Category: Philosophy

Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization

People often express political opinions in starkly dichotomous terms, such as “Trump will either trigger a ruinous trade war or save U.S. factory workers from disaster.” This mode of communication promotes polarization into ideological in-groups and out-groups. We explore the power of an emerging methodology, forecasting tournaments, to encourage clashing factions to do something odd: to translate their beliefs into nuanced probability judgments and track accuracy over time and questions. In theory, tournaments advance the goals of “deliberative democracy” by incentivizing people to be flexible belief updaters whose views converge in response to facts, thus depolarizing unnecessarily polarized debates. We examine the hypothesis that, in the process of thinking critically about their beliefs, tournament participants become more moderate in their own political attitudes and those they attribute to the other side. We view tournaments as belonging to a broader class of psychological inductions that increase epistemic humility and that include asking people to explore alternative perspectives, probing the depth of their cause-effect understanding and holding them accountable to audiences with difficult-to-guess views.

That is a new paper from Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, and Hal R. Arkes, via the excellent Kevin Lewis and Michelle Dawson.  One very general implication is that there are mental, writing, and practical exercises that really can improve your habits of thought.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

How much do the experts wish to discount the future by?

…we find that expert opinion is particularly varied on the rate of time preference.  The modal value is zero, in line with many prominent opinions.  But with a median (mean) of 0.5 percent (1.1 percent)…


…while we find that experts recommend placing greater weight on normative than positive issues when determining the SDR, most believe that the SDR should be informed by both.

That is from the latest issue of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, “Discounting Disentangled” by Drupp, Freeman, Groom, and Nesje.  You will of course find a lengthy discussion of these issues in my own Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Toward a theory of optimal personality?

If you are too conscientious, you might experience undue stress during a negative performance review.  Or being too agreeable is correlated with lower salary levels, especially for men.  And surely too much extroversion and too much openness are possible too?

Rolf Degen reproduces a few relevant paragraphs from a new paper.  The work is by Nathan T. Carter, Joshua D. Miller, and Thomas A. Widiger, here is one excerpt from their abstract:

…researchers have only recently begun to uncover evidence that extreme standing on “normal” or “desirable” personality traits might be maladaptive…many more people possess optimal personality-trait levels than previously thought…

I don’t quite agree with that, though I wouldn’t, would I?  I think they are overrating normality.  The notion that “weirdos are bad” seems to me longstanding, and one of the most durable human intuitions, not something that researchers have only started to realize.  In a world with growing division of labor, and greater accountability (in the private sector, at least), extreme traits would seem to be rising in social value.  And perhaps some of that return can be captured as private value too — Silicon Valley anybody?

Overall, I still think that “falling short” on say either conscientiousness or openness is undesirable for most though not all individuals.  How can conscientiousness ever be bad, you might be wondering?  Well, if the world is underproducing people with unusual interests and inclinations, more conscientiousness might make “more weirdos” a harder outcome to achieve.  For instance, conscientiousness, with respect to obligations toward broader society, might keep many people more conformist.  That said, there still are many people who would do better to get up in the morning and go to work, one manifestation of conscientiousness.

Agreeableness is the trait that remains a hard to define black box.  Cooperativeness is often good, though simple deference to the opinions of others, without critical examination, is often bad.  When I hear “agreeableness” discussed as a formal personality trait, the possible clash between those two (and other) underlying features of agreeableness seems to receive insufficient attention.

Here is a previous MR Post on related issues.

*Stubborn Attachments* opening week

I thank all of you buyers and reviewers for making the opening week of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals such a success.

The book hit #1 in 4 Amazon browse subcategories over the last week:
– Macroeconomics
– Commerce
– Philosophy
– Theory of Economics, and also Comparative Economics

Robert Wiblin’s Conversation with Tyler Cowen

This was two and a half hours (!), and it is a special bonus episode in Conversations in Tyler, here is the text and audio.  The starting base of the discussion was my new, just today published book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but of course we ranged far and wide.  Here are a few excerpts:

WIBLIN: Speaking of Tetlock, are there any really important questions in economics or social science that . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.

And this:

COWEN: I think most people are actually pretty good at knowing their weaknesses. They’re often not very good at knowing their talents and strengths. And I include highly successful people. You ask them to account for their success, and they’ll resort to a bunch of cliches, which are probably true, but not really getting at exactly what they are good at.

If I ask you, “Robert Wiblin, what exactly are you good at?” I suspect your answer isn’t good enough. So just figuring that out and investing more in friends, support network, peers who can help you realize that vision, people still don’t do enough of that.


COWEN: But you might be more robust. So the old story is two polarities of power versus many, and then the two looks pretty stable, right? Deterrents. USA, USSR.

But if it’s three compared to a world with many centers of power, I don’t know that three is very stable. Didn’t Sartre say, “Three people is hell”? Or seven — is seven a stable number? We don’t know very much. So it could just be once you get out of two-party stability, you want a certain flattening.

And maybe some parts of the world will have conflicts that are undesirable. But nonetheless, by having the major powers keep their distance, that’s better, maybe.


*Stubborn Attachments* blurbs

You can find them here, note you may need to click on the right to read the furthest right-hand side of the page.  Here are excerpts from those blurbs:

Tim Harford: “His best, most ambitious and most personal work.”

Cardiff Garcia: “I think you’ll find that following the logic in Stubborn Attachments is as fun as it is intellectually provocative.”

Mason Hartman: “The book invites you to fight it.”

Cass Sunstein: “It’s a book for right now, and a book for all times. A magnificent achievement.”

Tomorrow is publication date for the book, you can order here, and here is some background on Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Note I am donating all of the proceeds to a man in Ethiopia.

Who is a conservative?

From Maxim Gorky’s My Universities:

And I remembered Ibsen’s lines:

“Am I a conservative? Oh, no?

I am still the same as I have been all my life,

I don’t like moving the pieces from one square to another,

I would like to move the whole game.

I can remember only one revolution

It was more clever than those that came after

And it could have destroyed everything

— I mean, of course, the Flood”

Pareto Principles in Infinite Ethics

I’ve been reading the dissertation of that title by Amanda Askell, following her podcast with Robert Wiblin.  And there is also the work of Nick Bostrom on “infinite ethics.”

In the thesis, Amanda considers the possibility that world-states might simply be incomparable when there are an infinite number of relevant beings and infinite total utility in the universe, as seems to be implied by some cosmologies.

That in turn conflicts with the notion that agents are “locations of goodness.”  If you give me some chocolate ice cream, it seems I am better off, and that judgment ought to be allowed to proceed without undue attention being paid to the broader cosmos.  Yet that will imply pairwise comparisons are possible in an infinite universe, if only through the Pareto principle.  But when you compare two overall states of the (infinite) universe in pairwise fashion, it is hard to see what value the “new” ice cream cone brings, because both ex ante and ex post there is an infinite consumption of ice cream.

Maybe the view that agents are locations of goodness doesn’t make sense when paired with infinities.  Might the apparent increase in ice cream mean — whether in some causal sense or not — that still the total number of ice cream-eating beings in the universe has not increased, because if it had the infinity would not have held in the first place?  Metaphysically speaking, one ice cream might push out the other.  Sadly, my (finite) mind cannot readily deal with the intuitions, nor what happens if you try to imagine what kind of infinities we are dealing with, a’la Cantor.

Still, I will gladly accept the assumption of incomparability across different world-states in an infinite universe.  In fact I view incomparability in the infinite universe case as the friend of comparability in the world we live in.  It is by no means certain that the universe is infinite, but there is some chance it is infinite.

When doing expected value calculations, we need to take account of both possibilitites, namely that the universe may or may not be infinite.  But if the infinity scenarios all lead to incomparability across various options (if indeed they are “options” to begin with), you can argue that the calculations for the finite universe scenario dominate the final calculus that we face today, operating under agnosticism about the nature of the universe (infinite or not).  Which brings us back to finite universe ethics and persons being locations of value.  And chocolate ice cream.

Another way to put this is that worrying about infinities “too much” ends up meaning you don’t have to worry about them at all.

The funnel of human experience

So humanity in aggregate has spent about ten times as long worshiping the Greek gods as we’ve spent watching Netflix.

We’ve spent another ten times as long having sex as we’ve spent worshiping the Greek gods.

And we’ve spent ten times as long drinking coffee as we’ve spent having sex.


It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.

This should cheer you all up, yes indeed there is no great stagnation no wonder the rate of productivity growth has been so high:

FHI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now.

That is from eukaryote at LessWrong.  Hat tip goes to the always-excellent The Browser.

The excellent David C. Wright podcasts me on *Stubborn Attachments*, and on other things

It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.  (If you read the transcript, the sentence in the middle about my believing in God as a teenager is a transcription error, it will be corrected.)  David is one of the best, and best prepared, interviewers I have interacted with.  Here is the audio and transcript.

Here is one bit from the middle:

David: …should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.

[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.

[00:39:14] David: They do.

[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.

[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?

[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.

[00:39:20] David: Better at?

[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.

[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–

[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.

[00:39:43] David: Do you?

[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.

Definitely recommended.

Appealing to your identity in making a point

In a post which is interesting more generally, Arnold Kling makes this point:

I think Tyler missed the important difference between taking identity into account and having someone appeal to their identity. I agree with Bryan that the latter is a negative signal. Opening with “Speaking as a ____” is a bullying tactic.

Many have had a similar response, but I figured I would save up that point for an independent blog post, rather than putting it in the original.  Here are a few relevant points:

1. If someone opens with “Speaking as a transgender latinx labor activist…”, or something similar, perhaps that is somewhat artless, but most likely it is relevant information to me, at least for most of the topics which correlate with that kind of introduction.  I am happy enough with direct communication of that information, and don’t quite get what a GMU blogger would object to in that regard.  Does the speaker have to wait until paragraph seven before obliquely hinting at being transgender?  Communicate the information in Straussian fashion?

2. Being relatively established, most of the pieces I write already give such an introduction to me, for instance a column by-line or a back cover photo and author description on a book.  Less established people face the burden of having to introduce themselves, and yes that is hard to do well, hard for any of us.  You might rationally infer that these people are indeed less established, and possibly also less accomplished, but the introduction itself should be seen in this light, not as an outright negative.  It is most of all a signal that the person is somewhat “at sea” in establishment institutions and their concomitant introductions, framings, and presentations.  Yes, that outsider status possibly can be a negative signal in some regards, but a GMU blogger or independent scholar (as Arnold is) should not regard that as a negative signal per se.  At the margin, I’d like to see people pay more attention to smart but non-mainstream sources.

3. For many audiences, I don’t need an introduction at all, nor would Bryan or Arnold.  That’s great of course for us.  But again we are being parasitic on other social forces having introduced us already.  Let’s not pretend we’re above this whole game, we are not, we just have it much easier.  EconLog itself has a click space for “Blogger Bios,” though right now it is empty, perhaps out of respect for Bryan’s views.  Or how about if you get someone to blurb your books for you?

4. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reasons, women in today’s world often feel less comfortable putting themselves forward in public spaces.  In most (not all) areas they blog at much lower rates, and they are also less willing to ask for a salary increase, among other manifestations of the phenomenon.  Often, in this kind of situation, you also will find group members who “overshoot” the target and pursue a strategy which is the opposite of excess reticence.  I won’t name names, but haven’t you heard something like “Speaking as a feminist, Dionysian, child of the 1960s, Freudian, Catholic, pro-sex, pagan, libertarian polymath…”?  Maybe that is a mistake of style and presentation and even reasoning, but the deeper understanding is to figure out better means of evaluating people who “transact” in the public sphere at higher cost, not simply to dismiss or downgrade them.

5. If someone like Bill Gates were testifying in front of Congress and claimed “Speaking as the former CEO of a major company, I can attest that immigration is very important to the American economy” we wouldn’t really object very much, would we?  Wouldn’t it seem entirely appropriate?  So why do we so often hold similar moves against those further away from the establishment?

How about “as a Mongolian sheep herder, let me tell you what kinds of grass they like to eat…”?

Then why not “As a transgender activist…”?  You don’t necessarily have to agree with what follows, just recognize they might know more than average about the topic.

To sum up, appealing to one’s identity possibly can be a negative signal.  But overall it should be viewed not as a reason to dismiss such speakers and writers, but rather a chance to obtain a deeper understanding.

Vitalik Buterin and Glen Weyl dialog

The following is a series emails Vitalik Buterin and I [Glen] exchanged over the last day about RadicalxChange ideas. We thought the discussion might be useful to some as a) it covers a number of issues not discussed elsewhere that we consider important, b) it represents some of our latest thinking about these issues and c) it shows a bit of “the sausage being made” that some may find interesting. However, be aware that this is an internal communication and thus is at a pretty high level of specialization; there will be many parts that those not already well steeped in some combination of RadicalxChange ideas, economics, sociology, intellectual history, philosophy and cryptography may find hard to follow.

Here is the link.  There are many excellent bits, here is one from Buterin:

Effect on centralization of physical power — one thing that scares me about more complex systems of property rights is that they would require more complex centralized infrastructure, including surveillance into people’s private activities, to be able to correctly enforce. Taxes already have this problem (you may recall Adam Smith believing that income taxes would be impossible because they would require an unacceptable level of intrusion into people’s private lives to enforce), and I wonder if the various proposals that we have for changing them would make things better or worse in this regard. I like Harberger taxes because they don’t require infrastructure to police whether or not undeclared transactions took place, though I worry in other cases, eg. your comment that your immigration proposal would require stronger enforcement of immigration rules, which realistically means stronger efforts to find and kick out people who overstay, which requires more surveillance of various kinds. All in all, I don’t think the radical markets ideas altogether fare that bad, but I guess my comment would be that non-panopticon-dependence should be an explicit desideratum to a greater degree than it is now.

Self-recommending…and which one of them do you think wrote this?:

The last couple of weeks talking to economists, sociologists and philosophers I have felt like they are hacking through a forest with pen knife and this perspective enables me to look from above (things still fuzzy) and have a crew of chainsaws at my command.

How should we judge appeals to identity

Bryan Caplan wrote this in his description of GMU blogger culture:

Appealing to your identity is a reason to discount what you say, not a reason to pay extra attention.

Bryan explains more, not easy for me to summarize but do read his full account.  Let me instead try to state my own views:

1. If someone makes a claim new or foreign to you, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you probably should up the amount of attention you give that claim because the person is from a different background.  Your marginal need to learn from that person is probably above-average, noting of course this can be countermanded by other signals.  That said, I recognize that our ability to learn from “different others” may be below average, given the possible absence of a common conceptual framework.  Nonetheless, I say be ambitious in your learning!

2. If someone makes a claim you already disagree with, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you should try to figure out why that person might see the matter differently.  You should try harder, at the margin, precisely because the person is from a different background.  Again, this follows from a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning and ambition in learning.

3. When you hear a person from a different background, try not to get too caught up in the “identity politics” of it, either positively or negatively.  Try to steer your thoughts to: “People from this background in fact have a wide diversity of views on this topic.  Still, I will try to learn from this person’s different background.”  Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”

4. I’ve already noted that you often learn more efficiently from people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself.  Even putting language aside, I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder.  In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake.  To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.

But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much.  At the end of the day I am left with my intellectual ambition and I really do wish to go visit Mongolia, including for the sheep herders.  And to the extent I am informed in some ways that maybe not all of my peers are, the intellectual ambition I am presenting here is a big reason why.  I seek to encourage more such ambition, rather than to give people reasons for evading it.