Defending The Search For Truth

I haven’t blogged in a while.  Mostly it has been because I was afraid that there was little I could say about the Kavanaugh confirmation and its sexual assault allegations that would avoid offending a lot of people.  Fortunately, that episode seems to be behind us.

But, today I came across a great article by Jonathan Rauch, called The Constitution of Knowledge.  Please read it.

Rauch has a lot of interesting things to say about the modern crisis of epistemic health, Trump’s trolling, and institutions that can help support the success of truth-seeking.

He ends up being optimistic, as I have been, even though there’s plenty to worry about over the short term.  And, that has helped me retain my optimism as well.

Russ Roberts On Political Discourse

Yes, it’s another post about a podcast.

One of my favorites is EconTalk.  In it, Russ Roberts, usually, interviews smart people about modern topics that are related to economics (because that’s really everything that involves decision making), but are mostly just interesting topics.  I’m sure I like it largely because Roberts comes to the issues from a skeptical libertarian perspective (like mine), but I also appreciate Roberts’ fairness and intellectual modesty in his approach.  He’s not afraid to change his mind, or say “I don’t know.”

This post is really just to promote a recent episode that is a monologue by Roberts, rather than the normal interview format.  Roberts reflects on the modern state of political discourse, and has many interesting and thoughtful insights into why it seems to be more polarized than ever, and why it seems that The centre cannot hold.

I don’t want to rehearse Roberts’ arguments and suggestions here, but encourage you to listen to it for yourself.

Pull The Goalie

One of the podcasts that I regularly listen to is Malcom Gladwell‘s Revisionist History. In a recent episode (I’m a bit behind on my listening), Gladwell decided that since others (like Jordan Peterson) have been publishing their “Rules For Life”, Gladwell would give that a try as well.

But, Gladwell only really offered one rule that he’d recommend to others:

Pull The Goalie.

By that he was referring to the advice of Cliff Asness and Aaron Brown (both of AQR Capital Management) in their paper: Pulling the Goalie: Hockey and Investment Implications. In it, they suggest that the strategy of “pulling the goalie” (replacing the goalie with a sixth attacker to catch up near the end of a game; leaving one’s own goal unprotected) is an underutilized strategy that should be used more often, and earlier. The paper explains why pulling the goalie earlier will increase the chances of winning the game, even though it also adds volatility and increases the chances of losing by more points as well. It compares this situation with certain investment opportunities in which people should manage risks more intelligently than they do.

The paper acknowledges that that it could be rational for a hockey coach to avoid choosing the optimal strategy for winning the game, because he’s more interested in how much the fans will appreciate the strategy, and he could draw more criticism than praise from fans who notice the failures more than the successes and don’t appropriately appreciate the net difference. The game is about entertainment, after all, and the coach is paid to entertain the fans. Usually that means doing the most to win each game, but perhaps not always.

But, Gladwell draws a slightly different lesson. He sees it as a situation of being rational, “doing the math”, to figure out what to do in high-stakes situations without letting social pressure and conventions push you into suboptimal mistakes. He notes that both Asness and Brown are probably very low on the psychological trait of agreeableness; and indicates that while this might make them less popular at parties, it makes them better decision makers.

Gladwell uses another example in the podcast. He uses the plot of the movie No Good Deed to consider whether a parent faced with a psychotic home invader terrorizing her and her children would be wise to flee the house, leaving the psychotic alone with her children, to call for help rather than to stay with the children. Gladwell understands that most people’s intuition is to stay with the children at all costs (even though you would be unlikely to actually protect them, and that a psychopath who would harm them when alone with them knowing that the police are probably on the way would probably harm them eventually anyway). Gladwell says that if the chance of success is optimized by fleeing the house, that’s what you should do. The point is to maximize the chances of saving your children (and yourself), not to look better to others.

I’m 100% with Gladwell on this piece of advice.  One should try to make the best decision possible, especially when the stakes are high, regardless of what other people who don’t understand the calculation as well might think.

Do the math.

Pull the goalie.

Weight Loss

My family went on a very nice vacation recently, and I did a lot of pleasant eating.

But, all that eating helped me realize that I’ve put on a lot of weight over the last few years, and I should rein it in again.

So, I’m hoping to lose a lot of weight over the rest of the year, to get back to a healthy range.

I’m posting this to help make the plan real, and help myself stick to it.

I will post later on my progress, if I succeed, or failure if I don’t.  I don’t want to post about failure.

Update 7/1/2018: I’ve met my goal for the end of June…Now let’s see if I can meet it for the end of July.

Update 8/1/2018: I didn’t meet my (aggressive) goal for July. But, I’m still making progress, so I’m not admitting defeat quite yet.

All Minus One

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Heterodox Academy has released an edited version of John Stuart Mill‘s arguments for tolerating unpopular speech (from chapter 2 of On Liberty) in a recently released book called All Minus One. I think it’s great.

I read On Liberty in college, and it was one of the few books that I was required to read that really influenced me. But, I remember that much of it was a bit difficult to get through, so I really appreciate the editing that was done to make this more accessible to a modern audience. And, this edition seems as relevant today as it was when On Liberty was written.

I’m not one for making books mandatory, but if any books were to be made mandatory for incoming college students, this should be one of them. I don’t really know how many of the current students are in favor of obstructing unpopular or controversial speech (I’ve heard very different reports on this) but enough of them do favor such obstruction that it seems to happen far too often. And, the trend doesn’t seem good.

Mill’s main arguments for tolerating unpopular speech boil down to:

  • Unpopular theories might be true. We are all fallible and could be wrong, no matter how confident we are that we’re right. Criticism is how we improve our theories.
  • Even if the unpopular theories are false, it helps us to understand the better theories by having to defend them against their strongest criticisms. Without this, as time goes by, we won’t really know the truth very deeply, and our knowledge and progress will suffer for it.
  • Even if they’re mostly false, they might have true aspects that we can learn from.

These seem like very strong arguments to me, especially as fleshed out by Mill, and they deserve to be considered by those would obstruct unpopular speech.

But, they’re only persuasive to the extent that people value the truth.

People who care more about group cohesion, or shielding people from uncomfortable facts, won’t find them very convincing. Those of us who care more about learning better theories and getting closer to the truth seem to be losing ground lately (in the court of popular opinion). Hopefully I’m wrong about this, or the trend will reverse itself.

Of course, it’s not always wise or kind to gratuitously argue against cherished beliefs. People should exercise discretion and we should criticize them when they fail to do so. But, that’s not the kind of thing that should be enforced by coercion. Nobody is wise enough to make these decisions for everyone else (and, the ability to win elections certainly doesn’t demonstrate that someone has such wisdom). It’s much better to leave it to social pressure (which can change over time when better arguments are made) to peacefully persuade people to improve than to give anyone the power to do it coercively.

As long as there are people who wish to dissent from orthodoxy, and others who wish to hear them, we should allow that to happen, peacefully.

Sometimes this will be painful; but, the alternatives are worse.

Why Does Anybody Need…Liberty?

One thing that depresses me whenever the gun control debate re-emerges after some horrific incident is that many people will inevitably start saying/writing “Why does anybody need X?” (where X is often, but not always, some aspect of the weapon used in the latest incident, e.g., a(n) “assault” weapon, automatic weapon, semi-automatic weapon, hand gun, bump stock, high capacity magazine, AR-15, etc.), and then they will pause with an air of self-satisfaction, as if they had just given a knock-down argument in support of legislation to ban X.

This point is not just about gun control. It’s not only gun control advocates who use this formulation to support their policies, but they’re the ones I notice doing it most frequently.

When I hear somebody use this expression (Why does anybody need X?), my impression is that this is a person whose political philosophy default is set much closer to tyranny than to liberty.  They assume that if a group has the will and power to prevent another group from legally doing or using something peacefully, and people in that second group don’t “need” that thing, then it should be perfectly fine to deny it to them.

People don’t “need” very much to survive or, let’s be generous, to make their lives worth living.  So, it seems to me that “need” is a very low threshold to justify coercing people to refrain from owning or doing something (as long as they’re not coercing others, or imminently threatening to, at the time).  If that’s the standard, then nearly all of our liberties are in jeopardy of being abrogated, as different interest groups gain power over time.

I understand that it’s natural to want to control as much as you can, and to respond to human-caused tragedies by implementing a regulation of humans.  But, that doesn’t mean that converting those wishes into violently (and each law or regulation is ultimately backed up by the threat or use of violence) enforced regulations is a policy that will lead to human flourishing.  Often, we’re better off resisting our natural impulses.

It seems to me that life will be much better if we take the political position of always trying to leave people the maximum amount of liberty to peacefully do or own whatever they want to.  Their choices shouldn’t have to be necessary, or popular, or even correct in order to make this a better policy than alternatives. Other people don’t have to agree with or understand their reasons, and they don’t have to withhold peaceful criticism; they should just refrain from coercion.  We all benefit, and sometimes suffer, from other people being free to try out ideas that we don’t share.  It’s clear to me that the net result of tolerating this experimentation is a huge benefit to humanity.  Not always, but I think we’re much better off, overall, honoring the liberties of others than indulging our tyrannical impulses.

People don’t “need” liberty (or guns, or (usually) abortions, or masturbation, or pornography, or tattoos, or musical instruments, or books, or privacy, or the public expression of their own ideas…) in order to survive or even to make life worth living.

But they do need liberty to flourish as human beings, and that’s my standard of value.

Ruby

We have a new addition to our family.

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We call her Ruby, because it’s a Ruby Flare Pearl colored Camry LE.

We hadn’t bought a new car in a very long time. I had been driving a 1997 Corolla that was going to need repairs that exceeded the value of the car itself.  It seemed to be the time to replace it.

We could have bought another used car, but we thought that, given the trends in vehicles, it might be the last car we own, so we may as well try to get the best build quality, safety features, and convenience features available now.

I expect that sometime in the not-too-distant future, the vast majority of people will no longer own their own cars, and will rely on services to get the transportation they want when they want it. But, until that time comes for us, it’s nice to have a pleasant car to use whenever we want.

I’m still pretty excited about the upgrade for me, and enjoying setting up and playing with the techy features. I know that the excitement will wear off, but I expect to have a reliable and pleasant vehicle for years to come.