Monday, 12 November 2012

Against Democracy: My quick intro to rational ignorance and rational irrationality

A few days ago I wrote up a quick intro to two important ideas from public choice theory for the benefit of a group of Facebook friends involved in such projects as and Public choice theory is relevant to such projects insofar as they are intended to eventually affect public policy, or to provide effective methods of rational truth-finding and decision-making.

I repost that same text here, sans some of the major typos:


1. This stuff pertains to public choice theory, which is defined by Wikipedia as: "the use of modern economic tools to study problems that traditionally are in the province of political science. From the perspective of political science, it is the subset of positive political theory that models voters, politicians, and bureaucrats as mainly self-interested."

2. An important point for much of the theory of public choice in democracies is the fact that the probability that any individual's vote will affect the outcome of the election is generally negligible. For example, in U.S. presidential elections, the probability that your vote will affect the election's outcome is comparable to that of winning the lottery seventy seven times in a row. This is because your vote only makes a difference if all the other votes happen to be exactly tied, so that your vote turns out to be the deciding vote - or perhaps if your vote happens to be the one leading to an exact tie!

3. RATIONAL IGNORANCE: According to Wikipedia, "The term was coined by Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy". Wiki sez: "Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide." Applied to democracy, voters are to be expected to be rationally ignorant about the issues they vote on. This is because, since their vote almost certainly won't change policy, they have nothing to gain from making an informed vote rather than an uninformed one. On the other hand, the cost of informing themselves is considerable. Some people enjoy informing themselves about such issues, but they are a small minority.

4. Empirically, voters really are very ignorant about politics and economics. They are least ignorant about the aspects of politics that are the most entertaining.

5. Donald Wittman, in The Myth of Democratic Failure, has defended democracy against many of the usual criticisms from public choice theorists. One argument he makes in the book is that, because of the miracle of aggregation, rational ignorance is not actually a problem: provided that people are merely ignorant and not systematically biased, their mistakes should cancel out. Also, if you assume that 5% of the electorate is well-informed on the relevant issues, you could argue that those 5% effectively decide the outcome of the election, whereas the votes of the other 95%, which are randomly distributed, cancel each other out.

6. Bryan Caplan, who credits Donald Wittman with "waking [him] from [his] dogmatic slumbers in political economy" (echoing Kant re: Hume), has compiled empirical evidence that voters are, in fact, systematically biased, thus concluding that Wittman's argument is valid but not sound. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan identifies four main widespread biases about economics: "Make-work bias", "Anti-foreign bias", "Pessimistic bias", "Anti-market bias".

7. The term RATIONAL IRRATIONALITY, coined by Bryan Caplan, sounds all kinds of oxymoronic, but the two occurrences of "rational" in the phrase refer to two different kinds of rationality:

a. Epistemic rationality: "forming beliefs in truth-conducive ways"

b. Instrumental rationality: "choosing effective means to attain one's goals, given one's beliefs"

8. So while the idea of rational ignorance is that it is *instrumentally* rational to be ignorant, the idea of rational irrationality is that it is *instrumentally* rational to be *epistemically* irrational.

9. The costs of overcoming ignorance are generally high because studying the relevant issues takes time and effort. The costs of overcoming epistemic irrationality are generally high whenever people simply *enjoy* being epistemically irrational. Bryan Caplan argues that people have "preferences over beliefs": there are beliefs that people just like to hold whether they are true or not, and giving them up would be emotionally costly to them - often extremely costly. So if the expected rewards from giving them up aren't high enough, they won't.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Freedomain Radio in the news again: Molyneux's wife reprimanded by the College of Psychologists of Ontario

This blog still regularly gets visits from people who have questions about Freedomain Radio, so I'm going to "cover" the news about the College of Psychologists of Ontario's reprimanding Stefan Molyneux's wife, Christina, a practicing psychotherapist, for publicly giving the same kind of self-help advice that Stef gives on his podcast. You will not hear about this on the premises of Freedomain Radio, at least not on any of the forums and podcasts that are available to non-donators, as forum posts that make any mention of this are immediately deleted (more on this later).
On the face of it, this piece of news sheds a bad light on Freedomain Radio, but whether unfavourable conclusions about Stef's output should really be drawn from it is actually debatable, and I do not want to just use this as a weapon to discredit FDR as much as possible. I'm writing about this because I hope it will be useful to some people in assessing Stefan's legitimate authority on questions of how the human mind works (with all their practical implications).

The news:

Stef's wife, Christina, is a psychotherapist. That profession is subject to licensing in Canada, and thus Christina is a member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO) and needs to comply with their rules in order to be allowed to work as a therapist. Four days ago, she has pleaded guilty to charges of professional misconduct, and the CPO have now imposed some sanctions upon her, including a six month suspension of her license and the requirement that she undergo additional mentoring and training for the period of one year, at her expense.

Christina used to actively participate in Stef's Freedomain Radio podcast. She admitted to being somewhat uncomfortable with this kind of public exposure, but her participation was actively solicited by listeners who were interested in getting advice from a psychotherapist, especially one whose world view was in line with Stef's. Thus Christina was featured, most prominently, in a series of podcasts called "Ask a Therapist", in which Stef and Christina read emails from listeners and gave their opinions and advice.

In 2009, a complaint against Christina was filed with the CPO. Presumably, the complaint was that Christina had encouraged specific listeners of the podcast to cut ties with their families (to "deFOO", in FDR lingo, where FOO stands for family of origin) while relying on her status as a licensed therapist - or at least that was part of the complaint. A similar complaint was filed in 2011. And the hearing finally took place on 30 October 2012, from what I gather.

Ever since the first complaint was filed, all the podcasts in which Christina had participated have been pulled from the website, and any mention of their disappearance on the FDR forum has been suppressed (i.e. the posts were quickly deleted). Among the podcasts that were pulled was one - the most recent one, I imagine - in which the couple talked about Christina's concerns that she would face repercussions from the CPO for the advice she had given on the podcast and, more generally, for the role she had played in shaping some of Stef's core positions, such as the idea that the reason why most people are not anarcho-capitalists is because they were abused by their parents. No explanation has since been provided to listeners who wanted to know why that material was no longer available.

A succinct, matter of fact article about this has been published in The Globe and Mail. The CPO's website provides further details about the case and about the CPO's reasons for the penalty, and states that "The panel's written reasons are pending".

The CPO's statement on the Public Register makes it clear that the allegations against Christina are not limited to her encouraging listeners to deFOO:
The Member made general statements and provided advice, both in general terms and directed towards particular individuals, that are not supported by current professional literature or consistent with the Standards. One example is the following statement, made in the context of answering a question regarding whether some people are better off single than coupled. The Member replied: (...)
"Given how dysfunctional many people are in today’s society, I’d say that it is better for them to be single. In fact I do counsel a lot of my clients not to date while they're going through the process of therapy, because it is far too difficult to manage a relationship while you're trying to figure yourself out, and often times those relationships will end up failing.”
Another example is the following statement, made in response to a question about why someone was attracted to women who were not interested in a romantic relationship: 
“I would say that it’s because he questions himself that he ends up choosing women who are not interested in him, or – not necessarily interested in him, who are not emotionally available or whom move him directly into a guy friend status. There’s part of you, my dear friend, that doesn't think you are worthy of having that level of intimacy, or that level of connectedness with someone. There’s a part of you, I think, that’s also quite afraid of it so you’re drawn to people who aren't going to be able to give it to you.” 
It also makes it clear that the CPO does not categorically oppose therapists' recommending to people that they deFOO:
While it may be appropriate to recommend family separation in cases of abuse, the Member did not obtain a sufficient history to ascertain whether the advice was warranted in the circumstances discussed in the podcasts. Although the Member advised that listeners seek professional help in their home communities on a number of occasions, she acknowledges that this advice was given in the absence of any meeting or proper assessment, and there was significant risk of misunderstanding by members of the public and the individuals to whom the Member directed advice and comments and such misunderstandings posed a risk of harm.
 A friend of mine has posted a link to this CPO webpage on the FDR forum, and the post was promptly deleted. I imagine they must have been deleting quite a few such posts since this news came out. As I have already mentioned, though, this systematic deleting of any statement or question that would bring up the formal complaints against Christina has been going on for years, so this is not a new thing.

So much for the mere facts of the matter. I will give some of my thoughts in the next blog post, as this one's getting quite long. Feel free to contact me :)


Monday, 15 October 2012

Are you smarter than politics?

Here's a quick economic quiz composed of items that economist Daniel B. Klein and psychologist Željka Buturović have used in studies published in 2010 and 2011, respectively (of which more later). I'd like you to write down for each of the following economic statements whether you think it is true or false, or whether you don't know (as in "1. T, 2 F, 3. F, 4. DK... or something like that).
  1. Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
  2. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off.
  3. Making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions.
  4. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
  5. Gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns.
  6. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
  7. By participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens.
  8. Minimum-wage laws raise unemployment.
  9. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction.
  10. Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs.
  11. Legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime.
  12. Free trade leads to unemployment.
  13. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
  14. When a country goes to war, its citizens experience an improvement in economic well-being.
  15. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
  16. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
  17. A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person.
Now, while you are free to find this as outrageous as you will, Klein and Buturović claim to know the correct answers to these questions, and they may well differ from yours. Indeed, contra the cliché that no two economists ever agree on anything, I believe there are a great many questions on which economists overwhelmingly agree among each other while also disagreeing on them with most non-economists (defending this point could be the matter of another blog post); furthermore, I believe that all the above statements are pretty uncontroversial among economists.
But regardless of what's true about the extent to which economists agree on these questions, and regardless of which of the above statements really are true or false, let me now reveal to you which of the above statements Klein and Buturović think are true or false. My task for you is to take note (in writing) of which items, according to the study authors, you got wrong (ignoring the items you answered with "don't know").
The statements which the authors deem true are: 3, 4, 6, 8, 15, 16, 17. All the other statements are deemed wrong.

Now let's consider three sets of items you may have gotten wrong (according to K&B).
Maybe the items you got wrong happen to be 1, 4, 6, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16
or maybe 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 17
or perhaps 2, 5, 9, 10, 17.

Does one of those three sets of items stand out as the most similar to the set of items you got wrong? Do let me know in the comments!
We could even make a magazine-style personality test out of this: Identify the one of the three above sets of items that  is most similar to the set of items you got wrong (for example, taking each of the three sets in turn, you could count +1 for all items in the set that you also got wrong and -1 for all items in the set that you didn't get wrong, and then see for which set you obtain the highest count); then calculate your score based on the proportion of items in that set which you also got wrong. Well, before some magazine buys this epic idea, I will concede that it could use some tweaking :P

But anyway, as you may already have gathered, here is what I would surmise your answers predict about you:
  • If your set of wrong answers is most similar to the first of the three sets above, chances are you are a liberal.
  • If it's most similar to the second set, you are likely a conservative.
  • If it's most similar to the third set, then I predict that you're a libertarian.
Neat! So your political ideology predicts ways in which you are factually wrong. (At least K&B's data and economic judgement would suggest this). Another researcher who has more on how moral ideology appears to determine descriptive beliefs (more strongly than evidence and rational arguments in most cases) is Peter Ditto. (He recently did an interview on Point of Inquiry, available here). As for Daniel Klein and Željka Buturović's studies, you may now finally read the whole story behind them here. Class dismissed. ^_^

Friday, 14 September 2012

Tax education

Wednesday's post was an introduction to the idea of signalling, especially "costly signalling". Here comes an application. The following draws on an idea put forward by economist Michael Spence, which is also the stuff of Bryan Caplan's upcoming book The Case Against Education.

Consider two possible ways in which university education may benefit those who get it:
  • Human capital: University education confers marketable skills to students, which they can then use to achieve higher income.
  • Signalling: By completing university education, you signal to potential employers that you have certain desirable qualities.
The distinction might not be entirely clear at first, but as we unpack this a bit we will see that those two accounts of why people get university education have some very different implications.
Obviously, your university diploma may signal to employers that you have the desirable quality of having acquired marketable skills through education, but that's not what is meant by the signalling account. Rather, the idea is that going through the whole process of university education is a way of signalling qualities to others that you had all along.

Intelligence is probably the most obvious one. The fact that you've completed a course proves that you were smart enough to do so. Consider, however, that there are much cheaper and quicker (and actually more reliable) ways of assessing a person's intelligence. Then again, prevailing moral sentiments around intelligence testing have lead to legal restrictions on its use by employers.

Conscientiousness is a clearer case. Pen and paper intelligence tests for recruitment purposes make sense because it is impossible to fake a great score, however it is extremely easy to lie on a personality test. On the other hand, the less conscientious you are, the more costly it is for you to make it through a university course (all else being equal). The cost here is in terms of effort and perseverance. Thus people with a university degree are likely to be more conscientious than people without one.

A third quality that Bryan Caplan argues education serves to signal is conformism. Is that a quality you want? Well, I think you can easily see why it would be desirable to most employers. Employees should be able to get along with others and play by the rules without questioning them all the time. So, for signalling purposes, the fact that university education tends to be highly ritualised and ridiculously inefficient in its imparting of knowledge and skills might actually serve a function, namely that of filtering out those too unwilling to put up with it.

An essential point here is that, in order for education to serve its signalling function, it doesn't need to have any intrinsic value. An employer might hire a highly educated person not because he values their education, but because of their qualities that their education indicates they had all along.

The different implications of the two accounts can be expressed in terms of externalities: If the function of education is mainly to build human capital, then it can be argued (not that I would) that education has positive externalities, i.e. benefits incurred by people other than those who pay for it. To the extent that its function is for people to engage in competitive costly signaling, however, education actually has negative externalities, i.e. costs incurred by people other than those buying the education. As people acquire more and more education to signal to employers that they're better than the competition, more and more education becomes necessary to confer the same signal. And if education is wasteful, this translates to more and more waste.

Externalities lead to market inefficiencies. In the case of a positive externality, the fact that you can benefit from something without being the one to pay for it disincentivises people from paying as much for it as they would if the benefits were exclusive to the buyer; hence less of it is bought; hence less of it is supplied. Conversely, the quantity of goods and services with negative externalities that is bought will tend to be higher than would be efficient.

So then the government steps in... The standard answer to externalities problems in Western mixed economies is for the government to subsidise positive externalities and to tax negative externalities. Since people collectively buy less of a positive externality than they collectively want, the government can threaten violence against people to force them to buy more of it; and since people buy too much of a negative externality, the government can increase its price from the consumers' perspective by forcing them to fork over that extra amount.

There's bound to be problems with this approach. One problem is that the government doesn't have any good way of determining what quantity of a good with externalities it would be efficient to aim for, in other words what the size of the subsidies or taxes should be.

Education may well be an extreme example of this, where government's level of adjustment is not merely off, but headed in entirely the wrong direction. If education is mainly about costly signalling, then we already have a runaway process of increasing wastefulness on hand, and governments' subsidies serve only to exacerbate it. While subsidies for education make economic sense if education's externalities are positive (and I don't think this would even follow if the human capital account was really all there is to it), if education is mainly about costly signalling, then it would make a lot more sense for government to tax it.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

An intro to signalling

(Consciousness shall wait. I will be shuffling topics and kinds of posts around for a while and we shall see what sticks. Also, I've promised Joss a post on the idea of signalling earlier today :) )

Suppose these 3 assumptions hold true:
  • People vary in the extent to which they possess some desirable quality (intelligence, wealth, perseverance...).
  • It is difficult to directly observe to what extent people have said quality.
  • The extent to which you have said quality strongly affects how much it costs you to engage in some observable activity - the more of that quality you have, the less the activity costs you. (Not necessarily in monetary terms).
Example: Wealth. Suppose you are very wealthy, and it benefits you if other people know this about you (you may assume all the stereotypes about how women dig rich men, for example). You could tell people how rich you are, but how do they know you're not lying? If wealth is a desirable quality, then people have an incentive to overstate their wealth.
However, one thing that less wealthy people can't easily fake is how much they can afford to spend - especially on patently useless stuff. So you can wear expensive suits, sport expensive watches, buy people expensive drinks, collect expensive art... While everybody has an incentive to "signal" to others that they're wealthy in any available way, the less wealthy you really are, the more disincentive you have to publicly burn through a lot of your own money - which is precisely what makes this such a credible way of signalling how wealthy you are.

The practice of spending money on useless stuff (aka luxury goods) to display economic power is called conspicuous consumption.

Signalling is a very useful concept to be familiar with, as it can be used to explain many puzzling behaviours. Do people get tattoos simply because they think they look good? Other kinds of body art have the advantage of being reversible and of not being so painful to acquire, but maybe the irreversibility and the pain are part of the point!

Evolutionary biology and economics cross-polinate a great deal (Charles Darwin was very explicit about the role that Adam Smith's work had played in his developing the theory of evolution), and a line of theoretical investigation in evolutionary biology that emerged in the 70ies is now known as signalling theory.
The prototypical example of signalling is the peacock's tail. The size and extravagance of male peacocks' tails is puzzling, as it doesn't serve any apparent function - in fact, their tails make them more vulnerable to predators and are therefore a handicap! But biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that such handicaps could work just like conspicuous consumption (another good phrase to remember: the handicap principle). The signal conveyed by such a handicapping trait would then be "I'm tough enough to survive in spite of this".
Such handicapping traits could then become more prevalent and more extreme over the generations through the mecanism of sexual selection: some portion of females desire that trait, which makes having the trait advantageous for males - which makes it advantageous for females to prefer that trait! (Their baby boys will likely share it...) As the trait becomes more prevalent among males, the competition gets fiercer, and the males that pass on their genes will tend to be those who are highest on that trait. This kind of runaway process through which non-adaptive traits become more prevalent is called a Fisherian runaway.

It's easy to go overboard with this and start overconfidently diagnosing all sorts of phenomena as instances of costly signalling. Whether the above explanation for the peacock's tail is correct is not at all clear. Another domain of costly behaviour for which signalling accounts are being controversially discussed is religion. Likewise, signalling is believed by many to play an important role in art, another classic example of an evolutionarily puzzling human phenomenon.

Evidently, what stands out about signalling is how frickin wasteful it is. Scenarios in which competition leads to ever costlier signalling are, indeed, examples of market failure - cases in which the self interested actions of individuals lead to an inefficient allocation of resources, in the absence of any coercion.
More precisely, one individual's costly signalling, while advantageous to that individual, has a negative externality, i.e. a cost that is incurred by people other than the individual engaging in and benefitting from it. Why is that? Well, by engaging in this costly signalling, he has made the competition tougher for others, meaning that they will now have to engage in even costlier signalling in order to get the same benefits.* So while everybody individually benefits from their own signalling, everybody is worse off than if nobody had engaged in it at all.

More on this last point shall soon follow.

* Note that a crucial point here is that the signalling behaviour is wasteful, and thus the competition between signallers engenders more and more waste. Somebody who accepts to work for a low wage also makes the job market a bit tougher for other job-seekers, however since no resources are wasted, this is not a case of market failure.
Economics is hard :)

Monday, 10 September 2012


Having felt quite sick for much of this first day of my experiment in obligatory blogging, I am now under some time pressure to churn out a post before bedtime. Therefore consciousness. Diz be ye topic of this post, or at least diz post be related to it.

Some say consciousness is the last big mystery of the Universe and that we haven't even begun to understand it yet, and others accuse those who say this of mysterianism. But whether or not you think consciousness is inherently mysterious, I would think that anyone who gives the issue some thought should agree that it's certainly confusing.

After all, the natural sciences have already carved out an impressively detailed account of all things material in this Universe, from the Big Bang to the present, including, in particular, the willy-nilly processes that lead to randomly occurring replicators constrainedly mutating their way into ever greater refinement in the unintentional art of survival and replication, majorly transitioning into replicating coalitions of smaller replicators, all the way up to the "gigantic lumbering robots" from the unforgettable last paragraphs of chapter 2 of The Selfish Gene - namely, us; complete with all the information processing and behavioural patterns that evolutionarily informed cognitive science at least provides a great framework for understanding and tracing back to their evolutionary origins; and yet - nothing in said narrative seems to provide any clue as to why those lumbering robots should be conscious. Why there should be anything it's like to be one of them, that is, to use Thomas Nagel's formulation, or why they shouldn't "simply" be Zombies, i.e. lumbering robots identical to us in material constitution and behaviour, but without that strange add-on of conscious experience.

And not just "why", but "how" - how does it work? What is consciousness made of? Magnets??

At this point, people seem to fall into very different philosophical camps. I would wonder whether, much like with moral questions, this falling into one of either camp tends to happen right away on an intuitive level, with all the rational arguments given for that choice of camp being elaborated after the fact (like a lawyer defending whatever position he's commissioned to defend), rather than our stance being the result of arguments we find convincing.

Some people, then, seem to feel quite strongly that it is clear that this most essential aspect of our lives - the very stuff our lives are made of so to speak - completely eludes our scientific understanding, and that any denial of this shortcoming of current materialistic science can only stem from a naive stubborn overestimation of the familiar scientific programs that we're already engaged in, or of the range of subjects it can elucidate.

Others may feel equally strongly that it just can't be anything more than that we just tend to get very confused about consciousness, much like other things that we now have perfectly good materialistic explanations for used to confuse us into invoking ghost-like forces and other products of mentalisation, and that any call for a new science, nay, for a new kind of science to deal with such matters as consciousness has got to just be an overreaction to things being counter-intuitive and confusing.

I shall leave things here for today. Until my next obligatory blogging-day on Wednesday, I leave you all with the task of guessing which of those two camps I am in. Everyone of you who guesses right shall have one of my Minecraft cows named after them. And let me know which camp you're in, too, if any.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Blogging announcement

I'm starting a blogging experiment tomorrow. I will be blogging on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from now on, regardless of whether I think I have anything particularly interesting to write about that day. This is because I think I generally set the bar far too high, and that a lot of good might possibly come from "forcing" myself to lower it. Since I generally don't even start writing anymore, it's been a very long time since I've last had the experience of seeing my thoughts evolve as I'm writing them out, taking me somewhere I didn't expect at all when I sat down to write.

The rules provide that when time barely permits me to write on a given day, I shall write an extremely short post rather than not write one at all. I might have very little time tomorrow, for example. And I have no idea what I'll be writing about yet :P

I hope it fun :)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Update: Stefan Molyneux still hasn't responded to any of the recent criticisms, yet is finding lots of time to throw evidence at strawmen and self-servingly and unfalsifiably psychoanalyse them

Here's his new vid, with a written overview of its content. It's nice to see a few of his listeners express disappointment.

The only part of the video that is "on topic" as far as the recent criticisms of his claim that parenting styles have substantial systematic long-term effects go is right at the beginning, where he tries to find fault with twin studies as a way of proving him wrong. Even if we were to unqualifiedly grant his objections, that would still leave him without any evidence for his claim - and it would still leave a lot of evidence against it intact.
And yes, he's still reiterating arguments that Michael McConkey and I had previously pointed out as constituting gross mistakes, in articles he claims to have read.

The rest is an attack against the idea that environmental factors have zero influence on personality... Hey, if you can find me a contemporary psychology researcher who holds this strange view that Stef keeps attacking, I'll buy you a Minecraft account. Or something else if you already have one or can't see the appeal in breaking and stacking virtual blocks.

If there's anything from the video you'd like me to comment on, please let me know. Otherwise, I'm moving on to other things (Yaaaaay!)

Peace out :)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Please leave a comment or send me a message if you'd like to hear more about Stefan Molyneux and the effects of parenting :)

Hello! :)

Stefan Molyneux has made a video called "The Latest Science On Nature Versus Nurture", and he has anounced that there would soon be at least one more video on the same general topic. This was probably prompted mostly by Michael McConkey's recent article "Limits of Peaceful Parenting: Two Criticisms of Stefan Molyneux's Position", and perhaps to some extent by the interest that a few of his listeners have taken in my blog posts with very similar criticisms, which was exacerbated by JamesP's banning of members who linked to it on the FDR forum and deleting their posts or removing the links from them without any acknowledgement being given (to date) by any of the forum admins that those posts have been edited. (In FDR's - but not in JamesP's - defense, James' unilatterally banning forum members without first consulting with all the other admins was contrary to the agreement that Stef says the admins had made after the since-retracted ban of member Noesis, however long ago that was).

Michael McConkey had written his article after unsuccessfully trying to convince Stef to invite somebody with genuine expertise on behavioural genetics/differential psychology on his show to have them challenge his empirical claims about the systematic long-term effects of parenting. Sadly, Stef is now making videos like the one linked to above, instead. If you're somebody who follows Stef's work, I encourage you to second Michael's request to Stef :)

So far, Stef's video doesn't really give me anything to respond to. There wouldn't be much point in me reiterating my previous criticisms that apply to this video as much as to anything he has previously put out on the topic. While he had announced that he would respond to Michael McConkey's article, his latest video does not respond to or even acknowledge any of Michael's criticisms, or any of mine for that matter (and Stef certainly did not send any traffic our way by referencing us as people who have stirred up some consternation and debate among his listeners). In fact, sadly his video really gives the impression that the points Michael and I have raised and the evidence we have referenced are completely unknown to Stef. He has repeated some of the arguments that I have previously described as constituting gross mistakes, including in one post that he left a comment on yet shows no sign of having read (in particular, I mentioned my having been banned from the FDR forum in that post, of which Stef stated a few days later that he was completely unaware - hence another breach of agreed-upon rules by one of the admins which has still not been publicly addressed on the FDR forum).

I will be watching Stef's further videos on this topic, and if I find anything worth commenting on in them, I will. However, I'm going to be travelling for close to two weeks as of this afternoon (Austria, then Germany), and while I believe I should have some time, quiet, and internets when I'm in Germany as of June 1st, I don't know whether I'll really get to blog until my return on the 8th.

My disappointment with Stef's video as a "response" to the criticisms he has recently received has left me feeling like this is probably the end of my recent "coverage of his work" here on my blog. But I want to extend an invitation to anybody who may still be circling my blog in search of commentary on Stef's empirical claims to let me know if there's anything you would like me to address. I would be very happy to comply. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this topic, as well as other ones that Stef talks about (both as part of the psychology degree I completed close to two years ago and on "my own time"), I now study level 3 mathematics and I understand the statistical methods involved, and I know Stef's positions and style extremely well, having listened to over 1800 of his podcasts in one year and two months. As you can see on my old "Introducing Mozz" thread, I was once very much a Freedomainer, and the contrast between this blog and my posts from two and a half years ago bear witness to some very radical shifts in my worldview. Evidently, the fact that I had suffered from depression and social anxiety for many years at the time of my discovering FDR played a very large role in my buying into it as much as I have.

Also, please do post this blog post on the Freedomain Radio forum (I can't do it myself, I'm banned). I really want to invite Stef's listeners over here. Yes, even the aggressive ones, as they give me stuff to comment on as well.

Thanks! :) And I hope to hear from you.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

Let's drag Penn Jillette into this :)

The title is provocative and actually misleading - to say that parenting doesn't have significant systematic long-term effects is not to say that it doesn't matter. That parents don't have the power to mess up their children for life by spanking them doesn't mean they don't have the power to hurt them in the present by spanking them, and of course it matters whether they do. Enough bickering, though, Penn does put a nice spin on the issue in this video :)

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Follow-Up: That Turkheimer quote broken down

A friend has told me that he would like to have this Eric Turkheimer quote which came up in my last post broken down, as it's pretty dense:

Nonshared environmental variability predominates not because of the systematic effects of environmental events that are not shared among siblings, but rather because of the unsystematic effects of all environmental events, compounded by the equally unsystematic processes that expose us to environmental events in the first place.
(From this article.)

I'll give it a go; I might completely misjudge where the difficulties lie and end up breaking it down in a way that's completely unhelpful :D I will rely on readers' feedback and rewrite this post as much as necessary. Should this task prove difficult to me, then I can probably learn a lot from doing this.

Nonshared environmental variability predominates

The thing of "X-type variability predominates" can somewhat grossly be rephrased as "X has the largest effect". Here we're speaking about effects on psychological/behavioural outcomes. Turkheimer is basically saying that the specific differences between adults are predominantly explained by differences they have experienced in their "nonshared environment". For example: people differ in what language they speak; and as it turns out, the language you grow up to speak and the accent you grow up to speak it in depends to a much larger extent on the peer groups you grew up around (nonshared environment) than on what language your parents spoke (shared environment).

As a quick reminder: "shared environment" refers to the environment shared by siblings (in the sense of "children raised by the same parents", not in the sense of "biological siblings"); more specifically, you would look at the ways in which people differ from each other and check whether "the fact that those people were raised by the same parents" has made them any more similar (on average) than the data would lead you to otherwise expect. "Nonshared environment" refers to everything that is neither inherited nor a factor of "shared environment".

So is Turkheimer saying that "nonshared environment" is more important than heredity? No, because in the context of this quote, he is only comparing the two kinds of environment with each other; in other words, he means that "nonshared environmental variability predominates over shared environmental variability".
(As to whether he thinks nonshared environment is more important than factors of heredity, I think I know his position well enough to answer this pretty confidently: He would say that, in the case of most psychological outcomes, all that behavioural genetics can really tell us is that nonshared environment and heredity are both substantial contributors whereas shared environment isn't, and that attempts to put a precise number on the relative effects of the two important contributors are not to be taken particularly seriously because the methods just aren't precise enough. And for the record, I agree with that.)

To be clear, what he's saying is more precise than "X has the largest effect". The statistical method used in these studies is analysis of variance, in which you determine the "amount of overlap" between variation among individuals in the dependent variable with variation among those individuals in the independent variables (=factors). Whether this means anything to you or not, just appreciate that we're talking correlations here, and that there is some risk of drawing invalid conclusions about causation from it.
Remember, though, that while correlation does not imply causation, absence of correlation DOES imply absence of causation, which is why we can be so confident that the "shared environment" (or "who raised you") is not an important predictive factor.


Nonshared environmental variability predominates not because of the systematic effects of environmental events that are not shared among siblings, but rather because of the unsystematic effects of all environmental events

Ok, the statistical methods used in those studies allow us to rather crudely distinguish between three "sources of variability", or, basically, three broadly defined factors: heredity (who you got your genes from), shared environment (who raised you), and nonshared environment (absolutely everything else, from your peer groups to illnesses to the fluctuations in the electrochemical environment of your synapses as they were forming).
And, once again, the results are very consistently as follows: heredity very important, shared environment unimportant, nonshared environment very important.
The initial assumption, or at least the initial hope of researchers like Robert Plomin was that the relevant aspects of the nonshared environment would soon be identified, allowing for systematic interventions to reduce the incidence of mental disorders and perhaps increase the incidence of desirable outcomes such as high IQ.
Turkheimer was basically saying that, with all that Plomin-inspired studies had taught us, we might as well drop the distinction between nonshared and shared environment and just say that: 1. who people got their genes from is important, and 2. their individual environment is also important, but that whatever specific environmental factor you may extract will turn out to have, at best, a very small systematic effect - and "who raised you" just happens to be one of those many environmental factors which do not allow us to make any useful systematic predictions about most psychological outcomes.

Nearly done now:

compounded by the equally unsystematic processes that expose us to environmental events in the first place.

In other words: not only can the effects of what people encounter in their environment not be predicted (with sufficient accuracy), but what people will encounter in their environment cannot be predicted either.

I hope that'll do :D

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Gloomy Prospect, and Why Considerations of Interactivity Cannot Rescue Stefan Molyneux's Claims

Let's dwell on the Freedomain Radio action for just a bit longer, shall we? :)

An extremely aggressive forum member by the name of Haplo has quoted a passage from Eric Turkheimer's article "Three Laws of Behavior Genetics and What They Mean", in which Turkheimer argues that some statistical procedures have been badly misapplied by "developmental psychologists, geneticists, and environmentalists", and that the "[s]mall relations (...) found between predictors and outcomes" should not be taken seriously. The quote doesn't provide enough context to tell the reader what applications of statistical procedures Turkheimer was writing about.

He then contrasts the Turkheimer quote with a quote by Steven Pinker, in which Pinker described certain results as being very robust, and the validity of different psychometric tests as being amply validated.

Haplo's aim is to suggest not only that Turkheimer and Pinker disagree with each other, but also that Turkheimer disagrees with the "Three Laws" that he himself formulated at the beginning of that same article, and with his own statement that, as far as the three laws are concerned, "the empirical facts are in and no longer a matter of serious controversy".

This would, of course, be warranted if, in their respective quotes, Pinker and Turkheimer were actually talking about the same thing; but, of course, they aren't. Anybody who wants to take the time to read Turkheimer's article (linked to above) and my earlier blogpost about Steven Pinker's account of the evidence can easily verify this.

It's quicker to just take it from me, of course :) Steven Pinker, in the passage Haplo quoted, was talking about the finding that the shared environment (= "who raised you") is a very small if not negligible predictor of most psychological outcomes by the time the subject is an adult, whereas hereditary factors (= "who you got your genes from") and the nonshared environment (= "everything else") are both substantial factors; these findings result from very straightforward and surprisingly conclusive analyses of variance of the data from a large body of adoption studies and twin studies, and, while Turkheimer, at least in his article in question, was more conservative than Pinker in his description of how small of a factor shared environment is, he certainly does agree with his own "Three Laws". (He has later stated that they shouldn't actually be seen as "laws", but as "the new null hypotheses", and he discouraged any further research aimed at demonstrating the heritability of any outcomes since it wouldn't tell us anything new.)

The Turkheimer quote posted by Haplo, on the other hand, was about the attempts that had been made to discern specific factors within the category "nonshared environment", and attempts that, at the time of his writing, were soon going to be embarked upon in hopes of discerning specific genomic patterns (from the "heridity" category), that would turn out to be strong predictors of psychological outcomes.
He quotes Robert Plomin and Denise Daniels' 1987 article "Why are children in the same family so different from one another?":

One gloomy prospect is that the salient environment might be unsystematic, idiosyncratic, or serendipitous events such as accidents, illnesses, or other traumas . . . . Such capricious events, however, are likely to prove a dead end for research. More interesting heuristically are possible systematic sources of differences between families.

Turkheimer's argument was that, with all the research that had since been conducted to try and discern relevant factors from the nonshared environment, it was time to conclude that the gloomy prospect was true, and that any research of this kind should be discontinued.
Furthermore, he wrote:

Nonshared environmental variability predominates not because of the systematic effects of environmental events that are not shared among siblings, but rather because of the unsystematic effects of all environmental events, compounded by the equally unsystematic processes that expose us to environmental events in the first place (Turkheimer & Gottesman, 1996).

Ok, as a brief digression, here is a passage from Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, which refers to another book by his fellow social psychologist Tom Gilovich:

His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, "Can I believe it?" Then (as Kuhn and Perkins found), we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

In contrast, when we don't want to believe something, we ask ourselves, "Must I believe it?" Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.

I bring this up because I see a lot of people saying "oh, but there's a huge amount of interaction between the factors, and their effects are completely unsystematic, therefore behavioural genetics can be safely dismissed and I can continue believing Stef's empirical claims." And I've seen other arguments that share this basic pattern with the previous one: People point something out about the methodology of adoption or twin studies that is both correct and likely to be unexpected to anyone who is completely new to the field, and then act as if what they have said disproved all the findings from behavioural genetics and confirmed their own position without ever checking what that thing they've pointed out actually implies. Examples: "oh but heritability is only defined within a given population"; "oh but the identical twins used in twin studies both shared the womb of the same highly stressed mother"; "oh but the adoptive siblings used in adoption studies were probably deliberately placed with families that were similar to them"; "oh but the range of the studies is limited".

End digression.

So, can the fact of high interactivity of factors and of low systematicity of their effects rescue Stefan Molyneux's claims? Of course not. His claim is that the effects of the factors pertaining to the shared environment are not only very substantial but highly systematic. Abuse your children and they will be a great deal more likely to develop mental disorders and irrational beliefs and attitudes; parent them peacefully and they will be virtually guaranteed to grow up to be spectacularly functional and rational anarcho-capitalist "philosophers". This is uncomplicatedly contradicted by everything in Turkheimer's article.

Ok, some will say, but doesn't the "interaction" thing still leave some room for believing that, under some circumstances, bad parenting can have the kinds of long-term negative effects that Stef says it has?
Well, theoretically, yes, BUT: given that the "shared environment" does not show up as a significant factor in the variation of adult psychological characteristics, in order for it to be the case that "under circumstance X, bad parenting causes long-term harm", this would have to be evened out by the fact that, "under other circumstances, the same bad parenting causes long-term benefits". Otherwise you're still contradicting the data, since even if bad parenting only negatively affected some substantial segment of the population while leaving everybody else unaffected, that substantial sample would still skew the average, leaving us with a significant amount of variation attributable to the shared environment.

Stefan Molyneux's empirical claims about the long-term effects of parenting are unambiguously wrong, and he should retract them. And he, as well as other members of the Freedomain Radio community, would be very well advised to address their propensity toward self-overestimation. If you are new to a topic, I strongly recommend using phrases like "I don't see how this follows", rather than "This obviously doesn't follow, all those scientists are morons!"

Peace out :)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

FDR update: 2 users unbanned, links still deleted from Cat's posts without acknowledgement, Bricks' thread still deleted

A quick(ish) update on the Freedomain Radio situation before I go to sleep:

JamesP has stated that he has unbanned the users CatMoody (my girlfriend) and Bricks, who had both been banned right after linking to my blog. His exact words were: "I'm really sorry guys. I got caught up emotionally.  I've reinstated Bricks & Cat Moody's accounts." Here's the thread with his post.

At this point in time, the links to my blog in CatMoody's posts are still missing from them, without a word of acknowledgement that her posts have been edited. The posts in question are in this thread, and the last post on page 2 of that thread by user Annabelle has some evidence to prove that links were tacitly removed from four posts in the thread. (Thanks, Annabelle!)

Also, from what I've seen, Bricks' thread in which he linked to my blog is still deleted from the forum. The deletion of his thread has been documented on the FDRLiberated forum. (I provided that screenshot, although I'm not a member of the FDRLiberated forum. I made the screenshot because I knew that Bricks' thread was very likely to be deleted.)

Perhaps they will still undo those deletions, and perhaps they will comment further on the issue.

While I would happily encourage people to link to the relevant posts on my blog from the Freedomain Radio forum (I'm fine with being self-servingly psychoanalysed by those people), I can't quite retract my warning that linking here puts you at risk of getting banned. User ribuck, however, has not yet been penalised for testing my statement that linking to my blog from the Freedomain Radio forum will now apparently get you banned, nor has the link been removed from his/her post at the end of page 1 of this thread. Hopefully I will be able to confidently retract my warning soon.

On a somewhat different note, Michael McConkey has been given access to the Freedomain Radio forum after a 48h wait, and has started a thread to discuss his (excellent) article on the "Limits of Peaceful Parenting", as well as the treatment it had so far been given by members of the forum, including Stefan Molyneux.

And to all a good night! :)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Apparently, anybody who links to my blog on the Freedomain Radio forum will now be banned from it and have their links or posts deleted.

Just so you know.

It takes more work than that, Stefan Molyneux

This blog has been very inactive. But it has attracted quite a few people I didn't know who have had some kind of encounter with Freedomain Radio. It may be worth posting more on the topic here.

Michael McConkey has recently posted this article criticising Stef's claim that peaceful parenting will bring about an anarcho-capitalist society, in which he reviews the evidence from behavioural genetics that finds parental environment to be a very small predictive factor for most psychological outcomes. An FDR forum member by the name of a14 has linked to it in this thread on the FDR board.

Stefan Molyneux has responded by dropping this gem:

"The twins studies are very easy to debunk - significant aspects of the personality are developed in the womb, and a woman who is about to give up her twins for adoption would have enormous levels of stress hormones and other biochemicals racing through her system, which is why twins raised separately tend to have similar characteristics, or least similar characteristics that are related to the pre-birth environment."

Two main points here:

1.  This argument depends on post-natal parental environment being a negligible factor. Yes, considerations about effects of in-utero environment may knock down the amount of variation attributable to genes by a few points. However, they can do nothing to rescue Stef's claims about the long term effects of parenting.
Again: It's not just genes vs parental environment. If you want to argue that parental environment has a larger effect than has previously been found in behavioural genetics, then your argument had better mention the "shared environment" factor at some point - that's the one you're interested in. Merely attacking the importance of the "heredity" factor doesn't get you very far. (Other people in that thread have made that same mistake.)

2. I could understand the "stress hormones" thing as an explanation for why all adoptive children (twins or otherwise) are similarly anxiety-prone, but that has nothing to do with what the data find. It's not that all identical twins raised by different foster parents are alike, or that all adoptive children are alike. It's that within each pair of identical twins, the two twins are highly similar to each other in terms of their personalities and aptitudes (and of pretty much everything else), and that it turns out to not make any difference whether they were raised apart from each other or not.
So, if those two identical twins who were raised apart are equally happy, successful, healthy, athletic, smart, well liked, and libertarian, is that because of all the stress hormones that were racing through their biological mother's system when she was expecting them?

My central criticism of Stefan Molyneux is simply that he greatly over-estimates his judgement.
"very easy to debunk" you say?

Dear Stef. With all the lip service you pay to the scientific method, I really wish you realised or accepted that learning how to actually use scientific methods just takes a bit more work than you have, so far, invested. You have no scientific training, and you admit to being bad at maths, which would not be a problem if you didn't keep expressing extremely confident judgements on questions that actually require careful statistical analysis of data to find an accurate answer to. Salman Khan's video series on statistics is probably a neat place to start from if you like that kind of format.

Also well worth mentioning, I think: Other people in that thread have made arguments that assume that all the scientists involved in behavioural genetics and differential psychology are either unbelievably stupid or purposely deceitful. You have to ask yourself, which is more likely: that these objections you have come up with after a couple of hours of googling and thinking, let's say, have never occurred to anyone who has worked in the field for most of their career - or that your objections miss something important? Also, is it more likely that there's an unassailable conspiracy of purposely deceitful scientists that virtually everybody in the field belongs to, or that your objections miss something important?

In other news, I have noticed yesterday that I have been banned from the Freedomain Radio forum, presumably because I had linked to my criticisms of FDR on my profile page many months ago. (I had not posted on FDR in at least 1 year, nor have I been in the chat room for ages.)

Plz do leave comments :)