Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with Masha Gessen

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?

Here is excerpt:

COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?

GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.

[laughter]

COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.

I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.

And:

GESSEN: …I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

Finally there was the segment starting with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.

Highly recommended.

Reading and rabbit holes

Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.

Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?”  Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner.  In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.

I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them.  Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:

How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?

How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?

What were the origins of accounting in Venice?

Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history?  How much power did the Doge really have?

How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?

How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?

Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?

What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?  How did Napoleon treat Venice?

Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list.  But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions.  It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East.  Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes.  Or it may lead you to…

Follow the questions, not the books per se.  Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask.  Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.

Read in clusters!  Don’t obsess over titles.  Obsess over questions.  That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.

My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?  If not, why not?

Has anyone said this yet?

Consider the right-wing, conservative, and libertarian movements — is there a good word for them as a general collective?  For now I’ll use “conservative,” while recognizing that the lack of generally recognized standard bearers means that “conservative” and “radical” these days blur into each other, and furthermore conservative and libertarian views have areas of real and significant conflict.

Who is today the most influential conservative intellectual with other conservative and libertarian intellectuals?  (I once said Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectuals with the general public.)

It seems obvious to me that this is Peter Thiel (admittedly I am a biased observer, for a number of reasons, one being that the Thiel Foundation is a supporter of Emergent Ventures).  Quite simply, if Peter gives a talk with new material in it, it gets discussed more than if anyone else does.

What else might his qualifications be for “most influential conservative intellectual”?

He has had a major hand in the tech revolution, and with his later view that technology is stagnating more generally.

He is the talent spotter par excellence, having had a hand in the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Eric Weinstein, and others.

A major hand in Trump/populism/nationalism, or whatever it should be called.  I should note that Peter is often highly influential with those who disagree with him about Trump.

Spoke/wrote/co-authored a bestselling book — Zero to One — which also was a huge hit in China.  And the samizdat lecture notes, from Peter’s Stanford talks, were a big hit in advance of the book.

A major hand in the critique of political correctness, and the spread of that critique.

He foresaw that globalization might contract rather than keep on expanding.  The final answer isn’t in yet on this one, but so far Peter is looking prescient.

A major hand in causing people to rethink higher education, through his Thiel Fellows program.

A major hand in stimulating the interest of others in Girard and Strauss, and maybe someday Christianity?

This point has nothing to do with how much you agree with Peter or not.  It simply occurred to me that no one had said this before, or have they?

By the way, here is David Perell on Peter Thiel on Christianity.

Identity Politics Versus Independent Thinking

Anthony Kronman, former Dean of the Yale Law school, writes in the WSJ:

The politically motivated and group-based form of diversity that dominates campus life today discourages students from breaking away, in thought or action, from the groups to which they belong. It invites them to think of themselves as representatives first and free agents second. And it makes heroes of those who put their individual interests aside for the sake of a larger cause. That is admirable in politics. It is antithetical to one of the signal goods of higher education.

…Grievance is the stuff of political life…Academic disagreements are different. Important ones are often inflamed by passion too. But the goal of those involved is to persuade their adversaries with better facts and arguments—not to bludgeon them into submission with complaints of abuse, injustice and disrespect to increase their share of power. Today, the spirit of grievance has been imported into the academy, where it undermines the common search for truth by permeating it with a sense of hurt and wrong on the part of minority students, and guilt on the part of those who are blamed for their suffering.

…For college students, the search for truth is important not because reaching it is guaranteed—there are no such guarantees—but as a discipline of character. It instills habits of self-criticism, modesty and objectivity. It strengthens their ability to subject their own opinions and feelings to higher and more durable measures of worth. It increases their self-reliance and their respect for the values and ideas of those far removed in time and circumstance. In all these ways, the search for truth promotes the habit of independent-mindedness that is a vital antidote to what Tocqueville called the “tyranny of majority opinion.”

…Tocqueville was an enthusiastic admirer of America’s democracy. He thought it the most just system of government the world had ever known. But he was also sensitive to its pathologies. Among these he identified the instinct to believe what others do in order to avoid the labor and risk of thinking for oneself. He worried that such conformism would itself become a breeding ground for despots.

As a partial antidote, Tocqueville stressed the importance of preserving, within the larger democratic order, islands of culture devoted to the undemocratic values of excellence and truth. These could be, he thought, enclaves for protecting the independence of mind that a democracy like ours especially needs.

Today our colleges and universities are doing a poor job of meeting this need, and the idea of diversity is at least partly to blame. It has become the basis of an illiberal and antirational academic cult—one that undermines the spirit of self-reliance and the commitment to truth on which not only higher education, but the whole of our democracy, depends.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.

And:

COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.

[laughter]

APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

We need a new science of progress

That is the title of my Atlantic piece with Patrick Collison, excerpt:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

And:

Plenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.

Imagine you want to know how to most effectively select and train the most talented students. While this is an important challenge facing educators, policy makers, and philanthropists, knowledge about how best to do so is dispersed across a very long list of different fields. Psychometrics literature investigates which tests predict success. Sociologists consider how networks are used to find talent. Anthropologists investigate how talent depends on circumstances, and a historiometric literature studies clusters of artistic creativity. There’s a lively debate about when and whether “10,000 hours of practice” are required for truly excellent performance. The education literature studies talent-search programs such as the Center for Talented Youth. Personality psychologists investigate the extent to which openness or conscientiousness affect earnings. More recently, there’s work in sportometrics, looking at which numerical variables predict athletic success. In economics, Raj Chetty and his co-authors have examined the backgrounds and communities liable to best encourage innovators. Thinkers in these disciplines don’t necessarily attend the same conferences, publish in the same journals, or work together to solve shared problems.

You may have seen there is a small cottage industry on Twitter suggesting that we ignore antecedents to Progress Studies, but of course that is not the case, as evidenced by the paragraph above, not to mention claims like: “Progress Studies has antecedents, both within fields and institutions. The economics of innovation is a critical topic and should assume a much larger place within economics.”  In fact we consider antecedents in at least nine different paragraphs of a relatively short piece.

The piece is interesting throughout, and I can assure you that Patrick is a very productive and diligent co-author.

A test of Marginal Revolution political bias

Here is an email from Daniel Stone at Bowdoin, I am not imposing a double-formatting on it for ease of reading and formatting:

“Dear Tyler (if I may),

I’m a big fan of your work in general, and MR in particular, and think that you do as good a job as anyone at exploring a variety of political perspectives, and sharing related (diverse) research.

Still, you’re human after all J. I’ve always been curious if there are systematic patterns in your writing or links you post.

It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that you sometimes describe research as speculative or imply this by adding a question mark to the end of the link (the example that made me notice this was: “Minimum wage effects and monopsony?”https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/07/thursday-assorted-links-215.html). At other times your link simply states the main research finding or directly quotes from the paper or its title.

So, while it might be hard to identify a general bias in your links – even if the majority were, say, “pro-liberal”, this wouldn’t necessarily mean *you* were biased, since the majority of good research out there could be pro-liberal, using the added “?”s provides an identification strategy: if you were more likely to add a ? for research that leans one political direction or the other, that would suggest a bias on your part.

As a fun side project, that I thought might also have some value given the importance of MR and understanding bias more generally, I had my RA (Maggie Hanson, cc’d) grab all your links from Assorted Links posts to social science research this year (as of a few days ago). Together we coded the ‘slant’ of each as L, R or N (neutral) – depending on whether the research supports regulation, indicates market failure, etc (admittedly our process here was not extremely scientific). She also recorded whether your link text is phrased as a question (or notes that the finding is speculative, which you did a couple times and seems similar). In addition, for link text phrased as a question, we also noted whether this text is a direct reference to the research paper’s title, as this means you didn’t actually add the “?”.

We did a bit of very basic analysis, here are results:

The distribution of slant across links is quite balanced, but leans left:

. tab sla

Slant |

(L/N/R) |      Freq.     Percent        Cum.

————+———————————–

L |         35       29.17       29.17

N |         58       48.33       77.50

R |         27       22.50      100.00

————+———————————–

Total |        120      100.00

 

But you were slightly more likely to phrase your link as a question for “L” links vs for Rs (9/35 for Ls vs 5/27 for Rs):

.   tab slant endswith

Slant |      Ends with ?

(L/N/R) |         n          y |     Total

———–+———————-+———-

L |        26          9 |        35

N |        48         10 |        58

R |        22          5 |        27

———–+———————-+———-

Total |        96         24 |       120

 

And you were a bit more likely to do this for links that were not direct quotes of article titles that were questions (7/33 = 0.21 for Ls vs 2/24=0.083 for Rs):

tab slant endswith if linktex==”n”

Slant |      Ends with ?

(L/N/R) |         n          y |     Total

———–+———————-+———-

L |        26          7 |        33

N |        48          8 |        56

R |        22          2 |        24

———–+———————-+———-

Total |        96         17 |       113

 

But the magnitude of this difference is not large (and I bet not statistically significant), and the large majority of both L and R links were presented by you without questions marks.

Bottom line: you do present a quite balanced set of research findings, the general distribution leans left but it is hard to interpret this (without knowing the slants of research in general or the slant of research you post elsewhere, aside from Assorted Links). And there is suggestive evidence of a small tendency for you to be more questioning of research supportive of liberal/leftist policies.

Here’s a link to the data:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1CrPqezV51SCwAwuwjdRqBy4jUlX76Iti0X4P1nKPMpM/edit?usp=sharing

This includes a sheet with all the links that end in ?, that aren’t quotes of article titles, and their slants.

I wanted to share this with you before sharing with others. Please feel free to let me know any questions or comments!

Thanks, and thanks again for all your work. All the best – Dan”

Why zero temporal discounting *within* a life is less plausible than across generations

For an individual there is both cardinal Benthamite utilitarianism (“utils”) and preference utilitarianism.  The two sometimes conflict (would you take a pill that gave you joy when you saw suffering?), and a plausible consequentialist theory attaches some weight to both.

Most of the arguments for zero discounting of utility apply to the cardinal measure.  Don’t put off going to the dentist just because you don’t like pain — when the pain finally arrives, it will be no less real.

But now shift your attention to the preference utilitarianism.  Let’s say a person had a strong preference that “the Knicks win an NBA title in 2022,” deciding that it isn’t nearly good enough for the Knicks to win that title in 2030.  That is a kind of positive time preference.  Arguably it is ungrounded and irrational, but that isn’t quite grounds for dismissing it.  Preference utilitarianism simply counts the preference and whether it is satisfied.  You might as well argue it is irrational to care about the Knicks in the first place, never mind 2022 vs. 2030.  And indeed it is, just like so many other of our preferences do not really admit of defense or justification in external terms.

And thus, through the medium of preference satisfaction utilitarianism, we cannot altogether dismiss positive time preference for the individual.

When considering trade-offs of utilities across the generations, there are Benthamite comparisons but there is no meaningful preference utilitarianism, since there are different persons at stake.  That leaves us with one fewer argument for positive time preference in the intergenerational case.

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.

And:

COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…

Pessoa, *Philosophical Essays*

The half-sceptic speaks like Socrates, I know only that I know nothing.  The whole sceptic speaks like Francisco Sanches: Haud scio me nihil scire, I do not even know if I know nothing.

And:

The end of reason is a weariness of thinking.  Yet reason is so strong that even its weariness is a part of its strength and we dream rationally if we have learnt reason.

Those bits are from this (uneven) volume.

The collected schizophrenias

There’s a line that reads, ‘Rarely did I experience such a radical and visceral imbalance of power as I did as a psychiatric inpatient amid clinicians who knew me only as an illness in human form.’ What was that like? 

When you’re in an inpatient situation in a psychiatric hospital, you lack autonomy in a way that I have experienced in few other situations. You’re not allowed to have a lot of things, especially things that are of comfort. You’re not allowed to have them because they’re dangerous, sure — like shoelaces — but you’re also not allowed to have them because they don’t want you to be distracted by them, such as phones or laptops or iPads. So you’re made to follow their schedule.

You’re also not allowed to know how long this deprivation is going to last.

That’s part of the reason the patients are so eager to talk to the doctor every day, because the doctor is the only person who can who can sign off on you getting out. But sometimes the whole day passes and you have not gotten to talk to the doctor. In the meantime, you’re expected to behave in certain ways that are seen as appropriate — like a group activity like colouring, or like making paper snowmen. You can’t be pouty about it. Otherwise that’s a check against you, and will get you further away from being checked out. So you have to be smiley about it, even though you’re a 36-year-old adult and you’re expected to make glitter snowmen.

That is from Esmé Weijun Wang, with more points of interest at the link, via Lama and also Michelle Dawson.

Robin Hanson on coercion and feedback

But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

Here is the full post.

Allegedly Unique Events

One common response to yesterday’s post, What is the Probability of a Nuclear War?, was to claim that probability cannot be assigned to “unique” events. That’s an odd response. Do such respondents really believe that the probability of a nuclear war was not higher during the Cuban Missile Crisis than immediately afterwards when a hotline was established and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed?

Claiming that probability cannot be assigned to unique events seems more like an excuse to ignore best estimates than a credible epistemic position. Moreover, the claim that probability cannot be assigned to “unique” events is testable, as Phillip Tetlock points out in an excellent 80,000 Hours Podcast with Robert Wiblin.

I mean, you take that objection, which you hear repeatedly from extremely smart people that these events are unique and you can’t put probabilities on them, you take that objection and you say, “Okay, let’s take all the events that the smart people say are unique and let’s put them in a set and let’s call that set allegedly unique events. Now let’s see if people can make forecasts within that set of allegedly unique events and if they can, if they can make meaningful probability judgments of these allegedly unique events, maybe the allegedly unique events aren’t so unique after all, maybe there is some recurrence component.” And that is indeed the finding that when you take the set of allegedly unique events, hundreds of allegedly unique events, you find that the best forecasters make pretty well calibrated forecasts fairly reliably over time and don’t regress too much toward the mean.

In other words, since an allegedly unique event either happens or it doesn’t it is difficult to claim that any probability estimate was better than another but when we look at many forecasts each of an allegedly unique event what you find is that some people get more of them right than others. Moreover, the individuals who get more events right approach these questions using a set of techniques and tools that can be replicated and used to improve other forecasters. Here’s a summary from Mellers, Tetlock, Baker, Friedman and Zeckhauser:

In recent years, IARPA (the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity), the research wing of the U.S. Intelligence Community, has attempted to learn how to better predict the likelihoods of unique events. From 2011 to 2015, IARPA sponsored a project called ACE, comprising four massive geopolitical forecasting tournaments conducted over the span of four years. The goal of ACE was to discover the best possible ways of eliciting beliefs from crowds and optimally aggregating them. Questions ranged from pandemics and global leadership changes to international negotiations and economic shifts. An example question ,released on September 9, 2011, asked, “Who will be inaugurated as President of Russia in 2012?”…The Good Judgment Project studied over a million forecasts provided by thousands of volunteers who attached numerical probabilities to such events (Mellers, Ungar, Baron, Ramos, Gurcay, et al., 2014; Tetlock, Mellers, Rohrbaugh, & Chen, 2014).

In the ACE tournaments, IARPA defined predictive success using a metric called the Brier scoring rule (the squared deviation between forecasts and outcomes,where outcomes are 0 and 1 for the non-occurrence and occurrence of events, respectively; Brier, 1950). Consider the question, “Will Bashar al-Assad be ousted from Syria’s presidency by the end of 2016?” Outcomes were binary; Assad either stays or he is ousted. Suppose a forecaster predicts that Assad has a 60% chance of staying and a 40% chance of being ousted. If, at the end of 2016, Assad remains in power, the participant’s Brier score would be [(1-.60)^2 + (0-.40)^2] = 0.16. If Assad is ousted, the forecaster’s score is [(0 -.60)^2 + (1 -.40)^2] = 0.36. With Brier scores, lower values are better, and zero is a perfect score.

…The Good Judgment Project won the ACE tournaments by a wide margin each year by being faster than the competition at finding ways to push probabilities toward 0 for things that did not happen and toward 1 for things that did happen. Five drivers of accuracy accounted for Good Judgment’s success.They were identifying, training, teaming, and tracking good forecasters, as well as optimally aggregating predictions. (Mellers, et al., 2014; Mellers, Mellers, Stone, Atanasov, Rohrbaugh, Metz, et al., 2015a; Mellers, Stone, Murray, Minster, Rohrbaugh, et al., 2015b).

My contrarian, eccentric take on the Democratic debates

Do read the whole thing, that is my Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt of relevance:

My biggest impression is simply how much the dominant candidates agree in terms of basic values…

I don’t regard that as entirely healthy by any means, and I suspect most Democrats, especially of the relatively intellectual stripe, just don’t notice how much this stands out.  Now to move to a specific or two:

Finally, there is Marianne Williamson. When she first began to speak, I googled her, as I suspect did many other Americans. Her eccentric manner can be distracting, but I recommend instead focusing on her values. Her performance suggests that Democrats need to take a broader, deeper set of values into account: sometimes love and New Agey spiritual values, other times historical values. Her answer about making America the finest country for a child to grow up in was perhaps the best single moment of either debate, and that too stemmed from her understanding of values.

I don’t think she has much of a chance to win. But she is the external voice that the rest of the Democrats need to shake them out of their conformity. At first I thought it was crazy that she was included in the debates. In retrospect, I now see it as brilliant.

Kamala Harris and Marianne Williamson were the most memorable candidates on the stage, and they were also the two most in tune with the importance of values. The other candidates would do well to heed this lesson.

There is much more at the link, including some observations on some of the other candidates.

Hong Kong in the broader history of liberty

That is my other Bloomberg column for this week, here is one excerpt:

Still, actual life in Hong Kong seemed to be pretty free, especially compared to the available alternatives, which included the totalitarian state that was Mao’s China. Yet as the British lease on Hong Kong approached expiration, an even deeper problem with a non-democratic Hong Kong became evident: Because there was no legitimate alternative sovereign to protest, the British simply handed the territory over to China. (Compare Hong Kong’s experience to that of Taiwan, which did evolve into a free democratic state and remains independent.) Hong Kong was bartered away like a piece of colonial merchandise. Everyone learned the hard way that democracy really does matter.

Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But that may be a sign these indices have lost touch with the nature of liberty. In Hong Kong, the notion of a credible commitment to the future ceased to have meaning some time ago. Not only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time, including of course when it comes to extradition procedures. Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow.

Thus is revealed a deeper lesson still: Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the narratives people live by and the kind of future they imagine for themselves. Both of these are greatly affected by the legitimacy and durability of their political institutions.

The piece also offers a brief discussion of the Bruce Lee movie “Enter the Dragon.”