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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Tyler Cowen writes:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.

He also cites examples of the phenomenon:

2. People who see a lot of net environmental progress (air and water are cleaner, for instance) and thus dismiss or downgrade well-grounded accounts of particular environmental problems.  There’s simply an urgent feeling that any “pessimistic” view needs to be countered.

4. People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard.  There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.

This is solid analysis and Cowen’s correct that it’s highly under-reported. It’s not entirely new, however.  Consider Robert Pirsig in his excellent book Lila:

Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation: that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, woolly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgment about an experience. It is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience.

Pirsig’s point is that value judgments precede rational analysis.  For some people, any argument that is pessimistic about the environment, or that defends Republicans, immediately evokes a low-quality response, in the same way that sitting on a hot stove does.  Cowen wants to shift the focus of discussion from our gut-level response, to high-level analysis, which is admirable.  The path to get there is to recognize this process, examine it, and be willing to compromise when gut-level response and high-level analysis contradict.  Note that I’m not advocating we ignore our gut-level value judgment (and Pirsig definitely isn’t); our value judgments are really important, and when they conflict with some analysis, it may be because the analysis is flawed.

Neurosurgeon/philosopher Edward de Bono makes a similar case in this book, by illustrating the process by which the human brain filters ideas into buckets based on prior experience.  The same way our mind associates the idea “cat” with a broad set of quite different prior experiences, it also associates the idea “bad argument” with a broad set of quite different prior experiences.  Furthermore, we link these ideas to each other, based on prior experience.  So if someone has been exposed to a decent number of arguments that they consider both bad and conservative, they become likely to assign the label bad to a new argument at the same time they recognize it as conservative, regardless of the merits of the argument.  What differentiates thinkers from partisans hacks is they recognize the fallibility of their prior assumptions, and are able to analyze the world through multiple frameworks.


Maybe it’s because I played an absurd amount of Civilization in high school, but I have a soft spot for the idea of border realignment.  I don’t want to see wars of conquest, but I see a certain justice in rewarding countries that succeed economically by giving them sovereignty over countries that fail.  So I liked this suggestion that Brazil annex Portugal (gated, more here), even if seems even more implausible than my earlier policy suggestion.

Though I’m still somewhat confused as to public-sector unions in Wisconsin, I do have some strong opinions on how policy-makers should tackle the NFL labor dispute.  Step 1 is to repeal the NFL’s anti-trust exemption.  Step 2, use anti-trust law to break the NFL into 8 separate leagues, based on existing divisions.  Allow the 8 leagues to co-ordinate in developing schedules, including play-offs, but don’t allow them to collude on questions of expansion and contraction.  Step 3, use anti-trust law to prevent NFL teams from owning football stadiums.  Step 4, ban public funding of football stadiums.  Step 5, repeat steps 1-4 for the other professional sports leagues.

The result of these changes, I believe, would be thus:  The number of NFL teams would increase from 32, to somewhere between 50 and 100.  Major markets like New York,  LA and Chicago would grow from 3 to ~10 teams between them; many minor markets like Portland and Austin would grow from zero to one team; and middle market teams like Dallas, Washington and Denver would grow from 1 to 2 teams, which would share stadiums.  Individual leagues would relax ownership rules, in order to attract new owners.  Existing team values would drop.  Player salaries would drop.  Ticket prices would drop.  Employment would rise.  Quality of play would initially drop, but most fans wouldn’t notice.  Over time, innovation–both in business management and football strategy–would increase.

This is, of course, a fairly drastic policy change.  It would upset a number of powerful lobbies, including NFL owners, NFL players, the NCAA–which would face increased competitive pressure, and traditionalist sports fans–who want to compare Peyton Manning to Fran Tarkenton, even though they play highly different games.  However, the policy consequences listed above are both fiscally prudent (increasing employment, ending subsidies to sports teams) and highly progressive (transferring wealth from rich players and owners to poorer unemployed athletes and fans).  That is, these policy changes should be broadly supported by the bases of both major political parties.  And while I don’t expect any of these changes to occur soon–any serious threat of Step 1 alone would lead to a quick resolution of the current negotiation–I do expect them to happen eventually.

Will Wilkinson’s piece on use of shaky evolutionary psychology to explain dating behavior reminds of me a question I’ve always found mysterious: why isn’t more serious thought put into explaining dating behavior?


One day a tidy disquisition explaining why human behavioral ecology is the bees non-vulgar knees will issue forth upon this page, but until that glorious day I present to you Lucia, a “dating/relationship expert specializing in Cougar relationships,” and two of her “12 Reasons Women Can’t Stand Nice Guys.”

It’s clear Wilkinson disapproves of this particular analysis of dating, but unless he presents an alternative explanation to a set of important and interesting questions, he hasn’t advanced the discussion very far.  I’ve never seen a particularly good discussion of the simple, quite empirically testable question, “What percentage of women can stand nice guys?”  I know the answer isn’t zero, since my dad’s a pretty nice guy, and my mom seems to like him okay.  Lacking serious-minded analysis, the rational response is to skeptically apply the weak theory that’s out there.  A map drawn by a five year-old is better than no map at all.

Honestly, what would happen if you polled women across a range of ages and relationship statuses, with two questions: “On a scale of 1-7, How much do you like nice men” and, if appropriate, “On a scale of 1-7, How nice is the man you’re in a relationship with?”  A lot of words have been written on this topic, very few of them by particularly serious thinkers.  I once read Neil Strauss’s book The Game, which contains some fairly innovative theories, some of them supported by anecdotal evidence, or some of the wishy-washy evolutionary pysch that Wilkinson decries.  Why don’t academic social scientists study these hypotheses?  Putting aside sweeping theories of why dating behavior, start with a fact base.  For instance, testing whether stuff like this works.  It’s not a difficult study to design.

Of course, there is a small number of academics asking these questions, but at most universities, the field most likely to ask these questions is Gender Studies, which is generally classified in the humanities, and not approached with the scientific rigor I’m looking for.  This is a topic that’s ripe for investigation by economists, psychologists, sociologists, if not creation of a field specific to the topic.  Why are questions about dating studied so significantly less important than, say, questions about politics, which has multiple academic fields devoted to it?

Spurred on by Connor’s lengthy response to my post on Wisconsin unions (I was waiting for someone to take the bait), I will wade into this issue, rather than sweeping it under the rug.  While I don’t see American class warfare a problem of the same magnitude as poverty, war, corruption or crime, I’ll grant that it’s an interesting question, to which there are better and worse answers.  I have an opinion on the NFL labor dispute, so I well ought have an opinion on the situation in Wisconsin, which is admittedly a more important issue.

But I confess, I lack crucial knowledge!  For all the reporting on protests, I don’t understand key details regarding the issues at stake.  I get that the bill limits unions ability to collectively bargain, but I don’t understand what that means.  Particularly, what is the current (pre-legislation) basis of collective bargaining?  When public-sector unions collectively bargain, who do they bargain with, and what leverage does each side have?  Are public-sector unions able to strike if the other side doesn’t meet their demands?  Who is the other side, the governor?  Other elected or appointed figures?

By my cursory reading of the bill, public-sector employees would still be able to organize themselves to negotiate for higher salaries and benefits, but they’d need to negotiate with the state legislature–who can enact laws that increase salaries and benefits.  It doesn’t seem like a particularly harsh blow against anyone’s rights to force unions to negotiate with representatives of the people who write their members’ checks.  What am I missing here?

Earlier I posted about my preference for simultaneously accepting multiple models that conflict with each other, and applying them to different situations.  One reason to do so is that one model may be more accurate in particular applications.  This occurs in both cosmology and social science.  A second reason to do so is that, independent of accuracy, some models have greater pragmatic value in particular applications–that is, they’re more useful even if less accurate.

Consider two theories of basketball.  Theory A says that in any basketball game, the better team–the team that has better talent, strategy, and work-ethic–will always win.  Theory B says that while talent, strategy and work-ethic are important, luck is also a factor; thus the best team usually wins, but sometimes loses, at no fault of their own.  Both theories are internally consistent, and consistent with observed phenomena, though they conflict with each other.  In deciding which model to use, I find I prefer Theory A when I’m playing basketball, and Theory B when I’m gambling on basketball, regardless of which model I believe to be more accurate.  I consider the ability to accept the viability both models, given their dissonance, and to casually switch between them, to be a fairly useful skill.  Even though I know that one theory must be wrong, Theory A makes me a better baller, and Theory B makes me a better gambler, so I benefit from applying both at different times.

I had similar thoughts when reading Why I am Not’s post on charity.  The author finds something fishy with the economics of charity auctions, and proposes they may less than perfectly altruistic.  So there are two models: first, that charity auctions are highly altruistic, and that attendees ought to celebrate themselves; second, that charity auction attendees are stuck-up self-congratulating jerks.  Regardless of the accuracy of these models, I’d recommend using the second in pithy blog posts, while begrudgingly sticking to the first while attending charity auctions.  Even if you believe charity auctions are wasteful, hiding your true feelings has social utility, and will keep you from coming across as weird.

In academia, and particularly the humanities, ideas gain a lot of credit when they’re attributed to others, especially if they’re dead, white and male.  I score 2/3 when I note that William C. Wimsatt is a major influence on my views about epistemology.  Here’s a summary and review of his major work, Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings.

I’m having issues with the comments section at Philosophy Bro, so I’ll post this here instead.  In a discussion of empiricism and rationalism, the author writes:

You are definitely over-committing yourself if you mean that everything we can know is mediated through the senses – I mean, mathematics? Logical tautologies?

As with my earlier discussion of science, the key missing idea here is that of the map/territory relation.  If scientists and philosophers would realize that they’re building models/maps to explain the world, and not defining rules that govern how the world/territory works, our understanding of these issues would improve drastically.

Frankly, I find it preposterous to suggest that mathematics can be known without relying on sensory perception. Show me a way to teach a child addition that doesn’t rely on sensory perception–no blocks, no pictures, no counting on your fingers.  Then, and only then, will I grant that mathematics can be intuited without sensory perception.  Yes, armchair philosophers can understand math without reference to specific measurements.  But only because they’ve previously perceived an enormous number of examples of mathematical theory working.

Based on observation, we create a model; we test it; it works; over time we accept it as very strong theory.  That’s our inductive process, for science, for math, for logic.  After we have our model, we extrapolate, interpolate, and infer–deductive processes.  So we can figure out that 9823+2349=12172 without measuring. But only because we’ve previously seen so many other applications of our addition theory work, without ever seeing one fail.  We trust that we don’t need to test it, based on the enormity of evidence supporting the model.  But our trust doesn’t make the theory true.

(Editorial note: Philosophy Bro writes casually about interesting issues in philosophy.  In a previous post about Free Will, the author used a word I found offensive, and I said so in the comments.  The word remains in that post, and as such I won’t link to it.  However, I like the blog, and am wiling to write off one isolated case of bad judgment in linking to the site.)

I find myself highly troubled by the ongoing class wars is the United States, mostly because of the amount of effort and energy being wasted on it.  America is an enormously wealthy country by international or historic standards.  Neither the American middle class nor the American upper class are oppressed group, yet each frames its argument as if the fate of the world depends on their getting a larger piece of the pie.

Scott Sumner makes an interesting argument about means testing.  Union-workers make a compelling case to defend their negotiating power.  No one wants their taxes raised or benefits cut, and its fairly easy to argue persuasively that your case is special.

And all I can think is, stop whining.  Deal with it.  There are serious problems in the world.  There’s a large budget shortfall, and the only way to address it is to cut spending or raise taxes.  There are honest arguments to be had about how to do so, but any argument that can be accurately summarized as “Don’t take my shit” is going to get mocked.  Here on this blog.  By me.

I have a hypothesis that in 150 years, the problems facing the world will be very different than what we see today.  Not because of a technological singularity, but simply because humans will have solved today’s hardest problems: poverty, war, crime, disease, climate change.

Here Robin Hanson links to a post arguing that solar technology will be economically viable on a large scale within a fraction of that timeframe.

This should be fantastic news for folks worried about carbon emissions or running out of oil. After all, projecting that a thirty year trend will continue for another ten years seems pretty safe.

A while back, I argued in favor of a wait-and-see approach to Climate Change, a position that would be supported by this knowledge.  It’s hard to know whether this projection is realistic, but equally hard to accurately project the effects of Climate Change.