The Elephant in the Brain – Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

The book is here and you should read it, although I think most people don’t actually want to know its contents. Most of us, I suspect, prefer to lie to ourselves and each other. Consider some of the evidence Hanson and Simler present:

Why do patients spend so much on medical care? To get healthier: That’s their one and only goal, right?

Maybe not. Consider some of the puzzling data points Robin discovered. To start with, people in developed countries consumer way too much medicine—doctor visits, drugs, diagnostic tests, and so forth—well beyond what’s useful for staying healthy. Large randomized studies, for example, find that people given free healthcare consume a lot more medicine (relative to the unsubsidized control group), yet don’t end up noticeably healthier.

So why doesn’t anyone know about this? I think we don’t want to know. For that reason, I’m not sure this book will be popular. Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans: we see this all the time, everywhere, online.* I doubt that the fact that people over-consume free healthcare will have any effect at all on most people, but arguing that healthcare is a basic human right will—that activates people’s caring moral foundation. This book is likely to be read by weirdos who may not have much effect on the rest of society.

The first page of chapter four has one of the great footnotes of all time.

Let me pull one section that amuses me; I occasionally make an argument that friends think is harmlessly eccentric at best and outright offensive at worst: TV and movies are better than live theater because their range of possible expression is so much greater. Good video uses a range of scenes, actors, and sounds; it isn’t inhibited by the limitations of the stage. Most people I’ve said this to have said that I miss the point (maybe they’re right) and that live theater is beautiful for its own sake. Usually I’m just looked at like I’m weird (again, the lookers may be right).

Enter Hanson and Simler:

Artists routinely sacrifice expressive power and manufacturing precision in order to make something more “impressive” as a fitness display.

One place we find this sacrifice is in the performing arts. For example, by almost any any measure of technical control, film exceeds live theater. Film directors can fuss endlessly over lighting, set design, and camera angles […] And the results are frequently sublime, which is one reason film has become the most popular dramatic and comedic medium of our time. And yet consumers continue to relish live performances, shelling out even for back-row seats at many times the price of a movie ticket. Why? In part, because performing live is a handicap. With such little margin for error, the results are that much more impressive. A similar trade-off arises for musicians (e.g., lip syncing is anathema) and standup comics, and for the improve versus sketch-comedy troupes. A live performance, or even more so an improvised one, won’t be as technically perfect as a prerecorded one, but it succeeds by putting the artists’ talents on full display.

To be fair, too, in the case of music and standup, the artists are often trying out material and experimenting with audience reaction, before turning the final result into a video or similar product. In some cases, like improv, the audience becomes part of the product. We’re trying to be impressive, and the harder it is to be impressive, the more one is impressed.

But consciously saying, “I’m an artist to increase my reproductive fitness” is not impressive and no one says it. Hanson and Simler offer some mechanisms:

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep ‘us,’ our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.

Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.

It’s interesting too, in light of their chapter on art, to think about what counts as art. Writing a novel? Yes. Painting a picture? Yes. Writing or designing an operating system? Not much, and not to most people. “Writing an operating system” may have occurred too recently in our evolutionary history to make doing so an attractive sexual display. But if we know we’re making art as a mating display should we then take that knowledge and direct our time and resources into other fields?

It’s a question that should be more seriously considered. And I write this as someone who has written novels and is working on one now.

One short question we might want to ask ourselves in many endeavors is, “Am I doing this to be maximally effective at the thing I am doing, or am I doing this thing to signal some other trait or achieve some other goal?”

Hanson’s previous book is The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, which is very interesting for the right person—of whom there are not many, including me. It applies economic analysis to a world in which human brains can be emulated can thus intelligence is almost freed from pesky material constraints like birth, senescence, and death. As a book it’s a bit like science fiction without a story. Post-singularity SF often works poorly to baseline humans because humans are bad at conceiving what non-human intelligence or consciousness might be like. The Age of Em is very good at what it is, but it’s notable that almost no one tries to write in its genre.

Here is a review of Elephant in an unexpected venue. Others may be found. I have not found any good rebuttals of it; it may be a book easier to ignore than rebut. I’m going to re-read it. It’s not the kind of book one absorbs the first time.


* “Most people write, and maybe think, based on slogans” may itself be a slogan: I’m not immune!

Robin Hanson’s “The Age of Em” scheduled for 2016—

See his blog announcement for more; I’ll definitely be getting a copy.

One could profitably read it next to Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which is also recommended for some but not all readers. I don’t have enough intelligent commentary to add to blog about Superintelligence.

To most people, reading and writing are boring and unimportant

Robin Hanson says: “… folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on ‘what I’ve learned about life.’ It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence?”

He offers various explanations, like “People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother,” “Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen,” and “Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.” But he also says, “None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?” I offered my theory in the comments section but will elaborate on it here: Most people don’t give a shit about writing or ideas. You can observe this from their behavior. People do things that are important to them (like watching TV, making money, or having sex) and don’t do things that aren’t important to them.

Let’s change the question a little: Why doesn’t Robin build furniture, or write vital open-source software, or feed the hungry in his spare time? Those would seem to offer great value to others. Actually, he might do some of this stuff—Robin seems like the sort of fellow with a lot of unusual hobbies and habits—but even if he does some of that stuff, the question becomes why he does that and not some other valuable thing. Maybe he’s doing the value maximizing thing for him, in which case he enjoys it, in which case he keeps doing it. The question and answers become circular and tautological very quickly, but in this case I don’t think “circular” is “wrong.”

To return to the original question about “What I’ve learned about life,” I think that, for most people, writing life lessons, or whatever, would be completely unimportant. Plus, as a corollary to that, writing is really hard for most people. It’s really hard for me, and I do it every day! So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that most people don’t bother doing hard, meaningless things. Starting from scratch in any skill is a challenge. I’d like to learn how to sew, but I don’t even really know how to start (outside of a Google search), and I don’t really have time to begin learning a complex new skill until October 5. So although I’d like clothes that fit better, I don’t want them badly enough to really do something about it and build domain knowledge in that field.

So, given that most people find new skills hard to learn, and find writing unimportant and boring, the better question is: Why do people write, especially blogs? Robin is the outlier, not the hypothetical old person imparting life lessons. You could reduce this question to, “Why isn’t reading and writing important to most people,” and beyond the obvious answer—they can survive and reproduce without them—I don’t have much.

Gwern’s answer in Robin’s comments seems sound to me: “Differing incentives and realities. Old adults give advice to teens which basically assume they can act like old adults; they forget just how painful things like waiting were, and wish away even the most transparently biological realities like shifts in circadian rhythms.” I would add that teens also don’t think they’ll ever be old. They live in the present.

Thinking back over my own life, I’m struck by how few old people have had useful advice for me. For adolescents and young adults, sex is tremendously important, yet few old people give real advice about it, or gave real advice to me; many of them also don’t seem to understand what the modern dating environment is like. In addition, old people might be worried about coming across as lascivious or inappropriate, when they’re really just trying to impart knowledge—I know that I seldom tell my students, for example, what the dating world is actually like.

I’m also really interested in being a writer, and have been for a long time, but very few adults know anything about being a writer. Those who do often don’t know anything about the Internet, which is now inextricably linked with most writers’ writing lives. So the limited advice that old people can offer often doesn’t seem applicable to me.

Perhaps some old people sense this, and sense that many younger people won’t listen to them anyway.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

Progress, extra time, efficiency, and consumer goods

Robin Hanson, typically insightful:

The most recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that five-year-old vehicles had about one-third fewer problems than the five-year-old vehicles we studied in April 2005. In fact, owners of about two-thirds of those vehicles reported no problems. And serious repairs, such as engine or transmission replacement, were quite rare. (p.15, June ‘10, Consumer Reports)

Car problem rates falling 1/3 in five years is change you might not notice, but if you think about it, its a pretty big deal. Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different. Besides a few big changes, most things seem not pretty similar. But this is illusory – most change happens behind the scenes.

We don’t notice the (relatively) small, cumulative changes that add up to major improvements in life unless we’re paying attention to them, which Hanson is drawing attention to here. If we don’t have our cars repaired as often, we have more time to think about and do other things. This means we have more time to think about art, technology, life, and so forth, although most of that surplus is probably used watching TV, searching for pornography, and so on.

But computers have improved too, just like cars: around 2002 or 2003, a typical computer became more than fast enough for most typical activities aside from high-end gaming and video editing; by now, the developed world is awash in computers that are “good enough.” Some relatively small percentage of us will use those computers to help us think, help us make things, and help others learn.

Of course, most people spend that extra time watching TV; according to the Los Angeles Times:

“The Nielsen Co.’s ‘Three Screen Report — referring to televisions, computers and cellphones — for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That’s about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.”

But fewer are doing so now than once did, which is a large part of Clay Shirky’s point in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, a book worth checking out from the library but probably not worth buying. He says:

Today people have new freedom to act in concert and in public. In terms of personal satisfaction, this good is fairly uncomplicated—even the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.

The “freedom to act in concert” is significant because the costs of doing so are low. Still, we don’t just have more time because the cost of doing things other than watching TV have fallen, although that’s important, as Shirky discusses elsewhere in his book—we have more time because things like cars, as Hanson points out, don’t demand as much time as they did. And that change is fairly recent; as John Scalzi wrote a few months ago:

You have to get to about 1997 before there’s a car I would willingly get into these days. As opposed to today, when even the cheap boxy cars meant for first-time buyers have decent mileage, will protect you if you’re hit by a semi, and have more gizmos and better living conditions than my first couple of apartments.

The question still is: what are we going to do with all that spare time, spare computing power, and spare mental capacity? The answers (so far) look positive, but I don’t have the foresight (and neither does Shirky—he points out that we have it, but can’t really say what will happen) to predict specific changes rather than the scale of those changes. In a very small way, I’m part of the answer, since I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing right now 20 years ago. About 10 years ago, it would’ve been much harder because blogging software hadn’t matured. Now it’s incredibly easy. That’s progress, even if most blog posts don’t look much like progress because they concern cats, celebrity scans, and so on.

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