Tag Archives: Personal

Our Book’s New Ground

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Matthew Hutson, author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, reviews our new book The Elephant in the Brain. He starts and ends with obligatory but irrelevant references to Trump. Quotes from the rest:

The book builds on centuries of writing about self-deception. … I can’t say that the book covers new ground, but it is a smart synthesis and offers several original metaphors. People self-deceive about lots of things. We overestimate our ability to drive. We conveniently forget who started an argument. … Much of what we do, including our most generous behavior, the authors say, is not meant to be helpful. We are, like many other members of the animal kingdom, competitively altruistic—helpful in large part to earn status. … Casual conversations, for instance, often trade in random information. But the point is not to trade facts for facts; what you are actually doing, the book argues, is showing off so people can evaluate your intellectual versatility. …

The authors take particular interest in large-scale social issues and institutions, showing how systems of collective self-deception help explain the odd behavior we see in art, charity, education, medicine, religion and politics. Why do people vote? Not to strengthen the republic. …. Instead, we cheer for our team and participate as a signal of loyalty, hoping for the benefits of inclusion. In education, as many economists have argued, learning is ancillary to accreditation and status. … In many areas of medicine, they note, increased care does not improve outcomes. People offer it to broadcast helpfulness, or demand it to demonstrate how much support they have from others.

“The Elephant in the Brain” is refreshingly frank and penetrating, leaving no stone of presumed human virtue unturned. The authors do not even spare themselves. … It is accessibly erudite, deftly deploying essential technical concepts. … Still, the authors urge hope. … There are ways to leverage our hidden motives in the pursuit of our ideals. The authors offer a few suggestions. … Unfortunately, the book devotes only a few pages to such solutions. “The Elephant in the Brain” does not judge us for hiding selfish motives from ourselves. And to my mind, given that we will always have selfish motives, keeping them concealed might even provide a buffer against naked strife. (more)

All reasonable, except maybe for “can’t say that the book covers new ground.” Yes, scholars of self-deception like Hutson will find plausible both our general thesis and most of our claims about particular areas of life. And yes those specific claims have almost all been published before. Even so, I bet most policy experts will call our claims on their particular area “surprising” and even “extraordinary”, and judge that we have not offered sufficiently extraordinary evidence in support. I’ve heard education policy experts say this on Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education. And I’ve heard medicine policy experts say this on our medicine claims, and political system experts say this on our politics claims.

In my view, the key problem is that, to experts in each area, no modest amount of evidence seems sufficient support for claims that sound to them so surprising and extraordinary. Our story isn’t the usual one that people tell, after all. It is only by seeing that substantial if not overwhelming evidence is available for similar claims covering a great many areas of life that each claim can become plausible enough that modest evidence can make these conclusions believable. That is, there’s an intellectual contribution to make by arguing together for a large set of related contrarian-to-experts claims. This is what I suggest is original about our book.

I expect that experts in each policy area X will be much more skeptical about our claims on X than about our claims on the other areas. You might explain this by saying that our arguments are misleading, and only experts can see the holes. But I instead suggest that policy experts in each X are biased because clients prefer them to assume the usual stories. Those who hire education policy experts expect them to talk about better learning the material, and so on. Such biases are weaker for those who study motives and self-deception in general.

Hutson has one specific criticism:

The case for medicine as a hidden act of selfishness may have some truth, but it also has holes. For example, the book does not address why medical spending is so much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere—do Americans care more than others about health care as a status symbol?

We do not offer our thesis as an explanation for all possible variations in these activities! We say that our favored motive is under-acknowledged, but we don’t claim that it is the only motive, nor that motive variations are the only way to explain behavioral variation. The world is far too big and complex for one simple story to explain it all.

Finally, I must point out one error:

“The Elephant in the Brain,” a book about unconscious motives. (The titular pachyderm refers not to the Republican Party but to a metaphor used in 2006 by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in which reason is the rider on the elephant of emotion.)

Actually it is a reference to common idea of “the elephant in the room”, a thing we can all easily see but refuse to admit is there. We say there’s a big one regarding how our brains work.

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When Disciplines Disagree

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, can be seen as taking one side in a disagreement between disciplines. On one side are psychologists (among others) who say of course people try to spin their motives as being higher than they are, especially in public forums. People on this side find our basic book thesis, and our many specific examples, so plausible that they fear our book may be too derivative and unoriginal.

On the other side, however, are most experts in concrete policy analysis. They spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts. (The world shows great interest in new kinds of physical devices and software, but far less interest in most proposed social reforms.)

My first book The Age of Em can also be seen as expressing disagreement between disciplines. In that book I try to straightforwardly apply standard economics to the scenario where brain emulations are the first kind of AI to displace most all human workers. While the assumption of brain-emulation-based-AI seems completely standard and reasonable among large communities of futurists and technologists, it is seen as radical and doubtful in many other intellectual communities (including economics). And many in disciplines outside of economics are quite skeptical that economists know much of anything that can generalize outside of our particular social world.

Now if you are going to make claims with which whole disciplines of experts disagree, you should probably feel most comfortable doing so when you have at least a whole discipline supporting you. Then it isn’t just you the crazy outlier against a world of experts. Even so, this sort of situation is problematic, in part because disagreements usually don’t become debates. A book on one side of a disagreement between disciplines is usually ignored by the disciplines who disagree. And the disciplines that agree may also ignore it, if the result seems too obvious to them to be worth discussing within their discipline.

This sort of situation seems to me one of the worse failings of our intellectual world. We fail to generate a consistent consensus across the widest scope of topics. Smaller communities of experts often generate a temporary consistent consensus within each community, but these communities often disagree a lot at larger scopes. And then they mostly just ignore each other. Apparently experts and their patrons have little incentive to debate those from other disciplines who disagree.

When two disciplines disagree, you might think they would both turn especially to the people who have become experts in both disciplines. But in fact those people are usually ignored relative to the people who have the highest status within each discipline. If we generated our consensus via prediction markets, it would automatically be consistent across the widest scope of topics. But of course we don’t, and there’s little interest in moving in that direction.

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Elephant in the Brain Reviews

Its now one week after the official hardback release date, and five weeks after the ebook release, of Elephant in the Brain. So I guess its time to respond to the text reviews that have appeared so far. Reviews have appeared at Amazon (9), Goodreads (8), and on individual blogs (5). Most comments expressed are quite positive. But there’s a big selection effect whereby people with negative opinions say nothing, and so readers rationally attend more to explicitly negative comments. And thus so will I. This post is looong. Continue reading "Elephant in the Brain Reviews" »

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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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My TED/TEDx Talks

My TED video on Age of Em is finally out:

As you can see, the TED folks do great at video editing. I’m hoping this will attract more viewers than the 67K of my first TEDx talk on ems 4 years ago, and the 48K of my TEDx on the Great Filter 3 years ago. As I said back in May:

The TED community seems to come about as as close as I can realistically expect to my ideal religion.

I also have a great TEDx video on Elephant in the Brain: recorded just 3 weeks later:

Added 25 Aug: 280K views of my TED video in the first day!

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I’m In Europe This Week

Catch me at one of six talks I’ll give in Europe this week on Age of Em:

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The Elephant in the Brain

One of the most frustrating things about writing physical books is the long time delays. It has been 17 months since I mentioned my upcoming book here, and now, 8.5 months after we submitted the full book for review, & over 4 months after 7 out of 7 referees said “great book, as it is”, I can finally announce that The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, coauthored with Kevin Simler, will officially be published January 1, 2018. Sigh. See summary & detailed outline at the book’s website.

A related sad fact is that the usual book publicity equilibrium adds to intellectual inequality. Since most readers want to read books about which they’ve heard much publicity lately from multiple sources, publishers try to concentrate publicity into a narrow time period around the official publication date. Which makes sense.

But to create that burst of publicity, one must circulate the book well in advance privately among “thought leaders”, who might blurb or review it, invite the authors to talk on it, or recommend it to others who might do these things. So people who plausibly fit these descriptions get to read such books long before others. This lets early readers seem to be wise judges of future popular talk directions. Not because they actually have better judgement, but because they get inside info.

Alas, I’m stuck in this same equilibrium. I have a full copy of my final book, except for minor copy-editing changes, and I can share it privately with possible publicity helpers. And when the relative cost to send an email is small relative to possible gains, a small chance may be enough. I’ll also give in to some requests based on friendship or prior help given me (as on my last book), especially when combined with promises to buy the book when it comes out.

But just as grading is the worst part of teaching, I hate being put in the role of bouncer, deciding who is cool enough to be let into my book club, or who has enough favors to trade. At least when teaching I’m expert in whatever topic I’m grading. But here I’m much less expert on deciding who can help book publicity. I’d really prefer the intellectual world to be more of an open competition without favoritism for those with inside connections. But here I am, forced to play favorites.

These are a few of the prices one pays today to publish books. But still, books remain an unparalleled way to call attention to ideas that need more space to explain than an article can offer. And for a relatively unknown author, established publishers still offer more attention than you could generate on your own. But maybe, just maybe, I can do something different with my third book, whatever that may be on.

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Trade Engagement?

First, let me invite readers, especially longtime/frequent readers, to suggest topics for me to blog on. I try to pick topics that are important, neglected, and where I can find something original and insightful to say. But I also like to please readers, and maybe I’m forgetting/missing topics that you could point out.

Second, many of my intellectual projects remain limited by a lack of engagement. I can write books, papers, and blog posts, but to have larger intellectual impact I need people to engage my ideas. Not to agree or disagree with them, but to dive into and critique the details of my arguments, and then publicly describe their findings. (Yes, journal referees engage submissions to some extent, but it isn’t remotely enough.)

This is more useful to me when such engagers have more relevant ability, popularity, and/or status. Since I also have modest ability, popularity, and status, at least in some areas, this suggests the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. I engage your neglected ideas and you engage mine. Of course there are many details to work out to arrange such trade.

First, there’s timing. I don’t want to put in lots of work engaging your ideas based on a promise that you’ll later engage mine, and then have you renege. So we may need to start small, back and forth. Or you can go first.

Second, there’s the issue of relative price. If we have differing levels of ability, popularity, and status, then we should agree to differing relative efforts to reflect those differences. If you are more able than I, maybe I should engage several ideas of yours in trade for your only engaging one of mine.

Third, we may disagree about our relevant differences. While it may be easy to quickly demonstrate one’s popularity, status, and overall intelligence, it can be harder to demonstrate one’s other abilities relevant to a particular topic. Yes if I read a bunch of your papers I might be able to see that your ability is higher than your status would suggest, but I might not have time for that.

Fourth, we may each fear adverse selection. Why should I be so stupid as to join a club that would stoop so low as to consider me as a member? The fact that you are seeking to trade for engagement, and willing to consider me as a trading partner, makes me suspect that your ideas, ability, and status are worse than they appear.

Fifth, we might prefer to disguise our engagement trade. When engagement is often a side effect of other processes, then it might look bad to go out of your way to trade engagements. (Trading engagement for money or sex probably looks even worse.) So people may prefer to hide their engagement trades within other process that give plausible deniability about such trades. I just happened to invite you to talk at my seminar series after you invited me to talk at yours; move along, no trade to see here.

These are substantial obstacles, and may together explain the lack of observed engagement trades. Even so, I suspect people haven’t tried very hard to overcome such obstacles, and in the spirit of innovation I’m willing to explore such possibilities, at least a bit. My neglected ideas include em futures, hidden motives, decision markets, irrational disagreement, mangled worlds, and more.

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My Play

In social play, an animal again waits until safe and satisfied, and feels pleasure from a large variety of safe behavior within a distinct space and time. The difference is that now they explore behavior that interacts with other animals, seeking equilibria that adjust well to changes in other animals’ behavior. (more)

Over the course of their lives Kahneman and Tversky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. .. Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. (more)

When tested in national surveys against such seemingly crucial factors as intelligence, ability, and salary, level of motivation proves to be a more significant component in predicting career success. While level of motivation is highly correlated with success, importantly, the source of motivation varies greatly among individuals and is unrelated to success. (more)

In recent posts I said that play is ancient and robust, and I outlined what play consists of. I claimed that play is a powerful concept, but I haven’t supported that claim much. Today, I’ll consider some personal examples.

As a kid I was a severe nerd. I was beaten up sometimes, and for years spent each recess being chased around the school yard. This made me quite cautious and defensive socially. Later I was terrified of girls and acted cautiously toward them too, which they didn’t take as a positive sign. In college I gave up on girls for a while, and then was surprised to find women attracted by my chatting sincerely about physics at the physics club.

Being good at school-work, I was more willing to take chances there, and focused more on what interested me. In college when I learned that the second two years of physics covered the same material as the first two years, just with more math, I stopped doing homework and played with the equations instead, and aced the exams. I went to grad school in philosophy of science because that interested me at the time, and then switched back to physics because I’d found good enough answers to my philosophy questions.

I left school for silicon valley when topics out there sounded more interesting, and a few years later switched to only working 30 hours a week so I could spend more time studying what I wanted. I started a PhD program at age 34, with two kids aged 0 and 2, and allowed myself to dabble in many topics not on the shortest path to tenure. Post tenure I’ve paid even less attention to the usual career rewards. I choose as my first book topic not the most marketable, impressive, or important topic, but the one that would most suck me in with fascinating detail. (I’d heard half the authors with a book contract don’t finish a book.)

So I must admit that much of my personal success in life has resulted less from econ-style conscious calculation, and more from play. Feeling safe enough to move into play mode freed me enough from anxiety to get things done. And even though my goals in more playful modes tended more to cuteness, curiosity, and glory, my acts there better achieved my long term goals than has conscious planning toward such ends. Yes, I did moderate my playful urges based on conscious thought, and that probably helped overall. Even so, I must admit that my personal experience raises doubts about the value of conscious planning.

My experience is somewhat unusual, but I still see play helping a lot in the successes of those I know and respect. While conscious planning can at times be important, what tends to matter more is finding a strong motivation, any strong motivation, to really get into whatever it is you are doing. And to feel comfortable enough to just explore even if none of your options seem especially promising and you face real career and resource pressures.

Playful motives are near and myopic but strong, while conscious planning can be accurate but far. Near beats far it seems. I’ll continue to ponder play, and hopefully find more to say.

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10 Year Blog Anniversary

Ten years ago today this blog began with this post. Since then we’ve had 3,772 posts, 104 thousand comments, & over 15 million page views. This started as a group blog, and later became my personal blog, and I’ve been posting less the last few years as I focused on writing books.

I still have mixed feelings about putting in effort to write blog posts, relative to longer more academic articles and books. I agree that a blog post can communicate a useful and original insight in just a few paragraphs to thousands, while an academic article or book might be read by only tens or hundreds. But a much higher fraction of academic readers will try to build on my insight in a way that becomes part of our shared accumulating edifice of human insight. My hope is even if the fraction of blog readers who also do this is small, it is large enough to make a comparable total number. Because if not, I fear blogging is mostly a waste.

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