Monday, February 1, 2010

Eleven CMRHMOI Thoughts

Robin Hanson was the most recent guest of Colin Marshall's on the Marketplace of Ideas. You can find the dialogue mp3 here. It's fifty-six minutes and, unless you're like saving the world or something, worth every femtosecond of your time. Colin probes Robin on many of his major themes: disagreement, signaling, near-far, academia, the future, and the dearth of objectivity. He did his homework. Here are my thoughts:

1) One of Robin's creeds is that we should be able to take other people's opinions seriously. He strives for methods that will make this possible; thus, the fixation with prediction markets. To identify which people are actually experts, you must put a price tag on uninformed opinions. The cost need not necessarily be paid in currency. If pundits were pressured to make predictions consistent and objective, and the public cared, that too would subsidize a markedly less noisy marketplace of beliefs.

2) The two frequently engage in pretend-tongue-in-check meta talk, colloquially known as "going there," to great success. For example, at one point Colin talks about how he is showing off his impressive interviewing skills while simultaneously showing off his impressive interviewing skills.

3) Colin keeps offering Robin the opportunity to gloat for a moment about the blog he's built and the following he's developed. Robin parries these advances amicably, re-framing his success as a byproduct of the inevitability of niche markets on the web and the desires of competing groups to have new tools--cognitive biases--to accuse their opponents of falling victim to. In so doing, he places too much emphasis on intentions. Since he is a ruthless universalizer, he must now admit that his own intentions are probably not so noble. He is right to apply his principles freely to himself, but overly pessimistic in hardly allowing for good actions by humans. Is this professed pessimism about all people's intentions in part influenced by a desire to maintain his aura of humility? If it is, then it is actually an example of one way in which Robin does bias his opinions via signaling, because being humble is high status. So in this case his pessimism is on point. But if this pessimism doesn't impact his belief about people's intentions, then I sincerely can't identify anything he is biased about, in which case he's wrong about his own intentions. So, he's either right for the wrong reasons or wrong for the right reasons. I will now throw up on my keyboard from dizziness due to all this circular reasoning.

4) We're back.

5) In discussing academia, Robin mentions how sexy innovations are often not as important as we think they are. In fact our richness as a species probably has little to do with our capacity for abstract thought. This is my favorite quote by him, and one that I think about all the time: "The truth is that the artistic creations or intellectual insights we most admire for their striking 'creativity' matter little for economic growth. Instead, most of the innovations that matter are the tiny changes we constantly make to the millions of procedures and methods we use." True and immensely useful as a mental hack: Worshiping and waiting for the big idea only leads to deep procrastination. Instead, focus on the various puzzles you can solve now, cutting what you perceive as big, important tasks into smaller, less important ones. The small tasks are where you are more likely to actually make useful contributions, anyways.

6) There is a deficiency of neutral analysis for determining who exactly is rational and truth-seeking. Robin keeps commenting on LW about how gathering data and developing a such a neutral test would be a very useful project for someone to undertake (see here, here, here, and here), so someone should get on that already!

7) Rationalist-oriented people on the internet are ultimately most interested in talking about rationality. This makes in terms of the relevant selection biases for ending up at Robin's blog or on Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases. Moreover, most RSS feeds are read by folks procrastinating at work and OB is probably not much of an exception. So, there's a huge filter between passively reading about rationality and actually acting on it.

8) One's intellectual history should be composed of viewquakes, the ideas that change your conception of the world dramatically. Robin's intellectual viewquakes: relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, managing complexity in comp sci, supply and demand, incentives, rationality (!), and Aumann's theory of disagreement. Also, the idea that the future might be different from the present to a similar degree that the past is different from the present.

9) Robin says it's hard for him to specialize because he is naturally curious about lots of things, but he forces himself to do it anyway. He also says that most intellectual failures, people who are smart but still don't succeed, tend to be underspecialized. They can't figure out how to focus on just a few topics. This reminds me of some of Taleb's wisdom, sic, "Here is a quote by Paul Valery. He met Einstein at a party in the 1920s, and he asked him 'Do you carry a notebook' around? Einstein asked,'Why?', and Valeria said 'To write down your ideas, to put them down,' and Einstein said, 'I only have one idea.' To succeed, you only have to have one idea—two ideas, you’re dead." The intense division of labor is a very new idea--for most of the world less than 100 years old, and it's one that conventional wisdom is so far from understanding it's not even funny.

10) The main folks who will correctly apply the ideas they read about are those who care even more about the outcome of a particular event than their own status. But once you begin a quest for the truth on one particular subject and learn techniques to aid you in that quest, is it possible to turn your new skills "off" for less relevant subjects? Can you still let that which does not matter truly slide? David Foster Wallace argues no with respect to grammar. In his mind, once you learn grammar rules you are compelled to notice flaws in the grammar of others and be annoyed by them. I actually think that it is possible to learn about biases without overly applying them. But some of my friends might disagree! In fact I have been openly criticized for "talking about psychology too much" at least once. Good thing I have you guys.

11) I was going to end at ten thoughts but I didn't want to be yet another data point in Ben Casnocha's lonely crusade against round-numbered lists. So this is the bonus thought. Enjoy.