Thursday, January 14, 2010

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

Bryan Caplan presents four alternative worlds in which raising the cost of driving might not be the most effective way to curb congestion:
[I]f drivers were unselfish in the right way, all of the following would be equally economically plausible solutions: 1. Ask everyone to drive less "because they're inconveniencing others." 2. Tell people they're contributing to global warming. 3. Announce that if traffic doesn't fall by 20%, we'll abolish foreign aid to Senegal. 4. Denounce materialism so people quit their jobs and stop commuting.
Purely a priori these are plausible, but based on human behavior in the past we should predict that they will be far less helpful than appealing to driver's economic self-interest.

Bryan's false hypothetical is great way to get his point across and now strikes me as the most potent counter-argument to the distillation of ideas, a counter-argument which Tyler Cowen doesn't mention in his post against distillation. As opposed to the primary literature, summaries like Wikipedia usually don't articulate the ways that the world could be--they just state our current best guess for the way the world is. For example, the Wiki article for the citric acid cycle explains the steps very well, but doesn't explicate some of the other possible ways the cycle could occur.

Hindsight bias often causes people to be unsurprised when you explain the consensus best guess for how the world works. This lack of surprise will most likely lead to a deficit in deep understanding of the idea. Usually, given our time constraints, this deep understanding isn't necessary and trust in the consensus makers is enough. But on topics where deep understanding is critical, try to explain not only why that one fact is our best guess, but also why other possible alternatives are less likely.