dealism”:

The world is full of competent and useful advisors (doctors, lawyers, therapists, gardeners, realtors, hairstylists, etc.) similarly ignorant on ethics. Yes, much advice says “given options O, choose X to achieve purpose P”, but when they don’t specify purpose P the usual default is not P = “act the most ethically”, but instead P = “get what you want”.

Economists policy recommendations are usually designed to help relatively large groups make better social “deals”, via identifying their “Pareto frontier” (within option subspaces). This frontier is the set of options where some can get more of what they want only via others getting less. We infer what people want via the “revealed preferences” of models that fit their prior choices.

As people can be expected to seek out advice they expect to help them to get what they want, we economists branding ourselves in this way can induce more to seek our advice. We can reasonably want to fill this role. Doing so does not commit us to taking on all possible clients, nor to making any ethical claims whatsoever.

Yes, if people are hypocritical, and pretend to want morality more than they do, they may prefer advisors who similarly pretend. In which case we economists can also pretend that our clients want that, to help preserve their pretensions. But we wouldn’t need to know more about ethics than our clients do, and beneath that veneer of morality, clients likely prefer our advice to be targeted mostly at getting them what they want.

Yes, there are many ways one might argue that this economist’ practice is ethically good. But I make no such arguments here.

Yes, there are other possible ways to help people. Helping them identify deals is not the only way, and often not the best way, to help or advise people.

Most people want in part to be moral, and they think that what they and others want is relevant to what acts are moral. It is just that these two concepts are not identical. If in fact what people want is only and wholly to be ethical, then the difference between being ethical and getting what you want collapses. But even so, this econ approach remains useful, and in this case our advice now also becomes ethical.

The same arguments apply if we replace “be ethical” with “do what you have good reasons to do”. If there is a difference, then others should seek our advice more if it is on what they want, relative to what they have reasons to do.

What if the process of hearing our advice, or following it, can change what people want? (The advice might include a sermon, and doing something can change how you feel about it.) In this case, people will most seek out our advice when those changes in wants match their meta-wants regarding such changes. And those meta-wants are revealed in part via how they choose advisors.

For example, when people choose advisors retrospectively, based on who seems to have been pleased with the advice that they were given, that reveals a preference for changes in wants that make them pleased after the fact. In that case, you’d want to give the advice that resulted in a combination of outcomes and want changes that made them pleased later. In this case they wouldn’t mind changes to their wants, as long as those resulted in their being more pleased.

In contrast, when people choose advisors prospectively, based on how pleased they are now with the outcomes that they expect to result from your advice, then you would only want to offer advice which clients expect to change their wants if such clients expect to be pleased by such changes. So you’d want to offer advice that seemed to promote the want changes that they aspire to, but prevent the want changes that they fear or despise.

And that’s it. Many presume that policy discussions are about morality. But as a policy advisor, you can reasonably take the stance that your advice is not about morality, and that economic analysis is well-suited to the advice role that you have chosen.

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Hidden Motives In Law

In our book The Elephant in the Brain, Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Kevin Simler and I first review the reasons to expect humans to often have hidden motives, and then we describe our main hidden motives in each of ten areas of life. In each area, we start with the usual claimed motive, identify puzzles that don’t fit well with that story, and then describe another plausible motive that fits better.

We hoped to inspire others to apply our method to more areas of life, but we have so far largely failed there. So its past time for me to take up that task. And as law & economics is the class I teach most often, that’s a natural first place to start. So what are our motives regarding our official systems for dispute resolution?

Saying the word “justice” doesn’t help much; what does that mean? But the field of law and economics has a standard answer that looks reasonable: economic efficiency. Which in law translates to encouraging cost-benefit-optimal levels of commitment, reliance, care, and activity. And the substantial success of law and economics scholarship suggests that this is in fact an important motive in law. Furthermore, as most everyone can get behind it, this is plausibly our most overt motive regarding law. But we also see many puzzles in law not well explained by this approach. Which suggests to me three other motives.

Back in the forager era, before formal law, disputes were resolved by mobs. That is, the local band talked informally about accusations of norm violations, came to a consensus about what to do, and then implemented that themselves. As this mob justice system has many known failure modes, we probably added law as a partial replacement in order to cut such failures. Thus a plausible secondary motive in law is to try to minimize the common failings of mob justice, and to insulate the legal system from mob influence.

The main failure of mob justice is plausibly a rush to judgment; each person in a gossip network has local incentives to accept the stance of whomever first reports an accusation to them. And the most interested parties are far more likely than average to be the first source of the first report someone hears. In response, law seeks to make legal decision makers independent and disconnected from the disputants and their gossip network, and to make such decision markers listen to all the evidence before making their decision. The rule against hearsay evidence is also plausibly to limit the influence of gossip on trials.

Leaders of the legal system often express concerns about its perceived legitimacy, and this makes sense as a third motive of the legal system. And as the most common threat to such legitimacy is widespread criticism of particular legal decisions, many features of law can be understood as ways to avoid such criticism. For example, criticism is likely cut via having legal personnel, venues, and demeanors be maximally prestigious and deferential to legal authorities.

Also, the more complex are legal language and arguments, the harder it becomes for mobs to question them. The longer the delay before final legal decisions, the less passion will remain to challenge them. Finally, the more expensive is the legal process, the fewer rulings there will be to question. Our most official legal systems differ from all our other less official dispute resolutions systems in all of these ways. They are slower, more expensive, less understandable, and more prestigious.

The last hidden motive that I think I see is that each legal jurisdiction wants to look good to outsiders. So most every jurisdiction has laws against widely disapproved behaviors, such as adultery, prostitution, or drinking alcohol on the street, even though such laws are often quite weakly enforced. Most set high standards of proof and adopt the usual rules constraining what evidence can be presented at trial, even though there’s little evidence that these rules help on net.

Most jurisdictions pretend to enforce all laws equally on everyone, but actually give police differential priorities; some locations, suspects, and victims count a lot more than others. It would be quite feasible, and probably lot more efficient, to use a bounty hunting system to enforce laws, and most locals are well aware of these varying priorities. But that would require admitting such differential priorities to outsiders, via explicit differences in the bounties paid. So most jurisdictions prefer government employees, who can be more hypocritical.

Similarly, our usual form of criminal punishment, nice jail, is less efficient than all the other forms, including mean jail, exile, corporal punishment, and fines. Holding constant how averse a convict is to suffer each punishment, nice jail costs the most. Alas, the world has fallen into an equilibrium where any jurisdiction that allows any punishment other than nice jail is declared to be cruel and unjust. Even giving the convict the choice between such punishments is called unjust. So the strong desire to avoid such accusations pushes most jurisdictions into using the least efficient form of punishment.

In sum, I see four big motives in law: encouraging commitment and care, avoiding failings of mob justice, preserving system legitimacy via avoiding clear decisions, and hindering distant observers from accusing a jurisdiction of injustice, even if most locals are not fooled.

One can of course postulate many more possible motives, including diverting revenue and status to legal authorities, preserving and increasing existing inequalities, giving civil authorities more arbitrary powers, and empowering busybodies to meddle in the lives of others. But it isn’t clear to me that these add much more explanatory power, given the above motives.

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What Hypocrisy Feels Like

Our book The Elephant in the Brain argues that there are often big differences between the motives by which we sincerely explain our behavior, and the motives that more drive and shape that behavior. But even if this claim seems plausible to you in the abstract, you might still not feel fully persuaded, if you find it hard to see this contrast clearly in a specific example.

That is, you might want to see what hypocrisy feels like up close. To see the two different kinds of motives in you in a particular case, and see that you are inclined to talk and think in terms of the first, but see your concrete actions being more driven by the second.

If so, consider the example of utopia, or heaven. When we talk about an ideal world, we are quick to talk in terms of the usual things that we would say are good for a society overall. Such as peace, prosperity, longevity, fraternity, justice, comfort, security, pleasure, etc. A place where everyone has the rank and privileges that they deserve. We say that we want such a society, and that we would be willing to work and sacrifice to create or maintain it.

But our allegiance to such a utopia is paper thin, and is primarily to a utopia described in very abstract terms. Our abstract thoughts about utopia generate very little emotional energy in us, and our minds quickly turn to other topics. In addition, as soon as someone tries to describe a heaven or utopia in vivid concrete terms, we tend to be put off or repelled. Even if such a description satisfies our various abstract good-society features, we find reasons to complain. No, that isn’t our utopia, we say. Even if we are sure to go to heaven if we die, we don’t want to die.

And this is just what near-far theory predicts. Our near and far minds think differently, with our far minds presenting a socially desirable image to others, and our near minds more in touch with what we really want. Our far minds are more in charge when we are prompted to think abstractly and hypothetically, but our near minds are more in charge when we privately make real concrete choices.

Evolved minds like ours really want to win the evolutionary game. And when there are status hierarchies tied to evolutionary success, we want to rise in those hierarchies. We want to join a team, and help that team win, as long as that team will then in turn help us to win. And we see all this concretely in the data; we mainly care about our social rank:

The outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (Two followup papers find the same result for outcomes of psychological distress and nine measures of health.) They looked at 87,000 Brits, and found that while income rank strongly predicted outcomes, neither individual (log) income nor an average (log) income of their reference group predicted outcomes, after controlling for rank (and also for age, gender, education, marital status, children, housing ownership, labor-force status, and disabilities). (more)

But this isn’t what we want to think, or to say to others. With our words, and with other very visible cheap actions, we want to be pro-social. That is, we want to say that we want to help society overall. Or at least to help our society. While we really crave fights by which we might rise relative to others, we want to frame those fights in our minds and words as fighting for society overall, such as by fighting for justice against the bad guys.

And so when the subject of utopia comes up, framed abstractly and hypothetically, we first react with our far minds: we embrace our abstract ideals. We think we want them embodied in a society, and we think we want to work to create that society. And our thoughts remain this way as long as the discussion remains abstract, and we aren’t at much risk of actually incurring substantial supporting personal costs.

But the more concrete the discussion gets, and the closer to asking for concrete supporting actions, the more we recoil. We start to imagine a real society in detail wherein we don’t see good opportunities for our personal advancement over others. And where we don’t see injustices which we could use as excuses for our fights. And our real motivations, our real passions, tell us that they have reservations; this isn’t the sort of agenda that we can get behind.

So there it is: your hypocrisy up close and personal, in a specific case. In the abstract you believe that you like the idea of utopia, but you recoil at most any concrete example. You assume you have a good pro-social reason for your recoil, and will mention the first candidate that comes to your head. But you don’t have a good reason, and that’s just what hypocrisy feels like. Utopia isn’t a world where you can justify much conflict, but conflict is how you expect to win, and you really really want to win. And you expect to win mainly at others’ expense. That’s you, even if you don’t like to admit it.

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Yay Argument Orientation

Long ago I dove into science studies, which includes history, sociology, and philosophy of science. (Got a U. Chicago M.A. in it in 1983.) I concluded at the time that “science” doesn’t really have a coherent meaning, beyond the many diverse practices of many groups that called themselves “science”. But reflecting on my recent foray into astrophysics suggests to me that there may a simple related core concept after all.

Imagine you are in an organization with a boss who announces a new initiative, together with supporting arguments. Also imagine that you are somehow forced to hear a counter-argument against this initiative, offered by a much lower status person, expressed in language and using methods that are not especially high status. In most organizations, most people would not be much tempted to support this counter-argument; they’d rather pretend that they never heard of it.

More generally, imagine there is a standard claim, which is relevant enough to important enough topics to be worth consideration. This claim is associated with some status markers, such as the status of its supporters and their institutions, and the status of the language and methods used to argue for it. And imagine further that a counter-claim is made, with an associated argument, and also associated status markers of its supporters, languages, and methods.

The degree to which (status-weighted) people in a community would be inclined to support this counter-claim (or even to listen to supporting arguments offered) would depend on the relative strengths of both the arguments and the status markers on both sides. (And on the counter claim’s degree of informativeness and relevance regarding topics seen as important.) I’ll say that such a community is more “argument-oriented” to the degree that the arguments’ logical or Bayesian strengths are given more priority over the claims’ status strengths.

Even though almost everyone in most all communities feels obligated to offer supporting arguments for their claims, very few communities are actually very argument-oriented. You usually don’t contradict the boss in public, unless you can find pretty high status allies for your challenge; you know that the strength of your argument doesn’t count for much as an ally. So it is remarkable, and noteworthy, that there are at least some communities that are unusually argument-oriented. These include big areas of math, and smaller areas of philosophy and physics. And, alas, they include even smaller areas of most human and social sciences. So there really a sense in which some standard disciplines are more “scientific”.

Note that most people are especially averse to claims with especially low status markers. For example, when an argument made for a position is expressed using language that evokes in many people vague illicit associations, such as with racism, sexism, ghosts, or aliens. Or when the people who support a claim are thought to have had such associations on other topics. As such expressions are less likely to happen near topics in math, math is more intrinsically supportive of argument-oriented communities.

But even with supportive topic areas, argument-orientation is far from guaranteed. So let us try to identify and celebrate the communities and topic areas where it is more common, and perhaps find better ways to shame the others into becoming more argument-oriented. Such an orientation is plausibly a strong causal factor explaining variation in accuracy and progress across different communities and areas.

There are actually a few simple ways that academic fields could try to be and seem more argument-oriented. For example, while peer review is one of the main place where counter-arguments are now expressed, such reviews are usually private. Making peer review public might induce higher quality counter-arguments. Similarly, higher priority could be given to publishing articles that focus more on elaborating counter-arguments to other arguments. And communities might more strongly affirm their focus on the literal meanings of expressions, relative to drawing inferences from vague language associations.

(Note: that being “argumentative” is not very related to being “argument-oriented”. You can bluster and fight without giving much weight to logical and Bayesian strengths of arguments. And you can collect and weigh arguments in a consensus style without focusing on who disagrees with who.)

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Protecting Hypocritical Idealism

I’m told that soldiers act a lot more confident and brave when they are far from battle, relative to when it looms immediate in front of them.

When presented with descriptions of how most citizens of Nazi Germany didn’t resist or oppose the regime much, most people claim they would have done different. Which of course is pretty unlikely for most of them. But there’s an obvious explanation of this “social desirability bias”. Their subconscious expects a larger positive payoff from presenting an admirable view of themselves to associates, relative to the smaller negative payoff from making themselves more likely to actually do what they said, should they actually find themselves in a Nazi regime.

When the covid pandemic first appeared, elites and experts voiced their long-standing position that masks and travel restrictions were not effective in a pandemic. Which let them express their pro-inclusive global-citizen liberal attitudes. Their subconscious foresaw only a small chance that they’d actually face a real and big pandemic. And if that ever happened, they could and did lower the cost of this previous attitude by just suddenly and without explanation changing their minds.

For many decades it has been an article of faith among a large fraction of these same sort of experts and elites that advanced aliens must be peaceful egalitarian eco-friendly non-expansionist powers, who would if they saw us scold and lecture us about our wars, nukes, capitalism, expansion, and eco-damage. Like our descendants are presented to be in Star Trek or the Culture novels.

Because in this scenario aliens would be the highest status creatures around, and it is important to these humans that the highest in status agree with their politics. I confidently predict that their attitudes would quickly change if they were actually confronted with unknown but very real alien powers nearby.

This predictable hypocrisy could be exposed if people would back these beliefs with bets. But of course they don’t. They aren’t exactly sure why, but most just feel “uncomfortable” with that. Visible and open betting market odds that disagreed with them would also expose this hypocrisy, but most such also oppose allowing those, mostly also for vague “uncomfortable” reasons. Their unconscious knows better what are those reasons, but knows also not to tell.

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Skirting UFO Taboos

Since before I was born, elites have maintained a severe taboo against taking seriously the hypothesis that UFOs are aliens. As I’ve discussed, elite-aspiring UFO researchers have themselves embraced this taboo. They seem to figure that if we look carefully at all the other hypotheses, and see how inadequate they are, then the taboo against UFOs as aliens must collapse.

For elites pundits, this taboo is a problem when UFOs as possibly aliens are the topic of the day. Because elite pundits are also supposed to comment on the topic of the day. Their obvious solution: talk only about the fact that other people seem to be taking UFOs as aliens seriously.

For example, here is Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) in a 1992 word New York Times article:

Even if You Think Discussing Aliens Is Ridiculous, Just Hear Me Out

I really don’t know what’s behind these videos and reports, and I relish that. … Even if you think all discussion of aliens is ridiculous, it’s fun to let the mind roam over the implications. … Imagine, tomorrow, an alien craft crashed down in Oregon. … we are faced with the knowledge that we’re not alone, that we are perhaps being watched, and we have no way to make contact. How does that change human culture and society? …

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. … Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public. … “Instead of a land grab, it would be a narrative grab,” … There would be enormous power — and money — in shaping the story humanity told itself. … “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” …

how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions… many people would simply say, “of course.” … nation-states fall to fighting over the debris, … fractious results. … “Russians and Chinese would never believe us and frankly large numbers of Americans would be much more likely to believe that Russia or China was behind it,” … difficulty of uniting humanity …

knowledge that there were other space-faring societies might make us more desperate to join them or communicate with them. … might lead us to take more care with what we already have, and the sentient life we already know. … “inspire us to be the best examples of intelligent life that we could be.”

Note how Klein very clearly signals that he doesn’t believe, and that this is all about how people who believed would react; he never crosses the line to himself consider aliens.

Here is Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) in a 746 words Bloomberg article:

Now that the Pentagon takes UFOs seriously, it’s perhaps appropriate to consider some more mundane aspects of the phenomenon — namely, what it means for markets. UFO data will probably remain murky and unresolved, but if UFOs of alien origin become somewhat more likely (starting, to be clear, from a low base rate), which prices will change?

My first prediction is that most market prices won’t move very much. In the short run, VIX might rise, … But … would probably [quickly] return to normal levels. … I would bet on defense stocks to rise, … alien drone probes … might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But … after such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

Note that Cowen touches on a crucial issue, what if they judge us, but with a flippant tone and only for the purpose of predicting assets prices, which are set by other investors. If he were to directly and seriously consider that issue, he’d have violated the key taboo.

Here is Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) in 835 word Washington Post article:

These are all major, important stories, stories that lives and futures depend upon. And yet they’re almost irrelevant compared to the question that isn’t anywhere in my Twitter feed right now: Are we being watched by alien technology? …

Other humans … would not will the death of our entire species. Aliens might. … Whether we’re being visited, and what they might be up to, is the most important question of anyone’s lifetime, because, if so, everything that currently obsesses us, including the pandemic, will retreat to a historical footnote. …

So I’ve been surprised to find that the story of unexplained sightings, which has now been percolating for years, has been mostly a subplot to more ordinary human politics and folly. … it seems to be mostly fodder for jokes.  …Why is this particular unknowable getting such short shrift? …

One possibility is that UFOs have a social status problem; historically, they are associated with cranks … Thus, most … reflexively refuse to take the topic seriously. … But the third option is that we understand at some level that aliens would be a Very Big Deal — and that most of the possibilities for alien contact are pretty unpleasant. … the alternative is so horrible that I suspect for many of us, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

This is like all those long calls for a “conversation on race” that can’t seem to find the space to actually start conversing on race. (Because there is very little safe that one can actually say.) Here McArdle talks long on on being puzzled that we aren’t talking on the key issue, about which she doesn’t actually say much. In response to my complaint she tweeted “I did my best in 800 words!”

I’m pretty sure that any of these authors could have directly addressed the big “elephant in the room” alien issues here, if they had so desired. I’ve tried to do better.

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