Saturday, September 24, 2016

Thanks critical theory. No trust in any information

From 10 facts about the changing digital news landscape by Katerina Eva Matsa and Kristine Lu at Pew Research.

There is a strong inclination in some quarters to lament the low level of education, or intellectual curiosity, or knowledge among Americans, Millennials, Voters, etc. It is a generic complaint, more subjective than objective and often entails a fair swag of virtue or status signaling.

But there are many interesting questions attached to the trope. Just how much information do you need to have in order to make a good decision? What is your risk tolerance? What are the consequences of the decision? What are the circumstances? What is the cost of additional information gathering? What are your goals? How are those goals prioritized? What are the trade-off sensitivities? And on.

The research by Matsa and Lu sheds a little bit of light in a fashion that forces some interesting questions on the lamenters. Take, for example, the issue about the degree of trust you have in various sources of information.

Click to enlarge.

Ouch. Most people do not have a lot of trust in Local News Media (22%), even less in National News Media (18%) and still less in Family, Friends, Acquaintances (14%). It would have been interesting to see the latter grouping broken out. I suspect that there might be higher numbers for Friends and Family.

Fortunately, there is virtually no trust in Social Media (4%).

Well, if no one trusts information they get from Social Media, Mainstream Media, or from their family and friends, where else are they getting their information that they trust more?

I suspect that these low trust numbers are actually an indicator of general skepticism. People are skeptical of all sources of information. As long as it doesn't slough into jaundice and cynicism, a healthy dose of skepticism is healthy. In fact, we have long been advocating that schools teach critical-thinking. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that critical-thinking in terms of the capacity to create evidence based arguments that have logical integrity has not been much of a success. In fact, there is some evidence that the emptying out of knowledge has also decreased the capacity for critical-thinking.

But this Pew data seems to indicate that an emphasis on critical-thinking might have been effective in lessening everyone's trust in all sources of information.

If there is low trust, then there is low value. If there is low value, then there is not much engagement which is one of the other Pew findings.
While many Americans get news from social media, few are heavily engaged with news.
As evidenced by:

Looking at the data this way would seem to reformulate the tropes. If people don't spend much time with news and they don't trust the news and they don't engage with the news all that much, then how do they populate their cognitive landscape in a fashion that allows them to make the decisions that are important to them?

I suspect the answer is that most of the questions that are important to them are radically different from those that the chattering classes want to be important, that direct experience might be a far larger component of decision-making than abstract information, and that values and motivation also play a greater role than data.

There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, a city of 18 million

From The Bangladeshi Traffic Jam That Never Ends by Jody Rosen.
If you spend some time in Bangladesh’s capital, you begin to look anew at the word “traffic,” and to revise your definition. In other cities, there are vehicles and pedestrians on the roads; occasionally, the roads get clogged, and progress is impeded. The situation in Dhaka is different. Dhaka’s traffic is traffic in extremis, a state of chaos so pervasive and permanent that it has become the city’s organizing principle. It’s the weather of the city, a storm that never lets up.

Dhakaites will tell you that the rest of the world doesn’t understand traffic, that the worst traffic jam in Mumbai or Cairo or Los Angeles is equivalent to a good day for Dhaka’s drivers. Experts agree. In the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey. Like other megacities of the developing world, Dhaka is both a boomtown and a necropolis, with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class and a lively cultural and intellectual life that is offset by rampant misery: poverty, pollution, disease, political corruption, extremist violence and terror attacks. But it is traffic that has sealed Dhaka’s reputation among academics and development specialists as the great symbol of 21st-century urban dysfunction, the world’s most broken city. It has made Dhaka a surreal place, a town that is both frenetic and paralyzed, and has altered the rhythms of daily life for its 17.5 million-plus residents. Not long ago, the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper published an article titled “5 Things to Do While Stuck in Traffic.” Suggested activities included “catching up with friends,” reading and journaling.


“Bangladesh is not so much a nation as a condition of distress,” wrote the journalist William Langewiesche in 2000. It sounds like an overstatement, but to behold the gridlocked streets of Dhaka is to see distress in action, or rather, in inaction. The stalled traffic in the capital city is symptomatic of the nation’s broader woes, in particular population growth, which is moderate by the standards of the developing world, but disastrous given the size of Bangladesh.

Fundamentally, traffic is an issue of density: It’s what happens when too many people try to squeeze through too small a space. Bangladesh is the 12th most densely settled nation on earth, but with an estimated 160 million citizens it is by far the most populous, and the poorest, of the countries at the top of the list. To put the matter in different terms: The landmass of Bangladesh is one-118th the size of Russia, but its population exceeds Russia’s by more than 25 million.

Bangladesh’s density problem is magnified in Dhaka, in part because, practically speaking, Dhaka is Bangladesh. Nearly all of the country’s government, business, health care and educational institutions, and a large percentage of its jobs, are concentrated in Dhaka. Each year, 400,000 new residents pour into the capital, a mass migration that has made Dhaka the world’s most densely settled megacity, and one of the fastest growing.

The town that those millions inhabit almost completely lacks the basic infrastructure and rule of law that make big cities navigable. There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, and they are more or less ornamental; few drivers heed them. The main problem with Dhaka’s anarchic streets, though, is that there aren’t enough. The Daily Star has reported that just 7 percent of Dhaka is covered by roads. (In places like Paris and Barcelona, models of 19th-century urban planning, the number is around 30 percent.) Footpaths are also an issue. There are too few sidewalks in Dhaka, and those that exist are often impassable, occupied by vendors and masses of poor citizens who make their homes in curbside shanties.

Friday, September 23, 2016

I shall focus on the positives: her essay is nothing less than a masterwork of petulance and stupidity.

From A Defence of Lionel Shriver: Identity Politicians Would Kill Literature if They Could by Timothy Cootes.
Cootes does a good summary of the existentially unserious spat:
Saul Bellow once described the experience of reading the literary quarterlies of the fifties and sixties, after their takeover by the academy. He recorded feeling “first uncomfortable, then queasy, then indignant, contemptuous and finally quite bleak, flattened out by the bad writing.”

If you have followed the events and aftermath of the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, you may have experienced a very similar emotional reaction. In this essay, I hope to arrest that sense of bleakness, but first, a brief summary is in order.

To put it uncharitably, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a sensitive plant, had a tantrum during the keynote address by Lionel Shriver. Her ire was caused — or triggered, as the kids say — by what is a very conservative notion nowadays: writers of fiction can write about whatever they damn well please.

Shriver took aim at the devotees of identity politics, who occupy and conquer today’s university campuses. Recently, they have no-platformed controversial speakers, carved out intellectual “safe spaces”, and have now kicked off a panic about “cultural appropriation”. Shriver explained:
Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” — ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability — are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

A fantastically stupid idea, yes, and one that betrays a reactionary contempt for a cosmopolitan and humanist ethos. It has real world implications, too: sushi is off the menu in the university cafeteria; there is a prohibition on the white man’s donning of a sombrero; and, worst of all, severe restrictions on the writing of fiction, which relies, unsurprisingly, on the author inventing, inhabiting and stealing the experiences of others.

No longer, however. Today’s moral puritans dictate that you may only tell a story if it is your story to tell. Literary segregation, in other words: white characters for the white authors, and gay experiences for the gay writers, and, well, you get the idea. Step across this line and you invite the charge of gross insensitivity at best, bigotry and racism at worst.

Award winning author, Lionel Shriver accepts none of this, and rightly so. Hers is “a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best” she declared.

Her speech was a masterly takedown of the latest left-wing lunacy.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was less than impressed, storming out of Shriver’s speech in the first few minutes. And for the professionally outraged, a thought unpublished or unexpressed is a thought wasted, and, lo and behold, her hissy-fit was transmogrified into an article at The Guardian.

Now, I know there has been a lot of criticism at Yassmin’s expense, and I won’t take more than my ration. In fact, I shall focus on the positives: her essay is nothing less than a masterwork of petulance and stupidity. One seldom finds the chaotic mindset of the social justice crowd so neatly encapsulated.
Read the whole thing for an entertaining take-down of the academically foolish.

People might demonstrate isolated transactional irrationality but they tend to be systemically rational.

The academy can be extremely narrow-minded, intolerant and faddish, especially in the social sciences. It matters not how many research failures are revealed, they continue dogmatically believing in whatever trendy thought has recently emerged at the expense of real world experience.

One trend in the past five years or so has been the emerging conviction, trumpeted in books and articles, that the human mind is irredeemably illogical, irrational and incapable of consistent thought. Much of this depends on lab experiments on small numbers of usually middle class, affluent twenty-year olds, conducted under unrealistic conditions.

An example has been the joy with which sociologists greeted the Implicit Attitude Test which seemed to reveal that everyone was strongly biased against African-Americans. Sociologists being ideologues primarily from the Frankfurt School of reformed Marxism and broadly committed to critical theory celebrated the discovery of what they wanted to be true. But then it emerged that African-Americans taking the test were also biased against African-Americans. Then it was discovered that IAT results had no correlation to observed behaviors outside the lab environment. IAT is dying a slow death but cognitive pollution, once spread in the public discourse, like oil from a shipwrecked tanker, sticks around a long time.

At last we have a journalist/researcher willing to declare, in the context of the faddish conviction that all humans are irrational, that the emperor has no clothes. From The Irrational Idea That Humans Are Mostly Irrational by Paul Bloom.

My position on the irrationality claim is that indeed there are circumstances where humans are irrational but that the appearance of irrationality usually arises from biases on the part of the researcher, and/or because the goals and priorities of the subject are not understood, and/or because the context in which the decision is being made is not understood.

Bloom goes along with some of this.
My bet is that the relevant factor in variation in rationality, including moral reasoning, is not about different types of people, but different types of situations. If you want to see people at their stupidest, check out national politics, which is replete with us-vs.-them dynamics and virtue signaling, and where the cost of having silly views is harmless. Unless I’m a member of a tiny, powerful community, my beliefs about climate change or the arms deal with Iran will have no effect on the world, and so it’s not surprising that people don't work so hard to get those sorts of facts right.

It’s revelatory, then, that we do much better when the stakes are high, where being rational really matters. If I have the wrong theory of how to make scrambled eggs, they will come out too dry; if I have the wrong everyday morality, I will hurt those I love. So if you’re curious about people’s capacity for reasoning, don’t look at cases where being correct doesn’t matter and where it’s all about affiliation. Rather, look at how people cope in everyday life.


Look at the discussions that adults have over whether to buy a house or where to send their kids to school, or consider the social negotiations that occur among friends deciding where to go for dinner, planning a hike, or figuring out how to help someone who just had a baby. Or even look at a different sort of politics—the type of politics where individuals might actually make a difference, such as a town hall meeting where people discuss zoning regulations and where to put a stop sign.

My own experience is that the level of rational discourse in these situations is high. People might be self-interested, but they know that they are involved in decisions that matter, so they work to exercise their rational capacities: They make arguments, express ideas, and are receptive to the arguments and ideas of others. They sometimes even change their minds.
I like his point about the importance, not just of context, but of consequentiality. The more consequential the outcome, the more people invest in making informed decisions.

Blooms point ties to the other recently popular notion that voters are irrational and fail to vote their own interests. The higher the level of the election, the less critical it is to make a well-informed decision because of the less degree of impact within the election (one vote out of however many), as well as the weak relationship between national politician statements and actions. There is no point in investing time and effort becoming mini-experts, as some academics would wish, if the causal relationship between investment and outcome is so weak.

Know the goals, know the proxy measures used, know the priorities, know the perceived trade-offs among goals, know the context, know the relative costs - only then do you even begin to be in a position to consider whether irrationality is in play. Short of that, as a talking head, all you are doing is substituting your opinions and biases over everyone else's interpretations. It is a totalitarian/authoritarian mindset rather than a classical liberal one in which everyone is deemed to have equal agency and respect.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hyperbolic inflation

Interesting research from Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis by Christiaan H. Vinkers, Joeri K. Tijdink, and Willem M. Otte.
Objective To investigate whether language used in science abstracts can skew towards the use of strikingly positive and negative words over time.


Results The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades. All 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%. Comparable but less pronounced results were obtained when restricting the analysis to selected journals with high impact factors. Authors affiliated to an institute in a non-English speaking country used significantly more positive words. Negative word frequencies increased from 1.3% (1974-80) to 3.2% (2014), a relative increase of 257%. Over the same time period, no apparent increase was found in neutral or random word use, or in the frequency of positive word use in published books.

Conclusions Our lexicographic analysis indicates that scientific abstracts are currently written with more positive and negative words, and provides an insight into the evolution of scientific writing. Apparently scientists look on the bright side of research results. But whether this perception fits reality should be questioned.
We lament data overload and I obsess about cognitive pollution (memes that are objectively untrue but which are treated as true) but this research provides a peek into a different issue; hyperbolic inflation. A review might deem a book Good in one decade, then Great, then Magnificent, then Groundbreaking, then Exceptional. It is the equivalent of grade inflation. If not anchored to some sort of stable and objective basis, inflationary hyperbole leads to a loss of capacity to make relative distinctions.

The thinking person faces four challenges in the modern cognitive environment: Fraud (evergreen), data overload, cognitive pollution and now hyperbolic inflation.

Grand Master trolling in Amazon

Hillary Clinton and Tom Kaine have new book out, Stronger Together. At the point I went to Amazon to look at the reviews, there were 504 of them. If the election were based on Amazon stars, Clinton would lose in a landslide. 83%, or 418 readers, give it the worst rating, a single star. Only 14% give it the highest, five star, rating. 3% give it something in between. A bi-modal distribution of people either loving it or hating with six times as many hating it as loving it. Ouch.

I have to guess that, with these extreme numbers, the Trump people must be running some subtle sabotage campaign. If so, Gand Master level trolling. On the other hand, maybe it is simply emergent order; there are a lot of people out there who despise Hillary Clinton.

Separate from how and why this is occurring, I enjoyed the humor of the comments.

From the Top Customer Reviews at Amazon, here are the first few. I have cleaned up some of the button scripts.

1.0 out of 5 stars Health Warning!
By chjhorses on September 16, 2016

Pre-ordered an autographed copy but had to return it after this week's announcement as I was worried it was contaminated with pneumonia bacteria. I didn't want to end up exposed to the illness like her grandkids in Chelsea's apartment she was playing with on 9/11 after she collapsed, or the little girl she was hugging in the street afterwards. Thought about ordering the Kindle version but I thought it might open my device up to being hacked by communist countries. I wasn't too surprised to see Tim Kaine on the front cover giving the traditional National Socialist salute, I felt it fitting. Strongly recommended for those who believe the USA isn't anything special and should be more like the peaceful utopias of North Korea, Iran, or Cuba.

Comment 230 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars The Art of the Shakedown by Hill and Tim
By Elaine on September 16, 2016

I bought this thinking it would be a how-to book. I wanted "How to set up your own Foundation for fun and profit." Also, would like to have seen a chapter on "Ten easy steps to setting up your own secure server in a bathroom."

I do hear there's going to be a sequel, tentatively called "The Art of the Shakedown." Should be interesting.

Comment 150 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?

1.0 out of 5 stars Unbelievable turn of events..........
By Daniel B. on September 14, 2016

I was going to read this book.....I really was. But just as I got started, I found myself under sniper fire, passed out, and fell and hit my head. After that I got double vision and had to wear glasses that were so damn thick I couldn't even see to read. Then I had an allergic reaction to something and started coughing so hard I spit out what looked like a couple of lizard's eyeballs, my limbs locked up, and I passed out and fell down again, waking up only to find out I had been diagnosed with pneumonia 2 days earlier. Somehow I managed to power through it all, but it's a good thing I was able to make a small fortune on this random small trade in the commodities market (cattle futures or some such thing) and then, miracle of all miracles, a few banks offered me a few million to just talk to their employees for a few minutes - and all that really helped out because I swear I was dead broke and couldn't figure out how I was gonna come up with the 6 bucks to pay for this book, let alone pay the $1,500 for my health insurance this month. I still want to read it, but, honestly, what difference at this point does it make? I hear it sucks anyway.

33 Comments 1,561 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?

1.0 out of 5 stars Please don't bother...
By UrbanLegend on September 14, 2016

I have to start by saying I am a registered independent voter, and more importantly, a life-long independent thinker. I have voted for more D's than R's in my life, as well as several third-party candidates. This is the lamest, weakest, most politically-absurd book ever written, as far as I know. Save your money for food for your family just in case she is elected.

5 Comments 1,062 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars Not enough!
By James on September 14, 2016

I was pretty disappointed with this book. When the subject of the book is one of greatest criminals in American history I was really hoping for more.

Anyone can be a criminal, but how do you become the GREATEST criminal? that is what readers really want to know.

A step-by-step guide on how to monetize political influence, how to flaunt criminal behavior and even daringly project ones own criminal behavior onto other people -- specifically other political opponents -- is what I, and I think I can speak for everyone, would really want from Hillary.

For example, How do I get the head of the FBI to conjure up non-existent legal standards for my law breaking? What kind of dirt do I need on the FBI for the head of the organization to lie under oath about the need for "intent" to mishandle classified information when an intent requirement is nowhere to be found for this law? Furthermore, how do I get the FBI director to look the other way from the obvious intent of setting up the server in the first place, telling staffers to remove classified headings, telling the company monitoring my server to use bleachbit to delete all the emails AFTER getting a subpoena? This is truly groundbreaking criminal excellence that needs to be explained and shared. Hillary claims to be about fairness so her keeping all these tips to herself isn't very "fair" to the rest of us aspiring criminals.

How about a step-by-step explanation for how I can project my illegal dealings with the Russians into a negative narrative for my political opponent?Read more ›

19 Comments 1,298 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars Gave me Pneumonia
By USC90 on September 14, 2016

The chapter where Hillbilly talks about her battle with Parkinson's Disease was difficult to read. Difficult because it was missing from the book.

3 Comments 616 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars I got a copy of this book from someone in ...
By Ron NYC on September 14, 2016

I got a copy of this book from someone in my office. First, I don't know why Kaine is giving the Nazi salute on the cover. I couldn't get past the first third off the book before realizing that she is actually charging people to read her ideas and Trump gives specific policy information on his website for free. Even though I didn't pay for the book, I want my money back.

6 Comments 613 people found this helpful.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass

From The Academy, January 12th, 1878, quoting Lord Melbourne.
What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.
Dovetails with Philip Tetlock's research on forecasting. Experts have a poorer record of accuracy than informed non-experts. Pretty much the story of all post-WWII policy in general and virtually all foreign aid and philanthropic initiatives in particular.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Time discounting as a root cause

From Labor Force Participation and Video Games by Alex Tabarrok.

Is unemployment among young males driving them to play more video games or does playing more video games make them less employable. I agree with Tabarrok's conclusion.
Overall, the video game worry is a bit too reminiscent of the Dungeons and Dragons panic, or the earlier panics that books and radio were ruining children’s minds, for me to jump on board.
Tabarrok has another observation which fits with a line of my thinking that is relevant to other issues as well: Future discounting.
Perhaps the issue is that video games like slot machines are so enticing that young people discount the future too heavily or don’t recognize the future cost of not being in the workforce. Maybe. Perhaps what we really need is a 3D, virtual reality, total sensory simulation, awesome video game that is so expensive that it encourages people to work.
I have wondered for some time whether many of our issues, sociological and economic, might be tied to increasingly high discounting of the future. If you are uncertain about the future, it depresses long term planning, family formation, fertility, structured risk taking, etc. Absent these things, you lose economic progress, innovation, and a slew of other desirable outcomes.

Socialism (high degrees of regulatory control and redistribution) has this effect. I have wondered whether an increasing secularization of culture might also have the same impact. This line of thinking says that it is the discounting that is the real issue. Video games, lack of religion, reduced freedom are simply things which increase time discounting.

Monday, September 19, 2016

You can't stop the signal, Mal

A statement of fact or optimism?

Expand for full picture, click here.

That’s the problem with established models. They stay the same, while the world changes.

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit is famously succinct in his commentary. From OIL PRICES: NOT AS IMPORTANT AS WE THOUGHT?. The post is about research on the role of oil prices on an economy. Reynolds' comment is distilled wisdom:
That’s the problem with established models. They stay the same, while the world changes.