Why do we disagree with each other?
This is a stupid question. But it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds. One winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics is famous for proving that people should never disagree with each other.
Okay, okay, it isn’t quite that easy. There are conditions we need to meet first.
The best informal description I’ve heard of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem:
Mutually respectful, honest and rational debaters cannot disagree on any factual matter once they know each other’s [beliefs]. They cannot “agree to disagree”, they can only agree to agree.
Sadly, when Robert Aumann says “rational”, he refers to a formal definition of rationality that applies to zero real humans.
But I think we can make his theory simpler: Instead of “both people are perfectly rational”, we can say that “both people have the same value system”.
This post attempts to answer two questions:
If you could spend a few weeks being Barack Obama, what would you learn about his life and the world in which he lives?
How would this experience change the way you think about the man, his policies, and the American presidency?
It is not easy to make me angry, and it is harder still to make me angry enough that I feel the need to write about how angry I am. This is, I think, the first time I’ve written anything angry on this blog.
But GQ recently did a really good job of making me angry.
Not the entire magazine, but this story, which has inspired me to write my first post with a tag of “outrage”:
I annotated the story with the Genius Web Annotator, so you can see my notes in the original context, though the context doesn’t make the story any less terrible.
Are You Smarter Than a Coin-Flipping Monkey?
30 years ago, a man named Philip Tetlock decided to figure out whether the people we pay to make predictions about politics were actually good at predicting things.
He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf?
–Louis Menand, Everybody’s An Expert
Tetlock’s discovery: On average, the commentators were slightly less accurate than a monkey flipping a coin with “yes” printed on one face and “no” on the other. They’d have been better off if they’d made completely random predictions!
What’s more, being an expert on a topic didn’t help much. At some point, more expertise even led to more faulty predictions.
Can We Do Any Better?
There are lots of reasons we make bad guesses about the future. But Philip Tetlock’s particular interest was in figuring out how to do better.
Prediction, after all, is one of the most important things a person can ever do: Will I divorce this person if I marry them? Will I be happy in a year if I accept this job offer? It’s also an important skill for governments: How much will the Iraq War cost? Will this gun-control bill really lower the crime rate?
But if political experts aren’t good at prediction, who is?
I have a Tumblr now! I’m still experimenting with using the platform for short essays and thought nuggets. Here’s an essay cross-posted from that Tumblr:
The Melancholy of Retrievers
(Wandering philosophy. Not attached to most of these opinions.)
I’m staying for a few weeks in the home of relatives who own a Labrador Retriever. I’ve spent a lot of time around this dog in the last few weeks, after many years of not living with a pet. As a result, everything about the notion of “owning a dog” – or the very existence of domesticated dogs – has become strange to me.
The dog, Jasper, lives to play fetch. When he isn’t sleeping or eating or drinking, he picks up anything he can find and brings it to you so that you can throw it. If you don’t throw it, he’ll try another person. If no one else is around, he’ll pant and whine at you and shove his head between your legs to stare sadly into your eyes until you give up and play fetch.
I’m sure this is normal dog behavior, and it’s the sort of silly thing that people love about dogs. But it makes me wonder how it feels to be Jasper.
My friend Jack Newsham, a reporter on The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:
Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)
My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.
I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.
Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.
I haven’t written a blog post for nearly a full season.
One-third of this phenomenon is the fault of my senior thesis:
Charitable Fundraising and Smart Giving: How can charities use behavioral science to drive donations?
It’s a very long thesis, and you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing. I conducted my final round of editing over the course of 38 hours in late April, during which I did not sleep. It’s kind of a slog.
Here’s a PDF of the five pages where I summarize everything I learned and make recommendations to charities:
The Part of the Thesis You Should Actually Read
In the rest of this post, I’ve explained my motivation for actually writing this thing, and squeezed my key findings into a pair of summaries: One that’s a hundred words long, one that’s quite a bit longer.
TL;DR: Immortality may seem like it would be boring. But an awful lot of people have hobbies and projects that would probably work out better if those people had more time to get things done. What’s more, these activities might be more exciting the longer they went on, rather than less.
To illustrate this, I use the example of a Go master, who is in love with a fiendishly hard game and might continue improving for centuries, given the chance — and that’s just one popular board game in a universe of activities.
I’d like to clear up a common misconception about living forever.
For those in my reading audience who are not acquainted with the modern-day Disney channel:
There exists a television show called Dog With a Blog.
The subject matter: Exactly What It Says On The Tin.
The Wikpedia article: Priceless post-post-modern literature. Second only to The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars as an example of gonzo Wikipedianism.
* * * * *
This television show is written by a team of adults. The money these adults receive probably helps them support their families. These adults are functioning members of the U.S. economy.
Today, I wish to share the tale of a man with a troubled past, and of a company that used a very flimsy excuse to rid themselves of this man, all for the sake of signalling.
I call it…
The RadioShack Dilemma
A few months ago, I learned about the story of David Edmondson.
Edmondson is the CEO of a company called eRecyclingCorps, but is best known for his resignation from the CEO position at RadioShack (a company with $5 billion in revenue) after it became known that he’d never actually graduated from college, despite his claims to the contrary.
This seems natural enough. After all, who wants a liar at the head of their company? (I’m assuming here that RadioShack forced Mr. Edmondson to resign.)
But certain features of RadioShack’s decision are very strange when you look at them in the context of Edmondson’s career.