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Bullshit and Ideology + a little about swedish politics

A study I came across today courtesy of MR.

Swedish researchers mapped the relationship between political ideology and receptivity to bullshit. I’ll let the abstract speak for itself.

Among Swedish adults (N = 985), bullshit receptivity was (a) robustly positively associated with socially conservative (vs. liberal) self-placement, resistance to change, and particularly binding moral intuitions (loyalty, authority, purity); (b) associated with centrism on preference for equality and even leftism (when controlling for other aspects of ideology) on economic ideology self-placement; and (c) lowest among right-of-center social liberal voters and highest among left-wing green voters

(emphasis added)

Note the study happened in Sweden, not the United States. This is actually part of why they were able look into bullshit receptivity as it relates to social versus economic liberal/conservative beliefs. Apparently, Sweden has a varied political field with parties that range the social and economic political spectrum (probably like the rest of Europe, but it’s funny thinking about this as an American).

From the study. What variation!

From the study. What variation!

This allowed them to compare results between social conservatives that may have different economic perspectives, and really try to isolate if a tendency is closely associated with a specific political viewpoint.

The article is also good for a brief review of the literature surrounding a lot of this type of reserach. There’s a lot of recent psychological work that is focuses on an individual’s epistemic style (need for certainty, order, tends to reason intuitively, etc) and moral judgements that is covered.

Some interesting things I came across:

insofar as a certainty- and security-oriented epistemic style is associated with a lack of analytic, deliberative forms of thinking (Jost & Krochik, 2014), this account predicts that bullshit receptivity is associated with right-wing ideology in the social domain but with left-wing ideology in the economic domain, particularly among persons low in political engagement.

The reasoning is that those in need of epistemic certainty will tend to process issues of economic policy through a personal lens, and prefer laws that can give financial security to a greater portion of the population.

Pfattheicher and Schindler (2016) found that bullshit receptivity predicted general conservative self- placement and favorable ratings of Republican presidential candidates (especially Ted Cruz) in the United States

The study also confirms, through claiming bullshit receptivity was highest among green voters, anecdotal beliefs about the level of self-reflection members of far-left parties may engage in on a daily basis.

Green party (which is on the left) stood out in terms of their belief in alternative medicine (including acu- puncture, energy healing, and homeopathy), astrology, anthroposophy (Waldorf education and biodynamic growth), electric allergy, paranormal phenomena, and the moon land- ing conspiracy theory, although they had strong faith in the scientific method, the theory of evolution, and the reality of global warming

This description seems to recall images of young, LA/West Coast liberals that love to proselytize progressive views but will also try to convince you of the predictive powers of astrology. We may make fun of conservatives believing in “Q” or the deep state, but having faith in healing crystals is equally epistemologically irresponsible to me.

The Efference Copy Paper

Here is the paper I wrote while doing a little bit of research on efference copies. Each sentence was restricted to fewer than 17 words. While trying to stay under the limit makes for slow going, it’s a rewarding exercise. The sentences end up sounding a bit simple, but the primary purpose of any paper is to be understood. After that, you can worry about trying to dazzle a reader with your insights (or confuse them into believing you have any).

Efference and Objectification

Perception begins with bugs. Spiders, praying mantises, and bees have all demonstrated the ability to perceive the world around them.[1] This is impressive. It prods us to reconsider which species have perceptual capabilities similar to our own. Yet, there remains a high standard of proof for attributing perception. The existence of efference copies in simple organisms appears to be evidence of perceptual ability. If this is correct, types of worms and slugs will be granted perception. Close examination suggests this conclusion is misguided. The existence of efference copies alone is not a sufficient mark of perception.

We check if organisms have perception by seeing if they exhibit perceptual constancies. A perceptual constancy is an ability. Imagine I have a red water bottle. The top half is in sunlight, while the other half is in shade. Therefore, the top appears a light red, while the bottom looks darker. The human visual system attributes the same shade of red to the entire bottle. This happens despite it looking like it is two different shades of red. The ability to do this is a perceptual constancy. The visual system can attribute the same redness despite different kinds of light hitting the eye. This light is called the “proximal stimulus” and is registered the moment it strikes retinal sensors. For example, the two halves of the bottle cause different registrations of proximal stimulus. In realizing a perceptual constancy, the visual system also engages in “objectification.”[2] It picks out elements in the proximal stimulus relevant to the object. It also ignores elements specific to its perspective of the object. In terms of the example, the visual system did two things in exercising objectification. First, it identified which parts of the registered stimulus were due to the bottle’s redness. Second, it discarded parts caused by circumstantial factors like shade and perspective.

Using the new vocabulary, an explanation of perceptual constancies takes shape. A perceptual constancy is the ability to represent accurately despite variation in registrations of proximal stimulus. The thing represented can be a particular or an attribute.[3] Objectification also happens if and only if there are perceptual constancies. Therefore, it is a reliable indicator of perceptual constancies, and thus perception.[4]

Some maintain organisms like the nematode worm exhibit objectification, as evidenced through efference copies. Efference copies arise to handle conflicting behavior associated with sensory input. When tactile sensors in the head of the worm are stimulated, it moves backward. If similar sensors are activated in its tail, it moves forward. The result is a cruel dilemma. Moving forward stimulates its head sensors, inducing backward movement. Backward movement stimulates its tail sensors, triggering forward movement. Under these circumstances, the poor worm would be unable to move meaningfully in either direction. Fortunately, its sensory system, and those like it, have overcome the problem. Imagine the worm receives stimulus from its tail and activates the move forward reflex. To avoid the feedback loop described, the activation sends an efference copy to the sensory system. This copy functions as a report to the rest of the organism. It indicates that the worm is moving forward.[5] Therefore, any stimulation of head sensors is due to movement, not obstacles or predators. The activation of the second, move-backward reflex is then inhibited, allowing the worm to travel peacefully.

Supporters claim the worm’s sensory system discriminates between different types of proximal stimulus. Due to the efference copy, the worm “knows” further stimulus is caused by its own movement. This amounts to a type of separation between stimulus caused by distal objects versus circumstantial factors.[6] The result is to inform appropriate worm behavior. Efference copies, it seems, are evidence of objectification.

We can call what happens in the worm “objectification.” Yet, it bears little relation to the stronger kind displayed in perceptual constancies. There is a high standard for marking processes as perceptual objectification. It is set in the science of visual psychology.

Scientists explain the natural world. Good explanations implicate only what is necessary to explain the phenomena in question, and no more. Imagine frogs croaking in a pond. We can explain their croaks as plangent pleas to a wizard to retransform them into humans. This is unlikely. Nothing about the croaks suggests the presence of magic or that the frogs were once human. An explanation that doesn’t posit the existence of wizards and animal-human transmutation would suffice. Viewing the croaks as mating calls is simpler, and does the same explanatory work. It fits with our existing biological knowledge. Scientists would have to be presented with compelling circumstances to resort to the anthro-amphibian explanation. Perhaps the croaks sound like “help” and wizards were spotted in the area. Otherwise, the mating call description remains the most likely to be accurate.

Visual psychologists must settle on explanations of animal behavior. Behaviors can often be explained in terms of the proximal stimulus and an animals’ neurology. This is in contrast to explanations that implicate objectification or perception. Consider olfactory navigation by salmon. We can sufficiently explain how they traverse oceans back to their home stream. Olfactory proximal stimulus causes the neurons to fire in a certain pattern, driving accurate navigation. No reference is made to external objects or perception. This neuro-causal explanation is the simplest, and most descriptive science has to offer.[7] If science only postulates a neuro-causal explanation, objectification or perception are probably not taking place. By contrast, the science does implicate external objects in some causal explanations of behavior. In these circumstances, we can be confident objectification and perception are present.

No reference to objectification is present in the scientific explanation of nematode worm behavior. It is a neuro-causal explanation that does not implicate objects in the distal environment. The worm does not separate aspects of the proximal stimulus. Its sensory system does not distinguish which elements are perspectival. It merely reacts to the stimulus. This is true despite the presence of efference copies. They only inhibit reflexes, and have no bearing on how stimulus is processed.[8] We can, however, still maintain the worm’s actions are relevant to environmental objects. Its sensory system functions to keep it from bumping into things. This is a functional explanation of its behavior, and implicates external objects. Indeed, any behavior, perceptual or non-perceptual, can be explained functionally. Yet, we’re interested in what causes worm behavior. The science only appeals to the stimulus received in its causal explanation. There is no compelling evidence to reference external objects. This suggests efference copies alone aren’t indicators of objectification, and thus perception.

Efference copies without perception are observed in other species. Consider crayfish. While more complex than worms, they utilize efference copies in a similar way. The lower abdomens of crayfish are covered in sensitive hairs that trigger a tail-flipping escape response.[9] This leaves them susceptible to a similar type of feedback loop described above. Efference copies prevent this scenario. As self-initiated movement commences, a crayfish’s sensory system blocks signals from the hairs. The registration of stimulus does not progress far enough in the system to trigger a response.[10] Clearly, objectification is not present in this situation either. There is no evidence crayfish distinguish proximal stimulus caused by objects versus circumstantial factors. The causal explanation of crayfish behavior does not implicate objects in the world. Functionally, the crayfish is escaping predators. Yet, the behavior can be sufficiently explained with respect only to the initial proximal stimulus. Hypothetical predators need not enter the conversation. Objectification and perception are equally absent from the causal explanations of crayfish and worm behavior.

Efference copies are a fascinating biological feature. They allow species to better interact with the environment. Yet, their presence is not an indicator of perception. That capacity still begins with bugs, and seemingly not earlier.

 

Works Cited

Burge, Tyler. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford University Press, 2010.

—. "Perception: Where the Mind Begins." The Royal Institute of Philosophy. 2014.

—. "Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind ." n.d.

Crapse, Trinity B and Marc A Sommer. "Corollary discharge across the animal kingdom." National Neuroscience Review (2008): 587-600.


[1]Burge, Perception: Where the Mind Begins

[2]Burge 397, Origins of Objectivity

[3]Burge 1, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[4]Burge 2, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[5]Crapse and Sommer

[6] Burge 11, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[7] Burge 425, Origins of Objectivity

[8] Burge 12, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[9] Crapse and Sommer

[10] Crapse and Sommer

Efference Copies Everywhere

I’m writing a paper right now about efference copies in nematode worms and what they can tell us about perception. The more I learn, the more impressed I am with the little guys, and all of the strange minor procedures organisms undergo so they can function.

I’ll start with the issue that faces the worms. First, they are super simple creatures. They only have 302 neurons (compare to 250,000 in a fruit fly) and thus have a limited repertoire of behavior. For example, if tactile sensors in the head are stimulated, the worm moves backwards. If sensors in the tail are stimulated, it moves forwards. These reflexes are useful for obvious reasons. The worms need a way to avoid predators and obstacles, and this simple behavioral schema seems to do the trick.

But, a dilemma lurks below the surface. Suppose a worm’s head sensors are activated and it starts moving backwards, only to have its tail sensors activate by virtue of moving through the soil. Now, it reverses direction and moves forwards, to have its head sensors activate and trigger the move backward reflex. In moving backwards… its tail sensors activate… and now it tries to move forwards…

Like someone trying to squeeze into a parking space, the worm would stop and start, making little movements forward and backwards in vain as it struggles in a vicious cycle. These seemingly reasonable stimuli responses would render the worm static for eternity, unable to feed or find a mate.

Yet, the nematodes have not gone extinct. They continue to thrive in rotting fruit and be bred for all sorts of scientific experiments. What, then, keeps them mobile?

The answer lies in efference copies. When a worm’s tail sensors are activated, for example, it triggers the move forward reflex, and signals the nervous system to inhibit the move backward response. This signal is an efference copy. (Note: from my understanding, the worm’s head sensors still register stimulus, but it is only the corresponding behavior that is blocked by the copy.)

We can crudely think of efference copies as the neurological equivalent of the nervous system CCing the rest of the body so everybody is on the same page.

More interesting applications of efference copies are present in complex organisms. For example, crickets make noise by rubbing their wings together in a process called stridulation (which is a cool word). The ruckus they create is loud for us, but much more so for them. To ensure they don’t lose their sense of hearing, the signal to make a song that is sent to the cricket’s motor neurons is simultaneously routed to the auditory system. The auditory system then prevents signals from the tympanum (eardrum) from being processed, effectively cutting off hearing. This example differs from the case of the worm, as the cricket only inhibits the processing of stimulus. The worm processes stimulus, but prevents corresponding reflex-based actions.

Efference copies are present in humans, too. They play a role in vision and movement, but my favorite example is tickling.

Feeling tickled is the result of tactile stimulation on sensitive parts of your body. It’s apparently a simple process. If your feet/stomach/armpits, receive the correct stimulus, you feel giggly. Why, then, can you not tickle yourself? You can provide the same type of stimulus as anyone else, so we can’t we bring ourselves to fits of laughter?

Efference copies. Whenever we act, our sensory systems create a “prediction” of how that action will create additional sensory input. We’re just like the worm in this regard. We need a way of distinguishing stimulus created by external objects, versus us. If you run a little brush across your own palm, it’s not very tickly. Your sensory system has already predicted the stimulus associated with the action and is primed to ignore it.

It is possible to tickle yourself, though. You just need to be indirect about it.

Scientists studying this phenomena created a tickling robot. In the robot’s arm is a little brush. Underneath its arm is your open, right palm. In your left hand, you have a small stylus you can use to draw a pattern. The robot will then take the same pattern drawn with your left hand and trace it on your right palm with the brush, hopefully tickling you.

What the researchers found was that if the robot traces the pattern as you’re drawing it, it’s not very tickly. However,as the delay between you drawing the pattern and the robot tracing it increased, the more tickly the result was. A delay of 300ms between you telling the robot how to tickle and it tickling increased subjective feelings of ticklishness by ~50% (full disclosure: I’m eyeballing the graph from the study for this number. The authors don’t provide it. From what I can see, it jumps from 2.1ish to around 3.4 on the tickle rating rank).

I hope you can see why I find efference copies so interesting now. Beyond fulfilling functions just described, they also play a big role in generally distinguishing self from the environment. There is a study describing efference copies’ role in internal speech, as well as a section in the tickling-robot section detailing how auditory illusions with schizophrenia can be attributed to issues with efference copies.

If you want a survey of efference copies across the animal kingdom, you can check out this article.

Slow and Steady

David Brooks thinks single-payer is worth considering, but has no clue how we would make the transition.

He cites bunch of reasons.

Jobs will be lost in the health system; jobs will be lost in the insurance industry; patients will have to switch from private insurance they generally like to coverage provided by the government; doctors’ salaries will go down; the Federal government will have to spend ~$3.26 trillion more a year; taxes will go up; time between needing an appointment and seeing a doctor will increase.

These are hurdles worth considering. One of the scariest statistics he cites is that support for Medicare-for-all drops 23% if people hear we would need to pay more taxes.

It’s clear political support for Medicare-for-all will be difficult once the fervor clears and the extent of the changes/costs become apparent. As the diagram suggests, nobody wants to cut out private health insurance, endanger medicare, pay more taxes, and on top of that have additional delays in treatment.

Here is my question to David Brooks: how slow can we go? If we were hell-bent on getting universal healthcare with as little growing pain as possible, what’s the best way to go about it? Doing it as slow as possible (perhaps over a century) would do a lot alleviate the economic impacts, the strain on budgets, and the sticker shock of having to pay more taxes. By the time everyone got universal healthcare, all of its critics/anyone who remembers an alternative would be dead.

In fact, the same study claims support for marginal changes in the system is high.

Larger majorities of the public favor more incremental changes to the health care system such as a Medicare buy-in plan for adults between the ages of 50 and 64 (77 percent), a Medicaid buy-in plan for individuals who don’t receive health coverage through their employer (75 percent), and an optional program similar to Medicare for those who want it (74 percent).

I’m not an expert, but I’d really like to know what a molasses-like plan for healthcare reform would look like. How would we phase out private insurance? Is it reasonable to expand things like Medicare and Medicaid in search of incremental change and then cut/transform them later? Would a slow, drawn-out process be messier and more bureaucratic than a clean cut?

How to Make it as a Millennial

The New 30-Somethings (came to my attention courtesy of a good friend).

This article is great. It ties together a lot of things I’m personally interested in. Stagnating wages, the residue of the great recession, intergenerational wealth, insane real estate prices, student loans, the cost of lower-education, and parental dependence.

The informal synopsis is that millennials are fucked because they are encountering all of these things at once. The paradigmatic millennial took out student loans to attend college, graduated in the midst of the great recession, has seen no real growth in wages, lives parsimoniously in NY, LA, SF, etc… can’t afford rent, is raising a kid, can’t afford preschool either, but scrapes by on the assistance of their boomer parents. ‘Rental financial assistance allows them to purchase real estate and maintain a high-ish standard of living when traditional financial life milestones like paying off student loans or putting a down payment on a house would otherwise be unachievable.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

As one economic analysis concluded recently: “For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.”

[…]

On average, each millennial parent receives $11,011 per year in combined financial support and unpaid labor, the 2017 TD Ameritrade Millennial Parents Survey found, for an annual total of $253 billion in America.

[back of the napkin math reveals this to be ~2.2% of GDP]

“Education is incredibly expensive and keeps going up, but grandparents feel very strongly about their grandchildren having a good education,” said Dana Haddad, who runs New York Admissions, an education consultancy that works with children starting at 10 months.

10 months!! The rat race is starting earlier and earlier. The article doesn’t push this point, but I believe it’s the case we can attribute much of the competition and insanity surrounding American higher education to the financial insecurity faced by recent college grads. The plight of the millennials makes this extra salient.

While it’s true that families with means have always helped their children (discreetly or not), what’s different today is that as the economy has more extreme gyrations and wages flatten, family wealth plays an outsize role in helping people get ahead, said Chuck Collins, a scion of the Oscar Mayer food corporation and the author of “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.”

Sudden, unexpected gain in respect for a sausage heir.

So last year Ms. Alvarez’s parents surprised her with a $50,000 cash gift to help with a down payment on a $435,000 condo three blocks from the beach in San Diego. “I grew up middle-class, and my parents immigrated from Cuba,” she said. “They saw that I’ve worked hard but also that I had the bad luck to graduate into the 2008 recession

Millennials aren’t lazy. They’re just unlucky to come-of-age during a recession and but are fortunate to have parents that earned when there wasn’t one.

[these transfers of wealth] create a distorted idea of what it takes to attain success and what financial milestones are actually achievable if you are starting from zero or less.

———————————————————-

If this article isn’t terrifying, you either have a boomer parent or are majoring in CS/engineering. We’re becoming more financially dependent on our parents than we’ve ever been. Beyond the economic woes the article directly addresses, I see this as threatening the supposed autonomy in young adulthood that is necessary to establish a complete person.

Being bankrolled by your parents is nice, but it comes at a cost to your agency. How can you really develop your own thoughts/opinions if you need to make nice with your parents so they’ll pay your way through school? How can you truly explore your interests if there is financial pressure to pick a high-paying degree? In a more extreme case mentioned in the article, how can you ensure the best education for your child if your parents are footing the bill for their tuition?

A perpetual antagonistic relationship with your parents is bad, but if you’ve never really pissed them off I maintain you’re doing something wrong. Economic freedom is necessary for our development as autonomous, responsible agents. Young people taking risks in their 20s also fuels economic growth, raising the general standard of living and creating enormous wealth — problems of distribution aside.

This article’s prognosis is grim. It’s easy, and even rational, to read this as a student and decide to double down on academic competition and credentialsim to ensure your financial security. Yet, it doesn’t have to be like this. I am idealistic, but also optimistic. A solution should be reachable, but currently it is a mystery to me.

Online Schools

The Rise of the Mega-University

The gist is that a few players (some traditional universities branching out online, some purely virtual) are achieving massive enrollment numbers.

Graph contained in the article.

Graph contained in the article.

They are doing this mainly by serving working adults with some or no college that want to expand their career prospects.

“the higher-education value proposition is all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,” says Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause

and

“For our adult learners online, it’s ‘Get me a credential that will get me unstuck, that will get me a better job,’ ”

This credential aspect is also what seems to have given the traditional universities that offer online programs an advantage over the Courseras/Udacities/Udemys of the world.

At one point, free online education was supposed to pose an existential threat to brick-and-mortar institutions — remember massive open online courses? But the MOOC revolution collapsed in part because the courses typically didn’t connect to credentials that employers, or students, valued.

My biggest question for these online programs is whether employers recognize the credentials. How do I value a full bachelor of science in economics offered online? Do these degrees actually get working adults “unstuck” from their current position? The tuition ain’t cheap either. Fees for an online academic year at Arizona State are $12,702. University of Oregon’s yearly in-state tuition is $11,898. Given, you don’t have to pay for room and board while pursuing an online degree, but I assume you’re going to be living and eating somewhere while doing schoolwork. At least for full bachelor’s, it seems like your local state university is still a relatively good economic deal.

I also think it’s interesting how we’re seeing online education specialize. It seems like some of the fears surrounding the death of the university via the internet are overblown, as digital degrees are most useful as tools of economic advancement to those already in the workforce rather than substitutes for what a high schooler should do after graduation. Traditional universities shouldn’t get comfortable though. Just because a competitor is successful in a demographic other than your own doesn’t mean they can’t enter it one day. I personally believe the 4-year live-on-campus-talk-with-real-people-go-to-class model will always have superior potential, but some institutions act like they want it to go unrealized.

The physical, tangible aspect is what will always separate ASU Online from University of Arizona, Tuscon for example. Brick-and-mortar institutions should invest real money into getting undergraduates talking among themselves and with their professors. Being able to have free and spontaneous exchanges with your teachers and peers has immeasurable value in the idealistic intellectual sense, and the professional.

Riley WilsonEducationComment
What I'm Reading

The Economist

I received a print subscription for Christmas and have been enjoying it. Beyond a little bit of the NYTimes , this represents my primary news source. I particularly appreciate the global focus as I am slowly working to cure my ignorance of everything that happens outside of North America. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also gives me more impetus to stay up-to-date with domestic political affairs. I am beginning to reach an understanding of America’s outsize role in the world and the ramifications of our actions on global welfare. If you care about the well-being of all people, you should care about the decisions of the American government.

Essays on Patriotism

I’m still working through these. Kateb’s piece is especially interesting as it tries to investigate the source of patriotism and duty. If the government exists to serve the people, why would we be obliged to die for it?

The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

When I heard an ex-philosopher became a management consultant and then wrote a book about the experience, I had to buy it. The book is particularly valuable for its historical exploration of the origins of management theory. Apparently, the two most foundational figures in management thought, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Elton Mayo, were total frauds. Both fabricated stories and explanations to support their points and on the basis of this ended up immortalized in business schools across the nation. Business as an academic discipline, it seems, lays on shaky foundations.

I have yet to finish it, but the book has been enjoyable thus far.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Girls vs. Boys

Lisa Damour in the NYTimes

Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

Damour sees this fact and makes the argument that the same traits that propel females to academic success hold them back in the workforce. She emphasizes they tend to be more industrious, prudent, and better performers academically than their male counterparts, but lack the confidence that can propel them to leadership positions. Females are perfectionists. By contrast, males tend to put in minimal effort for the same academic marks. According to Damour, this means they can “see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits,” and build confidence in their abilities. Accordingly, the solution to this problem is to get females to focus on “economy of effort” in school rather than fall prey to the law of diminishing returns.

I have seen what Damour describes in my own academic experience. I know many perfectionists that don’t take anything less than 8 hours of studying a day for an answer but still seem terribly insecure about their own abilities. I agree with Damour on everything except the corrective action.

Females, ceteris paribus, are more diligent and insightful than their average male counterparts. Damour links to some studies illustrating this. I will not speculate on the origins of these difference, but my anecdotal evidence, along with the empirical supplements, highly suggests this is the case. In every step of my life, there has been a girl that has outworked me, is more articulate than me, and is generally better than I am. I expect this to be the case forever and I would be concerned if it wasn’t.

What I’m trying to say is that girls are smart and their work ethic is probably what gets them there. Currently, females have the right to increase their confidence generally because they are already winning in an academic sense. It doesn’t appear they need to change their attitudes or habits, and slack off like the boys, in order to build confidence. Rather, they should take stock of what they have and realize they should trust themselves. If anything, this is a problem with us. Why are we promoting all the indolent men running around with unearned confidence rather than the people that have consistently outperformed them? There’s something ideologically fishy about telling females they need to be like “the guys” in order to succeed.

Diminishing returns are real, and I don’t doubt Damour’s experience with young women who exert inefficient effort to curb their anxiety about school. That will always be unproductive. Yet, I don’t think females have a poor strategy, but rather that we have been rewarding the wrong one. This, I feel, is a small component of a larger question surrounding women’s equality. Does the problem lie with the world being a certain way, or women? Is the problem with women not being confident/assertive/skilled enough (all improvable traits), or us having a narrow view of excellence?

If you know me, you know I am not an expert on anything, let alone gender issues. If you think I have something wrong, please tell me. I stand by my views, but I can be convinced otherwise.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Visibility = Value

Theory: what’s valued is what’s visible.

I understand this is almost exactly what Girard’s mimetic theory of desire is, but I arrived at it recently thinking about what types of behaviors are valued at different institutions.

Eloquence and general knowledge aren’t as valued here as traits as they were at my high school. I understand there are innumerable factors that could be influencing what I observe (not the least of which my bias and ignorance), but I think salience of behavior has explanatory power.

Consider a high school classroom. It has (hopefully) fewer than 30 kids, and, unless you whisper, not much can be said without others hearing it. Pedagogically, it’s also an interactive environment. Exchanges between students, and between teachers and students, are common and often about the class subject-matter. This means academic engagement is much more salient. When someone has an insight or a perspicuous point, they raise their hand, share, and everyone knows about it. Because clear thinking is (again, hopefully) rewarded in the classroom, students see there’s social value to being intellectually present during class.

Contrast this with a large college lecture. The most salient behavior your peers exhibit in this setting is note taking and silence. If they have a point to make or are wrestling with a valuable question, you will most likely never know about it. Even though students might engage in academic behavior after class and during office hours, this is almost never visible to the majority of students. They are most likely already out the door or believe the opportunity cost of going to office hours too high. The behavior isn’t visible, so it isn’t valued.

There is much more to thinking than the social value you (may) get from exhibiting it, but I feel like this principle explains some aspects large university culture. I am definitely not the first to think of this, but I believe the slogan has a grain of truth. Our own wants and desire (ontological status pending) are often so foreign to us. It’s much easier to look to the world for cues as to what we should value.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Nozick's Experience Machine and Video Games

Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia asks us to imagine a machine that we can plug into and it will simulate anything we desire. While we’re inside, we can experience the joys associated having a fulfilling job, listening to good music, falling in love, or talking with friends. Think of it like a pleasant Matrix. All of these images and corresponding feelings are produced by some clever electrical stimulation of our neurons and as long as we are plugged in, our experience is indistinguishable from real life.

Nozick says we gain something by imagining such a machine and then “realizing we would not want to use it.” He believes our repulsion to plugging in is summarized in three points.

  1. We actually want to do things and not only have the experience that we’ve done them. Wanting the experience of doing something, as Nozick says, is often just an indicator that we want to do the thing. How else are you going to get the experience?

  2. We want to be the type of person that actually does things. To plug into the experience machine is to acquiesce to the triumphs and vicissitudes of real life and become a type of “indeterminate blob,” according to Nozick. With every experience preordained, there is no opportunity to indicate or build one’s general, or moral, character. If we’re plugged into the machine, it’s impossible for us to know whether we are “courageous , kind, intelligent, witty, or loving,” and depending on what you believe, if we don’t have the opportunity to exercise these traits outside of a determined environment, we can’t be any of the above.

  3. Plugging in limits us to an artificial reality. This cuts us off from any type of “deeper reality,” and the potential spiritual experience that can come with it.

I would not use the experience machine, and I think if you asked most people they would say they wouldn’t either. (If you believe that pleasure is the chief human good, then I can see how you could argue that plugging in is the rational thing to do, as pleasure itself is not concerned with whether it is caused by electrodes tickling your brain or some good pasta. If you have that position send me a message; I want to talk about it). Yet, I think there’s a paradox here: if what Nozick says is true, why do so many people play video games?

There is, I admit, nothing wrong with the act of playing video games. Yet, I’ve observed many people, mainly college-aged males, devote hours and hours of their days to staring at their computer screens, engaging in what is as close to artificial stimulation of the neurons as you can get without cracking your skull open and poking around. I know very little biology, but video games, I believe, stimulate the same areas of your brain (nucleus accumbens) as drugs and alcohol, and are certainly as addictive. They are approximate experience machines.

So, why do people game so much? I offer some potential explanations.

It could be the case people do not realize they are “plugging in.” When someone fires up their computer, they are probably not opening fortnite with the intention of getting spoon-fed pleasurable experiences, but rather think they are just killing time. Nozick doesn’t pop out and give us the run-down of what we are about to do and the ramifications of doing it. To gamers, playing is only a slight diversion and not an artificial all-encompassing world.

Video games and the experience machine may also be very different things. Inside the experience machine, you’re under a type of grand illusion, believing everything you do is real and has significant importance to your own life, but it isn’t really happening. By contrast, very few people are under the illusion that they are actually inside a video game when they’re playing, and even if they did believe that, it would be another leap to assume that what they experience in the game constitutes their entire life. Because people can recognize the division between video games and what is real, they can presumably get up and choose to participate in either one whenever they please.

The distance between video games and the physical world is also getting smaller. What I mean by this is that in-game events are beginning to have a significant and lasting impact on actual lives. Consider Ninja, the internet star whose video-game prowess nets him an estimated $500,000 a month, and has made him something of a celebrity. For Ninja, video game actions and decisions are real-life actions and decisions, as they determine his income and public reputation. Video games, if played with others, can also encourage pro-social behavior. Trying to win a round or match on a team in any game requires a fair bit of coordination, and video games might be one of the only places some can cooperate with others in a constructive manner.

I feel old and crotchety writing this, but it concerns me how much time we spend in these types of “constructed worlds.” Video games, I feel, are inherently different than the constructed worlds of fiction and movies as those are focused on communicating a specific narrative while video games are just mindless. I know there are narrative-focused games out there, but those aren’t the kinds people are addicted to.

This piece is highly speculative. If you disagree or have something to add, please leave a comment. I would love to listen.

Link to the text of Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Covers

I wish more artists covered others’ songs. I got introduced the world of covers in the musicology section of my 60’s history class last year and I can’t shake the feeling there need to be more versions of the same song in the world. It really gets you thinking about the interpretative aspects of a piece’s arrangement and delivery in addition to the lyrics, and makes you pay more attention to the changes in a base line or background sounds rather than what’s being said (which is still important and necessary if you want to get the most interpretative bang for your buck).

My old professor used to say something along the lines of “music is not just poetry performed to a beat.” Every aspect of a song is eligible for scrutiny and covers are one of the best ways to realize that.

The most famous cover and its original

An odd pair

Riley WilsonMusicComment
Fair division problems

NPR Planet Money Episode on fair division problems.

These problems have always interested me. Part of the reason I’m taking some economics classes to supplement my Philosophy is that I’m interested in how the systems we use to divide resources “fairly” work in the real world. When there are limited resources, who are the people that get them and do they deserve it?

I would have liked the episode to get a little into how the mathematicians that study fair division classify a particular solution as “fair,” especially since they hint that they intent to leave a rigorous explanation of the term to the Philosophers.

The main issue in the episode is how to divide the limited dock space in Santa Barbara between the wealthy and those who need it to earn a living, but I’m curious why they don’t just expand the dock. This is a bit of an econ 1 answer, but if the price of a space is $100,000 like the episode reports, shouldn’t this be a signal to the city that they can build more and people would be willing to pay? I understand municipalities aren’t in the dock construction business, and there may be environmental concerns (preserving the natural beauty of the coast, dock is already as large as it can get, etc…), but in theory we can use market forces to get the price lower rather than relying on what might seem like contrived schemes.

The episode is also worth checking out for the “rental harmony” problem. A guest speaker, Constantinos Daskalakis, gives a pretty concise summary of an ingenious potential solution.

MALONE: Costis says imagine that you've got an apartment with two bedrooms. One of those bedrooms is big, but it has no closet.

HERSHIPS: The other is small, but it does have that magical closet space.

DASKALAKIS: That's right. And how do you split the rent? Maybe you know, I value a small room that has a closet, but you value more a big room that - because you like space.

HERSHIPS: I'm taking the closet.

MALONE: Yeah, I don't need the closet. It's fine. I wear the same jeans every day for two weeks in a row. I don't need the closet.

DASKALAKIS: OK. Thanks for sharing (laughter).

MALONE: Yeah, you know.

DASKALAKIS: So like, yeah. So the question is, you know - who gets what? What's the allocation? But also, how is the rent split?

MALONE: So what is the protocol here? Costis says, well, let's say the rent is 2,000 bucks. First thing, everybody needs to figure out what percentage of the rent they think each room is worth.

DASKALAKIS: Maybe for you, two rooms are equal. But then for Kenny, big space is so much more valuable that he says, look; you know, I don't care about the closet at all. I don't even have clothes. OK? So what I care about is the space. So...

MALONE: I have some clothes. I just was saying that I wear the same pants. I have clothes. OK. Go ahead, though.

(LAUGHTER)

DASKALAKIS: So the protocol that we use with my roommate was - and it's a classical one. Each of the two roommates, in a sealed envelope, writes what they consider to be the right split - what do they consider to be the right values of the two rooms.

HERSHIPS: You guys actually did this?

DASKALAKIS: We did that, yeah.

HERSHIPS: Is he also a fair division guy, your roommate?

DASKALAKIS: So he's also a mathematician.

HERSHIPS: Just checking.

DASKALAKIS: Now, you know, we get together, and we open those envelopes.

MALONE: And when they opened those envelopes, they found out that Costis' roommate thought the person with the big room should pay $1,400 and the person with the smaller room with the closet should pay 600 bucks. But Costis, he valued both those rooms equally. He was willing to pay $1,000 for either room.

HERSHIPS: And in case you haven't been following along with a calculator, each roommate's total bid for both rooms has to add up to $2,000.

DASKALAKIS: So he valued the big room more than I valued the big room.

MALONE: Yeah.

DASKALAKIS: On the other hand, I value the small room more than he values the small room. So each of us gets the room where they're the highest bidder. However, how much do we pay? We pay the average of the two prices.

MALONE: Yeah.

DASKALAKIS: So for the big room, he said 1,400. I said a thousand. So he gets it, but he pays 1,200. So he's happy. Right?

HERSHIPS: And Costis pays 800 for the small room, and he's happy because he was willing to pay a thousand.

DASKALAKIS: So everybody's happy, no?

1/25/19

My brief, uninformed pre-match analysis for the Australian final tonight: Djokovic will win. It’s a quicker court, and I expect him to attempt to rush Nadal’s forehand to open up the court. We’ll see how it goes.

Riley WilsonTennisComment
Going Abroad

To anyone that reads this blog, where do you recommend I study abroad? I’m thinking Scandinavia, and my Norwegian friend told me not to go to Norway, so I can still choose between Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Besides those, where else in the world should I consider?

Riley WilsonTravelComment
1/21/19

“And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and strongest that are crowned but those who compete”

-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Decisions and Values

The Art of Decision-Making

Title is a bit misleading. I expected this to be a piece about making complex decisions with imperfect information, and it is in a sense, but the actual content of the article gets closer to a discussion of values and identity — which are of no doubt instrumental in making large decisions.

It’s just that I would have liked more elaboration on quotes like these:

A scenario-planning starter kit, Johnson writes, contains three possible futures: “You build one model where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.

Nonetheless, I liked it. One thing that I’ve always wondered about is how our own desires and preferences (or even values) can be so foreign to us even though they are supposed to function as the guiding principles of our lives. And, even if we can articulate our most valued positions, it’s difficult to see what it actually looks like to “be altruistic” or “live authentically.”

Perhaps this is explained by one of the theories in the article that our largest decisions aren’t “decisions” per se in that we take stock of our principles and then decide to act on them, but a result of “opting.” In short, opting is when we decide to “shift our values instead of optimizing them.” For example, if one were to “opt” to go to a certain college, it means they went not because they currently valued the the defining characteristics of the institution, but grew to value what the school had to give them. Think someone who was afraid of going to a party school and not focusing enough on coursework, but then going to the party school, throwing down, and deriving a lot of value from it. The “old person’s” values are not optimized, but the “new person’s” values are, in part because they were created partially in response to the situation.

As Maggie Rogers would say in “Give a Little” (Emphasis added).

But if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could get to know each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little
And if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could learn to love each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little

I do disagree with Callard’s account of aspiration as it is presented in the article, though. Callard claims that we “aspire to self-transformation by trying on the values we hope one day to posses.” The author, Rothman, gives an example of a student taking a music appreciation class to illustrate the point.

Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to.

This, Rothman/Callard claims, is the first step in transformation. Perhaps I’m being nit picky, but I think characterizing this scenario as “you just want to want to” is misleading. Clearly, you want to listen to the symphony, but the reason why it’s difficult is not because you, on some level, don’t want to, but because you haven’t built up the correct “appreciative framework” for deep engagement to happen.

I can want to watch a movie, but if I don’t have practice looking for the interesting things in a film, or the correct cinematic vocabulary to identify them, I might become bored and restless even though I actually want to watch it. You can probably experience this phenomena yourself if you sit down to watch a sport you don’t know the rules of, or read a novel set in a time period that you know nothing about.

The article is also good for the “vegemite principle.”

if you’ve never tasted Vegemite, a mysterious and beloved Australian “food spread” made from brewer’s yeast, then neither a description of what it’s like (black, gooey, vegetal) nor experience with other spreads (peanut butter, marmalade, Nutella) will suffice to tell you whether you’d like it.

If you notice any errors or believe I have given uncharitable/inaccurate accounts of the ideas in the article, please let me know. General comments are also greatly appreciated.

1/19/19

I shamelessly copy this style from Tyler’s own Marginal Revolution, but I think excerpts from his conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar are worth seeing.

MACFARQUHAR: I was writing about people who donated one of their kidneys to a stranger, and I discovered . . . I was talking to people about the people I was meeting, and they would say, “Well, those people surely are all mentally ill, right? Or they have some problem, or they are probably very, very censorious or judgmental.”

and

COWEN: You’ve argued that there are quite few ambitiously good characters in fiction. Is that also true for genre fiction?

MACFARQUHAR: No. I’m so glad you asked that. I think that science fiction is full of heroic characters. So are romances. This is one of the things I concluded — that the absence of unambiguously altruistic heroic characters is almost one of the things that marks highbrow fiction as such.

Of course, there are many, many exceptions, and there are heroes in higher-brow fiction. Over the past 100 years, it has become noticeable that genre fiction is filled with far more heroism than higher culture. And it’s such a noticeable pattern that it’s almost as though there is something pushing against that kind of character.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment