Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘human nature’ Category

Why I Don’t Post About The Latest Outrage

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Most of all, because when a dozen of my Facebook friends are already posting about the same thing, it would be boring to repeat them.

But I also seriously wonder if making that 13th post might do more harm than good. Not just because it might lead people to hasty over-reactions that do obvious harm. But because talking about problems doesn’t always have therapeutic effects; sometimes it can very directly make things worse.

First, because it can be bad as therapy. Second, because making it seem as if the outrageous behavior in question is common makes people more likely to do it– even for the worst crimes. Finally, because making it seem as though more people are victims facing an unjust world they can’t do anything about removes their internal locus of control, leading to all manner of worse outcomes.

Near my house, there is a billboard that keeps a running count of how many transgender people have been murdered this year. I assume it was put there by some well-meaning group that sees raising awareness as a necessary first step to reducing the number of murders. But suppose there was a group whose goal was to make transgender people live in fear, scare others away from transitioning, and encourage more copycat murders- wouldn’t they want to put up the exact same billboard?

Next time you see some story that makes you angry, think before sharing it with everyone else. If it makes you feel better to post it, then I suppose you might as well, but please don’t post merely out of a misguided sense that you are necessarily making the world a better place by doing so.

Written by James Bailey

October 2, 2016 at 11:59 am

Stop Feeding the Trolls

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So many of the problems of this decade could be fixed by people learning not to feed the trolls.
Most obviously, internet comment sections would only be half as terrible as they are now.
Donald Trump wouldn’t have got the nomination without the huge amount of free airtime from news channels covering his latest outrageous statement.

Growing political polarization is partly due to how the straw man / weak man fallacy is amplified by trolls. Many actual news stories are about the outrageous thing some random Twitter egg on the other side said.
Terrorism would be cut in half if shooting a bunch of innocent people weren’t the quickest way to get famous.
I just wish there were an easy way to fix this without censorship. The necessary culture change sounds incredibly difficult, but I hope that with time we will learn how to adapt to social media and 24 hour news.

For a start, I plan to never do terrorists’ jobs for them by sharing stories of their terror. I encourage my friends to do likewise.

Written by James Bailey

July 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Thoughts on Crime and Punishment

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  • Is Raskolnikov the least likeable protagonist of all time?
  • Great illustrations of what real poverty is like
    • Regular hunger, only one set of clothes (rags), turning to theft and prostitution
    • But not all sympathetic portrayal; one man drinks himself into poverty. Raskolnikov simply does nothing all day rather than work. Disdains going into business but then turns to murder.
    • Murder is hard to cover up when you are that poor! Have roommates, can’t afford a weapon and so must steal it, can’t throw away bloody clothes because they are your only set
  • Interesting half-parallel between Marmaladov and Raskolnikov. They both spend a lot of time wallowing in self-pity over their own weakness. M’s weakness is drinking away all his money while his kids go hungry. R’s “weakness” is having a conscience that tells him murder is wrong.
  • I’m not above being continually amused by funny Russian names
  • TVtropes seems surprisingly good at identifying the themes of this great work. (Attention conservation warning: TVtropes link)
  • Dostoevsky understood tobacco way earlier than medicine did!
    • “AH THESE cigarettes!” Porfiry Petrovitch ejaculated at last, having lighted one. “They are pernicious, positively pernicious, and yet I can’t give them up! I cough, I begin to have tickling in my throat and a difficulty in breathing. You know I am a coward, I went lately to Dr. B__n; he always gives at least half an hour to each patient. He positively laughed looking at me; he sounded me: ‘Tobacco’s bad for you,’ he said, ‘your lungs are affected.’ But how am I to give it up? What is there to take its place? I don’t drink, that’s the mischief, he-he-he, that I don’t. Everything is relative, Rodion Romanovitch, everything is relative!”
  • The book is interesting and readable, lots of subtlety but while reading it wasn’t clear to me why this is considered one of the all-time greats
    • This may be because it is hard to appreciate how original things were in their own time when they have since been heavily imitated. A bit of research seems to back this up
    • Many characters seem overly dramatic/histrionic
      • This may have been because Dostoevsky had a pretty dramatic personal life- spared execution at the last second thanks to a letter from the tsar; has his first seizure upon learning of the death of his father
    • I assumed throughout the whole book that Raskolnikov was a satire of Nietzsche’s ideas about ubermensch; then afterward I realize the book was published in 1866 and Nietzsche’s first publication was in 1870.

Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool…

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“The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” ― Frédéric Bastiat

Though Bastiat wrote in the 1800’s, this point (like his other main points) still seems woefully under-appreciated today. So often I hear people defending one sort of idea by pointing out the weak character or arguments of the idea’s opponents.

While this itself borders on fallacious reasoning, it seems to be simply how people work. Because of this, we should all consider from time to time whether to best thing we can do to advance our own ideas is to simply stay quiet, at least until we have thought more.

Dostoevsky has a great illustration of this idea through the character of Semyonovitch in Crime and Punishment:

Andrey Semyonovitch was an anæmic, scrofulous little man, with strangely flaxen mutton-chop whiskers of which he was very proud. He was a clerk and had almost always something wrong with his eyes. He was rather soft-hearted, but self-confident and sometimes extremely conceited in speech, which had an absurd effect, incongruous with his little figure. He was one of the lodgers most respected by Amalia Ivanovna, for he did not get drunk and paid regularly for his lodgings. Andrey Semyonovitch really was rather stupid; he attached himself to the cause of progress and “our younger generation” from enthusiasm. He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animate abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarise it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely.

Though Lebeziatnikov was so good-natured, he, too, was beginning to dislike Pyotr Petrovitch. This happened on both sides unconsciously. However simple Andrey Semyonovitch might be, he began to see that Pyotr Petrovitch was duping him and secretly despising him, and that “he was not the right sort of man.” He had tried expounding to him the system of Fourier and the Darwinian theory, but of late Pyotr Petrovitch began to listen too sarcastically and even to be rude. The fact was he had begun instinctively to guess that Lebeziatnikov was not merely a commonplace simpleton, but, perhaps, a liar, too, and that he had no connections of any consequence even in his own circle, but had simply picked things up third-hand; and that very likely he did not even know much about his own work of propaganda, for he was in too great a muddle….

Written by James Bailey

January 11, 2016 at 6:30 pm

The Reverse Syrian Refugee Crisis of 1915

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In 1915 there was a flood of refugees from the Armenian genocide being forced into Syria, on a sort of Trail of Tears. I just learned of this from the excellent book, Lawrence in Arabia, that I’m currently in the middle of:

“As for where this potentially vast sea of internal deportees might be sent, Talaat and Enver had already selected a spot: gathered up from across Anatolia, most would be herded down to the barren reaches of northern Syria. The insanity inherent in this scheme, of uprooting a vast population and casting it into a land already devastated by the deprivations of war, would play out to obscene result: by best estimate, some 800,000 of the Armenian deportees were to perish—starved, shot, or beaten to death—en route.

The consensus among historians is that [Ottomian provincial governor] Djemal Pasha stood very much apart from his Young Turk coleaders in his response to the expulsions. In June, the first survivors of the death marches began to trickle into the north Syrian city of Aleppo, a way station toward their intended destination, the “relocation zone” of Deir al-Zour some one hundred miles to the east. Visiting Aleppo, Djemal Pasha was horrified by what he saw. Reiterating a March decree that commanded his army to protect the Armenians, he lobbied Constantinople to impose the order on military units where it really mattered, in Anatolia. That plea was ignored.

Getting no satisfaction from Constantinople, Djemal allowed thousands of Armenians to remain in Aleppo rather than continue their death march, and despite the deepening hunger and food shortages spreading through Syria, he ordered an increase of government food aid to the refugees. Testament to his love of order and regulations, he issued a rash of new edicts directing that the army regulate and maintain the food supply for the Armenians, that cars and horses be procured for their transportation, even that each refugee be given a financial allowance. But implicit in the stacks of documents that the Syrian governor signed in his office each day was the notion that his regime actually had the wherewithal to carry out these initiatives, never mind that all evidence—evidence that started just outside Djemal’s office windows and stretched to the farthest corners of his realm—argued otherwise. It was as if he fancied himself the administrator of a canton of peacetime Switzerland, rather than of a poor and highly fractured region the size of Italy that was being ravaged by war, hunger, and disease. In the face of the Armenian crisis, as with so many other problems that came his way, Djemal responded with a mixture of bluster, threats, and pleas, and when none of that worked, he simply averted his gaze. By September, with the crisis worsening, he issued a new edict, making it a criminal offense to photograph the Armenians.”

Written by James Bailey

December 10, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Against Talent

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Innate talent really does determine a huge portion of how good we are at various tasks. But for the most part we are better off ignoring this fact.


There is a large innate component to intelligence, but kids deciding it is cool to succeed in class effortlessly based off of smarts leads to big wastes of potential later on. The problem is that your innate ability, or talent, is unchangeable by definition. But the amount and type of effort you spend on something is under your control.


I’ve been thinking that if I want to become excellent at ultimate Frisbee, it would have to be as a handler rather than a cutter, because cutters can benefit enormously from the innate talent of height and high sprint speed*. But of course, in addition the innate components, a huge amount of being a good cutter is about deliberate practice. In fact, this dominates to such an extent that some of the very best deep threats have no height advantage at all. My wife can beat people deep all day, despite being 5 inches shorter than me and a bit slower. In the NFL, we have the examples of 5’6’’ wide receivers like Wes Welker becoming stars. When I say I can’t be a great cutter because I lack the height and sprint speed, it is just an excuse for my current mediocrity- one that holds me back from putting in the effort necessary to get better.


I just attended the American Economic Association’s conference on teaching. I have thought that I will never be a truly great teacher because I lack natural charisma and extroversion. But two people who seem to be truly great teachers, Dirk Mateer and Kenneth Elzinga, insisted at the conference that they are naturally introverted nerds too, and that they got to be as good as they are through practice and a constant focus on how they can become better. Elzinga said that his college speech professor told him to provide updates on how close he was to the end of the talk, “in order to give hope to the audience”; and that no one else received the same advice, implying he was the worst in the class. But despite a complete lack of natural speaking talent, he became a great teacher through outworking and out-thinking other professors. My favorite example of something no one else would think of, or put in the effort to do if they did think of it, is that he writes a personal letter to every student who fails his class- in his intro to economics classes of 1000 students. The fact that you lack talent- or have lots of talent- should not be used as an excuse for failing to put in the hard work and hard thinking needed to become the best you can be.


*(you can infer that sprint speed probably has a huge genetic component by the fact that of the 76 people who have ever run the 100m in less than 10 seconds, 72 were of West African descent)

Written by James Bailey

May 30, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Why Academics Are Depressed

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Depressed PhD students are in the news again with two articles in the Guardian.
Depression among PhD students is no big mystery; they spend their 20’s beating their head against tough problems for ramen wages with the threat of expulsion constantly hanging over them. What is more surprising is that the problem continues once grad school is over.

On the face of it, professors have the sort of jobs no one should complain about. We have no real bosses. We get paid to talk and write about what we are interested in. We are teachers who only have to be in a classroom for 2.5-10 hours a week, 30 weeks a year. We have good pay and, after tenure, unparalleled job security.

But while the job really is objectively great, and I am annoyed every time I hear academics complain about it, I do see why it can lead to depression.

First of all, independence is a double-edged sword. Many of us were drawn to academia by the idea that we would have no boss, could choose our own projects, and weren’t even required to work closely with any coworkers. But if one side of a coin is independence, the other is isolation. Academics can do all of their research behind a closed door in their office, or at home, without talking to anyone else. Even teaching can mean talking at students the whole time rather than talking with them.

But I think the biggest problem is that academia makes us compare ourselves to the very best people in our field, and leaves us little room for self-delusion about how we are doing in that competition.

In most jobs, you might not think of yourself as in competition against anyone at all. If you do compare your performance to others, it is probably to others at your own company. It is easy enough to convince yourself that you are the best in your organization, or at least that you are above average. Only a few jobs like sales will have publicly shared, objective measures that can prove to you that you are below average at your job.

The biggest part of the job for most academics is research, and the biggest measures of research are published articles and citations thereof. Research is a national, or even international, game. As a researcher trying to publish articles and get them cited, you are in direct competition with the best and brightest all over the world. It is not enough to be the best in your department, or even the best in your state. The top journals publish only a few hundred articles a year, in a profession with tens of thousands of people.

Most journals have a 80-95% rejection rate. We are regularly told that our work is not good enough- sometimes in excruciating detail, with several pages of referee reports explaining problems with your paper, and sometimes with no explanation at all. Even many of the best articles by the best academics get rejected. This constant negative reinforcement is wearing, and keeps our opinion of ourselves from getting too high. There is a lot of evidence that most people are overconfident about their abilities in general; but depressed people seem to be the one exception, the people who know exactly how good they are. It is not clear how much this is depression-inducing brain chemistry reducing overconfidence versus people with realistic self-assessment becoming more depressed, but the later could explain exactly why academics are depressed.

Written by James Bailey

March 9, 2014 at 12:25 pm