Saturday, July 29, 2017

Diary

I am unable to wean myself completely from literary writing, and, since I find most of it unsatisfactory, I have been looking into new areas and am venturing into literary correspondences as a possibility. This may not be promising, because letter-writing is dead, and if you want to delve into it you have to read the letters of long-deceased people. Thus, whether you like it or not, you may end up as an escapist who idealizes the past. I have started a volume of letters by D.H. Lawrence and hope that it will meet my expectations. Although I try not to be a sentimentalist, it is difficult for me not to think that the environment for educated people in the West was far better from about 1880 to 1914 than it is today. In 1880, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy were still alive, Impressionism had just emerged, and Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and D.H. Lawrence were either young or about to be born. I don't deny that the social changes that have occurred since then have made it impossible to maintain the earlier conditions, but it is difficult for me not to think that there has been a decline in the quality of writers, artists, thinkers and politicians since then. If the ten people whom I just mentioned were alive now, they would, through no fault of their own, most likely not become prominent in the ways that they did then. From my perspective, economic, social and political evolution since 1880 have produced an environment in which it is much harder for those kinds of talents to flourish. While these are highly complex situations which can't be summed up easily, they are probably related to population growth and economic competition, with the former producing an increase in survival-based human migrations and the latter producing a widespread acceptance of lower quality, with price dictating which products sell in mass markets. Thus, while the standard of living has been going up globally, the richness of culture at the high end has deteriorated; people such as Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks came to dominate the arts, Donald Trump became president, and thinkers and scientists have more or less vanished from the public imagination.

The thought occurred to me that an alternative to seeking order in the world by escaping to the past is to become a complete fatalist. This may be less implausible than it seems. If Sean Carroll, the physicist, is right, and we live in a deterministic universe, we could interpret that as a kind of assurance. In this view, everything that has occurred in the last 13.8 billion years – or perhaps much longer – resembles a movie script, with no editing possible and the casting completed: we may even be living in a rerun. The worst thing that can happen is that you are stuck in a role or scene that you dislike, but, since you could never have done anything different, there isn't much reason to get upset. Tolstoy, Churchill and Einstein got the good parts, and you didn't, and nothing could change that. There is no possible outcome within the universe in which I am not typing this sentence now. Of course, this raises a number of questions. If you have no control over your mental processes, why worry about them? While some might argue that such thoughts could lead to amorality, immorality, irresponsibility or laziness, the reality is that we are hard-wired and socialized not to engage in most negative behaviors without even thinking about them: it is more difficult to choose to act badly than you may think. For that matter, philosophers could stop wasting their time pondering free will, consciousness and ethics, and libertarians could calmly be told to grow up. It is true that we have evolved to adopt certain illusions, but we have also evolved to recognize how we delude ourselves. Thus, the idea of fatalism is not self-contradictory or untenable.

On my next post I will have something to say about D.H. Lawrence.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone II

The remainder of the book is somewhat entertaining, but there is little in it that is new to me. It briefly covers many topics that I've mentioned on this blog, such as politics, financial decisions, intelligence, AI, groupthink, science, experts, and the social effects of technology, with a focus on ignorance and cognitive limitations. There is example after example of common misunderstandings and mistakes in thinking. In a recent national survey, only 47 per cent of the participants disagreed with the statement "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do," and only 47 per cent agreed with the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." There are a couple of famous quotations that I like:

Socrates, commenting on a political expert:
I reasoned to myself, as I left him, like this—"I am actually wiser than this person; likely enough neither of us knows anything of importance, but he thinks he knows something when he doesn't, whereas just as I don't know anything, so I don't think I do, either. So I appear to be wiser, at least than him, in just one small respect: that when I don't know things, I don't think that I do either." (Plato, Apology)

Winston Churchill on democracy:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.

For a novice reading popular nonfiction, this book may be of some interest, but for me it all comes to naught. As predicted in my last post, the conclusions are far from edifying. Like Daniel Kahneman, the authors are sympathetic with libertarian paternalism, which I think at most might assuage the guilt of the rich, who would credit themselves for attempting to encourage smarter behavior on the part of the less-competent. The final message is a murky one, something to the effect of "if we all work together as a community, everything will be fine." The gist is that a person doesn't have to know much, as long as people cooperate. However, it is already established that people don't always cooperate, and, furthermore, that even those who seem to possess good judgment make decisions which, over a long period of time, may be to their own detriment. These latter concerns are not really addressed. Sloman and Fernbach are self-deprecating at times – a plus – but there is no real heavy lifting to be found in this book. While they recognize that their findings suggest risks to our species, they stop well short of providing a grave warning or recommending further study, as has the organization CSER. We are supposed to muddle through again – but will we succeed?

It occurs to me that, at a theoretical level at least, one may assign costs to cognitive errors made at high levels within society. At the moment there is quite a lot of concern about the presidency of Donald Trump among educated people, and the efficacy of the democratic process would have been an obvious avenue for exploration by Sloman and Fernbach. Their choice to ignore it does not reflect well on them as thinkers. Trump is a good case in point, because his judgment is widely questioned, and, in my opinion, his election reflects a dangerous turn in the public's collective expression of their stupidity. There are different ways that one might assess the costs to society of the Trump presidency. In the simplest terms, Trump could trigger a devastating nuclear war. That may not be likely, but Trump may well have a significant deleterious effect on global efforts to reduce climate change. Trump's ignorance of economics could potentially come at a cost of trillions of dollars to the American economy, exacerbating social unrest and destabilizing society. Sloman and Fernbach stop short of making recommendations regarding how society might avert these potential disasters by enacting a system that would prevent someone like Donald Trump from gaining access to such power.

As I've said, democracy, though it once had appeal in that it counterbalanced the abuse of power and provided individuals with a sense of self-determination, is not well-suited to the modern world. Increasing complexity has created a large stage for potentially disastrous outcomes that result from human cognitive deficiencies. Thus, as it becomes technologically feasible, I advocate the transferal of governance to artificial intelligence which operates in a semi-autonomous fashion. The gravest threats to the medium-term stability of the world population are all man-made, and there is no indication in this book that world leaders, no matter how well they cooperate, will be able to resolve them.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone I

This book, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, delves into areas of cognitive psychology not covered by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. While there is some overlap, and Kahneman is cited, Kahneman emphasizes the error-prone nature of human thinking, particularly with respect to formal reasoning, whereas Sloman and Fernbach emphasize the deficiencies in knowledge apparent in individuals. They provide what I think is a more approving description of the causal reasoning used by humans and explain its origin in biological terms, showing how other species also seem to use generalization models based on empirical evidence, though at a less sophisticated level than we do. The main point, however, is that we know far less than we think we do, and we are adapted to a hive-like mentality in which our survival is ensured by interdependence.

The writing style is more informal and breezy than that of Kahneman, and although some research is cited, the tone is less academic. As with Kahneman, the "research" sometimes seems a little contrived, with hokey questionnaires filled out by volunteer college students. However, I agree with all of their main points, and, as was the case with Kahneman, find them obvious. Sloman and Fernbach seem more sensitive to biological explanations than Kahneman, and I am disappointed that there is no mention of eusociality or of E.O. Wilson, which might have taken the book in a direction that I would have found more interesting. I'm halfway through, and it looks as if it will end in a few platitudes, more of the self-help variety than I would like, in accordance with Kahneman's method.

Because the books both seem circumscribed and cautious, while at the same time suggesting that they contain deep thoughts, I am reminded of the joke that was popular in the late 1960's and 1970's:

"To be is to do" – Socrates.
"To do is to be" – Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do" – Frank Sinatra.

(In case you don't know, the joke derives from the lyrics to the song, "Strangers in the Night," which was a hit in 1967.) I'm not sure exactly why it is, but I always get the impression that the findings of psychological research are fairly obvious, and that the only reason that one might have for bringing them up would be to develop some further hypotheses about the human situation – which never occurs. Therefore, I have the feeling that, like Kahneman, Sloman and Fernbach are going nowhere with this despite their portentousness. I may be wrong, and I'll fill you in on my next post.

I am beginning to get a sense of the sociology of psychology. If you look back at the history of psychology, although many of its early practitioners, such as Freud, Jung, and even Skinner, had significant insights, the methodologies that they invented do not hold up well as science according to current standards. Psychology takes on a more serious aura when it is linked to neurology or AI, and that is exactly what cognitive science tries to do. Thus, there remains a nebulousness that has always existed in psychology, but it is no longer possible to succeed in the field without using measurements and throwing in a few scientific-sounding words such as "cognition." Although it does seem that significant advances are being made in the field, my perception is that its practitioners are usually not big thinkers, and their spin on the subject may just be career moves on their part.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Diary

Because I had a DNA test done, I joined Ancestry.com for six months in order to follow up on it, and my membership will be expiring soon. During this period I have spent a lot of time on genealogy and have found out a few new things about my family history. Unless you have famous or wealthy ancestors, it is difficult to find much detail, and most of your ancestors appear as names, places and dates. However, if you keep at it, some pictures begin to emerge, in my case through the trades of the males over multiple generations. Then, as you approach the present, if you know about your grandparents and great-grandparents through direct family sources, you get some sense of the social changes and adaptations that people in your family made over the course of a few hundred years.

I've had the most success with the Wayre family background of my English grandmother. I've traced it back to about 1670 in the town of Spofforth, Yorkshire, which is a few miles west of York, near Harrogate. In the early documents, they spelled their name "Whare," and, beginning with my great-great-great-great grandfather, William, who was born in 1749, they changed the spelling to "Wayre." William may have been one of the first in the family to leave farming. He became an apprentice hosier in 1769 and had a shop on Stonegate in York for many years. By 1804, he was a stocking manufacturer, hatter and furrier. Many of his sons and grandsons continued in his line of work, with shops in Hull, Leeds, Nottingham and London. His great-grandson and my great-grandfather, Arthur L'Estrange Wayre, was the last Wayre furrier and lived in London. The family story is that Arthur's first wife died when her nightgown caught fire. They were married for seven years, during which time she produced five children. His second wife, my great-grandmother, had another six children. On the London wedding photograph that I posted earlier, he is the third person from the left on the back row.

Besides filling in the family tree, I've also had some contact with distant relatives. I emailed a second cousin in England whose grandfather, my great-uncle, corresponded with me in 1977. She sent me a photograph of my grandparents at her parents' wedding in 1961. I've also been in touch with a more distant Wayre relative who provided some genealogical details that were new to me. In addition, the DNA test has put me into contact with one distant relative of each of my English grandparents. It's a little ludicrous to think that you've discovered a significant family connection, but at least these are people with the same hobby as you who may have some useful information. So far, all of them have been in England. Eventually I may hear from relatives on the Armenian side.

I've started another book, but have not read enough of it to comment yet and will on my next post. I have reached a point at which I can find very little that I am able to read with much enthusiasm – this is a cyclical event that I run into every once in a while. The problem I have is that I prefer contemporary writing, and within that category the books tend to be either too commercial or too academic for me. Looking through the books reviewed in The New York Times, nearly all of them were written for mass audiences. If they are fiction, I tend to find them formulaic and lacking in insight; if they are nonfiction, I tend to find them too contrived and dumbed-down to take seriously. I would guess that at least ninety per cent of the bestsellers from either category specifically target readers who are not selective about what they read and can be attracted by advertising. Some of these books can be all right, as was the case with Collapse, but that was exceptional because it included original work and speculation by a thoughtful author. I was less impressed by Thinking, Fast and Slow, because it consisted mainly of the rehashing of old research without a critical evaluation of its relevance to the current state of affairs in the world. As for fiction, besides all of the qualitative problems I've mentioned in the past, there remains the greater question of whether it is still a valid form of art: consumer art is an oxymoron to me, given that the people who sell it are not qualified to make that distinction. As far as academic books are concerned, if I chance upon one that I like, I might enjoy it, but most academics these days seem to be poor writers and to operate in such narrow spheres that that they are unable to think beyond their fields of expertise, or their books may be more technical than is appropriate for a casual reading.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Diary

Since finishing Daniel Kahneman's book, I haven't read much. I have been waterproofing the basement, touching up the paint on the house, watering the tomatoes, cutting the grass, repairing a broken window and tinkering with my large telescope. The telescope is very good for seeing faint objects, but that can only be done if the viewing conditions are excellent. So far this year there have been very few clear nights. Furthermore, faint objects require an absence of other light sources, and even though we have relatively little light pollution here, the moon has been up, making the viewing of faint objects difficult. Some amateur astronomers eventually give up and concentrate on the moon, since it's much easier to see than anything else, but I find it boring. I've considered getting a solar telescope for looking directly at the sun, another easy target, but I prefer the night sky and more distant objects.

I've been thinking about Kahneman and don't know quite what to make of his take on the relevance of his research. On the one hand, he is publicizing the particular shortcomings of human reason that have been discovered by research, and on the other hand he seems to want to haphazardly attach this information to traditional economics, including economics that uses rational models. I may be missing something here, or perhaps this has been discussed elsewhere, but it seems as if Kahneman, rather than taking rationalism in economics off its pedestal, is elevating it to yet a higher level than it occupied previously, creating a caste of super-economists who are able to incorporate his findings into even more sophisticated models than the ones that they had been using. With Kahneman in mind, I am aware of no writings that bring into question the legitimacy of economics as an unbiased field or that question its validity as a predictive tool with respect to broad social outcomes. To my knowledge, Kahneman's work has merely added a branch to economics, and it is not perceived as a threat to the logical integrity of the field. Since Kahneman doesn't take up this topic in his book, I am forced to think either that he has been lazy about analyzing the implications of his work or that he is intentionally obfuscating the incongruities between his research and the traditional practices of economics. It's impossible for me to say for certain, but it may be that Kahneman is reluctant to attack economics, because his best known and most cited works have been tied to that field rather than to psychology. I saw no indication in his book that he had any criticisms of the economic and political models currently followed in the developed world, and therefore it seemed that the book finished well before taking up any topics that I would have found interesting.

Although I'd rather not pay attention to politics, I feel at least some responsibility to follow what is going on with Trump, because this always has the potential to develop into a perilous situation. It seems now that, even if he is an absurd fit, he may actually be able to grow into the job. The whole trick for a president is to get elected, which does not necessarily have to do with anything else. It would be possible for him to do nothing for the remainder of his term and remain in office if collusion with the Russians can't be proven. The irony is that what should be considered the hardest job in the world can be done by almost anyone who has the equivalent of a high school education. You can get by with little knowledge of history, politics, law, economics or science, and you don't have to write or speak in complete sentences or spell properly. You can even lie blatantly and fire people whom you don't like for any reason without any consequences. You can shock and offend other world leaders with impunity. No one will care if you fill top positions with friends and family members. If you set things up well enough, all you will have to do is make a few public appearances and sign documents. Others can come up with policies, write speeches for you and represent you in various functions, so you don't really have to do anything if you don't want to. You may in the end be considered an ineffectual, incompetent or corrupt president, but that may not become the consensus until after you've left office. This seems funny to me after Obama, who always seemed very busy and under stress: if he had just acted busy and stressed-out, he could have been exactly like Trump behind the scenes and no one would have known the difference. The mythology that has built up around the presidency of the United States of America is ludicrous by any reckoning.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow IV

As with several of the books I've read recently, I became bogged down in this one and grew tired of the text. Nevertheless, it covers an important topic and is worth the time. Part IV adds a slew of additional concepts and research, emphasizing ideas related to behavioral economics. I did not feel that Kahneman did a good job integrating all of the threads that occurred throughout the book, and I could only gather that Part IV was the section that would interest economists. For example, he contrasts prospect theory, which is based on his research, with utility theory, which has dominated economics for at least a century. The gist, especially in this section, is that humans do not always make rational decisions, and that the traditional idea of the rational agent in economics seriously misrepresents reality. As in the earlier sections, I had a hard time sustaining an interest in the research. For example, he places a lot of importance on what is known as the Allais Paradox:

In Problems A and B, which would you choose?

A. 61% chance to win $520,000 or 63% chance to win $500,000

B. 98% chance to win $520,000 or 100% chance to win $500,000

Most people, including economists, pick the 61% chance in A and the 100% chance in B, and these are the incorrect answers based on purely rational criteria. This is not intuitively obvious, and Kahneman explains the reasoning in detail. I thought it was a rather technical and roundabout way to make a point, and it seemed more like a lesson in formal reasoning than a substantive lesson in psychology. From my point of view, it is obvious that people would have difficulty with a problem like this, because there has been practically nothing in our evolutionary past to prepare them for it. Throughout most of the history of mankind everyone was illiterate, and currency and formal mathematics did not exist. If you look into your own ancestry, you will probably find illiterate ancestors within a few generations. There is nothing odd or unexpected in these results.

The significance of behavioral economics derives almost entirely from the fact that classical economics is based on an assumption that has no empirical basis, namely, that humans are rational agents. To be sure, we are capable of making rational decisions, but much of the time we do not. I am glad that behavioral economics came along, because it is a corrective to a flawed methodology, but I still get the feeling that it is too little, too late. I am reminded of Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which also caused a furor in economics but was derived from basic research that could have been done decades ago. In Capital, Piketty showed through straightforward historical data that capitalism tends to produce wealth inequality, which contradicts the almost universal belief among economists that economic prosperity raises the boat for everyone; as an economy advances, the standard of living may improve for most of the population, but the wealth gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. Piketty also went on to suggest the rather obvious but often loathed solution: raise taxes on the rich. From these two "breakthroughs" I get a visceral sense that much of what passes for economics is a borderline scam, and therefore, rather than marvel at the works of Piketty or Kahneman, I wonder why someone didn't do it fifty years ago.

As for Kahneman himself, there are aspects to his position that I find too cautious and not particularly admirable. In the closing chapter he describes the general thrust of behavioral economics as offering a more realistic but messier approach to economics than the Chicago school, which is based on the idea that we are rational agents who do not make mistakes. The Chicago school, he says, lends itself to the politics of libertarianism; though he doesn't say so, it is also compatible with the delusional world of Ayn Rand, who believed in the "great man" theory, repudiated by Kahneman in an earlier chapter, in which a few talented people run the world and are fully entitled to the benefits of their superior skills, with the less-talented riding on their coattails. Libertarians generally advocate free markets and reduced intervention by governments regardless of the social problems that crop up. Kahneman, recognizing that people are at best only partly rational, is sympathetic with the views of Cass Sunstein, who advocates what is known as libertarian paternalism, in which ordinary people receive some protection from the rational agents who exploit them. Though his intentions seem good, Kahneman does not closely examine libertarian dogma, and his position seems to be that the political system should incorporate some sort of economic noblesse oblige in order to have a fair society. There is a little hypocrisy in arriving at this view after devoting hundreds of pages to demonstrating how everyone, including the so-called rational agents, makes errors in their thinking processes. As he describes it, there is little to distinguish libertarian paternalism from the divine right of kings, in which a monarch takes some responsibility for the well-being of the serfs. Here I think Kahneman is being deferential to his laissez-faire economics colleagues, and in the process he seems to become intellectually dishonest. If sloppy thinking is the intractable problem that Kahneman has made it out to be, the continued adherence to familiar modes of governance is almost guaranteed to produce the scenarios described by Jared Diamond in Collapse.