You’re Not Worth My Time

In our polarized and politically intolerant times, intellectuals worry about the divisions in our societies. You might call it inequality or absence of social mobility, racism or rigid social structures but all pundits seem to agree that despite our apparent cosmopolitanism, many people’s opinions on lifestyles, politics, or economics are diverging. More so, their opinions about others’ opinions is less accepting. We disapprove of people that believe the wrong things, and we shun them in favor of like-minded people.

Economists like Paul Collier (The Future of Capitalism), Raghuram Rajan (The Third Pillar), and Branko Milanovic (Capitalism, Alone) are producing well-publicized books about how the social world of our current societies are collapsing – “coming apart at the seams”, as Collier phrases it. A recent book on technology and the environment by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, states the following:

more and more people are choosing to have fewer ties to people with dissimilar values and beliefs, opting instead to spend more time among the like-minded. The journalist Bill Bishop calls this phenomenon ‘the big sort’. (2019:227)

The observation could have come straight out Jonathan Haidt, a scholar I greatly admire. Why do we do this Bishop-style sorting? A common assessment is that having people challenging my beliefs hurts my identity and I don’t like it. We rather go for echo chambers.

Let me be contrarian and obnoxious for a minute and defend this Big Sort: is it really that bad to distance oneself from those with different views and opt for like-minded people?

The Irrelevance of Political Opinion

It’s long been recognized by social scientists that politics drive people apart (together with ‘Economics’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Abortion’, forming the acronym R.A.P.E, the avoidance of which is key to successful social conversations). From being friendly customers in a decentralized marketplace, politics urges us to become enemies and opponents, demands that we confiscate one another’s stuff rather than cooperate in creating value for each other. Bringing up your position on some labor market reform or the taxation of the rich (of which your familiarity is probably quite limited) is likely to deteriorate a relation rather than improve it.

Here’s the thing: Life is much more important than politics. Life is the experiences we’ve had, the sunrises we’ve seen, the friends and relationships we’ve had and lost and the stories that came with them. Not to mention the food we ate and the things we did. What your stance is on the environment or what you think the long-term consequences of QE is going to be are all very secondary issues. They might be much more interesting to those of us who care about such things, but for the majority of people, they remain pretty immaterial.

What happens when you trumpet these R.A.P.E. topics in your indecent search for like-minded people – or even an experience-widening tolerant search for opponents? Consider the typical, loud liberty-minded American; within five minutes in his (yes, his) presence, you know what his views are and he throws them in people’s faces whether they like it or not. Your group of acquaintances, likely consisting of people who couldn’t care less, get annoyed. While some people may engage in serious conversations about politics or economics (or religion or abortion) once in a while, their lives are generally concerned with more worthwhile topics. Having some loud-mouthed libertarian invade their everyday life with provocative statements and logical argument is not just annoying, it is bad manners.

I can lecture anyone and everyone I meet on the brilliancy or markets or how Scottish banks operated in the 18th century, with the sole outcome that I will have no friends or even acquaintances. Sharing your political and economic views rarely endear you to other people; it merely makes you a nuisance.

In short: Don’t be an arse. Stop ruining our great time with mindless, hurtful, harmful politics.

What about the perspectives and knowledge of others?

If you must invade others’ lives with your pesky politics, speaking to people with diverging opinions and different background might be interesting and fruitful. Key words “might be”. More accurate words: “is rarely”.

It is true that you might learn some exciting things from random strangers, but it’s unlikely. Most people are less informed about the world than I am (if you doubt that, ask your conversation partners to take Rosling’s Gapminder test) – what are they going to “teach” me but inaccuracies and misinformation…?

Sure, my car-loving friends can teach me something *fascinating* about some new car, a topic a could care less about. My baseball-crazy friends could recount the latest Sox game or why Tom Brady is the greatest – oh, ye, that’s a different sport. Soz. But is an environmentalist really going to teach me anything worth knowing about the impacts of climate change? (No, how could they – they don’t understand markets or even capitalism). Is an Occupy Wall Streeter going to lecture me about how financial markets work and what banks really do? How is my mother contributing to my perspectives on monetary policy when the sheer extent of her monetary wisdom comes from a novel where the ostensibly private Federal Reserve was purchased and controlled by some millionaire?

Don’t get me wrong: these are all amazing people that I highly cherish. I enjoy spending time with them and sharing stories about life. Point is: I’m under no illusion that they offer intellectually valuable perspectives that I could benefit from.

If I wanted to get such perspectives, I’d much rather spend time around two kinds of people: smart or curious. The majority of people you meet are neither:

Smart People are those who actually know things about the world, and I don’t meant boring things like why Israel celebrates this or that holiday, why the sky is blue (OK, that could be cool) or how one assembles a roof out of palm leaves. I mean a fair and favorable view of markets and a data-driven optimism. I mean a basic grasp of statistics. I mean a big picture understanding of what matters and the intellectual capabilities to explore them.

Curious people are those of whatever political persuasion that have thick enough skin to have their positions questioned and willing to reason to reach mutual understanding. One does not have to be smart or well-informed to be interesting – it’s enough to be sceptical and hungry for knowledge.

They rarely make ’em like that no more. So I take my probability-informed chances and avoid politically-minded people.

Elitist and Snobby?

Probably. But consider this: I have 24 hours a day, of which I sleep maybe 8. For maybe another 8 a day, I need to produce value, and so can’t be interrupted by loud and obnoxious libertarians (or environmentalists, or anthropologists or…). The last third of my days contain a lot of tasks: washing, workout, food, reading, wonders of the world. At best, it leaves a couple of hours a day for curious intellectual disputes. Statistically, I have another 56 years to live, for little over 60,000 hours worth of intellectual endeavors. There is an almost an endless supply of materials from interesting people out there – actually smart people: authors of books and journal articles, podcast interviews, lectures etc, all on topics that interest me. And more is produced every day. For every hour you take away from me with your “enriching perspectives” and uninformed opinion, I lose an hour of engaging with the treasure trove of actually smart people. Besides, the depth of their knowledge, the clarity of their formulation, the well-researched (and sourced!) material and examples they bring are almost certainly better than whatever you’re about to bring me. Consider the opportunity cost for me of having to listen to you “bumble-f**k your way through it“, as my beloved Samantha (Lily Collins) says in Stuck in Love. Even if you only take 10 minutes of my time, is whatever you’re about to say better than 1/360,000 of the sum of humanity’s current (and future) literary, statistic and economic treasure?

I don’t think so either. It’s simply not worth it.

This is a good reason to stick to people of similar mindset – people who are curious and open to having every argument re-examined, every proposition questioned. People with thick enough skin and sharp enough intellect not to mistake your objection for insult.

It’s not really the content of someone’s ideas that we’re shunning; it’s the intolerance and ignorance that we’re avoiding, carefully taking the opportunity cost into account. Talking to people who don’t share those views – the meta-views of intellectual discourse if you wish – is mostly a waste of time. The book on my desk is almost certainly more valuable.

With all due respect, you’re simply not worth my time.

Global Warming: Take Off My Sweater?

There is a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It contains nothing but bad news, of course. But I am busy with my real life; I have obligations to others; I have to feed myself and shower; I even go to the gym regularly. What to do? Just trust a hysterical sixteen-year-old? (Yes, I mean Greta.)

When someone or something claims that there is, has been, change in something I perceive might be important, I apply the following four quick tests. I do this to decide how much I must attention I should pay to the change news.

1 Source credibility

Not all sources are created equal. Some stink, some have a long record of being reliable. The Wall Street Journal is one of the latter. Almost all anonymous internet sources are not even sources. The National Enquirer will publish anything (although it has had a few remarkable scoops). Normal sixteen-year old girls are only credible when they pronounce on show biz stars or on something related to a skill they have personally acquired, such as piano or gymnastics.

2 Main text: description of process

I scrutinize the description at the heart of the announcement of change though only for a short time. Does the process described make sense? Is it derived in an intelligible way from a study, or studies, that conform to conventional scientific, or other scholarly standards? If no claim is made that they do, they don’t, ever. If there is such a claim, there can still be abuse but there will shortly be a denunciation, in most cases, at least.

3 Narrative around description

Most change descriptions not directly in a scholarly journal come wrapped up inside a narrative. The narrative is often more interesting than the findings to which they are supposed to be linked. That’s intentional but dangerous. Suppose your doctor carefully measures your heartbeat and records his observations. Suppose that then, he gives you a very good lecture on the faults of Social Security. However valid the latter is, it should gain no authority whatsoever from the impeccable measurement of you heartbeat. This is a crude example but people do this sort of things all the time. Do you think climate activist do?

I ask myself how tightly connected the narrative is to the straightforward description of the relevant change? Often the answer is: barely, sometimes: not at all.

4 Gauging critically the order of magnitude of change

Suppose I tell you that I have lost weight. (I could use that.) Courtesy requires that you congratulate me but rationality demands that you ask: How much? If my response is one ounce, you will tend to dismiss my announcement and you will be right. One ounce out of 220 lbs is like nothing. (That’s aside from the fact that it might actually be nothing, a measurement error.)

The mysterious issue of “statistical significance” (that I will resist going into here though I am tempted) is only indirectly related to this matter. A difference between before and after, for example, may be statistically significant but yet, completely unimportant.

The short Wall Street Journal piece (1) covering the publication of the report is rich in narrative and short on figures. (That’s usually the case with climate change announcements, I think.) On rare figure drew my attention:

In the past 140 years -covering most but not quite all of the Industrial Age – global surface temperatures have risen by one (unit) degree Celsius.

To give you a practical idea, that’s not enough of a rise to cause me to take off my cotton sweater, or even to unbutton the top of my shirt. If the temperature rose by only one C between 8 am and noon, I would think something was wrong with the weather! I can easily believe that at this rate, in another 1400 years, it will be ten degree centigrade (Celsius) warmer and, we will still be here. That’s unless something else, something much more likely, like an epidemic. wipes us out. (2) and (3).

As this example illustrates, it may often be wise too reverse the critical sequence described above. Why bother to assess the source credibility associated with an announced change, or the conformity of the description change process to good scientific practice, or check out the attachment of the surrounding narratives to the process in the description, why do all this if the measured change is too small to merit attention?

My more complete ruminations on climate change skepticism are in Liberty Unbound: “Climate Change Denier.”

Endnotes

1   “U.N. Panel Sees Threat to Ocean” – by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal 9/26/19, P. A8.

2     I am well aware that this is a sort of arithmetic average. Surface temperature may have gone up more in some areas and less in others. They may have declined in some places. If the subject is dealt with, it will be in: Watts Up with That.

3      The WSJ accounts implies that the UN report is oddly concerned with fisheries. This is odd because fishermen have known forever that there are warm and cool patches at the same latitude in the oceans. They also know that those shift positions and that the positions of such warm and cool patches affect the movements of fish.

Musings on opinions: de gustibus non est disputandum

A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.

In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:

“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.

Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.

Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).

Let’s continue the “what to eat” comparison since, apparently, the personal is political and recently what I eat seems to be everybody else’s business too.

When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).

Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”.  It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).

This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.

I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.

Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.

By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.

Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my behaviour, accordingly.

If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.

What’s the story here?

If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.

Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.

Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing shit science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.

I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.

Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

History and Philosophy of Science

Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher of science by training, but I occasionally play one in the classroom.

The above playlist is* an excellent overview to the issues surrounding the question, “How do you know?”

I first stumbled into the topic of the philosophy of science (PS) as an undergrad at San Jose State. I was required to take an upper-division general elective class from a list of what seemed like tree-hugging indoctrination courses. I don’t remember what the other options were, but this class was probably the most important class I’ve ever taken.

This spring I taught “Modern Economic Theory” which I twisted into a mix of PS and History of Economic Thought. The biggest lesson I wanted to convey was: there are no right answers, there are lots of wrong answers, and our task is to seek the less wrong answers.

From my syllabus:

I hope to convince you of two big ideas:
1. There are no “right answers” but there are plenty of wrong answers.
2. What we know about the world rests on a foundation of received wisdom. And that foundation isn’t always as solid as we’d hope.

The video playlist above does a nice job of shedding light on how and which science is difficult. There is surely some objective truth to the universe, but it’s bigger than we can fit in our limited brains. Trying to understand our universe requires a heavy dose of humility, lest we impose grand plans that make things worse.


*As far as I know… a) See the disclaimer at the top. b) There’s an inescapable irony here. Science is fundamentally about uncertainty, so even if I was a philosopher of science, I wouldn’t be in a position to guarantee anything. See Feyerabend for more details.

RCH: 10 most brutal massacres in history

That’s the subject of my latest at RealClearHistory (I submitted it before the vicious, anti-Muslim shooting in New Zealand occurred). An excerpt:

7. Chios massacre (March – July 1822). The Ottomans were bad people for a few centuries during the Middle Ages (RealClearHistory has more on the Ottomans here). In 1822, Istanbul massacred 52,000 Greeks on the island of Chios during the Greek War of Independence. The massacre was used deftly by imperial proponents in London, Paris, and Moscow, and further isolated the Ottomans from European diplomacy. As for the inhabitants of Chios, most were apathetic toward the rebellion until the massacre.

Here’s another one:

5. Massacre of the Latins (1182). In the 12th century, Roman Catholics in Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, were known as Latins and in 1182 they were slaughtered, driven out of the city, or sold into slavery. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died. The massacre occurred because the vast majority of non-Roman Catholic inhabitants were much poorer than the Latins of the city, due to the latter’s connections to the wealthy city-states on the Italian peninsula (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, etc.). The massacre also made it harder for the Pope to unify the Christian world, as the split between Catholic and Orthodox sects only became more hardened.

Lots of bad things have happened in Turkey and Greece and over the years. Please, read the rest. There’s more massacres, but also thoughts on the genocide-versus-massacre debate, and the sheer lack of knowledge that humanity possesses in regards to its own history.

Nightcap

  1. The marvel of the human dad Anna Machin, Aeon
  2. No exit? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Big Water and Latin American borderlands Benjamin Nobbs-Thiessen, H-Borderlands
  4. The material power of ideas and knowledge Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber

A long read

According to Instapaper this article at Wait But Why is a “139 minute read.” And it was time well spent.

It’s about a new Elon Musk venture, Neuralink, but there’s plenty non-Musk stuff in there of interest. I’m agnostic on whether Elon Musk is or isn’t the next coming of the (anti-) Christ. What’s really interesting is the background material this article gives, building up a highly entertaining natural history of knowledge. The section below really captures the main thrust of that story, but it’s worth reading anyways.

minimal tribal knowledge growth before language

And this:

That leads into a discussion of how brains work, that “soft pudding you could scoop with a spoon.” Here are some excerpts:

I’m pretty sure that gaining control over your limbic system is both the definition of maturity and the core human struggle. It’s not that we would be better off without our limbic systems—limbic systems are half of what makes us distinctly human, and most of the fun of life is related to emotions and/or fulfilling your animal needs—it’s just that your limbic system doesn’t get that you live in a civilization, and if you let it run your life too much, it’ll quickly ruin your life.

And…

Which leads us to the creepiest diagram of this post: the homunculus.

The homunculus, created by pioneer neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, visually displays how the motor and somatosensory cortices are mapped. The larger the body part in the diagram, the more of the cortex is dedicated to its movement or sense of touch. A couple interesting things about this:

First, it’s amazing that more of your brain is dedicated to the movement and feeling of your face and hands than to the rest of your body combined. This makes sense though—you need to make incredibly nuanced facial expressions and your hands need to be unbelievably dexterous, while the rest of your body—your shoulder, your knee, your back—can move and feel things much more crudely. This is why people can play the piano with their fingers but not with their toes.

Second, it’s interesting how the two cortices are basically dedicated to the same body parts, in the same proportions. I never really thought about the fact that the same parts of your body you need to have a lot of movement control over tend to also be the most sensitive to touch.

Finally, I came across this shit and I’ve been living with it ever since—so now you have to too. A 3-dimensional homunculus man.17

This is too far outside my area of specialization to say, but it’s certainly an entertaining read that seems to fit with what I know about these topics (although the section on neurology could be made up as far as I know).

From there it builds up to the moon shot idea Musk apparently has in mind: building the core technology for a high bandwidth mind-computer interface. This would be the ultimate logical extreme of a trend towards better interfaces that’s been going on since before punch cards. If you think over the natural history of knowledge, it becomes clear that this idea is ultimately just a few dozen steps further down a path we’ve been on for billions of years.

And the implications of taking it that far are profound. The pros and cons of that power are huge. Consider how much more powerful your brain is with paper and pencil than without. Or a computer. Or a computer with a GUI and a copy of Excel. Once you can plug into your computer Matrix-style, all those awesome hot keys that let you zip through your computer like a pro will be like roller skates next to a rocket sled. And the two-way link would mean we could genuinely exercise some self control… for example,  by running a computer program that zaps you when you eat too much chocolate cake.

Readers of this blog will hear Hayek warning you! Such a device gives you a lot of power to manipulate a complicated thing in ways we may never be able to understand.

But this type of personal power might be a necessary bulwark against government or corporate power. Network externalities have already locked us in to Google and Facebook. A Byzantine government has created rent-seeking opportunities that puts enormous power in the hands of the politically connected. The NSA is terrifying. And machine learning will continue to get better, giving those entrenched players even more ability to understand and manipulate large numbers of people. (I’m not endorsing this forecast, just listing it as a possibility.)

In any case, even if Neuralink is just an April Fool’s joke I missed out on till now, this article provides a theory of knowledge that’s well worth reading.

In the near future I’ll argue why you need such a theory of knowledge. Stay tuned.