Being wrong, and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big-deal econ bloggers have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is a useful exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait most people lack. I might be among them but like to think that I’m more intellectually honest than I actually am.

Still, here are some (unsorted) opinions on topics about which I’ve been wrong or at least not as right as I could be:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed at you.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as important as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Now I don’t. Both subjects is are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.” At best one can have meta-conversations about religion and politics (“Why do people need religion?”)

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.

Oops.

9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter-guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring, and differing economic and pleasure incentives acting on children than their parents.

These forces help explain a great deal of our culture’s confusion about sexuality and its mixed messages—especially among the young. I used to think this confusion would eventually devolve into a more laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude, which it still might, but now that day seems very far off.

(See my essay “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more” for details.)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

It might not hurt for you to try this test for yourself: if you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, there’s an entire book on the subject by Kathryn Schulz named Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

Being wrong and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big deal bloggers in economics have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is an exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait widely lacked.

Some (unsorted) things I’ve been wrong about:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority. Pictures of dogs, food, babies… I don’t care but the evidence shows many, many people do.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Both subjects are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.”

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.

9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, and the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring.

These forces help explain cultural incoherence about sexuality, especially among the young. A laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude seems very far off.

(See “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more.”)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

Try the “What I’ve been wrong about” test for yourself. If you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, see Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

Don’t rent an apartment from Navid Abedian in Tucson, Arizona, or, how I learned to be wary of lawsuits

In 2008 I moved in Tucson for grad school and rented a condo that turned out to be a decent place to live, except for the landlord and a neighbor universally referred to as “Crazy Nick” (he was not crazy is a good way). When my roommate and I moved the landlord kept about $500 of our deposit after promising that he wouldn’t and saying that he’d refund it, while also violating Arizona’s Residential Landlord & Tenant Act.

Because I’m such a smart guy and was both unhappy about his lies and interested in our money, I decided to sue him in small claims court, where I eventually won a $1,350 judgment. He paid $350 after a debtor’s hearing in January and promised to pay the rest; in June I sought another debtor’s hearing to compel him to pay at which point he threatened to come over to my apartment and kill me. For those of you keeping score, this marks the second time someone has done so in one summer, up from zero times previously in my entire life.

I filed a police report, stayed at friends’ houses a few days, and canceled the hearing: improbable though Abedian’s threat might be, it’s not worth shooting or being shot over $1,000. He’s also a cipher to me: all I know is that he works in a carpet store, bought a condo in Tucson near the height of the ’00s real estate boom and, according to a Google search, might have his house foreclosed on. In other words, he might be desperate, and people have killed each other over far less than $1,000.

Although running away sets a back precedent—will he just threaten to kill the next tenant who comes along?—I still think it wiser than continuing.

What originally seemed to mostly be entertainment (i.e. going to court and pontificating), began to suck up way too much mental energy. In the Hacker News discussion of Paul Graham’s “The Top Idea In Your Mind,” grellas wrote, “There is a lesson here about lawsuits, which will drain you of both money and peace of mind all at the same time. Sometimes you can’t turn the other cheek, much as you would like to do so, and have no choice but to fight. Having the guts to stand up for yourself (or for your company) is in itself a virtue and there are times when it is best not to walk away.”

He’s right, and a lawsuit I’d imagined as entertainment and teaching a useful lessons that might turn into dividends for the next tenants backfired. It also occupied way too much space in my mind—space that I should’ve spent  writing fiction or doing research. Instead I worried about the sanity and desperation of a guy I didn’t know.

In Francine Prose’s novel Touch, the protagonist is a 14- or 15-year-old girl named Maisie, who tells her preening stepmother, Joan, a version of what happened on a bus when two or three boys touched her breasts in somewhat murky circumstances. It isn’t clear at the narrative’s start whether she consented, but the event as narrated to us is also one in which the characters act without enough culpability to call what they did anything beyond adolescent horseplay and power struggles.

Joan wants to meet a lawyer, which makes Maisie think that “I was filled with dread. Pure dread. It felt like icy water trickling down my back.” Joan says, “It would be a matter of principle.” Most people don’t lead their lives solely according to principle; pragmatics matter too. Few of us want to be martyrs for a cause, and if we do, that cause better be worth it. Most of us want to get along. Altruistic punishment is real but can be overrated. Maisie would be harming her own well-being and self-interest. I thought I was standing up for the principle of tenants’ rights and for fairness, but I chose to give up that principle when Navid threatened to kill me. Pragmatics won.

Like Maisie, I’m choosing pragmatism—which I probably should’ve learned in the first place. I’ve started Bleak House a couple of times (I’m not a Dickens man) and understand Jardyce vs Jardyce well enough to know that lawsuits are often vehicles for mutually assured destruction more than they are about fairness or rights. When in doubt or when it’s avoidable, don’t get the law involved. And, apparently, be ready to write off your security deposit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEDIT: It’s 2014 and I’ve forgotten about Navid, but I just got a letter saying that he declared bankruptcy. I’m a) somehow listed as a creditor and b) the Department of Justice somehow got my current address, in order to c) invite me on some kind of creditors’ committee. I wish I couldn’t say that I don’t feel a little schadenfreude at his being bankrupt, but, alas, I’m too small a person for that. Apparently his wife or ex-wife, Linda Kay Abedian Stevens—or Linda Kay Stevens? the wording is unclear—was also on the lease and on the property deed.

Since leaving Tucson I have been threatened with death zero times.

Has science fiction "run out of steam?"

This post began life as a Slashdot comment in response to Has Sci-Fi Run Out of Steam?:

I doubt it, any more than science or technology has run out of steam due to a lack of imagination. Rather, I wonder if the science fiction publishing business has either run out of steam or become an active roadblock between writers and readers. It seems that most publishers are trying a play-it-safe approach that demands repetition over originality. This is based partially on what I see featured in bookstores and partially on my own experience, which I discuss extensively in Science fiction, literature, and the haters. It begins:

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it.

If the publishing system itself is broken and nothing yet has grown up to take its place (I have no interest in trolling through thousands of terrible novels uploaded to websites in search of a single potential gem, for those of you Internet utopians out there), maybe the source of the genre’s troubles isn’t where PC Pro places it.

In addition, although science fiction publishing might appear sclerotic at times, science fiction in movies and TV shows continues unabated—many of which draw material from books. One commenter realized this: “The huge change in SF since I first started reading it in the 70’s is that these days, movie/TV SF is a gigantic, popular commercial enterprise, utterly dwarfing written SF.”

Still, I’ve found fun and fascinating SF writers thanks to the Internet: Jack Vance started as a recommendation and an article in the NYT magazine; Charlie Stross writes a blog; and others have sent good advice on where to look. But I think a lot of SF has turned towards the cerebral, towards alternate / fake worlds, and towards dealing with massive institutions on earth. These are all broad claims—too broad for a blog post—that I might follow-up in a future essay, but they’ve been churning in my mind enough for me to look for them in fiction—where they seem to be almost everywhere.

One other funny item: PC Pro uses the antiquated cliche “run out of steam,” which refers to steam engines that probably haven’t been widely used since the 19th century, to refer to a genre concerned with how the present represents the future. Maybe this indicates language itself can run far behind whatever the perceived times are.

Has science fiction “run out of steam?”

This post began life as a Slashdot comment in response to Has Sci-Fi Run Out of Steam?:

I doubt it, any more than science or technology has run out of steam due to a lack of imagination. Rather, I wonder if the science fiction publishing business has either run out of steam or become an active roadblock between writers and readers. It seems that most publishers are trying a play-it-safe approach that demands repetition over originality. This is based partially on what I see featured in bookstores and partially on my own experience, which I discuss extensively in Science fiction, literature, and the haters. It begins:

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it.

If the publishing system itself is broken and nothing yet has grown up to take its place (I have no interest in trolling through thousands of terrible novels uploaded to websites in search of a single potential gem, for those of you Internet utopians out there), maybe the source of the genre’s troubles isn’t where PC Pro places it.

In addition, although science fiction publishing might appear sclerotic at times, science fiction in movies and TV shows continues unabated—many of which draw material from books. One commenter realized this: “The huge change in SF since I first started reading it in the 70’s is that these days, movie/TV SF is a gigantic, popular commercial enterprise, utterly dwarfing written SF.”

Still, I’ve found fun and fascinating SF writers thanks to the Internet: Jack Vance started as a recommendation and an article in the NYT magazine; Charlie Stross writes a blog; and others have sent good advice on where to look. But I think a lot of SF has turned towards the cerebral, towards alternate / fake worlds, and towards dealing with massive institutions on earth. These are all broad claims—too broad for a blog post—that I might follow-up in a future essay, but they’ve been churning in my mind enough for me to look for them in fiction—where they seem to be almost everywhere.

One other funny item: PC Pro uses the antiquated cliche “run out of steam,” which refers to steam engines that probably haven’t been widely used since the 19th century, to refer to a genre concerned with how the present represents the future. Maybe this indicates language itself can run far behind whatever the perceived times are.

August 2010 Links: Bookshelves, query letters, and more

* Good advice from Jaron Lanier: how to be on the Internet.

* Exactly the sort of thing that appeals to me: bookshelf porn (note: this link is entirely safe for work, unless you have an office that bans employees from looking at books).

* I want to read this book too, based solely on the query letter.

* The Golden State’s War on Itself: How politicians turned the California Dream into a nightmare.

* Awesome: In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars.

* The inevitable envy among writers.

* Salinger’s toilet up for auction — seriously?. Note that the appendage “seriously?” is from Carolyn Kellogg, although she expresses my sentiments as well.

* I love Slate’s “Bogus Trend Stories of the Week” feature, in which they discuss stories based on questionable or phony numbers, anecdote, moral panic, hysteria, fear mongering, and the like. The best part: cited numbers or statistics often contradict the overall thrust of the stories themselves. Sex often plays a role, as it does in this week’s topic: Child pornography, sextortion, and Chinese hymenoplasties. Samples:

Presented with convincing data, I’m prepared to believe that child porn is growing. But if a Department of Justice report states that the number of offenders is unknown and the quantity of images and videos of child pornography being traded is also unknown, how can anybody say that the distribution of child porn is on the rise?

* Measuring colleges for what they do instead of who they enroll: finally.

* The bizarre place that is Russia:

For the disastrous Russian heat wave has exposed a key failing of Russian society: The flow of information has stopped. There is not a single newspaper that even strives to be national in its coverage. The television is not only controlled by the Kremlin; it is made by the Kremlin for the Kremlin, and it is entirely unsuited to gathering or conveying actual information. Even the Russian blogosphere is bizarrely fragmented: Researchers who “mapped” it discovered that, unlike any other blogosphere in the world, it consists of many non-overlapping circles. People in different walks of life, different professions, and different parts of the country simply do not talk to one another. The same is true of political institutions: Since the Russian government effectively abolished representative democracy, canceling direct elections, there is no reason—and no real mechanism—for Moscow politicians to know what is going on in the vast country. Nor do governors need concern themselves with the lives and the disasters in their regions—they, too, are no longer elected but are appointed by the Kremlin.

Some Americans suffer from information overload; Russians suffer from the opposite.

Eat, Pray, Love and the misery of the literary agent

Literary agents are flooded with pitches for the next Eat, Pray, Love. Fortunately, one of the few things I haven’t done wrong in searching for an agent is pitching the next Eat, Pray, Love, which probably isn’t a surprise since I read about 15 pages of the first one, thought it was dumb, and gave it back to the woman who had a copy (without my observation on its literary merit). To me, the oddest thing about the book is that it states or implies that going to exotic countries allows to discover yourself, or whatever. But to my mind, you can eat good food here (I try to and usually succeed), pray wherever, and love… well, that’s around too. Less common in the suburbs, I suppose, but still.

Mostly I’m reminded of friends in college who were like, “We’re going to MEXCIO for spring break to get drunk and hook up!!!” (Sometimes the destination would be Europe, the Caribbean, etc., and usually they’d say “party” as a euphemism for “get drunk and hook up.”) To which I would usually respond, “Can’t you do that sort of thing at home?” Usually they’d look at me strangely, like I’d suggested they consider eating a tarantula. It’s the same look I get when I suggest that You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area.

I wonder if people implicitly believe that traveling changes the rules and social norms to which they’re accustomed, creating a Midsummer Night’s Dream-style scenario. If so, couldn’t they change the rules where they live through deciding, “I’m not going to play by the standard one rules anyway?” After all, Western culture has a rich tradition of this kind of thing: think of the Transcendentalists, Herman Hesse, Gay Talese, and Baywatch (Okay, that last one is a test of who’s paying attention). The epiphany is a regular occurrence in Joyce, especially The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If we need to be “transformed by an experience that allowed us to step outside ourselves,” we might find that in fiction as easily as Indonesia. Katie Roiphe says that the TV show Mad Men offers “The Allure of Messy Lives.” We can make a mess and find self-fulfillment at home as easily as elsewhere!

Still, the Slate article says Gilbert is a good writer overall, and I read the book long enough ago not to keep slagging that part of it. To me, the setup sounds like the silliest part, but the money shot of the article comes at the end: “So be warned. If your proposal mentions a book that’s been on the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that your book isn’t worth writing.”

If your idea for life fulfillment comes from a book that’s been the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that you’re seeking fulfillment from the wrong place.

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