What is evolution good for?

In one of his essays in Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty noted the tendency of scientists to assume that they are best positioned to adjudicate questions on the philosophy of science. As Rorty compelling detailed, they are not. So I was reminded when reading Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton? in NYT’s Book Review.

The author starts off this way:

My undergraduate students, especially those bound for medical school, often ask why they have to study evolution. It won’t cure disease, and really, how useful is evolution to the average person? My response is that while evolutionary biology can explain, for example, the origin of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we shouldn’t see evolution as a cure for human woes. Its value is explanatory: to tell us how, when and why we got here (by “we,” I mean “every organism”) and to show us how all species are related. In the end, evolution is the greatest tale of all, for it’s true.

This is, in my view, quite misguided. Without usefulness it soon becomes impossible to locate any measure by which to evaluate the truth of an explanation. This, to me, (and I believe to Rorty), is the point of postmodern philosophy. By accepting it we don’t have to accept all that falls under the heading of “postmodernism”; we can dodge it by embracing pragmatism. While I recommend Rorty to anyone looking to read more about science and pragmatism, I occasionally have come across succinct yet poignant statements of the subject, two of which I’d like to share here.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz put it simply but astutely in a recent paper“Prediction is the test of a scientific theory.”

It’s as simple as that. Conservative writer and entrepreneur Jim Manzi had an equally useful (get it?) take on science and pragmatism a while back.

He wrote“I claim that the purpose of science is to create useful, reliable, non-obvious predictive rules.”

We would do well to heed these words.*

*Yes, that’s circular reasoning, if you really think about it. But as Rorty might say, what’s the alternative?

Daddy, what’s a “job”?

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff has a column at CNN called Are Jobs Obsolete that’s worth a read. I want to endorse it as a thought exercise, which I believe is his main point. So much of our jobs debate occurs in this very narrow frame boxed in by the specific and path-dependent way that we currently structure our economic lives. Rushkoff’s thoughts are valuable as a thought experiment, if nothing else.

Here is the condensed version:

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

There are some problem bits, like noting that the corporation is a relatively new phenomenon (by that standard, what aspect of economic life isn’t?) I also think his discussion of jobs and technology is wrong in one part, but it’s not worth discussing here. There are any number of major practical objections that must be leveled if anyone tries to make any recommendations based on this line of reasoning – and I’m still puzzling over them – but I’m not sure it’s useless either.

Here’s what I wrote in my post on peer production and David Roberts’ “Medium Chill” which I see as roughly in line with the sort of speculation Rushkoff is engaging in:

Think of this in terms of the basic economics for a moment. We need to produce various useful goods and services. We rely on firms – and the market at a broader level – to coordinate the division of labor necessary to produce these things. We need managers and org charts and work plans to overcome the basic fact that, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t really be able to get much done.

That was the old assumption. It largely made sense in a world that wasn’t connected. To produce sophisticated goods requires collaboration and, pre-internet, collaboration was quite expensive. All that is changing. There’s a new model in town – what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”, which I’ve written about here. Today, coordination within large groups is relatively cheap. That’s how we’re able to produce Wikipedia, Linux, and Ceiling Cat.

Let’s return now to the medium chill. Even pre-internet I’d find David’s formulation compelling. Even just on enjoyment alone he has a strong case. But in our new low-transaction-cost world I believe his case is even stronger. It seems at least possible that if we worked less, we would actually produce more of value. Whereas, the added spare time would have once gone almost entirely to leisure and time with immediate family or nearby friends, today much of it could conceivably be spent creating information and cultural goods like software, music, political commentary, and more. Added to all the other benefits of the medium chill, I think it sounds pretty good.

The bolded line squares with Rushkoff’s headline. All of this needs to be viewed as extremely tentative. It could all be mostly wrong; it could be 100% wrong. It’s not actionable at this point. But I’m giving some thought to how we might experiment with it around the edges.

It could also be that we don’t need to end jobs, as much as we need to end certain kinds of jobs. Perhaps some sort of information-production jobs can be peer produced while certain service jobs simply can’t be. Maybe we’ll be nurses or baristas 20 hours a week and then spend another 20 of our own free will creating information goods. That’s far fetched, but probably not quite as far fetched as many people think.

Poverty, culture, economics

If you’re at all interested in the science of willpower, self-control, or decision-making (and I am) you really should read John Tierney’s excellent NYT Magazine piece on the subject. Here’s one nugget:

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget. In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.

When we talk about poverty, we inevitably talk about various “cultural” issues, by which we mostly mean “non-economic” issues. Economic improvement can’t pull people out of poverty until we solve various cultural issues that are holding people back, or so the story goes. But we should really look at these as all part of the same cycle. Being poor puts you at a distinct and empirically demonstrable disadvantage when it comes to exerting self-control. Lack of self-control tends to play a large role in life outcomes. Much of what we think of as the “culture” of poverty may in fact be very much an economic issue.

Selling experiences

David Brooks, endorsed by Matt Yglesias:

I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggestBuy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.

I’m on board. There are a lot of things that could be said in response to this, so here’s just one… Many of us in the “we buy too much crap that doesn’t make us happy camp” are also likely to look favorably on the behavioral science types who shed light on just how we get sold said stuff. When you walk through a mall, you’re not just making purchasing choices in a vacuum. You’re being led along a journey that has been very specifically designed by experts whose goal is to make you spend money. Exits are out of view, cookie smell is piped in, whatever it is. The same general theme can be seen in advertising. A lot of money is spent enlisting very smart people to design very sophisticated plans to get you to buy stuff that is unlikely to make you happier.

So here’s my question: how should we think about efforts to get you to buy stuff that will make you happier? Should we view advertising for travel agents more favorably than we do advertising for McDonalds? Should we look for ways to raise the $ spent on promoting the purchase of experiences relative to $ spent on promoting the purchase of things?

So you’re smart, but are you reasonable?

I was searching for this phantom post pointing to research on verbal reasoning scores and bias (I swear I saw it!) when I came across a fascinating a 1997 paper titled Reasoning Independently of Prior Belief and Individual Differences in Actively Open-Minded Thinking. It’s got some neat if perhaps not totally unsurprising conclusions.

First, a quick disclosure: I don’t know this research area at all. If this paper got trashed by all its peers or if its results haven’t held up over time, I wouldn’t know. I’ve looked at the authors’ faculty pages and it looks like they’ve done more recent work that I’ll dig into at some point soon.

OK so what’s the point of this research: (apologies for the screenshots; it’s non-searchable PDF)

I’ll skip how they did the experiment and go right to findings. Read for yourself if you’re interested.

From the discussion:

The first question this raises in my mind is the extent to which this sort of reasoning style is alterable, both in the short and the long terms. To the extent that it is able to change over the long-term, this will have implications both for education and beyond. (Perhaps it’s possible to teach someone to reason outside of priors, and we do so in high school and college, but they lapse over time? Just one potential example of an implication.) In the short-term this interests me because the priming of epistemic goals could be a central feature of better media design aimed at negating bias. I’m looking forward to reading more on this topic.

Thematic vs. eclectic blogging

Some blogs revel in eclecticism. Marginal Revolution comes to mind. Despite its broad thematic focus on economics, it embraces a sprawling set of interests, which largely reflects the eclectic genius of its primary writer, Tyler Cowen. In that sense, despite the fact that there are “themes”, MR revolves around an embrace of eclecticism.

On the other end of the spectrum I consider Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog to be the ultimate “thematic” or “thesis” blog. If you’re familiar with Romm, put aside your own politics, or your views on Romm’s frequent vitriol. Purely as a blogger, Romm does many things very well. And reading his reflections on blogging is very useful. Here he is on Climate Progress’s 5 year anniversary:

A key goal of this blog today is to save you time. There is far too much information on climate science, clean energy solutions, and global warming politics for anyone to keep up with. And the status quo media simply puts out too much analysis, most of it quite bad. And yet everyone needs to follow this issue, needs to have an an informed opinion on the most important issue of the decade and the century.

Compare that to MR. There is very little efficient about MR. If your goal is to learn economics, you would be well advised to spend your time elsewhere. Even if your goal is to keep up with the economic issues of the day, MR serves up far too many distractions. Romm’s is a “here’s what you need to know” approach. His aim is to “be a one-stop-shop for anyone who wants the inside view on climate science, solutions, and politics” as this brilliant starter post demonstrates. MR would never consider attempting to have the authoratative post on all things economics. It’s a blog about questions, diversions, assortments. Climate Progress is the opposite. It’s the one-stop-shop, the comprehensive guide, the thematic tour.

More than that, Romm has a thesis about the reality of climate change, and everything he writes relates to that thesis in some way. His is blogging as dissertation.

I’d go so far as to say that MR and Climate Progress would be two of the first blogs I’d assign to anyone looking to “learn about blogging” either from an academic or practitioner’s perspective.

More of this, please

From NewsTrust:

Today, we’re excited to announce that we are open sourcing the code forNewsTrust.net, our social news platform.

We have just published that code on Github, under the name SocialNews. It runs on the popular Ruby on Rails web framework, which is also open source.

This SocialNews code will enable developers to create their own social news sites, using our platform to help people find good journalism together. We are really happy to make our tools and methodologies available to a broader community.

This is highly encouraging behavior from a very innovative organization. I interviewed the head of NewsTrust, Fabrice Florin, on the organization’s new direction for The Atlantic a week or so ago.


Young, unemployed, forced to rock

From The New York Times’ piece on the young college grads waiting out high unemployment:

Likewise, Amy Klein, who graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a degree in English literature, couldn’t find a job in publishing. At one point, she had applied for an editorial-assistant job at Gourmet magazine. Less than two weeks later, Condé Nast shut down that 68- year-old magazine. “So much for that job application,” said Ms. Klein, now 26.

One night she bumped into a friend, who asked her to join a punk rock band, Titus Andronicus, as a guitarist. Once, that might have been considered professional suicide. But weighed against a dreary day job, music suddenly held considerable appeal. So last spring, she sublet her room in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and toured the country in an old Chevy minivan.

Has anyone even collected good statistics on just how many college grads, with nowhere left to turn, have been forced to join Titus Andronicus? Anecdotal reports indicate more young people are joining the band Titus Andronicus than at any point in history.

But will Obama propose any remedy? And even if he does, will it even have any impact? This is the state of our political discourse. We’re witnessing the Titus Andronicus-ification of the unemployed, yet we fail to act.

(I’m not sure why I find this bit of reporting so amusing. FWIW, A More Perfect Union is a good song.)