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).

How school choice can benefit teachers

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.

Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.

The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.

How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.

Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.

Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.

Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.

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!

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.

The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

Cheap college: Ten Tips

If you’re about to embark on your undergraduate education in the US or Canada, you probably have a good chance of ending up owing some money to pay for your studies and expenses. Can you avoid financial disaster and still end up with a pretty good “education” section on your CV? I believe so, and I’d like to share with you a few tips on cheap college education. They might turn out to be useful, whether you want to go straight to the job market after graduation or whether you have further studies in mind.

I did my undergraduate degree in Brazil. Then, I moved to the UK and completed my graduate education there with a very generous stipend. I also taught in higher education in both countries, including two top universities in the UK. I worked part-time for an institute attached to a university in Europe. Now I work at a major university in South Africa. I know a few things about higher education, and here’s a list of tips for you.

1. Accept a full-tuition scholarship.
If you’ve received an offer of a full-tuition scholarship, go for it. As long as it’s not a loan. No brainer. You’re being subsidised to study full-time. This is your job now. Do a little bit of networking and career skills training, but focus on your degree. Try to do as well as you can. The problem with this strategy is that, quite frankly, the vast majority of students aren’t offered scholarships that get even close to covering full tuition costs.

2. Avoid the athletics trap.
Don’t count on your prowess in sports to put you in a position where you earn full tuition to study. Athletics scholarships cover at most a fraction of the college cost. At most, you’d be able to combine an athletics scholarship with some other source of funding, but even if you get to that stage, you’ll have to figure out a way of earning B+ or A on average with little time to study.

3. Split your degree.
This is the oldest trick in the book. Yet, not enough students seem to follow it. I didn’t know the North American system very well, and I owe this point to Gary North. He explains it on this video. In the US, you can save a lot of money by doing the first two years of your degree at a community college or some other low-cost higher education institution. You can earn an Associate degree and then transfer credits to a four-year college to complete your Bachelor’s degree. One advantage (apart from the financial factor) is that you could do it in the evenings, while you earn some money during the day. Another advantage is that permanent teaching staff in a small college or a community college are gifted teachers – that’s why they were given their jobs in the first place – whereas at a major university professors are rewarded according to their research achievements and teaching might not be terrible, but it’s not necessarily the best you can get either.

4. Try distance learning.
This is emerging as a major alternative to traditional university attendance. You can either earn credits (which you can, later, transfer) or a whole degree at a fraction of the normal cost of university attendance. You can also combine this with point (3) above.

5. Stay with your parents.
Okay, as a Brazilian I didn’t see any problem in staying home for another four years during my university education. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and it’s up to you to decide if this strategy is worth it, depending on your family’s culture and habits. But the fact is that, even if your parents charge you some rent, they won’t charge as much as the average university dorm would. This means you can save. Plus there won’t be any learning curves related to living in a completely new locality. This strategy requires you to do either a distance-learning degree or to attend your local college, and you can combine this with points (3) and (4) above.

6. Distance learning abroad.
This can be combined with (3), (4) and (5) above. The truth is, most employers don’t care very much about where you got your undergraduate education, except if the place is one of the top five or ten universities in the country. Higher education in the UK is slightly cheaper (on average) than in the US, and often much cheaper if you’re doing it online. You can register at the Open University, or at the University of London’s international programmes. Depending on the area of study, you can even do a distance degree part-time while you work, paying for each course at a time. The University of Aberdeen, for example, offers a distance degree in Religious Studies along those lines. If you give up halfway, you can still earn a CHE degree after completing the first year, a HE Diploma after two years, and the undergraduate course in the UK normally lasts for three years (except, normally, for Scotland).

If you want to save even more money and benefit from favourable exchange rates, you could also apply to study at the University of South Africa (UNISA), one of the world’s largest universities. UNISA has a very good reputation. Remember Nelson Mandela? He earned a degree there. For South Africans, each year of study costs around 1,000 dollars, and if you live abroad, you need to pay extra, but not a whole lot more. There are no classes. Normally, you use multimedia material, lots of written material, and travel to some place in your country where you can do the exams. So you need to factor in the cost of travel, but it still might be worth it. Other South African universities, such as North-West University, also offer distance degrees for certain fields.

7. Move abroad.
This is also becoming more of an alternative for North Americans. In Germany, for example, you can register at a university, as long as you can prove you know the German language well, and get a degree from some of the top universities in the world. The downside is the learning curve of moving abroad, visa bureaucracy and, perhaps, the cost of living in Europe might not be worth it. For example, you could pay low tuition fees in Finland, but it’s not that cheap to live there. For a tuition fee of around 1,000 Euros per year you can also do a degree in Portugal or Spain. Tuition fees in France and Italy are also relatively cheap. All this assumes you can prove you know the local language well enough to register. Depending on where you go, the case for doing a degree abroad is even stronger. In Portugal and Spain, an undergraduate degree normally takes four years. In Italy and France, it depends. In Germany, it normally takes three. This means you save a whole year of expenses.

8. Erasmus+.
If you decide to do your degree in Europe, you can still end up experiencing campus life and networking in North America. The reason is that students at European universities can be selected to do a year abroad under the Erasmus+ programme, and some of the partner universities are from North America. This is not very easy, but what I mean to say is simply that going abroad doesn’t mean abandoning any hope of experiencing student life in North America.

9. Cut corners while still following the rules.
You should thank Gary North for pointing this out. In a North American degree, you must do a number of credits, including electives or credits you can choose, as part of the total number of credits you must earn to obtain the degree. You can cut corners and save time and money by learning independently and then doing a credit-awarding exam. Some of the exams you can do are for general courses you’d end up doing as an elective anyway.

10. Make sure you do French and German.
How does this relate to “cheap college”? I confess there’s no direct relation. But I’d still urge you to do French and German as electives, particularly if they’re “for reading knowledge“. Those are intensive courses that get you to be able to read scholarly work in French or German by the end of a semester. This might not in itself make your college life cheaper now, but it will get you some skills you can use in the future. It gives you a head start in applying for the top, well-funded, PhD programmes in the US and Canada, in case that’s what you’re planning to do. Most PhD courses require you to have reading knowledge of at least one, if not two, of these languages. You might as well do it now. Moreover, if you just want to go to the workplace after you graduate, this can also give you a little advantage over the competition. While it doesn’t necessarily make your college any cheaper, this strategy will make your life easier by adding another relevant item to your CV which might turn out to be very useful in the near future.

I hope those tips can be useful. Maybe you’re even reconsidering whether you should really get deep into debt in order to earn a degree. Well, here’s my appeal. Please reconsider. Student loans may be common. Some even call this kind of debt an investment. But it’s not healthy to owe tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re just 22 or 23 and under pressure to find a good job to pay that money back. You want to be free. Maybe you want to go to a well-funded graduate programme without that stress. Maybe you want to get married. Who knows? Before accepting a loan to finance your education, please consider these alternative options. I urge you.

Before concluding, a disclaimer. I’m not saying any of these tips will work in every case. Be responsible and make sure you understand the details and implications of any decisions you make. Check, for example, if your target university or college will accept credit transfers from the place where you obtained those credits. Read the small print. But this is more or less what you’d be doing if you accepted a loan – you’d read the small print, right?

Who needs a list of progressive professors?

Turning Point USA has a new list out of progressive professors. The list has already begun to be attacked as signaling the rise of a new era of McCarthyism where academics will be prosecuted for anti-American discourse.

I agree that the list should be attacked in so far that it tries to define what is acceptable discourse in academia. Academia should be a place where ideas, no matter how absurd or controversial, can be discussed and this list doesn’t help that goal.

There may be a limited place for safe places. Recently I’ve been willing to accept ‘safe places’ in those cases where individuals genuinely cannot handle certain ideas being discussed. There’s no point in, for example, attending the university’s Jewish student club and claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. There’s no point in going to a support meeting of transsexuals and claiming they’re going to hell. Etc etc. Emphasize on the limited though. I am willing to hold my tongue in support group settings, but that’s it.

That said the list, and the response to it, are funny in several ways.

Turning Point USA crafted the list to indicate professors who have been documented attacking conservatives. One professor barged into a Republican student and shouted profanity. I can see a point in the list if it listed only those professors who had a reputation for encouraging an environment of hostility – there is a different between being able to discuss radical ideas and yelling fire in a theater. I’m not so clear why Holocaust deniers are listed though. I don’t agree with such individuals, but if they only express the ideas I see no reason to avoid them. If Turning Point USA is serious about promoting a culture where conservative ideas can be freely discussed in academia it must be willing to protect the Holocaust deniers. Does Turning Point USA not realize the absurdity of trying to, on one hand, create a safe place for Judeo-Christian conservatives, and promoting the right of conservative ideas to be discussed in academia

What I find funny about progressives talking about the need for universities to tolerate their own ‘radical’ speech (what’s radical about wanting more government?), they themselves are intolerant to conservatives. Consider this: I’m a double minority – an illegal alien libertarian. Which of these two identities do you think is more cumbersome in academia?

After the election of Trump several members of the academic community assured me that I would be protected if need be. Yesterday the President of the University of California system released an op-ed defending the undocumented student community. Earlier today she announced that the UCs, including its police force, would refuse to cooperate with any deportation efforts.

In comparison as a libertarian I am often advised to keep quiet about my political views. At minimum I should try to avoid researching things that make it clear that I diverge from the rest of academia in political thought. Otherwise I will have a hard time getting my research published or be cut off from the social networks needed in the job market. On occasion I have found myself ostracized socially for voicing dissent on things like the minimum wage or affirmative action. I’m not alone in this.

In an ideal world I should be able to be an illegal alien, a Holocaust denier*, homosexual, and a devout Muslim** without feeling the need to suppress my view points. Academia should be a safe place for ideas no matter how radical.

Thoughts, comments?

*I’m not a Holocaust denier.
**I’m not a Muslim either.