Neglected big problems

by on February 6, 2017 at 1:01 am in History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Relearn Every Generation – We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes, or that millions or billions of others are currently learning in parallel with us. There seem huge potential gains from finding better ways to learn from our ancestors and colleagues.

Changing World – Early in life we read the world around us and choose life plans and paths matched to that world. During our life the world around us changes, and we make some adaptations to that, but they seem insufficient. For example, we often seek to achieve in ways that were awarded with high status when we were young, to find that our achievements are much less valued by the new world.

Poor Matching – We match people as friends, lovers, spouses, and workers. Our distant ancestors only had a few available options for matches, and we inherited many intuitive mechanisms appropriate for that situation. But we now have a vast world with far more matches possible, and it seems like we don’t use that larger scope very well. We still rely heavily on inherited informal mechanisms. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

Varied Commitment – We must each choose how much to commit to our careers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods, brands, etc. We do commit somewhat, but we also switch on occasion. But it isn’t remotely clear that we do this well. We must each match our commitment to the commitment choices of folks around us, and we often lack ways to commit to avoid temptations.

That is from Robin Hanson.

1 carlospln February 6, 2017 at 1:23 am

What’s the matter with being human?

I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

ps Ancient Egyptians had friends, lovers, spouses, workers. Hanson too clever by half?

2 Turkey Vulture February 6, 2017 at 1:37 am

Yeah to identify these as problems he’d need to have some goal for humanity in mind, and apparently one that involves changing it from its current state.

If so, we should probably be discussing that goal first, as people with different goals might call these “features” rather than “problems.”

3 londenio February 6, 2017 at 1:49 am

These problems seem relevant to a wide range of objectives, from individual happiness to building new civilisations. Hanson is just spelling out some obvious inefficiencies in the way we behave.

4 Turkey Vulture February 6, 2017 at 10:16 am

No, they are problems based on a certain ultimate vision for humanity that will not be universally agreed to.

5 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:30 pm

They are problems in the view of many people, who have various different visions for humanity, and maybe have unclear or unformed visions.

Liberal arts and social sciences departments of universities might be expanded in order to research and reflect upon these questions, from many different angles. This can– and should– be done, without coming up with some final pronouncement on what the vision for humanity ought to be.

6 stephan February 6, 2017 at 1:46 am

I agree Hanson seems to be lamenting why we are not more like computers/Ai machines, that can acquire knowledge quasi instantly, get loaded with the latest software, and can be matched though powerful algorithms. We could also lament, why do we live and die, how inefficient to have to teach a new generation every time only for all that embodied knowledge to end in death, why can’t we be more eternal ?

7 Just Another Right Wing Economist February 6, 2017 at 7:27 am

We are already eternal dude. While technology is advancing the the degree of spiritual maturity of mankind is generally quite low. There are many reasons for that, but i think that is what Hanson is pointing at. An overwhelming majority of the people dont really know how to lead a good meaningful life. There is a lot of wasted potential…

8 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm


9 Dan Lavatan February 6, 2017 at 2:37 am

These aren’t so much ignored problems as problems with obvious solutions that people ignore. I think the labor department projects labor demand 10 years out and methods can be used to extend this, liberal arts people also argue they can do anything with a degree. You can learns stuff by reading a book, school tends to interfere with this. It’s easy to write a program to review profiles, Tyler seems to pretend this is automated in his book description, but I don’t think he understands the algorithms used. If you aren’t all in you aren’t committed; If you get fired commit to another job.

10 MSimon February 6, 2017 at 4:19 am

Why are the lessons of Alcohol Prohibition so hard for Americans (let alone countries that watched it from a distance) to learn?

Here is an economist who learned at least one of the lessons:

“Whose interests are served by the drug war? The U.S. government enforces a drug cartel. The major beneficiaries from drug prohibition are the drug lords, who can maintain a cartel that they would be unable to maintain without current government policy.” – – Milton Friedman

I believe he also called it socialism for criminals.

So tell me – why do the anti-socialist, law and order types love Prohibition so much?


File this under Relearning..

11 Just Another Right Wing Economist February 6, 2017 at 7:05 am

Because Wall Street need the drug money to continue their casino?

12 Tom T. February 6, 2017 at 8:06 am

Can you really look at what heroin and meth are doing to small-town America and conclude that the answer is to increase supply?

13 dearieme February 6, 2017 at 8:52 am

That was exactly the Prohibition argument. So you’ve rather missed the point.

14 MSimon February 6, 2017 at 10:27 am

“That was exactly the Prohibition argument. So you’ve rather missed the point.”

I can add that many of the harms ascribed to drugs are caused by prohibition.

Meth was at one time widely and freely prescribed. Heroin was over the counter for about 20 years. Back then about 1.3% of the population were regular heroin users. After 100 years of Prohibition? About 1.3% are regular users.

15 too hot for MR February 6, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Further to missing the point: If a good has price elasticity <1 (as drugs do), restricting supply acts to increase revenues to suppliers.

So if you want to further encourage and empower the cartels, yes by all means restrict supply.

16 The Free Market Is Not God February 6, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Yes. Anti-socialist, law and order types love Prohibition so much, because almost all anti-socialist, law and order types are crony capitalists, or support crony capitalism, or pretend to be against crony capitalism, while always voting for crony capitalists’ candidates. Because they are all Republicans or Republican voting Libertarians.

I saw a new saying on Twitter. “Libertarianism is astrology for men.”

17 Datroof Jackson February 6, 2017 at 2:52 pm

@FreeMarket: Huh? The war on drugs is something that economists and libertarians tend to agree on and get right. If libertarians happen to vote Republican, it’s because their own guy is quite literally denied a place on the stage.

18 Max Jacobson February 6, 2017 at 4:29 am

The first and second problems are related. The larger question is how we can live balanced lives in the face of both ancient wisdom and changing circumstances. Only we have the local knowledge to understand and adapt to present circumstances, but, without a timeless frame of reference, we lack the perspective to make use of the accumulated wisdom of the past. We may think we understanding it, but, really, we misinterpret it through our already limited framework, repeated back to ourselves our presentist understandings and ignoring the real lessons of the past. Unless we can access some transcendent truth, we are stuck.

Many previous generations thought God played the role of that transcendent truth. Since the Enlightenment, human reason has been substituted into that role, but it should be very clear by now that it too is insufficient (and that belief in an objective human reason is itself part of our circumstances which we must interpret and understand).

19 The Free Market Is Not God February 6, 2017 at 2:01 pm

Perhaps liberal arts and social sciences departments should be expanded in order to research and reflect upon these questions, from many different angles.

20 Li Zhi February 6, 2017 at 5:54 am

Interesting PBS show I just watched How We Got to Now – Sound. Which argues among other things, that the invention of the telephone was vital for the modern city. It started by pointing out that a lot of our major advances have been in the recording and transmission of information (visual and audio). It occurs to me that what would be just as revolutionary (imho) is the ability to record and transmit emotion. Can’t speak for anyone else, but I am clearly in the camp that no matter how much I read and saw and heard, experience of major emotional experiences was the only effective way I (partially) learned somewhat about those dimensions of being human. Just think if we could bottle that and the young could experience it as if first hand. Wisdom in a bottle?

21 msgkings February 6, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Isn’t music and art and writing (fiction) how we record and transmit emotion? Music especially.

22 Li Zhi February 6, 2017 at 6:00 am

Scientists are making some progress in directed stimulation of the brain to evoke specific memories. I wonder if a day will come when Johnny and Sally come home from school and their homework includes putting on a helmet and being checked for errors in their encoding of the lessons of the day, and if found, corrective restructuring be undertaken. Seems far fetched now, but with AI, VR and AR technologies so primitive now, I’d not be willing guess where we’ll be in 10 or 20 years.

23 Andrew M February 6, 2017 at 6:26 am

Young don’t learn from the old precisely because the world has changed. Your father tells you to play in the high school band, because that was highly valued in his day; today it is mocked. Your mother tells you to go to college because it was the path to riches in her day; but these days it’s often the path to life-long student debt.

Also, there are different stages of life. The things a single childless young man values are very different to the things a married father values, which in turn are different to the things a retired man values. Most advice, e.g. “visit your dentist regularly”, implies telling young people to value the long-term more than they otherwise would. But it’s entirely rational for single young men to value the short-term more.

24 dan1111 February 6, 2017 at 6:52 am

There is quite a lot that doesn’t change. Still, I’m skeptical of point 1. Here’s how Hanson spells it out in the fuller blog post:

“you might think each generation could at least make clear to the next the big timeless insights and strategies of life. You know, how to manage a career, when to leave town, how to be a good lover, friend, parent, spouse, employee, boss, etc. or what to watch out for when choosing such relations.”

Those are issues for which there is no clear-cut answer. They are complex issues which include balancing many different factors, with a lot of the specifics coming down to personal taste. Also there is a huge amount of uncertainty in the mix. You can make “good” choices and still lose out, or “bad” choices and succeed. The idea that we can just get the formula from the previous generation is wholly specious.

25 y81 February 6, 2017 at 7:02 am

Actually, the tiger moms are pretty big on learning a musical instrument, and their children do okay, so maybe your father is correct.

26 Art Deco February 6, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Amy Chua insisted her daughters choose between the violin and the piano. It would have been poetic justice had one of those harassed little girls smashed the violin over mama’s head.

27 dearieme February 6, 2017 at 8:54 am

“Your mother tells you to go to college …”: whereas my parents encouraged me to get an education, which is a plain different thing.

28 Art Deco February 6, 2017 at 1:36 pm

I think remaining in school past age 16 was something perhaps 20% of my British contemporaries did. As recently as 1966, perhaps 5% of a given age cohort in Britain would enroll in universities. Different business here.

29 MSimon February 9, 2017 at 8:56 pm

There are some things that haven’t changed.

The City vs Country divide has been a feature of human politics for 5,000 years or more. Too bad we haven’t figured it out yet.

“When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” – Thomas Jefferson

Two Ecologies

A Thermodynamic Explanation Of Politics

30 Just Another Right Wing Economist February 6, 2017 at 7:09 am

Some things can only be learned by experiencing them. About the poor matching, is Tyler arguing that we should all move to a big city, and make massive use of dating websites? Overall, a very good post, somewhat unusual, for this blog.

31 Slocum February 6, 2017 at 7:26 am

The Baldwin Effect likely helps a bit with #1.

32 Mark O February 6, 2017 at 7:29 am

Good list. (1) suggests there an absolute limit to what a society can know, it would be interesting to measure what this limit is and where we are. My sense is we are pretty close to the limit.

33 Just Another Right Wing Economist February 6, 2017 at 7:47 am

Nope, we aren’t. We are actually quite far from the limit, and thats a bit obvious, if you look at the state of the world.

34 Mark O February 6, 2017 at 8:50 am

the current state of the world actually proves the point

35 Axa February 6, 2017 at 7:38 am

Relearn every generation: no, it’s relearn every day. People invented schools to accomplish this objective. Schooling can be better, but it’s a never ending job.

Changing world: our DNA says we must please our parents when we’re babies/children. Hanson is already an optimist when he dates the high status objectives to the time when we were young. Those high status objectives may be the objectives of our parents or even our grand-parents, what it’s commonly known as “tradition”.

A conflict arises: we school children so they don’t lose resources discovering things we already know (relearn every generation) , but if we school them too hard we cripple them with rigid tradition (changing world). Enter a very smart guy, Jaroslav Pelikan, he made the distinction between Christian tradition and traditionalism (“the blind faith in accepted truths”). or this one

Pelikan’s insights can be extrapolated to the secular world: don’t get blinded by what’s popular at the moment you’re learning. Pelikan is one step higher than Hanson: he reconciled science and tradition. The conflict that Hanson just described in points 1 & 2.

36 Mark February 6, 2017 at 7:42 am

1. In science, some paradigm shifts occur only because the old guard dies and the new guard, with its own ideas, takes over.

Sci fi writer David Brin had a series of books where humans found themselves patron-less in a universe where all other sentient species learned from a great galactic pool of knowledge. Humans had to figure out a lot on their own, and their aptitude for unexpected, innovative, creative solutions served them well in their struggles.

In genetic programming, the designer allows a mutation rate so that subsequent generations do not stagnate. Let’s not worry too much about perfect transmission to our successors.

37 dearieme February 6, 2017 at 8:57 am

“In science, some paradigm shifts occur only because the old guard dies and the new guard, with its own ideas, takes over”: could be. But the most frequently mentioned case – quoting Planck – has been investigated, and the assertion found to have been untrue.

38 dearieme February 6, 2017 at 8:15 am

“of folks around us”: at least he didn’t refer to “our loved ones”.

39 rayward February 6, 2017 at 9:18 am

Doubt everything? It seems that the smartest among us do. And since they doubt everything, they must learn the hard way (by doing). I imagine our (very) ancient ancestors were much the same, living separate existences like the lone wolf, making little progress in the absence of collaboration, cooperation, and trust. I imagine our ancestors evolved, learned to be more cooperative, to collaborate, to live in tribes with others like themselves, to trust and not doubt those in the tribe. I imagine we evolved, became more independent, less willing to collaborate and cooperate, to doubt everything. I imagine in the future our descendants will evolve, learn the efficiency of collaboration and cooperation, to live in tribes with others like themselves, to trust and not doubt those in the tribe.

40 msgkings February 6, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Wait, in the year 2017 you are claiming we aren’t very tribal?

41 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:19 pm

The tension between {cooperation/trust of the group} vs. individuality/independence– that is present in every nation, every group, and every individual. I doubt that we’ll all come to a final solution.

There could be whole university departments of Independence and Cooperation studies. And there should be, if people want to explore the issues of the meaning of life. This is an incredibly complex topic. Trusting cooperative relationships with family members are often a precondition of true emotional independence– as opposed to the pretend independence that is so common in the U.S. We all want to express our unique individuality– just like everyone else does, by consuming exactly the same products and using them in exactly the same ways.

42 Becky Hargrove February 6, 2017 at 9:25 am

Thanks Tyler, for highlighting this post.

43 Josh K February 6, 2017 at 9:52 am

“Relearn Every Generation…” That’s the argument for Burkean small “c” conservatism in a nutshell. Cultural knowledge and institutions preserve the lessons of past generations. It’s unwise to toss it all out and start from square one every generation or so.

44 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:19 pm

True. Also unwise to keep doing everything the same way, despite changing conditions.

45 Hadur February 6, 2017 at 10:24 am

Might as well add “putting food on the table” and “getting from point A to point B” and other such basic things on this list.

46 Slocum February 6, 2017 at 10:40 am

I think also that Hanson is forgetting the idea that ‘science advances one funeral at a time’. Precisely because of the changing world, there are significant benefits as well as a costs to every generation starting out with empty heads — such heads can much more flexibly respond to the world’s changed circumstances than if they were pre-filled with existing, partially obsolete knowledge.

47 Robbb February 6, 2017 at 10:46 am

Relearn Every Generation – LOL

That is just silly. Of course we don’t have to relearn everything. It is called culture. It is why we have civilization.

48 Sir Barken Hyena February 6, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Until it can be entered numerically in a spreadsheet it doesn’t exist to our enlightened Economists

49 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Better to figure out what still works from the past generation, and what needs to be relearned. To relearn everything would be a tremendous waste of time and energy and life force.

50 Mark Ashton February 6, 2017 at 11:07 am

It seems remarkable that Hanson doesn’t even nod to the enormous, millenia-long efforts that societies have undertaken to avoid relearning every generation, through the vehicles of religion, philosophy, art, literature, and so on. Perhaps it’s his assumption that these don’t count because they haven’t been completely successful.

It’s also worth remembering how much of modernity centers around explicitly rejecting the lessons of past generations in favor of personal, first-hand experience (and it shouldn’t be forgotten that much good has come out of this rejection!)

51 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:24 pm

Religion, philosophy, art, literature are great for passing along presumed knowledge and wisdom. And in cases where those presumptions turn out to be false, there are always new religious and secular philosophers, new artists, and new writers coming up, charting new courses.

52 Shane M February 6, 2017 at 5:33 pm

I agree in general that civilization is fairly effective at transmitting key learnings to future generations.

There’s also an underlying assumption that older generations have things figured out. Older generations are often viewed by younger generations with some accuracy as being set in their ways and close-minded – unresponsive to changing norms. As norms change, so do many life strategies.

53 The Engineer February 6, 2017 at 11:07 am

The accumulated knowledge of past generations is generally called WISDOM, and it is simply not respected in our current society.

In fact, most leftism is in full contradiction of wisdom, especially the socio-cultural trends like gay marriage.

54 msgkings February 6, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Some of the past is not wisdom, such as slavery and blind religious faith.

55 Sir Barken Hyena February 6, 2017 at 1:59 pm

But much of it was wisdom, isn’t it important to sort them out? Babies and bathwater?

56 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Yes, sorting the babies from the bathwater is the key.

57 Sam Haysom February 6, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Better blind faith progress. Or Blind Faith Buzzfeed.

58 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:26 pm

If Leftism is the “contradiction of wisdom”– wisdom like discrimination against gays and various ethnic groups, then that sure makes me proud to be Left of Center.

59 We live in interesting times February 6, 2017 at 11:27 am

Paris Nov. 13. 1787.
the people can not be all, & always, well informed. the part which is wrong [. . .] will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. if they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. we have had 13. states independant 11. years. there has been one rebellion. that comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. what country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? let them take arms. the remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. what signify a few lives lost in a century or two? the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it’s natural manure.

T. Jefferson

60 Hazel Meade February 6, 2017 at 11:31 am

We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes

Typo or endorsement of reincarnation?

61 Johnny A February 6, 2017 at 11:34 am

Changing world: Climate change. Everything else is small beans.

62 roadrunner February 6, 2017 at 12:41 pm

OK, I’ll bite. What lesson learned by an earlier generation are we failing to heed?

I suspect that there will be wide disagreement, rendering the admonition useless.

63 too hot for MR February 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm

The correctness of (1) seems to me quite plain. Every book on personal finance could be thrown away in lieu of Ben Franklin, and every book on corporate finance could be thrown away in lieu of Graham & Dodd’s. But still we publish.

Worse, some lessons we lose the ability to learn. For example the equation for personal fitness is not rocket science, but the children of fat parents have baselines for blood-nutrient and activity levels that make the “learning” near impossible.

64 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:35 pm

There is general knowledge and there is individually specific knowledge, and environmentally specific knowledge also. Children and young adults should be helped to know themselves e.g. by occupational interest testing, by ability testing, and/or by teachers and family members noticing what they excel at and what they enjoy etc. That would help young people to decide what path and what types of knowledge to pursue.

Then there is the task for all of us of sorting out what types of knowledge and wisdom are valuable to us individually, as members of our culture, as members of our world, and as people in our local, regional, national, and world environments.

There is a lot there that could be studied.

65 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe February 6, 2017 at 2:40 pm

BTW, here is a book I am reading that is relevant to decisions, options, and learning of supposed knowledge and wisdom. Most of the stuff we do, we do by habit– not because we consciously decide.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Paperback – January 7, 2014
by Charles Duhigg

66 phil February 6, 2017 at 2:47 pm

I’m not sure any of these are neglected, they’re just stated differently

what is the whole education industry if not an imperfect attempt at #1, comparing contemporary levels of education attainment with the level, say a century ago, it would seem that some progress has been made

#2 there are lots of interesting books that try to take a crack at it

#3 and #4, are basically the subject of a vast array of popular culture, I’m not a regular Cosmopolitan magazine reader, but from what I can tell reading the covers in the checkout lines, it (as well as lots of other dead trees) seems almost entirely devoted to these questions

67 cw February 6, 2017 at 2:53 pm

If you have children, you know that most of them seem to be biologically opposed to learning from their parents. Ex. My daughter has mild ADHD and in high school continually lost instructions for assignments, forgot to do assignments, forgot to write down assignment due dates. Starting when she was a freshman I suggested again and again that she might want to get (and use) an assignment notebook. She didn’t take the advice until halfway through her senior year when she was starting to worry about how her grades were going to affect her getting into her college of choice (Much too late right? That’s a whole other story).

68 Post-Truth Politics February 6, 2017 at 5:56 pm

Better late than never. Especially a kid with ADHD, for her to ever listen to a parent is notable.

But humans in general seldom learn from advice. Most of us have to pee on the electric wire ourselves before we will believe what the result of that will be.

69 TvK February 6, 2017 at 6:53 pm

I sense a certain aloofness and lack of faith in humanity here. But seeing Robin Hanson is willing to bet on ’em’ not surprising.
I’m getting the urge to say : “there must be an app for this”

And the young can and do learn from the old. Unless the old have already forgotten their ways.

70 Boonton February 7, 2017 at 1:27 pm

I’m not sure how I feel about the ‘relearn problem’. Let’s use a simple model.

Say in your lifetime you can absorb and process about 1000 books worth of knowledge. Say 250 of those books are selected by the previous generation(s) as they will be what you are exposed to as a child with little freedom of choice on your part. Say the next 750 are from your adult years. As you get older your voice will become more influential and you will make your feelings known in selecting the 250 books for the next generations of children.

Of course generations overlap so if you are in your late 20’s thinking about the books you want your child to be exposed too, there are people in their 30’s-70’s doing the same thing. What this seems to set up is a constant, rolling ‘filter’ where old and new books must constantly be pitted against each other to see if they still make the cut for the first 250 or later on in the next 750.

Here’s the thing, we are producing new material at a frantic pace, much more than 1000 new books per year. Since we can only absorb a tiny fraction of material available it seems to make sense that we are constantly filtering and re-evaluating older filters. If there was a way to automatically transfer, say, 250 books into the minds of kids that would seem to put a lot of faith on the selection of those 250 books given the millions available. Also, you might think that different kids should get a different grouping of books. That way the next generation will grow up with much more than 250 books covered even though any one member can only do 250.

And another thing, since there are millions upon millions of books, it is likely that the diminishing marginal return in reading another book falls very slowly. If we could somehow increase our capacity from 1000 books to 1050 or 1100, it would probably have a big payoff by letting individuals and generations be versed in 50-100 more books worth of ideas. But that’s arithmetic growth in demand while supply grows geometrically.

Perhaps we should consider getting IBM Watson or like machine to read tens of thousands of books and produce summaries of varying length so that we could increase our ‘idea absorption capacity’.

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