In Order To Give A Man A Fish, You Must First Teach Him How To Eat It

A couple weeks ago I got to spend an evening with Haley and Gabe in Boston discussing various things that probably bored Haley to tears (sorry!), but at least Gabe found interesting. One of Gabe’s shticks is that art should do a better job of conveying important ideas and concepts to its consumers. His favorite example of this (of everything?) is The Wire.

I want to push back on this a little bit – an alternate title this post might be “In Which I Attempt To Troll Gabe Into Coming Back To The Internet At Least In Small Doses And In A Totally Responsible Fashion Which Won’t Disrupt His Life And Waste His Time And Also Into Maybe Writing Something Interesting” but it just didn’t seem catchy enough.

Let’s take the premise at face value – that art should try to convey useful, meaningful concepts to its consumers. This seems reasonable as at least one of the things art should do. Well, it’s reasonable so long as art can convey these concepts. But can it? At face value, the answer is obvious – of course it can! The Matrix taught a generation that their perceived reality is possibly not even real. Inception did this for another generation.

But this dodges the question by avoiding the steel man: can art realistically convey new concepts to people often? Or efficiently? It’s easy to be less sanguine about this question.

A good example here is a concept from economics (and elsewhere) called elasticity. The price elasticity of demand, for example, is the % change in the quantity of a good demanded caused by a 1 % change in the price. There’s an ambiguity here though – are these percentages computed by using the original price and quantity as the base? The new price and quantity? Or maybe the average of the new and old price and quantities? Different textbooks and instructors make different decisions here, and students often get lost in a formula that doesn’t at all seem intuitive. Conveying the concept of elasticity at a high enough resolution that the recipient can understand the math is hard.

Unless they already know calculus. In terms of calculus, price elasticity of demand is dQ/dP * (P/Q), or in other words the derivative of demand with respect to price times the ration of price to demand. We can rearrange this equation as (dQ/Q)/(dP/P) in order to make it look more like percentage changes. If a student already knows calculus, it’s often very easy to explain elasticity to them – the ambiguity about base percentages goes away through the magic of calculus, and learning calculus already taught them about rates of changes. It’s also really easy to explain acceleration (the derivative of velocity) or jerk (the derivative of acceleration) or a whole host of useful concepts from a wide variety of disciplines.

I’m not just saying it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish – as Gabe told me in Boston there’s some low hanging fruit to be grabbed just from giving people fish, and I agree. Some of the people you give fish to may have starved after all! But there’s something else going on here – not everyone knows how to eat fish. The fish eating novice might not chew thoroughly and miss the small bone tucked in the flaky goodness, resulting in some discomfort, post traumatic stress syndrome, and a lifetime devoid of fish. This, I contend, is a potential problem with trying to give someone the concept of elasticity who has never had calculus. Fundamentally, this is a really hard thing to do in such a way that requires no work on the recipient’s end.

Perhaps this is why Gabe reveres art which successfully conveys important, meaningful, and difficult concepts well – precisely because it’s so difficult. But I must ask the question, was is really that successful? Or did the people who got the concept already have the equivalent of calculus under their belt? Consider The Wire. As Robin Hanson notes:

The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian.  A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show’s writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification.  Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal.  The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don’t much care.  In the background of the story, industries managed mainly by private enterprise, such as stores, hotels, shipping, and cars, seem to mostly function well.  Private newspapers look bad, but mainly because readers don’t much care.

Apparently, however, many see The Wired as calling for more government.  At a Harvard symposium on The Wired, many panelists said the answer was more funding.  Simon was there:

The wire is about a world in which people are worth less. … We depicted a world in which market forces always have their say and in which capitalism has triumphed, and marginalized labor – it makes labor cheap. … What we have here is a market-based [world]; capitalism has been the God.  To even suggest that there should be some social compact along with the capitalistic forces, to mitigate any of that, over the last twenty-five years, has been political suicide. … We are only getting the American that we’ve paid for, no more, and God damn it, we deserve it.

– See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/10/the-wire.html#sthash.WTsGobX2.dpuf

To many people, The Wire illustrates all the reasons why capitalism caused the problems of Baltimore and other cities. Any understanding of market forces goes over their head. But to libertarian leaning economists like Robin and Alex Tabborak, The Wire is obviously illustrating how market forces work and the problems that arise when we ignore these forces. We can give these men fish; they already know calculus.

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9 thoughts on “In Order To Give A Man A Fish, You Must First Teach Him How To Eat It

  1. IMO the “fish” that The Wire is giving people is a way of seeing reality in terms of complex, interrelated systems that occur from the individual to the cultural scale.

    I think the “it’s capitalism’s fault” is a mis- or incomplete reading. The problem The Wire highlights more seems to be one of human error, self-interest and institutional entropy. Insofar as capitalism exacerbates those failure modes, they are “capitalism’s fault.” But, basically, I don’t think the point of The Wire was to give a “correct answer,” but more to point out that there is so much more data to be sifted through to arrive at a correct answer than we could ever imagine.

    So if some people are naturally inclined to see the world complexly, I’d agree you could say the people you reference already have calculus–and you may be right! If one is more satisfied by prestige television one may be going into one’s tv experience with higher complexity expectations.

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    • If The Wire’s point is “It’s way more complicated than you think” – great! I actually haven’t seen The Wire, so, uhhh, I may have just been talking out of my ass a little bit.

      I think the basic structure of my point is unchanged though – maybe some people get that the reality of the situation is a little more complicated than they imagined, but almost everyone I’ve read talking about the wire is saying something along the lines of “Boo capitalism!” or “Rah rah capitalism!” (My sample is admittedly very biased and I await my point to be refuted.)

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  2. Some rambling thoughts:

    I like the idea I read once (about writing, specifically, originally) that art is simply a form of mind control that enables the author to force the viewer to think or feel certain things — with varying degrees of success/accuracy depending on the author’s intent and skill. That is, some artists create art in order to lead you to a certain conclusion, but others want to lead you to a certain question. However, owing to the inherent inaccuracy of any medium of communication, intent of the creator can be misinterpreted, right?

    The Wire is a great example to consider, since it’s interesting with respect to what important ideas the show is communicating — either in practice or in Simon’s intent. Personally having watched the show, I definitely came away with the more libertarian take on it, and was subsequently surprised to learn that Simon is in many ways a statist. I agree with Haley that he probably intended, rather than taking a stab at making a point either pro or anti-state, was just to show people how complicated things are.

    “can art realistically convey new concepts to people often? Or efficiently?”

    I think the answer to this is unequivocally “yes”, but I think a harder question is “can an artist accurately and efficiently convey their intended concept to people”, and I think that’s much harder to answer positively..

    There is of course the case to consider of propaganda vs. art and what (if any) differences there are.

    Lastly, I thought this post was going to turn into an economic/mathematic exploration of the marginal utility of art. I am not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed that it didn’t.

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    • Is the category of propaganda distinct from the category of ‘art made to teach a lesson’? Except for ‘art made to teach the technical skills required to make art’, I can’t immediately think of any examples. And of art that only incidentally teaches a lesson, it can’t be expected to be very good at it.

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    • I think your point about intentions is great. I often feel like the reasons artists like their work and the reasons their work is popular are completely different. Much of art feels like throwing spaghetti against a wall and seeing what sticks, then bullshitting some reason about why it stuck. It’s the humanities’ version of p-hacking.

      But I don’t really understand art, so it’s not surprising that it all seems like chaos and bullshit to me. Except for the art that I like. THAT art contains deep meaning, of course, and is intrinsically valuable.

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