In Defense of Not Having a Clue

Timely, both in our post-truth world and for my current thinking, Bobby Duffy of the British polling company IPSOS Mori recently released The Perils of Perception, stealing the subtitle I have (humbly enough) planned for years: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. Duffy and IPSOS’s Perils of Perception surveys are hardly unknown for an informed audience, but the book’s collection and succint summary of the psychological literature behind our astonishingly uninformed opinions, nevertheless provide much food for thought.

Producing reactions of chuckles, indignation, anger, and unseeming self-indulgent pride, Duffy takes me on a journey of the sometimes unbelievably large divergence between the state of the world and our polled beliefs about the world. And we’re not primarily talking about unobservable things like “values” here; we’re almost always talking about objective, uncontroversial measures of things we keep pretty good track of: wealth inequality, share of immigrants in society, medically defined obesity, number of Facebook accounts, murder and unemployment rates. On subject after subject, people guess the most outlandish things: almost 80% of Britons believed that the number of deaths from terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2016 were more or about the same as 1985-2000, when the actual number was a reduction of 81% (p. 131); Argentinians and Brazilians seem to believe that roughly a third and a quarter of their population, respectivelly, are foreign-born, when the actual numbers are low single-digits (p. 97); American and British men believe that American and British women aged 18-29 have had sex as many as 23 times in the last month, when the real (admittedly self-reported) number is something like 5 times (p. 57).

We can keep adding astonishing misperceptions all day: Americans believe that more than every third person aged 25-34 live with their parents (reality: 12%), but Britons are even worse, guessing almost half (43%) of this age bracket, when reality is something like 14%; Australians on average believe that 32% of their population has diabetes (reality more like 5%) and Germans (31% vs 7%), Italians (35% vs 5%), Indians (47% vs 9%) and Britons (27% vs 5%) are similarly mistaken.

The most fascinating cognitive misconception is Britain’s infected relationship with inequality. Admittedly a confusing topic, where even top-economists get their statistical analyses wrong, inequality makes more than just the British public go bananas. When asked how large a share of British household wealth is owned by the top-1% (p. 90), Britons on average answered 59% when the reality is 23% (with French and Australian respondents similarly deluded: 56% against 23% for France and 54% against 21% for Australia). The follow-up question is even more remarkable: asked what the distribution should be, the average response is in the low-20s, which, for most European countries, is where it actually is. In France, ironically enough given its current tax riots, the respondents’ reported ideal household wealth proportion owned by the top-1% is higher than it already is (27% vs 23%). Rather than favoring upward redistribution, Duffy draws the correct conclusion:

“we need to know what people think the current situation is before we ask them what they think it should be […] not knowing how wrong we are about realities can lead us to very wrong conclusions about what we should do.” (p. 93)

Another one of my favorite results is the guesses for how prevalent teen pregnancies are in various countries. All of the 37 listed countries (p. 60) report numbers around less than 3% (except South Africa and noticeable Latin American and South-East Asian outliers at 4-6%), but respondents on average quote absolutely insane numbers: Brazil (48%), South Africa (44%) Japan (27%), US (24%), UK (19%).

Note that there are many ways to trick people in surveys and report statistics unfaithfully and if you don’t believe my or Duffy’s account of the IPSOS data, go figure it out for yourself. Regardless, is the take-away lesson from the imagine presented really that people are monumentally stupid? Ignorant in the literal sense of the world (“uninstructed, untututored, untaught”), or even worse than ignorant, having systematically and unidirectionally mistaken ideas about the world?

Let me confess to one very ironic reaction while reading the book, before arguing that it’s really not the correct conclusion.

Throughout reading Duffy’s entertaining work, learning about one extraordinarily silly response after another, the purring of my self-indulgent pride and anger at others’ stupidity gradually increased. Glad that, if nothing else, that I’m not as stupid as these people (and I’m not: I consistently do fairly well on most questions – at least for the countries I have some insight into: Sweden, UK, USA, Australia) all I wanna do is slap them in the face with the truth, in a reaction not unlike the fact-checking initiatives and fact-providing journalists, editorial pages, magazines, and pundits after the Trump and Brexit votes. As intuitively seems the case when people neither grasp nor have access to basic information – objective, undeniable facts, if you wish – a solution might be to bash them in the head or shower them with avalanches of data. Mixed metaphors aside, couldn’t we simply provide what seems to be rather statistically challenged and uninformed people with some extra data, force them to read, watch, and learn – hoping that in the process they will update their beliefs?

Frustratingly enough, the very same research that indicate’s peoples inability to understand reality also suggests that attempts of presenting them with contrary evidence run into what psychologists have aptly named ‘The Backfire Effect’. Like all force-feeding, forcing facts down the throats of factually resistent ignoramuses makes them double down on their convictions. My desire to cure them of their systematic ignorance is more likely to see them enshrine their erroneous beliefs further.

Then I realize my mistake: this is my field. Or at least a core interest of the field that is my professional career. It would be strange if I didn’t have a fairly informed idea about what I spend most waking hours studying. But the people polled by IPSOS are not economists, statisticians or data-savvy political scientists – a tenth of them can’t even do elementary percent (p. 74) – they’re regular blokes and gals whose interest, knowledge and brainpower is focused on quite different things. If IPSOS had polled me on Premier League results, NBA records, chords or tunes in well-known music, chemical components of a regular pen or even how to effectively iron my shirt, my responses would be equally dumbfunded.

Now, here’s the difference and why it matters: the respondents of the above data are routinely required to have an opinion on things they evidently know less-than-nothing about. I’m not. They’re asked to vote for a government, assess its policies, form a political opinion based on what they (mis)perceive the world to be, make decisions on their pension plans or daily purchases. And, quite a lot of them are poorly equipped to do that.

Conversely, I’m poorly equipped to repair literally anything, work a machine, run a home or apply my clumsy hands to any kind of creative or artful endeavour. Luckily for me, the world rarely requires me to. Division of Labor works.

What’s so hard with accepting absence of knowledge? I literally know nothing about God’s plans, how my screen is lit up, my car propels me forward or where to get food at 2 a.m. in Shanghai. What’s so wrong with extending the respectable position of “I don’t have a clue” to areas where you’re habitually expected to have a clue (politics, philosophy, virtues of immigration, economics)?

Note that this is not a value judgment that the knowledge and understanding of some fields are more important than others, but a charge against the societal institutions that (unnaturally) forces us to. Why do I need a position on immigration? Why am I required (or “entitled”, if you believe it’s a useful duty) to select a government, passing laws and dealing with questions I’m thoroughly unequipped to answer? Why ought I have a halfway reasonable idea about what team is likely to win next year’s Superbowl, Eurovision, or Miss USA?

Books like Duffy’s (Or Rosling’s, or Norberg‘s or Pinkers) are important, educational and entertaining to-a-t for someone like me. But we should remember that the implicit premium they place on certain kinds of knowledge (statistics and numerical memory, economics, history) are useful in very selected areas of life – and rightly so. I have no knowledge of art, literature, construction, sports, chemistry or aptness to repair or make a single thing. Why should I have?

Similarly, there ought to be no reason for the Average Joe to know the extent of diabetes, immigration or wealth inequality in his country.

BC’s weekend reads

Freud and property rights

In a recent, short discussion of property rights, I offered that property is an extension of the body, and therefore property rights can be naturally assumed as equal to our bodily rights. It was responded to highly critically. The body is intrinsically tied to our identity, as most recently stated with Sosa-Valle’s article; most people would agree to that. I feel similarly about personal property, even if proving this is somewhat more difficult.

The question of property comes up in an infinite number of discussions. If I own a Sharpie, acquiring it through legitimate transaction, I can legally prohibit another from using it. Isn’t this more of an intrusion on another’s freedom to explore the world than it is a utility of my freedom to protect this object? Why is this Sharpie mine such that I may disallow others its use? How is it within my freedom to prohibit it from others?

Where property rights actually come from, and what concerns, aside from economic or consequentialist, validate their protection, is a fundamental question. Here is a perspective from a Freudian dissection of ego relations, and historical-technological advance.

Technology is fundamentally an extension of human attributes. What is a record, but an upgrade of human auditory memory; what is a video, but an upgrade of human visual memory or imagination; “materializations of the power [man] possesses of recollection”? “With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning. Motor power places gigantic forces at his disposal, which, like his muscles, he can employ in any direction,” and so on (Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 43).

It’s not remarkable to consider that material objects may take precedence over actual limbs, given technology is simply human advancement. When a woman loses her ability to walk, and is outfitted with a mobility scooter or likewise, the apparatus takes the place of natural walking endowments; prosthetic advancements, still infantile in Freud’s time, increasingly distort what are “legs” and what are not. We wouldn’t lessen the strength of the legal bodily autonomy just because her legs are composed of different material than the organic.

Our accessories, aside from restoring us from disable- to able-bodied, take us far beyond what the human was ever capable of accomplishing, creating “prosthetic Gods.” The modern cellphone contains the entire world of knowledge in its hardware and software. Many people feel more connected to their tablets than their hidden organs. (Or maybe, more accurately, people are more connected to the functionality of their tablets, than the automatic, reflexive actions of their organs. This is clear because tablets are replaceable but the overall attached feeling persists.) The ego, per a Freudian perspective, is extended to the external world, through some fulfillment of instinct that technology allows in an otherwise impossible situation (see instinct displacement, Instincts and Their Vicissitudes, p. 121, James Strachey translation). It becomes difficult to delineate what is attached to “me” and what is not, contrary to the simplistic, phenomenological dichotomy of body and world.

How is it anyway that our body is even connected to our psyche? For an extremely brief discussion, consider that our sense of self, as a straightforward consciousness, is not immediately crippled by, say, the removal of an appendage through a freak accident. The attachment that we feel, then, is cerebral and historical, and functional. These same conditions in and of themselves are equally possible for relating the sense of self to foreign, i.e. materially external, objects. Indeed, the “connection” we feel to our body is perfectly capable of being transferred onto other objects. See, for instance, Freud’s discussions in An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (this point of transference could be argued to be the central pillar of the classical psychoanalytic perspective on childhood and ego-formation); David Chalmers’ arguments for the phone as a part of our mind via cognitive extension; and recent psychological studies of “joint action,” through dancing and the like.

Given these instances, I think it’s more sensible than not, at least providing one accepts even a little Freud, to perceive property rights as on the same ground as bodily autonomy.

Of course, Freud never argued for property rights from his analysis of technology as ego-engagement. His political views were mostly impersonal and disinterested. He left Vienna after his daughter was summoned by Gestapo in 1938, to live in London, but unfortunately left no direct commentary on totalitarianism, and most of his political views have to be derived.

Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.

From the Comments: Libertarians and Love

Rick responds to my question about heartless libertarians:

You’re spot on. There’s a mental image I’ve read (and I’m going to butcher this because I don’t remember it clearly) of a moral gradient (I’m 60% sure that’s what it’s called). The way I fit this concept in my head is that we each have a sort of a topographical map of something hill-shaped. This map represents the moral weight we put on others and ourselves. We’re at the center, and the points furthest away are those strangers from far away that we will never meet in our lives. Different areas may represent different groups of people. Even better, instead of a topographic map, you’re forming it with a finite amount of playdough. Some people might have more or less playdough than others, but they’re usually pretty similar.

Say one person’s hill is shaped like Grinch mountain (incredibly steep) he holds himself in far higher esteem than anyone else, even those very close to him. Someone whose map is a flat plain (or plateau, but it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?) is messiah-like in her even-handedness with humanity; every person is as valuable to her as her mother. Both of these are very different from normal, and we like to see other people be normal. Sometimes quirkiness is acceptable, and I suppose we might admire someone whose map looks like a ridge representing her strong devotion to the children of an African village she visits every year as well as animals of all sorts.

When I compare my moral gradient to the people around me, I notice some important differences. I put a much higher weight on strangers and foreigners. I still probably put a lower weight on the poor than a typical democrat. But that effect is swamped when you account for how much more I care about strangers and foreigners. So if I care more about the world’s poor, then who’s missing out on love? From whence came this playdough? I’m pretty sure it’s my girlfriend’s coworkers. I honestly can’t keep them straight and I can’t piece together the stories I hear about them into anything but the most abstract people.

I think my moral gradient might be pretty typical for a libertarian. Like you, I don’t want to put people out and that can appear stand-offish. But that’s really just me saying, “I don’t know you, but I believe you aren’t simply a solipsist delusion left here for my abuse or neglect.” But other-oriented sentiments come at a cost. I consider people in the abstract, where non-libertarians consider people on a case-by-case basis. Each one is special, but only a few of them actually count. Most people incorporate Dunbar’s number as both the limit of their social network and a limit to the number of people they actually care about. For me, I basically recognize “family”, “friend”, “human being”. I don’t have “second cousin, twice removed” or “friend’s ex-boyfriend’s cool cousin that I still hang out with some times.”

That’s all a very long winded way of saying “egh, their measure for love might have been focusing on love for those in-between strangers whose names I just can’t remember for the life of me.”

Here is the wiki for Dunbar’s numbers (Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist). Here is more from Rick on the topic. The ‘moral gradient’ Rick speaks of probably has to do with the research of the economists Sandra Peart and David Levy (I’d start here, if you’re interested), but I’m just wagering a guess.

“How to recognize and avoid embedded values biases”

The appearance of certain words that imply pernicious motives (e.g., deny, legitimize, rationalize, justify, defend, trivialize) may be particularly indicative of research tainted by embedded values. Such terms imply, for example, that the view being denied is objectively valid and the view being “justified” is objectively invalid. In some cases, this may be scientifically tenable, as when a researcher is interested in the denial of some objective fact. Rationalization can be empirically demonstrated, but doing so requires more than declaring some beliefs to be rationalizations, as in Napier and Jost (2008), where endorsement of the efficacy of hard work – on one item – was labeled rationalization of inequality.

This is from an article (here is the full pre-print pdf) by a number of social scientists on the lack of intellectual diversity in academia (the excerpt can be found on the bottom of page 13). I would suggest that referring to oneself as a political “centrist” or “pragmatist” is also a giveaway of embedded values bias. Just think about how that affects your perception of other points of view!

Pages 25-27 have great stuff on intelligence (so does NOL!), but the authors missed an opportunity to point out that when liberals use IQ arguments to explain such a heavily Left-wing presence in academia, they are simply invoking the same argument used by conservatives to support all sorts of racist mumbo-jumbo. (Pages 30-34 deal with the hostile climate and outright discrimination that conservatives face in academia, so it might be charitable to view these sections as making my point for me.)

(h/t Bryan Caplan)

Из американских школ – в российские

Привет, друзья! Сегодня расскажу вам про одно событие, которое произошло в Москве на прошлой неделе, и которое достаточно сильно освещалось в новостях. Я думаю вы не найдете в нем ничего экстраординарного, но для русского человека это нонсенс. Речь пойдет о стрельбе в московской школе, которую устроил один из учеников. Он принес в школу ружье, застрелил учителя географии и взял в заложники учеников. Потом застрелил одного из приехавших полицейских и тяжело ранил другого. Через некоторое время, после того как район был оцеплен и к месту происшествия приехал отец стрелка, бандит сдался.

Я знаю, что подобные ужасные события довольно часто происходят в США. Обусловлено это в первую очередь более доступным оружием, а во вторую, и наиболее интересную для меня очередь – менталитетом американцев. Точнее даже не американцев, а “не русских”, так как подобные расстрелы случаются не только в Америке, но и в других странах. В России же это первое подобное происшествие на моей памяти.

Не будем рассуждать об оружейном лобби, о “сложных подростках” и переходном возрасте, о высокой школьной нагрузке накануне поступления в высшие учебные заведения, а также о том, каким образом подросток смог достать оружие (по информации из средств массовой информации, он сумел раздобыть ключи от сейфа, где его отец хранил огнестрельное оружие). Вопрос сейчас в другом. Кстати, чтобы вы примерно представляли ситуацию с личным огнестрельным оружием, приведу пример: мне почти 27 лет, и за свою жизнь я держал в руках настоящее боевое оружие, которое может убить, только один раз – и то на охоте. Ни у кого из моих многочисленных друзей и знакомых нет пистолетов и ружей. При этом я не учитываю пневматическое, газовое и прочее “не смертельное” оружие, хотя для его приобретения необходимо собрать большое количество справок и документов. Так что можете понять – огнестрельное оружие у населения России – это скорее “исключение из правил”, чем “факт”.

С древних времен, в силу исторического развития и особенностей менталитета, русский человек привык терпеть. Таторо-монгольское Иго, несколько столетий терроризировавшее Русь, блокада Ленинграда во Вторую Мировую Войну, и всякие другие исторические события. Терпеливость эта обусловлена не слабоволием, а наоборот силой характера, которая в совокупности с ленью, которая к сожалению характерна для нас, приводит к тому, что русскому человеку проще перетерпеть негативный момент в жизни, чем попытаться его как-то решить. Отсюда и получаются всевозможные неврозы, кстати… Большое влияние на формирование этой терпеливости оказывает и христианская религия, которая вменяет долготерпение и непротивление в достоинства личности. Думаю многие знают, что я по натуре своей атеист, так что мои размышления о религии в общем не стоит воспринимать как “истину в последней инстанции”. У меня свое мнение, у верующих – свое.

Дополнительно накладывается и миролюбивость русских, которая в совокупности с тем, о чем я рассказал выше, приводит к неожиданным результатам. К слову, под миролюбивостью я имею в виду именно нежелание решать конфликты силовым методом. Видимо тоже влияет северный нордический характер… Однако это не мешает миролюбивым русским быть зачастую неприветливыми с незнакомцами. Это совершенно другой вопрос.

Зачастую, как и всем остальным, нам нужно выплескивать свои эмоции. Однако “миролюбивость” – это сдерживающий фактор. Не желая причинять зло окружающим, русский человек идет по пути саморазрушения: алкоголизм, наркомания, суицид. Хотя в большинстве случаев сила характера позволяет нам выпутаться из морального лабиринта не причинив себе вреда.

И я не понимаю, что должно было измениться в мире, чтобы русский ребенок взялся за оружие и пошел убивать людей, будучи не в состоянии самостоятельно решить свои проблемы.