Questions that are rarely asked

This time it’s Robin Hanson’s turn:

…why exactly would learning that
the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more
about that world?  Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality?

That’s in response to Paul Graham, who had written:

We want kids to be innocent so they can
continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of
knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re
going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying
to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last.
Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent, and I don’t think
this is a coincidence. I think they’ve deliberately avoided learning
about certain things. Certainly I do. I used to think I wanted to know
everything. Now I know I don’t.

Comments

Robin,

I think it's a matter of how you learn of the extent of the world's brutality. The healthy human brain can process all kinds of information but it is vulnerable to trauma as well. So yes, it's good to learn early that the world is a brutal place and that every human being is acting purely based on his/her self-interest, but learn it from someone who doesn't traumatize you with it....preferably the non-religious type.

The problem with the early discovery of brutality is exactly that: one does nothing but learn how to avoid it. Avoiding early and intimate knowledge of brutality is what allows one to become an economist instead of a drug dealer being studied by an economist.

I will move forward one idea, that more intelligent people are more cooperative and less abusive http://www.ices-gmu.org/pdf/materials/443.pdf , and also more responsive for punishment for wrong doings see papers

http://www.iew.uzh.ch/chairs/fehr/team/fehr/publications/SocialNormsandHumanCooperation.pdf

http://www.iew.uzh.ch/chairs/fehr/team/fehr/publications/NatureOfHumanAltruism.pdf

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/economics/cedex/papers/2007-07.pdf

so clever people if they are surrounded with other clever people just live in an innocent world - in the world where they can cooperate for the common good.

and thus the recipe to make world better - to move to the world with more intelligent people.

The problem with innocent smart people is that they are like Dodo birds or endangered species -- they will go extinct without the protection of those who are not innocent, yet smart enough to know smart, innocent people are worth keeping around.

Academia is full of these kinds of people which is why most of their ideas fail in the real world. The theory of "what should be" rarely jives with the reality of "what is". It takes people with some idea of true brutality to make real change toward "what should be" - IMHO.

While this conversation has focused mainly on individuals -- what about when a country or a region begins to avoid brutality -- like Western Europe for example? Could they really survive alone in a world that is way more brutal and savage then they'd like to acknowledge it is?

"A person who approaches the world thinking it is a brutal place is approaching life with a bias."

Great point.

I think we do a great disservice the way "society" sanitizes reality for kids. I know I'm ticked that I was sold a bill of goods. I don't think it's because "we" care about kids sensitivities either. I think the decision makers want sheep, consciously or subconsiously, the last thing they want is critical thinking from the peons.

"The world is a cooperative, giving place, so you are going to cooperate and give, right?"

Brutality is the wrong word, but of course, Paul Graham is right, some kinds of learning cause people to reduce their future learning. e.g. my toddler has dramatically slowed his learning curve for swimming, potty training, reading, trying new foods, etc., because he has recently discovered fear. Yes, he needs fear, and i'm glad he no longer jumps in the deep end without a parent there to catch him and he no longer sticks everything in his mouth, but, there is a real cost in increased difficulty getting him to try new and unfamiliar things.

I've seen something similar happen as smart students leave college or grad school for the real world, with a huge drop in their interest in pure theoretical learning in favor of getting results and less intensive practical learning. A better way to explain it than "brutality" is to say that people increase their discount rates and risk aversion when they encounter the real world, but increasing your discount rate too soon in life will make it harder for you to earn a skills premium over the long run.

I completely disagree with Paul Graham. I attempt to shield my kids from certain knowledge about the world merely to prolong their childhood. It never even occurred to me that learning about the brutality of the world might diminish their interest in learning even more, and considering Paul's statement now I don't think that it would (it actually sounds preposterous to me: are there many such parents out there?).

-Kevin

The idea that children are innocent is a crock of BS anyway. Children can be extremely and deliberately cruel to one another. They learn that the world is a brutal place as soon as they go off to school, or as soon as they meet their older siblings.

There's a word for people who don't learn the world is a brutal place until last: dead. Fortunately, in the good old days, these people didn't live long enough to pass on their genes.

Different individuals respond differently to the same stimuli. I think generalizing about how "kids" will respond to this information is useless. Individual outcomes will depend on how the facts interpreted, not how they're presented, and differences in interpretation will be heavily affected by hereditary differences in personality.

An economist and a gangster are both trying to deal with the world's brutality as best they can. One path implies an interest in learning as much about the world as possible, while the other does not.

Does anyone really think little Johnny is better off knowing firsthand that dad sometimes punches mom, just so long as Johnny is never hit himself?

The fact that I knew certainly helped during mom's divorce proceedings.

Paul Graham is suggesting that some facts about the world are just too demoralizing. I view it as a reaction to existentialism.

Robin's comment is a typical economist's comment, and unconvincing in this context. He doesn't argue on the basis of facts or evidence, he argues merely based on defensive rationality.

Do all of you truly think you can control the world for your children and create a perfect, safe haven for them? I'll save some time - the answer is no. So when the bad thing you can't control inevitably slips through into your carefully guarded world, your children are going to not know how to respond. Part of growing up is learning how to deal with adversity as it arises. Your job as a parent is to give them the tools to do that. You're doing them a disservice by pretending that nothing bad ever happens and are merely delaying the associated bad feelings that come along with it. And when that time comes, not only will your children feel just as bad and be less adept at managing the situation, they will also resent you for hiding the truth.

Unrelated point, but way too often legislation is passed that is clearly posited by parents who want to sterilize everyone else so their children can live in their safe fantasyland. I also resent this.

As someone commented earlier, kids can hardly avoid knowing about brutality in the world; they encounter other kids. The question is where adults should lie in exposure vs. protection.

As with so many other things, I think a happy medium is in order here. The kids who are sheltered and protected forever don't learn how to cope with things as they are, lack initiative, and are astonishingly dependent on other people. (I teach in a prep school. I get a lot of this.) But the kids who are exposed to unnecessary awfulness are too preoccupied trying to process it to be able to interact properly with the outside world; their resources are too inner-directed; they don't have enough left over to engage. (I get too much of this too.)

Hanson's critique only applies if one assumes full rationality, which we generally can't do when talking about very small children.

At any rate I really liked this Graham piece, but it is best to take it as descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Ok, we all know why Tyler posted this. He knew that number and quality of comments in the blog is superior signal to simply presenting the results of formal IQ test ;-) However, I would call this a draw. IMHO, Andromeda above provided the best practical advise on the relevant topic. But the best direct answer to Robin's question was posted on Overcoming Bias: learning about the dangers and brutality of the world would discourage learning in a sense of exploration and first-hand experiences. Maybe that's all Paul Graham wanted to say, but his thought drifted a little too far.

Why is it that when the proposal is, "Should we be [more?] honest to our children", the examples postulated presume we must thrust them into the worst experiences in the universe, whether they showed interest or not?

It seems pretty clear to me that the reactions described by Hanson and Graham are both totally plausible -- we live in a heterogeneous world, especially when it comes to our responses to trauma and brutality. I also wanted to address the commenter who posited that Western Europe is abandoning brutality. Since when? Personal brutality is certainly alive and well, and sanctioning torture, denying the humanity and integrity of others (say, Muslims), and withholding citizenship from productive residents are certainly brutal acts, even if none of these acts is characteristic of every Western European resident. There is a measure of violence and a measure of the ability to combat it in everyone, all over the globe.

"Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent"

That hasn't been my experience.

Although this puts me at risk for utter lameness:

Sometimes, when I see just how many people die from cruel brutality (and especially when I see visual images), I end up feeling really small and useless, like nothing I could ever do could stop even a small percentage of all that suffering. I feel also like my daily goals and concerns are so minor compared to what's happening. When it becomes overwhelming, rather than spurring me to action, it actually makes me feel really sad, and like I don't want to know anything about the world anymore, and that I would rather just watch a comedy and forget about it. Not very nice, but true.

A key aspect of "learning about brutality" would be what you mean by "learn". The effects are different, I'd expect, if you read about Mongol massacre of Baghdad, or watch your mother fly into a screaming rage every few weeks, or get raped by your mother's boyfriend from when you were eight to fourteen.

Ah, the noble lie or the ignoble truth? Each born of the other, it seems odd to ask which will it be?

Young people, in my experience, often have a profound sense, or at least deeply felt sense, of what is and is not just. The impulse to change the world, however naive, seems to me among the most potent and healthy impulses that may motivate a child. Besides, the notion that children ought to learn something last begs the question as to who is going to compose this well-ordered curriculum, much less impose it.

It seems when Grahams says that "Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent," he is talking about a certain kind of "very smart," which is fine enough in our technological age; but what of the "very smart" students of human nature? Surely they can leave no stone--and pardon the poor-taste pun, no stoning--unturned?

random thoughts:
- "smart" doesn't equate with "lots of knowledge about everything", it's only a correlation. It's even less correlated with "lots of useful-to-society knowledge about anything".
- how do puppies become afraid of loud noises (instead of being merely startled)? they pick up their handler's reactions. Guide dogs are taught to handle situations calmly. A friend said her daughter isn't afraid around bees, because she isn't. Her friend's daughter freaks out at flies (because mommy screams when there's a fly in the room).
- If you learn to handle brutality (appropriately introduced and explained, of course), you will not be paralyzed when it happens.
- Kids know brutality well... do you even realize how completely selfish and cruel most young children are? They only stop when they learn about consequences.
- If one keeps running away from unpleasant knowledge one loses all the potential to change it.
- Close your eyes, the monster will still be there.
- If Mother Teresa hadn't known about poverty, she wouldn't have made a difference in so many lives in Calcutta.
- We only have a certain finite amount of time and attention to spend. Closing one's mind to some knowledge isn't necessarily about "fear of brutality", I think it prevents diluting one's focus.

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