The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Angry? Learn economics!

The election didn’t go your way (and if it did, just think about past elections… at least some of those didn’t go your way) and now you’re itching to do something about it. You’re angry and motivated, and at risk of making things worse

Economics isn’t just about money. In fact, it’s barely about money. It’s mostly about cooperation between strangers. But economists also study competition. Most importantly, we study decision making which is essential to understand if you want people to make different decisions!

More importantly, economics helps us understand how to navigate costs and benefits wisely. It turns out wise decision making isn’t as straight forward as we’d hope. So if you care enough to work hard to make the world better, economics is worth your time.

Still here? You really want to make the world a better place! Let me suggest that you study social science. Something I’ve learned during my first decade of studying economics (Jan. 2018 will by my 10 year mark) is that thinking clearly about something as complex as society requires mental tools that we aren’t born with. Our intuitions will lead us astray. The good news: economics mostly boils down to common sense rigorously applied.

Economics doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth (if we did, this post would be shorter but you’d have to pay to read it). But I think econ is the best place to start in an intellectual exploration of society. It will help you build a robust and modular framework for understanding the world. Economics is the ultimate modular social science; you can plug-and-play with insights from anywhere.

So why econ? Because at the end of the day, economics deals with the most important aspect of life: how to live life well. It boils down to this: every choice comes at the cost of a foregone alternative. Opportunity cost. All (good) economics comes down to this profound truth. Whether your goal is to reduce poverty, pollution, or parenting woes, learning to think of cost in these terms will serve you well.

Let’s take that concept for a test drive… would banning plastic bags reduce environmental harm? The benefit is that you’ll eliminate the problems associated with these bags (litter, use of oil, etc.). But we need to understand the costs before we know if we’re helping or hurting the environment. Notice that link starts with the question “paper or plastic” and goes on to say nothing about paper bags; it’s looking at the silver lining without acknowledging any possibility of a storm cloud. That lack of economic thinking opens us up to new problems: making heavy paper bags also creates pollution and could very well create more.

In other words, this simple concept showed us that it’s possible to do harm by doing something that sounds good (the road to hell is paved with good intentions!).

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees: economists specialize in researching very specific areas–foreign exchange markets, agricultural futures, political change, pirates–and it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Studying economics in school means studying under specialists. But once you’ve got the basics of the economic way of thinking down, you’ll see that those specializations are really just applications of the same general concepts and the same basic way of thinking. It’s easier to understand once you speak our language, but there are lots of great resources. Two places I would start:

Now get to it! Start making things better!

A beautiful bit of small world mojo

The first time I went to Boston was to look for an apartment. On my last day I was hanging around Downtown crossing. Gmail confirms it was June 12th, 2010. I was having a polish sausage, and this guy approached me. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we chatted for a few minutes. Good town. That sort of thing is exactly what I’d expect in SLO (Central Coast California) or Santa Cruz… but this was in a place with a skyline! Anyways, he wasn’t in a cult and I didn’t get robbed.

Flash forward to some time that fall. I was in Inman Square and saw a chair left on the curb for anyone who needed a chair. I needed a chair. I lived in Union Square, but that was just the next neighborhood north (if I lived on Prospect Hill, there’s no way that chair would have made it, but I might have realized that before picking it up). So I pick up this chair and walk. Google Maps puts my route at 0.5 miles. I got a couple blocks short of that before I crap out. Fortunately I’ve got a place to sit down. So I’m sitting in an easy chair on the sidewalk, hauling it forward a few yards, and plopping down again.

Across the street, someone’s trying to get my attention. He comes over, and he’s the guy I’d randomly met months earlier. He lives across the street from me! And he helps me carry home my chair. We have a beer and chat.

Flash forward to Thanksgiving of that fall. I’m hanging out by myself. This is my first Thanksgiving alone. Neighbor guy knocks on my door and invites me over. Inside are a bunch of his musician friends, and this fantastic music is coming from one of the bedrooms. An impromptu jam session is playing the sort of dusty sounding blues I’m enamored with at the time. After they finish I mention that it sounds like this African blues guitarist, Ali Farka Toure. It turns out I pronounced his name right, because I’m immediately informed that his son was playing guitar just now!

Just now I was listening to Spotify, and a song reminds me of another song which led me to the song above from that album I’d bought when I lived in SLO and was trying to be worldly. Absolutely fantastic music, a mish-mash of cultural influences bouncing back and forth around the world, and I got to experience something of it first hand because of the grace and generosity of a fellow human.

But more than that, a mix of technology, globalization, and absolutely random chance created that beautiful memory and triggered it again just now. We live in a beautiful world.

Free lunch: college edition

Andrew Cuomo recently proposed making college free taxpayer funded for middle class New Yorkers. He argues that college is a “mandatory step if you really want to be a success.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s making adequate adjustments for vocational training.

As a SUNY employee, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it means an increased demand for my services. On the other hand, it means increased pressure to keep costs down, which could mean a fall in my future earnings potential. Increased admissions pressure means I might have easier to teach students, but also probably means less chances for the low-income students coming from the worst public schools.

At best, we’re looking at a middle-class to middle-class transfer that will trade off the benefits of market pressure against the benefits (to families paying for school) of not having to think too hard about how to manage a large expense.

I won’t go into the issue of signaling (see Bryan Caplan), or the sheer wastefulness of having people get bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t need them (see Dick Vedder… esp. table 1). These are important points, because they get at the root problem Cuomo is misdiagnosing. College is mandatory because of subsidies and subsidies will only make it worse. But we don’t even need to be that sophisticated to understand why this plan is a problem.

Here’s my basic problem with “free” college tuition: it’s too good to be true. I get the desire to help out poor people, but the average household in NY makes just under $60K/year and this plan is for all households making less than $125K. That’s “free” tuition to a lot of households that would be sending their kids to school anyways. That money has to come from somewhere. The people paying for this program will largely overlap with the people benefiting from it.

If everyone thinks their kids should go to school, then what’s the point in taking away their money to send their kids to school?! We all like burritos, so give me your money and I’ll buy us all the burritos we want. Doesn’t make sense! Giving up control of your spending can only make you worse off, so this will ultimately be a bad thing for the middle class. And that lack of control from middle class helicopter parents will likely be a bad thing for the working poor people who could have been net beneficiaries (hopefully… I’m not certain this won’t back fire on net). Even if subsidizing higher-ed were a good idea, this is almost certainly a terrible way to go about it.

We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.


So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.

*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

Come back Jon Stewart!

By the way, I’m enjoying the crap out of John Oliver’s righteous indignation, but the truth is he’s probably doing more harm than good. Oliver panders to his dedicated fan base. Jon Stewart held his audience to a higher standard. He was biased, but he didn’t let his side get away with sloppy thinking.

Also by the way, Malcolm Gladwell had a nice episode that (if I’m remembering this right) nicely reflected the sort of ideological pluralism that Jonathan Haidt promotes. A recent video of Haidt has prompted a lot of my recent thinking on this issue.