Timothy Taylor on Homo Narrativus

He writes,

Homo sapiens likes to protest that all conclusions come from a dispassionate consideration of the evidence. But again and again, you will observe that when a certain homo sapiens agrees with the main thrust of a certain narrative, the supposedly dispassionate consideration of evidence involves compiling every factoid and theory in support, as well as denigrating those who believe otherwise as liars and fools; conversely, when a different homo sapiens disagrees with the main thrust of certain narrative, the supposedly dispassionate consideration of the evidence involves compiling every factoid and theory in opposition, and again denigrating those who believe otherwise as liars and fools. Homo sapiens often brandishes facts and theories as a nearly transparent cover for the homo narrativus within.

That is his gloss on Robert Shiller’s recent address to the American Economic Association.

Notes from the 2017 Edge Question

Folks were asked to name a scientific concept that deserves to be better known.

Lisa Randall nominates “effective theory.”

an effective theory tells us precisely its limitations—the conditions and values of parameters for which the theory breaks down. The laws of the effective theory succeed until we reach its limitations when these assumptions are no longer true or our measurements or requirements become increasingly precise.

Matthew D. Lieberman nominates naive realism.

If I am seeing reality for what it is and you see it differently, then one of us has a broken reality detector and I know mine isn’t broken. If you can’t see reality as it is, or worse yet, can see it but refuse to acknowledge it, then you must be crazy, stupid, biased, lazy or deceitful.

In the absence of a thorough appreciation for how our brain ensures that we will end up as naïve realists, we can’t help but see complex social events differently from one another, with each of us denigrating the other for failing to see what is so obviously true.

Matthew O. Jackson nominates homophily.

New parents learn from talking with other new parents, and help take care of each other’s children. People of the same religion share beliefs, customs, holidays, and norms of behavior. By the very nature of any workplace, you will spend most of your day interacting with people in the same profession and often in the same sub-field.

…Homophily lies at the root of many social and economic problems, and understanding it can help us better address the many issues that societies around the globe face, from inequality and immobility, to political polarization.

Dylan Evans nominates need for closure.

However great our desire for an answer may be, we must make sure that our desire for truth is even greater, with the result that we prefer to remain in a state of uncertainty rather than filling in the gaps in our knowledge with something we have made up.

Gary Klein nominates decentering.

Decentering is not about empathy—intuiting how others might be feeling. Rather, it is about intuiting what others are thinking. It is about imagining what is going through another person’s mind. It is about getting inside someone else’s head.

…Being able to take someone else’s perspective lets people disagree without escalating into conflicts.

Adam Waytz nominates the illusion of explanatory depth.

If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”

Cristine H. Legare nominates Cumulative Culture.

Cumulative culture requires the high fidelity transmission of two qualitatively different abilities—instrumental skills (e.g., how to keep warm during winter) and social conventions (e.g., how to perform a ceremonial dance). Children acquire these skills through high fidelity imitation and behavioral conformity. These abilities afford the rapid acquisition of behavior more complex than could ever otherwise be learned exclusively through individual discovery or trial-and-error learning.

If someone had asked me, I would have proposed something similar: cultural intelligence.

Eric R. Weinstein gives us Russell Conjugation.

the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?” While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions.

Sarah Demers nominates blind analysis.

The idea is to fully establish procedures for a measurement before we look at the data so we can’t be swayed by intermediate results. They require rigorous tests along the way to convince ourselves that the procedures we develop are robust and that we understand our equipment and techniques. We can’t “unsee” the data once we’ve taken a look.

John Tooby nominates coalitional instincts.

These programs enable us and induce us to form, maintain, join, support, recognize, defend, defect from, factionalize, exploit, resist, subordinate, distrust, dislike, oppose, and attack coalitions. Coalitions are sets of individuals interpreted by their members and/or by others as sharing a common abstract identity

…to earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs, and feel good attacking and misrepresenting rival groups.

Ideology and Polarity

Jordan Peterson says,

In a sophisticated religious system, there is a positive and negative polarity. Ideologies simplify that polarity and, in doing so, demonize and oversimplify.

That sentence really bolsters my approach in the Three Axes Model. The whole interview is interesting.

In fact, I have been binge-watching his lectures. Reviews of his book suggested that it might be inaccessible, but his lectures are very accessible, albeit with a big investment of time. If you don’t have the patience for his style, you might want to jump to lecture 5, part 1. But my view is that you should have patience for his style.

Peterson, like Jung, believes that ancient myths tell us a lot about how we are wired. In my eBook, I say that the Progressive oppressor-oppressed axis can be found in the Exodus story. I think that Peterson would locate what I call the civilization-barbarism axis in a lot of ancient myths in which the death of a king or the emergence of a terrible king leads to chaos until a hero fights the chaos and is crowned the new king.

The libertarian liberty-coercion axis may be more modern. In Peterson’s terms, government (and our cultural inheritance in general) always enbodies both the good father who provides order and the tyrant who chains people. The liberty-coercion axis sees the tyrant and not the good father. Peterson probably would find libertarian utopianism to be akin to other utopianisms. In that sense, he would view a really dogmatic libertarian as dangerous, the way that Whitaker Chambers famously remarked that reading Ayn Rand made him feel as though there was lurking a “To a gas chamber–go!” mindset.

I think that embedded in his course is a philosophy of science that is profound. I think it can be applied usefully as a perspective on economic models. I will say more about that when I finish the course.

A Note on the Oppressor-Oppressed Axis

A commenter writes,

It seemed obvious to me that one could apply the oppressor-oppressed axis by noting that Castro was the oppressor and the Cuban people were the oppressed.

I need to clarify that the oppressor-oppressed axis is not about oppression per se. It is about classifying certain groups as inherently oppressed and others as inherently oppressors. A couple of generations ago, the Left would have considered manufacturing workers to be oppressed. Today American manufacturing workers (and former manufacturing workers) are treated as oppressors, because they are white. Meanwhile, very affluent people can be seen as oppressed, because of their skin color or sexual orientation.

In the case of Cuba, poor Cubans were granted the status of “oppressed,” and rich individuals and corporations had the status of oppressors. Castro, who personally accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth while he was dictator, was regarded as a friend of the oppressed because the government provided the health care system.

When it is applied appropriately (for example, during the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s), the oppressor-oppressed model is to the Left’s credit. However, when applied unthinkingly or hypocritically, I think it discredits the Left. Some progressives realize this, but many do not. I think they would benefit from reading my revised Three Languages of Politics when it appears next year.

The Fake News Problem

Typical Washington Post Headline:

D.C. Council to vote on nation’s most generous family leave law: 11 weeks off, up to 90 percent pay

Note the modifier “generous.” Not “intrusive” or “coercive” or “attempting to be generous with other people’s money” or “blithely unaware of unintended consequences.” Just “generous.” Why didn’t every government think of that? Why not have a whole year off, with 150 percent of pay? That would be even more “generous.”

Interestingly, the print edition had a much more neutral headline, but the lead paragraph still refers to the potential for a “generous” paid leave policy.

I see this editorial bias in many stories, particularly the local ones. I have remarked before how the Montgomery County School system is always described as having an “excellent reputation,” when the only thing that is excellent about it is the pay and benefits lavished on the employees, most of whom are not classroom teachers. The outcomes, which the Post never looks at, but which are readily available on the state department of education web site, are mediocre.

Finally, I would note that the Post‘s coverage of Fidel Castro was much less antagonistic than its coverage of Donald Trump. This is a case where I think that the attempt to view a phenomenon along the progressive oppressor-oppressed axis, and accepting Castro’s self-designation as a savior of the oppressed, is pathetically misguided. Instead, conservatives who view Castro as barbaric along the civilization-barbarism axis and libertarians who view him as coercive along the liberty-coercion axis strike me as much more sensible.

One of my fantasy jobs is “conservative curmudgeon” at the Post. I would write a weekly column listing all of the biases I find each week in the paper, most of which are not even in the editorial section. Maybe next year I will start a regular weekly series of blog posts along those lines.

Scott Alexander on The Revolt of the Public

He wrote,

Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Thanks to a commenter for recommending the post. Martin Gurri’s fear in The Revolt of the Public is that exactly the form of nihilism that Alexander fears is what the Internet facilitates.

Here is a thought: If you could push a button that would destroy everyone’s faith in government, in order that they would become receptive to libertarianism, would you do it?

Maybe the question is too ill-specified. But my answer would be “no,” and in that sense I am conservative. I certainly would like to see people change the way that they think about government, so that they wish it to take on more less responsibilities and face fewer more constraints, but I do not want to blow things up so that we can start over.

My view on Clinton vs. Trump has been different. I see Trump’s authoritarian tendencies as almost certain to be restrained by the media, by left-wing elites, and by important elements of the Republican establishment. Even if we grant that Clinton is cautious, how would she react to, say, a government debt crisis or continued escalation of he costs of Obamacare? My guess is that her response would be authoritarian, with more regulation and controls. And there would be no effective institutional opposition.

However, it is not an easy call. I agree that a Trump victory would probably harm conservatism and libertarianism more than a Trump defeat. And that is worth taking into consideration.

How to Change Minds

Maria Popova writes,

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

Pointer from Olivia Goldhill.

Borrowing a Hansonian locution, I would say that argument is not about changing minds. Instead, it is about playing status games. You make points that lower the status of those with whom you disagree, and this in turn raises your status among those with whom you agree.

As Popova’s article explains, if your goal is to change someone’s mind, then the best approach is to start by talking about what seems right about the person’s beliefs. Then allow the person to come around to the problems with their thinking and, ultimately, to the better alternative.

Perhaps my Three Languages of Politics can be useful in this regard.

Haidt, Cosmides, and Tooby on Socialism’s Attraction

Self-recommending. I went to the event with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I will post on the substance once I have watched a re-run. Each of the speakers had problems. Jonathan Haidt was flustered by technical difficulties which delayed the start of his talk. Leda Cosmides had a sore throat from a cold. And John Tooby reminded me of Paul Samuelson, in that it appeared that his mind was working much faster than he could talk, giving the listener the feeling of missing out on insights that were in the speaker’s head but never made it out of his mouth.

In general, I wish the event had been longer.

Google News Usurps Matt Drudge

Drudge is known for juxtaposing two headlines to make an ironic point. At the moment, Google News is showing me one headline about President Obama disputing as not jibing with reality Donald Trump’s dark characterization of the state of things during his acceptance speech. Higher up on Google News is a headline about the latest apparent terror attack in Munich.

People have pointed out to me that Trump came down strongly on the civilization vs. barbarism axis. My guess is that the Democrats will not end up trying to compete along that axis. I do not think that they help themselves by calling attention to the issue. In fact, no matter how much they may believe that facts and rationality are on their side, claiming that the problems of crime and terrorism are over-stated would be the most self-defeating way possible for the Democrats to call attention to those issues.

I expect that the Democrats will end up coming down strongly on the oppressor-oppressed axis. Generically, they will try to tie Mr. Trump to another headline I see on Google News, which is that ex-Klansman David Duke is seeking a Senate seat. Their message will be that “If you are an X, then a Trump Presidency will take away your rights,” where X will be alleged to include non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Evangelical. . .

In other words, my prediction is that this election season we will see the three-axes model much in evidence, with Mr. Trump hitting the civilization-barbarism axis for all it’s worth and Mrs. Clinton hitting the oppressor-oppressed axis for all it’s worth.