Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Is It OK to Ignore Experts?

Here are two more possible responses to my argument for humility:
  • Perhaps there is a set of widespread cognitive biases that leads to a bevy of experts willing to defend an obviously untenable theory. All the expert proponents are making the same logical mistake, which can be traced back to the same psychological impediment that many of us unfortunately share.
Bryan Caplan, in fact, seems to endorse something like this in his dismissal of utilitarianism. However, I worry about accusing others of bias on complicated matters. Bias blindspot is one big worry: we tend to see others as more biased than we are. Are we sure it's our opponents, and not ourselves, who are the biased ones, particularly when our opponents are experts and we are not?

And then there's the worry of straw-manning: how confident can you be that all utilitarians fail to realize this one mistake that you are accusing them of making? It's more reasonable to assume that sophisticated utilitarians recognize and (at least attempt to) avoid whatever mistake you think they're making. If a criticism is easy enough for a non-expert to see, it's probably easy enough for an expert to see (and deal with).
  • Perhaps we can dismiss some experts because there are non-rational forces at work that explain their allegiance to a theory. Maybe there are practical reasons (books on theory x sell well; there's a lot of funding opportunities for advanced study in theory x), or cultural/institutional reasons (a society has a tradition of raising their children under theory x; a prestigious department has a long history of theory x training).
I'm sympathetic to this kind of reason to dismiss some experts. However, this is simply a separate--and more sophisticated--argument. It goes beyond the "look-at-how-wrong-the-theory-is!" style dismissals. (For instance, in the specific case of Caplan's rejection of utilitarianism, he doesn't offer any such non-rational reason.)

Furthermore, it's difficult to show that non-rational forces uniquely impact one theory regarding a given issue. If such non-rational forces apply equally to Kantians and virtue ethicists as they do to utilitarians, then we cannot dismiss utilitarianism in favor of these other theories. For instance, the objection, "They're getting paid to say it's more complicated than it really is! Their livelihood as a pro philosopher depends on desimplifying the obvious!" applies equally well to all ethicists.

Anyway, if someone were to offer this argument, she wouldn't be baffled as to why there were so many advocates of the crazy theory. She'd remain upset, of course, but would at least understand why this happened.

So here's an added moral: If you are baffled as to why a seemingly crazy theory is semi-popular among experts, you should look to blame yourself ("I don't know enough about it!") before you blame the experts ("They're all stupid!").

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's A Philosophy Expert Look Like?

Let me consider two possible responses to my argument for humility:
  • Maybe there's no such thing as an "expert" in philosophy. Philosophers specialize in sitting and thinking. We can all do that! Sure, philosophers do it more than non-philosophers, but that doesn't make their conclusions more likely to be correct than ours.
But in the cases I'm considering, the expertise isn't about one's profession. Rather, it's about how much time and effort one has spent on the particular issue at hand. Pro ethicists have simply spent more time researching and thinking about utilitarianism than Bryan Caplan.

Sure, maybe there is no specific methodology unique to philosophers. Perhaps it's something we can all do. So Caplan could become an expert on this issue if he devoted the time to it. It's just that he hasn't yet. That's relevant.
  • Perhaps we can ignore so-called "experts" in philosophy. Philosophers of ethics are just really, really sucky when it comes to figuring out the answers It may just be that their methodology sucks. Sitting and thinking doesn't get them closer to the right answer at all.
But if the experts are hopeless, that makes us even more hopeless! As non-experts, aren't we in a worse (or at least equally bad) position to figure it out than the experts? This response, if true, supports a more radical kind of humility. There'd be a whole range of issues that we all suck at understanding, so we should suspend judgment on all of it.

(By the way, this point, along with most of the argument in these past few posts, comes from Bryan Frances.)

To avoid this, you'd have to make the case that expertise in philosophy, unlike expertise in other disciplines, actually worsens your epistemic position.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ignoring Experts

Here's a common story: someone claims that a particular theory is wacky. "How could anyone be a fan of that theory?" the critic opines. "Look at all the devastating criticisms it has!" Building steam, the critic adds, "After all, these are simple objections, the kind discussed in an intro class! Hell, I'm no expert, and I'm fully aware of them! I've never heard a successful response to any of these objections. So why does the theory still persist?" (Of course, the only reason the critic would discuss such a theory is because there are experts who believe it.)

I think such critics are displaying hubris and shodding reasoning.

To explain why, I'll use a concrete example. In a blog post about utilitarianism, GMU economist Bryan Caplan recently wrote, "I am frankly mystified by the enduring popularity of a moral theory subject to so many simple but devastating counter-examples." He then offers a guess as to why utilitarians cling to their mistaken theory (they have a distorted view of alternative ethical theories). Silly utilitarians!

Now, I don't know whether utilitarianism is correct. That's not my beef here. I want to argue that Caplan needs to be a bit more humble.

Allow me to get all epistemic renegade on Caplan:
  • Many ethicists are utilitarians. (It is not, as far as I can tell, a tiny minority among professional philosophers of ethics. Caplan himself concedes that utilitarianism is enduringly popular.)
  • Surely, these ethicists are aware of these simple counter-examples.
  • Yet these ethicists have not abandoned utilitarianism.
  • So surely, these ethicists believe they have sophisticated responses to these simple counter-examples (along with positive evidence for utilitarianism).
  • Caplan most likely is not aware of many of these sophisticated responses.
  • Surely, the pro ethicists who aren't utilitarians are aware of the sophisticated responses to these simple counter-examples. After all, part of what it is to be a pro ethicist is to be up on the current debates, so they will have read the sophisticated responses from the utilitarians.
  • The non-utilitarian pro ethicists would probably not accept these simple counter-examples alone as enough evidence to disprove utilitarianism. Even if they have super-sophisticated counter-responses to the utilitarians, they probably recognize the initial force of at least some of the utilitarians' responses.
  • All these ethicists are more well-versed in the subject of ethics than Bryan Caplan. (They're experts on this issue, and Caplan, an economist, is probably not.)
Again, for all I know, these ethicists are completely wrong. Still, it seems clear that these philosophers are in a better epistemic position to judge the merits of utilitarianism than Bryan Caplan. And while the criticisms appear devastating to us non-experts, they clearly aren't viewed that way among the experts themselves--otherwise, most experts would agree that utilitarianism is wrong!

In other words, Caplan's evidence against utilitarianism most likely isn't good enough to show that the theory is wrong. The meta-evidence undercuts the simple evidence. Caplan should realize this. So why isn't Caplan deferring to their expertise?

Well, "defer" is probably the wrong word choice. I don't mean he should become a utilitarian. After all, there are a lot of non-utilitarian pro ethicists, too, so switching teams seems too drastic. But he should own his ignorance here, and lower his degree of credence (or perhaps suspend judgment altogether) that utilitarianism is the wrong theory of ethics.

Anyway, the moral: when there are "simple, devastating" criticisms of a theory, yet experts still believe that theory, then those simple criticisms are probably not as devastating as we non-experts think they are.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Counteracting Biases

While catching up on Overcoming Bias posts, I've been trying to figure out the best way to teach methods of counteracting biases. If I had to boil it down into one or two pieces of practical advice for students, what would I recommend?

One big point is to own our fallibility. Awareness of our limits and biases is a huge step in the right direction. Here are two other big, simple points I think are important:
  1. Actively seek out sources that you disagree with. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people and consume like-minded media. When we do check out our opponents, it tends to be the obviously fallacious straw men rather than sophisticated sources that could legitimately challenge our beliefs.
  2. Focus on the best points in the arguments against what you believe. Our opponents' good points are worth more attention than their obviously bad points. Yet we sometimes naturally focus on their mistakes rather than the reasons that hurt our case the most.
Point #1 in particular is tough for me: as you can see by my feed, I mostly read stuff from like-minded people: philosophers, psychologists, and economists working on decision making, heuristics, and biases. To this extent, I'm probably more likely to think that these issues are more important than they really are. What contrarian sources can I check to counteract this?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Are CEO's paid too much? I have done hardly any research on this topic, but it's interested me since teaching a section on it in a Business Ethics class last fall.

The main insight I gained then was the similarity between the inflated pay of CEO's and star athletes. There's been a rapid rise due to a small minority of shareholders/owners overpaying for a few CEO's/athletes, which has inflated the competitive value for similarly skilled CEO's/players. This ratcheting system doesn't seem financially justifiable for two reasons: (1) top CEO's/players today probably aren't 10 times more valuable than top CEO's/players from 50 years ago; and (2) top CEO's/players probably aren't 100 times more important to their organization than the average employee/player they work with.

Let me own my ignorance, though: I took most of this on the word of one of the two articles our class read from a bad textbook, so my confidence in this analogy has been low.

Still, I read an article recently that partly confirmed my diagnosis that the root cause of the increase in CEO pay is the ratcheting from unrepresentative "peer-group comparisons" of similarly qualified CEO's at other companies. For some reason, overpaid peers stand out more. (Unfortunately, the article reads like a press release from a lobbying organization. That automatically makes me skeptical.)

Robin Hanson, however, makes a different case for the wage inequality. He compares CEO's to actors and musicians by focusing on the high cost of trying out new CEO's, along with the prevalence of short-term deals. The few short-term winners renegotiate at much higher terms, and are free to continually renegotiate their salaries into the stratosphere. Hanson suggests agreeing to more long-term deals at the beginning to help solve this problem.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Maybe Some Academics Are Irrational

Decent Album, ThoughDespite the case I made for academic specialization, the thought that academics are irrational still lingers.

For starters, my final point in the last post (we don’t know what research will wind up fruitful until after we do the research) proves too much. Surely it makes sense to dismiss devotion to topics that seem obviously useless as irrational. We shouldn’t, for instance, consider it legit to defend an astrology nerd on the grounds that astrology might wind up valuable someday. From what we know now, astrology seems so unlikely to produce legit gains that’s it’s silly to devote much time at all to it.

This points to a solution. I feel it makes sense to evaluate someone’s commitment to a topic based on what we're justified in believing now about that topic. The more an issue seems promising and important to us now, the more reasonable it is to nerd out over it. Conversely, the more a topic seems useless, the less reasonable it is to obsess over it, even if it winds up actually being important. So, some academics are wholly justified in their pursuits, while others, not so much.

Where is the line between rational and irrational specialization? How permissive should we be? This depends, I think, on two factors. First, how large is the gap between what seems important and what actually is important? The more difficult it is to determine importance, the more permissive we should be.

Second, how much should we value contrarianism for its own sake? Presumably, there’s a danger to too much conformity, both in what society at large deems important, and even in what reliable experts deem important. As long as it isn’t just rationalization, it seems reasonable for a self-aware academic to appeal to such meta-considerations to justify her weird obsession.

My Name is Jonas, Ph.D.I suppose my personal preference is to be fairly permissive—I bristle at academic turf wars. Mainly this is because I feel the need to be fairly confident to declare a line of inquiry as fruitless, and I simply lack this confidence when assessing most research. But there's also the worry that I'll destroy my sweater: I (perhaps naïvely) see most fields as roughly on equal footing when it comes to potential usefulness, so if I call out one specialization, I fear I'll wind up calling most of them irrational.

And that's just silly.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Not All Academics Are Irrational

Here are four reasons to doubt the claim that academics are wasting their lives on nerdy pursuits.

First, do you really have to work on what you think is the most important issue to be reasonable? While it’s naïve to think that all topics are equally important, it’s nevertheless plausible that there is a range of important issues that is rationally acceptable to choose from. It’s not obvious that rationality is so uniquely demanding on us that there is only one issue that’s appropriate to focus on at any given time.

The Communal IntellectSecond, perhaps what’s rational for the community is rational for the individual. It benefits the community at large to have people working on a variety of topics. While a single researcher might know she’s not working on the most important topic, she also might know that many others are. Her efforts, thus, are best spent on other issues. Whatever arrangement gets the community more knowledge is the one individuals should adopt. If that means some of us work on less important stuff, so be it.

Third, what’s reasonable for a given individual might be based on her unique abilities. For some, statistical analysis comes naturally. For others, it’s language acquisition. Tailoring your research to exploit your specific talents seems appropriate.

Fourth, it’s often not clear what issue is, in fact, important to do research on until after that research is completed. I find this to be the strongest case for the reasonableness of letting a thousand flowers bloom. I’m willing to grant that most research is, in fact, unimportant. But it’s tough to figure out which research will be useless going in. It’s better to have people spread out and search everywhere on the off chance that something vital is hidden in an unlikely spot.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Are Academics Irrational?

My main nerdiness is philosophy. "Why study that?" is a popular question. Typically, my answer is, "I'm wired weirdly; I just like it." I rarely defend it further.

SPACE AGE TECHNOLOGYLike a good self-doubting philosopher, I wonder whether I could defend it further. Yes, I can offer reasons to think that philosophy is important and valuable. But that might just be rationalizing NASA with Tang: while there are benefits to the space program, it's not clear that they warrant the resources devoted to it. Likewise, perhaps the effort I spend on philosophy just isn't worth it.

The opening quote of the documentary The Linguists got me thinking about this: "Around the age of eight or nine, I discovered I had a somewhat irrational interest in the world's languages." At first pass, this sounds right. Devoting one's life to the study of dying languages isn't obviously more important than devoting it to the study of, say, penguin digestion, or the antebellum South. Why choose linguistics, then?

It seems, then, as if academics face the same charge of wasting their lives as nerds do. Is academic specialization nothing more than the illogical passions of a group of nerds?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Are Nerds Irrational?

How much do nerds have to defend their nerdy ways?

The standard response is: "Not at all!" There's nothing wrong with being a nerd. In fact, as I've said before, I tend to think of "nerd" as a compliment. Nerds care about something enough to get obsessed with it. This passion isn't bad, it's just socially unacceptable. And social acceptability is a poor guideline for just about anything. Why would someone let society dictate her interests? "Um, I like top-40 radio, and summer blockbusters, I guess..." It's not just that mainstream stuff sucks. It's that non-nerds live so passively. Nerds take control of their lives. They have souls.

Oh, I've Wasted My LifeHowever, this only addresses some of the criticisms of nerdiness. After all, passion isn't good if it's misdirected. Someone obsessed with feeding homeless people isn't wasting her life. But someone who devotes his life to comic books...

This suggests a stronger definition of "nerd": someone who cares about a topic more than is reasonable. Under this usage, it's not just that nerds are social misfits. They're devoting too much time and energy to topics that just don't deserve it. A nerd isn't merely obsessive; she's stupidly obsessive.

There's a standard response to this, too: "Screw you, I'm interested in it!" So what if nerds like Star Trek? Others like windsurfing, or quilting, or celebrity gossip. It's perfectly reasonable for someone to pursue whatever makes her happy. Nerds are just wired differently to desire quirky nerd stuff.

This is OK, I guess, but I suspect some nerds want a stronger case. Based on personal enjoyment, all hobbies are equally valid. So devoting one's life to windsurfing is just as reasonable as devoting it to film. This thought would upset some film nerds. Sure, windsurfing is enjoyable, but it's mindless and fleeting. Film is clearly more valuable.

This is what I'm interested in: the nerd who wants to defend her choice of obsession as better. This is a tougher row to hoe. At least, it opens nerds up to the criticism that they might really be wasting their lives.