File under “Smart Is Not Enough”

I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. "Jeff, you're so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division." That's not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."

What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they're given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices.

via Princeton University – 2010 Baccalaureate remarks.

Liberals/Progressives Flunk Econ 101

Who is better informed about the policy choices facing the country—liberals, conservatives or libertarians? According to a Zogby International survey that I write about in the May issue of Econ Journal Watch, the answer is unequivocal: The left flunks Econ 101.

via Daniel Klein: Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? – WSJ.com.

The Limitations and Misuse of Logic

Logical conclusions must be predicated on true premises. If the premises are unexamined, inaccurate, or false, then the logic is empty. This is one reason why using “logic” to argue for or against matters of politics and policy is frequently misguided; the person invoking “logic” is all too often using faulty premises.

Misuse of logic is rampant in all fields, even academic ones. It is often used as a crutch to justify prejudices and as a club to smite those who hold opposing views. There are people who are thoroughly Aristotelian in their thinking, and do, indeed, believe in the profundity of empty logical arguments. Others, such as politicians and evangelists use logic cynically as an instrument for persuasion of those who don’t realize that “There’s a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons, and reasons that sound good.” (Burton Hillis).

Just what is an ‘empty’ argument about the ‘real world’ of our experience?

  • One kind is the argument that may have faultless logic but is based on premises that have not, or cannot, be experimentally verified. Another kind is based on premises that are not part of any well-established and accepted scientific theory.
  • Some arguments are empty of content because they use words with no clear and unambiguous meaning, or words that cannot be related to anything real (experimentally unverifiable).
  • The most seductive empty arguments build upon premises that are so emotionally appealing that we don’t ask for verification, or which have appealing conclusions that blind us to the emptiness of the premises.

Via Uses and Misuses of Logic..

Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid

Sternberg’s premise is that stupidity and intelligence aren’t like cold and heat, where the former is simply the absence of the latter. Stupidity might be a quality in itself, perhaps measurable, and it may exist in dynamic fluxion with intelligence, such that smart people can do really dumb things sometimes and vice versa.

Perkins lists eight deadly sins of the stupid smart person, which seem to sum it all up rather elegantly: impulsiveness (doing something rash), neglect (ignoring something important), procrastination (actively avoiding something important), vacillation (dithering), backsliding (capitulating to habit), indulgence (allowing oneself to fall into excess), overdoing (like indulgence, but with positive things) and walking the edge (tempting fate). That sounds like my entire life, actually. Yes, that explains a lot.

After reading Stanovich, the proper utility of game theory seems to be, not the study of human interactions, but the study of why game theory doesn’t work in real life — to wit: the study of human stupidity, including the stupidity of those who keep trying to apply game theory to real human behavior. Stanovich also contributes the excellent term “dysrationalia.” A word to keep and to use.

via Salon.com Books | “Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid,” by Robert J. Sternberg.

A Plague of ‘A’ Students

America has made the mistake of letting the A student run things. It was A students who briefly took over the business world during the period of derivatives, credit swaps, and collateralized debt obligations. We’re still reeling from the effects. This is why good businessmen have always adhered to the maxim: “A students work for B students.” Or, as a businessman friend of mine put it, “B students work for C students—A students teach.”

It was a bunch of A students at the Defense Department who planned the syllabus for the Iraq war, and to hell with what happened to the Iraqi Class of ’03 after they’d graduated from Shock and Awe.

The U.S. tax code was written by A students. Every April 15 we have to pay somebody who got an A in accounting to keep ourselves from being sent to jail.

Now there’s health care reform—just the kind of thing that would earn an A on a term paper from that twerp of a grad student who teaches Econ 101.

via A Plague of ‘A’ Students | The Weekly Standard.

Progressives can’t get past the Knowledge Problem

Waxman and his colleagues in Congress can't possibly understand the health care market well enough to fix it. But what's more striking is that Waxman's outraged reaction revealed that they don't even understand their own area of responsibility – regulation — well enough to predict the effect of changes in legislation.

In drafting the Obamacare bill they tried to time things for maximum political advantage, only to be tripped up by the complexities of the regulatory environment they had already created. It's like a second-order Knowledge Problem.

Possibly this is simply because Waxman and his colleagues are dumb, and God knows there's plenty of evidence that Congress isn't a repository of rocket scientists. But it's just as likely that adding 30 or 40 IQ points to the average congressman wouldn't make much difference.

The United States Code — containing federal statutory law — is more than 50,000 pages long and comprises 40 volumes. The Code of Federal Regulations, which indexes administrative rules, is 161,117pages long and composes 226 volumes.

No one on Earth understands them all, and the potential interaction among all the different rules would choke a supercomputer. This means, of course, that when Congress changes the law, it not only can't be aware of all the real-world complications it's producing, it can't even understand the legal and regulatory implications of what it's doing.

via Glenn Harlan Reynolds: Progressives can’t get past the Knowledge Problem | Washington Examiner.

There’s a good followup at http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2010/04/04/regulation-and-the-knowledge-problem/.

Why I Prefer Markets Over Government

This piece is about Malthusian panics, with special reference to climate-change panic, but there is a beautiful general-purpose gem of a paragraph buried in the essay:

Perhaps one way to think of humanity is to think of a vast parallel processing computer network. Our species is constantly receiving vast quantities of data and constantly changing our behavior in response to it. When a big problem emerges, affecting us all over a country or the world, millions and billions of us start making changes in our behavior, trying new strategies and dealing with it in various ways. We are constantly monitoring one another as well; when somebody’s coping strategy is working, other people pick it up. When something is failing, we let it go. From moment to moment, all over the world, human beings are processing information, shifting behavior, collecting feedback and rethinking their behavior. A lot of this isn’t conscious; just as baseball pitchers can throw a curve ball without necessarily being able to understand the math that could describe the ball’s flight, so people who have no education or training in formal logic are able to process real world information and make good decisions.

That’s why I like market solutions over government solutions. Via Doing What Comes Naturally – Walter Russell Mead’s Blog – The American Interest.

Logical Fallacy vs Bayesian Reasoning

Most fallacies aren’t really fallacies when you reinterpret them as Bayesian reasons to give an idea more credence rather than iron-clad syllogisms. Without the “argument from authority” and the “ad hominem fallacy”, you would either never get lunch or you’d give all your money to Nigerian spammers.

via Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies.