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.

Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)

Cultural evolution represents an entire field of study. It has the potential, like biological evolution, to be a mechanism underlying and connecting many fields of study. This short introduction will pull together a few themes and compelling stories from this large field and present some of its concepts, mechanisms, and evidence—hopefully enough to increase the reader’s suspicion of the claim that cultural evolution is a “myth.”

Continue reading “Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)”

Ask Tosomitu About Tumblr Drama

For the purposes of this article I will be using Tumblr drama to mean roughly “publicly calling out some entity’s ethical transgression (and ensuing discussions)”.

Starting with the obvious: not all Tumblr drama is created equal. In determining whether a particular contribution to the Tumblrdramasphere is positive or negative, I am concerned primarily with three classes of affected people and two classes of effects.

The first class of affected people is you (“the speaker”). What will the consequences of speaking be? How will speaking make you feel, and how would different possible responses (including hate speech and harassment) make you feel? You may or may not have the most at stake, but in either case you are a human being and how you feel matters. Consider doing a back-of-the-envelope expected personal utility calculation. (But if you do, throw it away immediately. It’s not accurate.)

Also consider how speaking will change you. Acts become habits.

Continue reading “Ask Tosomitu About Tumblr Drama”

Truthseeking about controversial things (status: indecisive rambling)

Suppose you ask me a question that is fraught (politically, or for some other reason), such as “Does the minimum wage do more good than harm?” or “Could a computer be conscious?” or “Is Lockheed Martin stock going to go up?”

(Not that you should ask me any of those things.)

What makes any particular answer I might give “objective” or “honest”? Or alternatively, what makes the process by which I arrive at my answer “objective” or “honest”?

Here are some prima facie plausible answers:

  1. The answer is objective & honest if it is, in fact, justified & true (faithfulness to facts).
  2. The answer is objective & honest if it fairly presents all reliable points of view, weighted by their reliability and by consensus of expert opinion (NPOV).
  3. The answer is objective & honest if it was arrived at by my best effort as an epistemic agent, either eliminating or acknowledging personal biases, conflicts of interest etc., and steelmanning alternative positions (process objectivity).
    1. People who have read Hanson or Taleb may want to turn the “no conflicts of interest” part on its head and assert a need to make a bet or to have “skin in the game”; i.e., a real-world incentive aligned with truth-seeking.
    2. Some have suggested discussing updates on evidence, rather than discussing posteriors directly.
  4. All possible answers are necessarily factional. “Objectivity” is not a coherent goal, but the most honest answer simply presents my factional view and reasons for it, while neither attempting to conceal which faction I belong to or the existence of other factional views, nor making special efforts to do them justice (factionalism a la Moldbug).
  5. The answer itself is the wrong level of analysis; you would be better off scrutinizing whether the answerer is an epistemically virtuous and responsible person (virtue epistemology).

I’m not really thrilled with any of these, but I don’t have a great alternative to offer up. (1) is charmingly simple, but too outcome-oriented; I don’t want to condemn a wrong answer that’s due to bad epistemic luck. (2) is exploded by the need to cash out “reliable” and “expert” and “consensus” in ways that aren’t blatantly factional. (3) is the position I am most attracted to (is that too obvious?). My problem with it is not its unattainability – after all, this definition is only meant to be an ideal to aim at. Rather, I fear that each additional attempt to eliminate bias represents another free variable for Rationalization to play with, in service of the Bottom Line. (4) seems unattractively defeatist or self-serving, and “denies the phenomenon” – I can remember occasions on which I believe people were genuinely objective and honest in their presentation of evidence/beliefs to me, although it’s hard to put my finger on what convinced me of this. (5) comes in second place, but I’m skeptical that people are reliably epistemically responsible from day to day or across domains.

What do you think? I suppose defining objectivity was just a jumping off point (perhaps an excessively abstract one); I’m more interested in the conditions under which you are willing to trust somebody’s statements on a controversial question.

The Last of the Monsters with Iron Teeth

In all species, the play of the young is practice for the essential survival tasks of the adults. Human children play at many things, but the most important is the play of culture. Out of sight of adults, children learn and practice the rhymes, rituals, and institutions of their own culture, distinct from that of adults.

The Western child today is mostly kept inside his own home, associating with other children only in highly structured, adult-supervised settings such as school and sports teams. It was not always so. Throughout history, bands of children gathered and roamed city streets and countrysides, forming their own societies each with its own customs, legal rules and procedures, parodies, politics, beliefs, and art. With their rhymes, songs, and symbols, they created and elaborated the meaning of their local landscape and culture, practicing for the adult work of the same nature. We are left with only remnants and echoes of a once-magnificent network of children’s cultures, capable of impressive feats of coordination.

Iona and Peter Opie conducted an immense study of the children’s cultures of the British Isles. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) is comparable in richness to Walter Evans-Wenz’ The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) on the fairy faiths, or to Alan Lomax’ collections of American and European folk music.

Continue reading “The Last of the Monsters with Iron Teeth”