Quick hits (part II)

1) When I finish Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset, I’l write a whole post (TL;DR– I love it), but she just introduced me to this 2009 post from Paul Graham.  Basically, the way to avoid identity-protective cognition is to not make everything your identity!



Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What’s different about religion is that people don’t feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone’s an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn’t true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan…

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

2) I also read in the book, yesterday, that a European version of the 2009 swine flu vaccine caused narcolepsy in some children.  Damn.  Also, some interesting ideas about narcolepsy in here (hope you are reading, Nicole). 

3) Derek Lowe on why it was such a bad idea to approve the latest Alzheimer’s drug:

It should be obvious, given previous posts here, that I think that the FDA approval of Biogen’s aducanumab for Alzheimer’s was a mistake. It is a mistake for a whole list of reasons, and we’re about to see another one of those in action.

Eli Lilly has been attacking Alzheimer’s for decades now, in what can be seen simultaneously as admirable persistence and as a very expensive exercise in futility. Several years ago, the company spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove efficacy with an anti-amyloid antibody, solanezumab, and eventually got nowhere. But that was in the distant, far-off days of 2016. Things are different now: Biogen’s anti-amyloid antibody doesn’t really seem to work, either (which is why they stopped the Phase III for futility), but the FDA approved it anyway, because it lowers amyloid, even though no amyloid-lowering therapy has ever shown efficacy.

Lilly, experienced brick-wall-impacters that they are, has been working on yet another anti-amyloid antibody (donanemab). Phase II results came out on this one in March, and it was really more of the same. There was a new rating scale endpoint, the iARDS, in which the therapy did show a statistically significant improvement at the 76-week mark. But a whole list of other endpoints whiffed, coming out no different than placebo. It was hard to generate much enthusiasm – you’d think that any Alzheimer’s therapy that actually worked, that actually had a chance of making a difference out in the real world, would be able to show more than that.

You see where we’re going here. Back in the solanezumab days (which I never thought I’d end up nostalgic for) the company would be trying to come up with another trial to show efficacy. But the heck with that. They’ve instead asked the FDA for “breakthrough” designation to try to speed regulatory approval, and the agency has granted it. After the aducanumab approval, what choice did they really have? For that matter, Biogen and Eisai applied for breakthrough status for their follow-up antibody, lecanemab, and the agency granted that yesterday. Why not? …

So if you look at the disease landscape not knowing the back story, things look great: the FDA just approved a new Alzheimer’s drug and now there are two more Breakthroughs right behind it! But if you do know what’s going on, it’s downright depressing: the agency approved a drug that shows no solid evidence of helping anyone (and more believable evidence of its ability to cause harm), and this mistake is allowing everyone else to jump on the same damn bandwagon with data that are no better. Put out more flags.

4) The heat-wave coming to the Pacific Northwest is just mind-blowing.  Cities where less than half the dwellings have AC (because they rarely need it) facing a solid week of triple-digit temperatures and temps of 110!!  This is like Arizona weather in Seattle.  I also can’t help but think if this weather was hitting the Northeast it would have roughly 10x the media coverage.  

5) I watched a little Euro action yesterday and hit some 2nd-tier minor league (USL League One) soccer action in Cary.  The ref seemed… not great.  I know at top professional levels there is huge effort in evaluating referees to ensure good officiating.  But, it occurred to me how accurate are we at assessing officials anyway and how accurate can we be at something like minor-league soccer officials?  I find this about how MLS takes it pretty seriously.  But you know there’s not the resources like this for USL–so how do they even figure out who gets to be in the MLS games and how accurate is it?  And I found this cool analysis of amateur referees.

Analysis of part I concluded that call accuracy varies nonlinearly with both fitness and game flow understanding. Part II concluded that the Fitness Test (0.749) had the highest utility followed by Combined Evaluation (0.742), Game Flow Evaluation (0.727), and No Assessment (0.721). Based on a cost benefit analysis, it was determined that the benefit of implementing any program to assess the fitness and/or game flow understanding of junior referees is outweighed by cost. Therefore, it is recommended that No Assessments be conducted for fitness and/or game flow understanding on junior referees within MDCVSRP.

All the sports analytics stuff I’ve read, and pretty much nothing on officiating.  This would seem like an area ripe for serious exploration.

6) Zeynep with the most thorough (honestly, a little too thorough at times for my tastes) and thoughtful take I’ve seen on the origins of Covid-19.  A couple things I’m pretty confident of… there’s a very substantial chance this really did come from a lab; both scientists and journalists made a huge mistake on this because it was also a theory being pushed by science-denying racists; sometimes horrible people are actually onto something (maybe even accidentally, broken clock…) and we need to consider ideas independent of just who is pushing them in a political realm.

7) Lenore Skenazy on how childhood has changed in the dozen years she’s been advocating for “free range” kids.  

8) As you well know, I’ve never been one for all that much reading about international affairs, etc.  But something about the way Noah Smith thinks and approaches problems really grabs me.  I really enjoyed his take on why Pakistan has been dramatically superseded in economic growth by India and Bangladesh.  

In nominal terms — which are a better reflection of international purchasing power — Pakistan fell behind Bangladesh in 2018:

We could talk about why this is happening, and I will talk a bit about it. But the fact is, countries are poor until they get rich. India and Bangladesh have been doing things that have made them grow steadily richer; Pakistan, in general, has not.

I could write a post giving policy suggestions for Pakistan to get richer — perhaps some mix of industrial policy, trade and tax reforms, infrastructure and education, and so on. At this point I probably don’t know enough to make highly detailed policy recommendations; my ideas would be things like trade openness with export disciplineland reform, investment in education, building infrastructure, improving rule of law, streamlining regulation, and so on. Fairly boilerplate stuff.

But I think a more fundamental question — or at least, a preliminary one — is why Pakistan’s leaders would do any of this stuff. If you don’t actually do the stuff, policy recommendations are useless.

To some, the answer might seem obvious: Growth makes your people materially better off. It gives them food to fill their bellies, a roof over their heads, convenient transportation, sanitation and health care, leisure and entertainment, and so on. Surely Pakistan’s leaders care at least somewhat about the welfare of their people, no?

Well, they probably do. But so far they’ve been able to satisfy Pakistanis’ basic consumption needs through means other than economic development. The average Pakistani household consumes as much as the average Indian household, and more than the average Bangladeshi household.

But this comes at a cost; compared to India and Bangladesh, Pakistan invests far less of its GDP in building capital in order to grow its economy.

In other words, Pakistan is eating its proverbial seed corn instead of planting it in the ground. Bangladesh and India, in contrast, are planting their seed corn — foregoing current consumption in order to build productive capital and be richer tomorrow…

OK, but there’s one more reason to pursue economic growth: National power. Pakistan is right next to a neighbor with whom it has fought four wars (and arguably lost all four), and with whom it has an ongoing territorial dispute. India is more than 6 times as big as Pakistan, so only through greater per capita GDP could Pakistan seek to hold its own in a conflict. For many nations throughout history, this has provided a reason to seek rapid economic growth.

But unlike most of those nations, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And that means that it doesn’t really have to get rich in order to guard against India; nukes guarantee its ultimate security. It might not be able to wrest Kashmir away from its neighbor, but it isn’t at risk of having further territory seized, or its capital occupied, etc.

This is interesting, because it suggests one way that nuclear armament might be detrimental to growth. Push-button superweapons greatly reduce the need for a state to be rich and effective — or even particularly stable — in order to maintain security from external threats. Perhaps we can see this with North Korea as well, or possibly even Russia.

In any case, my tentative, provisional answer to the question of “Why hasn’t Pakistan grown?” is that the right political incentives for growth-oriented policy are not in place yet. Perhaps a long period of stable civilian rule, or nationalistic envy of Bangladesh’s success, can change the calculus.

9) So many pointless meetings that could’ve been an email.  Based on my experience of 20+ years of academic meetings it’s pretty straightforward– if there’s the potential for genuine advantage/potential progress through collaboration and discussion, than have a meeting.  Otherwise, don’t.  For example, I cannot imagine discussing a tenure case or a faculty hire without an actual meeting. But most of the meetings I’ve been to probably didn’t need to happen.  

10) This is what monitor lizard nests look like in Australia and people had no idea.  They are also a rare case of reptiles as ecosystem engineers.

A goanna burrow

11) Carl Zimmer on the new “Dragon Man” discovery.  Interesting case where morphological study seems to point one way and DNA another.  Personally, I’m putting my money on the Denisovan hypothesis.

12) I so love that Lee Ross’ death also occasioned Robert Wright to write an appreciation for attribution theory.  

I hope you’re starting to see why I think attribution error is really important—why I think that, if we could dispel its more destructive influences, the world would be a much better place. But to see why I think attribution error is really, really important—why it may have more salvific potential than any other idea in psychology—you need to understand what I consider the most potent tool in the human toolkit for ending or avoiding conflict and nurturing constructive collaboration.

Regular readers of this newsletter can probably guess what I’m referring to: cognitive empathy. And regular readers know that by “cognitive empathy” I don’t mean “feeling their pain.” That’s emotional empathy. I just mean seeing how things look from another person’s point of view: perspective taking.

I believe that one of the most common reasons people and groups of people fail to solve non-zero-sum problems—fail to reach an arrangement that’s good for both parties, and instead get stuck in a lose-lose situation—is that they don’t see how things look from the other side. I also believe that the world is in deep trouble if nations don’t solve the more consequential of the non-zero-sum problems they face, ranging from environmental challenges to arms control challenges to disease control challenges to whole new kinds of technological challenges.

It follows that—as I see the world, at least—big impediments to cognitive empathy are a grave threat to the planet. And attribution error may be the biggest impediment there is. Obviously, if you’re blind to the way circumstance shapes someone’s behavior, it’s going to be hard to really appreciate how the world looks to them.

Could more awareness of attribution error actually make people better at cognitive empathy? Not in an easy, automatic way. Attribution error is a “cognitive bias,” and there’s good reason to think it was engineered by natural selection for that purpose: to bias our view of the world, to distort our perception. And a well-engineered bias can be pretty stubborn in its tendency to fool people into thinking they’re seeing things clearly when they’re not. 

Still, I do think that cognitive empathy can be cultivated. And I do think awareness of attribution error, of our tendency in most situations to downplay the role of circumstance, can help us cultivate it.

In fact, Ross’s own life offers anecdotal evidence to this effect. The Times obit reports that Nisbett considered Ross not just a collaborator but “my therapist and my guru.” Nisbett once asked Ross why he was so good at giving advice, and he replied, “Here’s why, Dick: I don’t take your point of view when you tell me what the problem is. I try to figure out how the other person or persons are viewing it.”

You might ask: If awareness of attribution error helps you exercise cognitive empathy, then why hadn’t Nisbett, who was himself quite aware of attribution error, exercised it in the first place? The answer, I’d guess, is that the people whose perspective Ross was taking were people Nisbett was in some sense at odds with—that’s why there was a problem to solve. And, of course, the problematic behavior of people we’re at odds with is behavior we’re especially likely to attribute to disposition. Since Ross wasn’t at odds with these people, he was less susceptible to that bias and so better able to see their point of view.

This is what I mean when I say that a well-engineered bias can be hard to neutralize. Nisbett’s mere awareness of attribution error doesn’t seem to have done the trick. At the same time, his experience suggests a workaround: When you’re having trouble with someone you dislike, or at least someone you find highly annoying, and you’re dying to tell someone about the problem, don’t tell someone who shares your attitude toward them, even though that’s the most tempting thing to do.

So that’s today’s self-help tip. As for planetary help—solving momentous non-zero-sum problems, and subduing the international and intranational antagonisms that keep us from even trying to solve them—well, that’s kind of a big subject. (That’s why it takes a whole Apocalypse Aversion Project to address it!)

To take just one chunk of the subject: Every day lots of important players—politicians, social media potentates, think tank experts, journalists—reinforce and even intensify attribution error. They describe various groups and people crudely, in ways that make it especially hard to really understand why they do what they do, hard to exercise cognitive empathy.

I’m not saying these politicians, potentates, experts, and journalists are bad people. As Ross would have been the first to point out, they’re just responding to circumstance as humans naturally do. They’re saying things that will get them elected or increase their Twitter follower count or get them on MSNBC or get them clicks, or whatever.

Besides, if we think of them as bad people—as the enemy—that may just cloud our view of their motivation at a time when understanding it is important. So, though I’d like to say something inspirational at this point, I won’t get Churchillian (“We must fight them on the beaches” and so on). I’d rather just quote William James and say that what’s needed here is careful comprehension accompanied by “the moral equivalent of war.” 

13) Also reminded me of this terrific Hidden Brain episode in which attribution theory plays a major role and which I know assign to all my classes.  

14) David Brooks with a damn good point here, “Why Is It OK to Be Mean to the Ugly?”

A manager sits behind a table and decides he’s going to fire a woman because he doesn’t like her skin. If he fires her because her skin is brown, we call that racism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is female, we call that sexism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is pockmarked and he finds her unattractive, well, we don’t talk about that much and, in most places in America, there is no legal recourse.

This is puzzling. We live in a society that abhors discrimination on the basis of many traits. And yet one of the major forms of discrimination is lookism, prejudice against the unattractive. And this gets almost no attention and sparks little outrage. Why?

Lookism starts, like every form of bigotry, with prejudice and stereotypes.

Studies show that most people consider an “attractive” face to have clean, symmetrical features. We find it easier to recognize and categorize these prototypical faces than we do irregular and “unattractive” ones. So we find it easier — from a brain processing perspective — to look at attractive people.

Attractive people thus start off with a slight physical advantage. But then people project all sorts of widely unrelated stereotypes onto them. In survey after survey, beautiful people are described as trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable and intelligent, while ugly people get the opposite labels. This is a version of the halo effect.

Not all the time, but often, the attractive get the first-class treatment. Research suggests they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired when interviewed and more likely to be promoted than less attractive individuals. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on those loans.

The discriminatory effects of lookism are pervasive. Attractive economists are more likely to study at high-ranked graduate programs and their papers are cited more often than papers from their less attractive peers. One study found that when unattractive criminals committed a moderate misdemeanor, their fines were about four times as large as those of attractive criminals.

Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is among the bottom one-seventh in looks earns about 10 to 15 percent less a year than one in the top third. An unattractive person misses out on nearly a quarter-million dollars in earnings over a lifetime.

The overall effect of these biases is vast. One 2004 study found that more people report being discriminated against because of their looks than because of their ethnicity.

15) Devastating photo essay.  Who knew what Strep could do when untreated. “Where a Sore Throat Becomes a Death Sentence: Once a year, doctors travel to Rwanda to perform lifesaving surgery on people with damaged heart valves — a disease caused by untreated strep throat.”

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