Twenty questions?

by on August 6, 2012 at 4:53 am in Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Or forty questions, as the case may be.  One of my favorite methods of giving a talk is to have the audience write out questions in advance, and then during the talk I have to try to answer them (without peeking at them beforehand).  The goal is not only to address the queries, but also to weave the answers together into the form of a broader talk with underlying themes.

I did this recently, and I thought the best question was something like this:

“If you were designing a ten question True-False test to fool the American public and induce the greatest number of wrong answers, which questions should go on the test?  Which question would people get wrong the most often?  How many questions of the ten would the American public get right on average?”

I also was asked which of my habitual errors I would most want to change, looking forward in life.

I was asked about Jeremy Lin, and whether he or LeBron James did more to maximize global wealth.  I suggested that Lin did more to maximize utility, as his fame in Asia did not much detract from the fame of any other NBA player, but that LeBron did more to maximize wealth, in part through endorsement income.

Another good question was “How far do you think real interest rates will fall into negative territory?”, or something like that.

1 NAME REDACTED August 6, 2012 at 6:08 am

“How far do you think real interest rates will fall into negative territory?”

How much will the fed print money and use it to buy t-bonds?

I don’t understand why people seem to think that this negative intrest rate isn’t insanely artificial.

2 NAME REDACTED August 6, 2012 at 6:09 am

Better yet, they can just threaten to print and it will have the same effect.

3 Anon. August 6, 2012 at 10:15 am

Is there a scale of artificial-ness for interest rates? Aren’t they always artificial?

4 Brian Donohue August 6, 2012 at 7:48 pm

James Carville disagrees, due to a paucity of imagination- viz. a $2 trillion Fed balance sheet.

5 peter August 6, 2012 at 8:49 am

I think for the true/false test, if you could start by knowing whether a given person votes republican or democrat, you could get a nearly 100% fail rate by simply asking if their preferred politician actually voted consistently with their preferences. Also similar effects could be had with a quiz about events in world history.

6 john personna August 6, 2012 at 8:59 am

I think the “Justin Timberlake effect” says that basketball fans would choose some “star” and current placeholders are somewhat arbitrary. IOW, there will always be a superstar, making wealth differences moot.

7 David Gordon August 6, 2012 at 9:06 am

The method of giving a speech you used was a favorite of General George C. Marshall.

8 anon August 6, 2012 at 9:19 am

‘True or False – the World Wide Web was invented by an American’

Answer here:

(I think the majority of the answers will be wrong, even though the inventor recently starred in a TV programme which was watched by 40m Americans).

9 Andrew' August 6, 2012 at 9:28 am

This sounds like one of those questions that would give me fits on an oral exam. What does it even mean to “invent the internet.”?

It doesn’t mean what most people probably think. The wires? The protocols? The general idea that communicating is useful and we recently use computers a lot so…duh!?

10 affenkopf August 6, 2012 at 10:19 am

Anon talked about the world wide web, not the internet.

11 Andrew' August 6, 2012 at 11:30 am

“World Wide” would be even more problematic!!!

12 Andrew' August 6, 2012 at 11:37 am

If you mean
“With help from Robert Cailliau, he published a more formal proposal (on November 12, 1990) to build a “Hypertext project” called “WorldWideWeb” (one word, also “W3″)”

Then sure, he coined the term “WorldWideWeb” but this smacks of trick question. He also didn’t talk about “WorldWideWeb” (one word), but if you had to anoint one person as the inventor then he’ll do.

But it’s also funny that one guy can “invent” the internet while some people claim the government had to do it because the private sector could not be so visionary.

13 jpa August 6, 2012 at 11:00 am

the concept of the world wide web is much larger than just HTTP and HTML. Many, many people contributed to the idea of the world wide web.

So the proper question would be “True or False – HTTP and HTML (important standards used in the creation of the world wide web) was invented by an American.”

14 Finch August 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Um, what is the correct (or expected) answer? You know where he lives, right?

15 Brock August 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

“What does it even mean to “invent the internet.”?”

What does it mean to confuse “the Internet” with “the World Wide Web”? They aren’t the same thing, you know, and anon specifically asked: “Who invented the World Wide Web.” That is unambiguously Tim Berners Lee.

The Web exists on top of the Internet. It’s the GUI, if you will, similar to how the OS X GUI sits on top of UNIX.

16 Andrew' August 6, 2012 at 11:40 am


he published a more formal proposal (on November 12, 1990) to build a “Hypertext project” called “WorldWideWeb” (one word, also “W3″)”


17 Andrew' August 6, 2012 at 11:40 am




18 Andrew' August 6, 2012 at 11:51 am

Kidding, but considering the point is I didn’t know who would be considered the “inventor” trick question or not, there’s a 50/50 expectation of a true/false question. If your goal is to bias towards American arrogance there’s probably a better question.

19 anon August 6, 2012 at 9:45 am

True – I was going from the wikipedia definition – perhaps never a good thing 🙂 – but the definition as to what constitutes the ‘world wide web’ and what it means to be its inventor/creator is spelt out in the link.. (note- ‘world wide web’; not ‘internet’)

I included this as 1/ each of my US friends have got this one wrong (when it has come up in conversation, not because I interrogate them!), 2/ a prominent US TV commentator claimed not to have heard of the inventor (or presumably didn’t read their media briefing pack) when speaking on the aforementioned TV programme.

But in general, people have blind spots when it comes to their own country’s national myths (my own country has plenty of such blind spots). For the US, this includes thinking that all of the technology revolution of the last 2-3 decades was exclusively (rather than largely) down to US innovation.

20 Careless August 6, 2012 at 10:52 am

I think the main problem there is that very few remember/ever knew/care about the difference between the www and internet at this point.

Or did you ask in the form of “did an American invent the WWW? And remember, I mean the WWW specifically, not the internet”

21 Careless August 6, 2012 at 10:58 am

At this point I suspect that 95% of people think “the world wide web” is 90s slang for the internet, and that my 17 year old semi-step sibling might not even be aware of the term. (He asked me what Woodstock was last year. Wtf)

22 Anthony August 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Doesn’t he know that Woodstock is Snoopy’s bird friend?

23 Adam August 6, 2012 at 10:04 am

Unless you know of ten questions you can demonstrate somehow more than half the population would be wrong on, I’m thinking your best bet is to ask ten that almost nobody knows the answer to at all, forcing them to guess and getting the failure rate down to 50% with a large enough audience. The only way I can see doing better is if you know your audience is partisan and you can ask them questions like whether Barack Obama is a Muslim.

24 celestus August 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

Might state capitals work well? For example, capital of Michigan is Detroit, capital of Montana is Helena, capital of Missouri is St. Louis, capital of New Hampshire is Concord, capital of Kentucky is Frankfort, capital of Maine is Portland, capital of West Virginia is Charleston, capital of Washington is Seattle, capital of Minnesota is Minneapolis, capital of South Carolina is Columbia. I think that the median failure rate for those would be over 50%, not sure about the mean.

25 Careless August 6, 2012 at 11:04 am

It’s a true/false test, so no. Maybe you could trick people by loading up with biggest cities that are not the capitals of their states, but then you’re relying on people both not knowing the correct answer and being unable to see a fairly obvious pattern (if they know a single answer is false)

26 athEIst August 6, 2012 at 11:59 am

If you mean to fool people into picking the largest city as the capital, St Louis hasn’t been the largest city in Missouri for at least twenty years. In twenty years (or less) when south St. Louis becomes as depopulated as north St. Louis it will be third(after Kansas City and Springfield.)

27 Paul August 6, 2012 at 11:02 am

I have a request for you, Tyler.

Can you list your favorite first sentences or first paragraphs of economics papers. Choose your own criteria, as you would if I asked you to list your favorite first sentences of novels. Two of my criteria would be literary and bold, though naturally the body of a paper should merit a bold and literary opening sentence.

Here is one example from Cooper and John QJE 1988:

There are three types of papers in the macroeconomic literature on unemployment theory. First, those of the new classical macroeconomics have sought to argue that underemployment-unemployment arises from intertemporal substitution of leisure or misperceptions of prices due to an inability to distinguish perfectly between changes in relative prices and changes in the general level of prices. Second, articles in the Keynesian tradition suggest that unemployment arises from nonrational expectations or wage and price rigidities; many insights of these theories have been formalized in the fix-price literature. And, third, there is a group of papers that start with the observation that there are two theories of unemployment-new classical and Keynesian-and then offer an alternative model. This paper is concerned with papers in this third category.

28 Cliff Arroyo August 6, 2012 at 11:08 am

“One of my favorite methods of giving a talk is to have the audience write out questions in advance, and then during the talk I have to try to answer them (without peeking at them beforehand).”

You answer the questions before you see them? I saw a psychic do that once… Well, actually he did unfold and look at the questions while talking to the audience before holding up the refolded questions to his forehead and ‘reading’ them… Oddly, I was the only one of my group (of four people) who noticed this.

29 The Other Jim August 6, 2012 at 11:10 am

I bet 95% of the US would get this one wrong:

True or False: The US military found no WMD in Iraq.

30 JWatts August 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm

“”True or False: The US military found no WMD in Iraq.”

That question so broad that it doesn’t really mean anything.
Better questions:
True or False: The US found chemical weapons in Iraq after the Iraq War.
True or False: Iraq used Biological weapons on civilians.
True or False: Iraq had an active Nuclear Weapons program in 2001.

31 k August 6, 2012 at 11:12 am

Why are utility and wealth treated as separate entities?

When I think about utility, I think about wealth and vice versa. Both imply an increase in welfare.

32 GiT August 6, 2012 at 11:37 am

(If U then F), (If W then F), Therefore (U = W)

Please evaluate the logical validity of this argument.

33 k August 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm

“When I think about U, I think about W and vice versa.” == “U = W”

Please evaluate the logical validity of this argument.

34 GiT August 6, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Except you said “why are W and U treated as separate entitites?”. Implying that we should treat them as the same entity.

Further, I don’t really see the point of your reasoning by sympathy. Who cares if two concepts both evoke each other. Salt and peanuts might very well evoke each other, and both may very well imply me getting thirsty. What bearing does that have on treating salt and peanuts as discrete entities? None whatsoever.

35 k August 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm

To put it another way: I interpret Tyler’s remark as saying “where utility is somehow monetized, that becomes wealth”.

Who’s to say “happiness over Lin” < "income generated by LeBron"?

36 GiT August 7, 2012 at 2:51 am

What does your second sentence have to do with the first?

37 k August 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm


38 Ray August 6, 2012 at 11:33 am

Tom Goldstein of SCOTUS blog does this when he’s invited to speak at a school. He starts by asking the audience to give him questions, takes a dozen to twenty, then organizes them by topic and proceeds to answer all the questions. He takes no notes and does it all by memory. It’s an incredibly impressive parlor trick, and I’m sure well honed for his usual audience of Supreme Court justices.

39 Eric August 6, 2012 at 11:46 am

True or False, that I think most Americans would miss: Detroit, Michigan is located to the west of Atlanta, Georgia


40 bluto August 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Along with that Reno, Nevada and Los Angeles, California.

41 Jason W. August 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Political questions, or questions that try to use a person’s partisan ideologies against them, wouldn’t have nearly as high a failure rate as people think. Many people are aware of the lies / hypocrisies / inconsistencies of their own ideologies, they just choose not to pay too much attention to them. Someone who insists Barack Obama was born in Kenya probably wouldn’t insist on that if all political incentives to do so were removed and replaced with large financial ones.

The key is not to pick questions so obscure that people simply guess, since this would result in a failure rate of around 50%, but to pick questions that almost everyone thinks they know the answer to, when in reality almost everyone is wrong.

For example: “True or false, the Grand Canyon is the deepest canyon in the United States.” Most would probably answer true, unless they knew the purpose of the test was to fool them. The answer is false. Hells Canyon, in the Northwest, is actually the deepest. The “Detroit is west of Atlanta” question offered above is another good one. These of course are for American audiences. An international list of questions would look quite different.


1. True or False: the first nation to land a human-made object on the surface of the moon was the United States of America. (False; it was the Soviet Union.)

2. True or False: it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes who uttered the famous saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (False; Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes never said this. It was introduced in later, non-canonical works.)

3. True or False: Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. (False; Edison did not invent the light bulb, he improved it.)

42 JWatts August 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm

“3. True or False: Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. (False; Edison did not invent the light bulb, he improved it.)”

Edison (and his team) created the first commercially practical, useable light bulb. For all intents and purposes he did invent the light bulb.

43 sort_of_knowledgable August 7, 2012 at 3:20 am

The Wright brothers are generally considered inventors of the airplane even though their plane wasn’t practical.

44 August 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Conversely, Edison is usually considered the inventor of the light bulb, because his light bulb was practical.

45 GiT August 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

2 and 3 strike me as very weasely. 1 isn’t much better. I guess I would distinguish (1) errors of metonymic thinking from (2) errors of vague definition.

2 and 3 rely upon vague definitions. What does it mean to invent? What does it mean to be a specific author’s character?

2 could be improved by asking simply, “Did ACD write “Elementary, my dear Watson” in any of the books he published? Non-canonical works still use ACD’s Sherlock Holmes. They don’t use my hypothetical neighbor Sherlock Holmes who works in IT.

It seems many of these questions draw on triggering some sort of flawed metonymic reasoning process. Confusing deepest with largest or widest or most famous, or whatever. Confusing Midwest with more west than the South. Confusing “human” with “human made object” or “human landing on the moon” with “something being landed on the moon” through the phrase “moon-landing.”

46 mrmandias August 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Is the purpose of the test just to get the most incorrect answers or is it to tease out where people are most misinformed? Because the problem with Obama-Kenya question is that the gal who anwers Kenya *knows* that the consensus answer is Hawaii and knows that her answer is scored as wrong but doesn’t care. Whereas in your Grand Canyon question, you could give people the real answer afterwards and they would agree that they were wrong.

47 Jason W. August 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Edison definitely did not invent the light bulb. He wasn’t the first to think of it, he wasn’t the first, or even the second, to build one that worked. There were light bulbs before his that were “useable,” even if they were not “commercially practical.” But whether or not something is commercially practical has nothing to do with invention. I would guess that few inventions are commercially practical in their first iterations. That doesn’t mean they are not inventions.

48 mrmandias August 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Now you’re just arguing semantics, which isn’t a very interesting use of the true/false question. ‘People are misinformed about this point’ is a lot more useful than ‘people use a word to describe this process that I pedantically assert they should not.’ It would be like having a T/F question “Columbus discovered America” and claiming that the assertion was false because the Vikings discovered it, or the Native Americans were already here, or because the continent wasn’t called America yet, or because the guy’s name was really Colon.

A big difference between the Wright Bros. and Edison is that there already was a widespread and well-developed commercial market for light, whereas any use at all for aviation would be speculative. So from a societal perspective, any kind of aviation at all would be groundbreaking whereas it would be the practical, commercially viable lightbulb that would be the big deal

49 byomtov August 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm

I don’t think the case for LeBron James is so clear here.

Presumably, the wealth created by his endorsements is the entertainment value of using a product he endorses, over and above the value a consumer would derive without the endorsement.

So take Coca-Cola. Pre-James there are those who drink Coke and those who don’t. Post-James two things change:

1. More people drink Coke
2. Coke drinkers enjoy some entertainment value from the association with James. After all, if the only effect were to get people to switch (why?) everything would just be a transfer, wouldn’t it, with no wealth creation at all?

Now, it’s worth it to Coca-Cola to pay James if he gets enough consumers to switch to Coke, even without the entertainment value. So what he gets paid is greater than the wealth he creates, globally. We don’t know how much greater, of course, but how much pleasure does his endorsement really add to the act of drinking Coca-Cola?

50 SheetWise August 6, 2012 at 8:30 pm

When you spend $1 on groceries, what percentage of that $1 — on average — is a profit to the grocer?

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