Thoughts on Epistemology and Rising Appearance
I was recently interviewed in the Harvard College Economics Review, a student run site. As you could probably guess from its name, the questions were very good. The part where I was asked about my relationship towards rationalism and effective altruism helped inspire “Why Do I Hate Pronouns More than Genocide?” I also talked about how to read social science papers.
Before I was a public intellectual, I wrote academic papers, and I read a lot of academic papers. So, I saw, so to speak, how the sausage gets made. Over time, I've changed the way I read academic papers. Like I skip the literature review now, if I see a paper, because I know how it's done. Basically, you have this interesting study, and you say, ‘Oh, how can I find enough citations that will make me look smart.’ So, a lot of this stuff is just sort of fluff. It’s sort of like clicking the ‘I agree to proceed’ when you're on a website. That’s how I see a lot of the literature review and the introduction and stuff. Sometimes it's useful, but often it's not.
I look at the results. There's a couple things to keep in mind when you read the research. There's the stuff that most people who follow social sciences know, which is the replicability crisis. So, you look out for p-hacking, and you look out for weak results that are not very robust. Intelligent observers know that.
There’s a few other things. You should be on the lookout for using some very narrow results to explain some broader phenomenon. So, for example, I studied public opinion in international relations. This is pretty close to an actual example I saw. The paper was like ‘Oh, when people are told that there's UN support for a war, they're more likely to support a war. So, this is probably why politicians try to go to the UN.’
There’s a lot you have to assume there, right? Okay, you did this study that's just a sort of an A/B test where people like a war more. But how many people even know which wars have UN approval, right? If it doesn't get UN approval, can’t the president just ignore that? Sometimes they don’t get approval from the UN, so they’ll go to a Latin American equivalent, or they’ll go to NATO which is just basically the US.
So, I doubt this result. I have no doubt about the survey. It makes sense, and it works. I doubt it explains much of anything about the real world. They’re like the drunk searching for the keys where the lights are. It’s because we can do the survey, we think it must explain international politics. So, I would be on the lookout for that too.
You know, of course, be on the lookout for the ideology. I think the more an issue touches on ‘wokeness,’ the worse you should expect the p-hacking and the file drawer effect to be. So, if you find a result that the person could be fired for writing, that should increase the credibility of the results. And, if it’s something that’s consistent with what they have to believe anyway, you put less credence on that. It’s not fair from a scientific perspective to the people who do believe in the ‘conventional wisdom’. But you do have to discount things in that way because that’s just the reality of what gets published and what doesn’t.
On the topic of epistemology, I stressed the need for the use of simple heuristics, and my theory that we should spend more time examining our priors relative to acquiring domain specific knowledge.
It depends on a lot. It depends on what your job is, how much time you have to devote to an issue, how much you want to divide your time between various issues, and, frankly, how smart you are. If your IQ is 95, I’m going to suggest different heuristics from if your IQ is 130 or 140.
So, it’s hard to give blanket rules to people. When I write for my audience, I assume it's a relatively smart audience. I assume I’m not talking to people with very low intelligence or who are disinterested in politics. I assume some kind of threshold level.
It’s probably worth thinking about what priors you should take with you out there. When it comes down to it, we’re all operating off a few priors. There’s a few priors that we all have that are really doing the heavy lifting. To the extent that we’re aware of that and we’re questioning those priors and thinking about whether they make sense, I think that has the most return to your time and mental energy.
So, for example, in economics, my prior is that markets are better than central planning. If I want to know about some new stimulus bill that comes up, I could go read the 1000 pages and try to track down every claim that every researcher makes, but that’s not a good use of my time. The good use of my time is figuring out why I have this prior that markets are better than central planning, seeing if it’s correct, and looking at the alternative evidence. If it is correct, I think I can have a pretty good view on the bullet points of the stimulus package, and then it’s going to be broader, and it’s going to help you think about other things, too.
So, I think priors are unavoidable. Simplistic heuristics are unavoidable. Thinking for yourself on each issue or doing your research from scratch—that's not a realistic goal, no matter how smart you are, and much less if you’re not very smart. So, acknowledging priors and questioning them—and making sure you have the right ones—is an important thing.
I might develop these ideas further. This is a kind of “epistemology for realists” that takes seriously human biases and cognitive limitations. In the interview, I also give advice to those who would like to become public intellectuals. Read the whole thing.
I was just on the Lawfare podcast with Jack Goldsmith talking about Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy.
You can catch me on my weekly Callin show tonight with Mike Tracey at 10ET. Note the late start time, as episodes are usually earlier in the evening.
Finally, I was on Rising this morning to discuss my idea on how to end mask mandates with Robby Soave. I’m still looking for a doctor to help me, and might have to get more proactive in my search. As Robby points out, most doctors probably won’t want to do this, but there’s a business opportunity potentially available for those that do. Specialized clinics providing care others won’t is pretty normal, and there are a lot of people who would like a mask exemption. Maybe it’s not as profitable as other treatments because you only have to go once? There’s nothing wrong with making people come back every three or six months, like they have to do for Adderall prescriptions, even if nothing has changed. They would make sure you still hate masks, bill insurance for the time, and send you on your way. If you’re one of those doctors who writes op-eds and does TV appearances arguing against covid hysteria, there’s potentially a better way to fight back that would also be a more profitable use of your time.