Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dealism redux

Robin Hanson wrote an interesting post about physics vs economics. First of all, one has to know that he favors dealism, kind of preference utilitarianism. Basically economists should listen to all sides and provide with the option that gives the people what they want. If we give economics the social status of physicists, this has basically the implication, that economics should be our new overlords.

I personally don't have much respect for DIY physics, chemistry, climate science etc. but I think economists should have bigger confidence interval. I acknowledge I may be highly biased and wrong, but let me elaborate on my reasoning.

Firstly, a lot of knowledge is probably local. Take for example Amish society. Should average economist made their new leader and decide how to run their society? I certainly doubt that. Maybe they make some horrible coordination problems that either harm themselves or outsiders, and we have to intervene but surely the reasons would have to be strong. Now, Amish society, like many institutions, can be horribly broken, and we can surely say that objectively, but I think especially when dealing with efficiency analysis, it is easy to abstract away local knowledge and heuristics.

Another example here. Basically it was hockey's political issue of visors. They certainly know less economics than average economist, and economics could say many things about such an issue but could it provide them with the most optimal answer? Would economists, as outsiders, have better judgement than those currently doing that decision? I think it shows a good example of intervened values and beliefs. Surely economists could improve on margin somewhere where they wouldn't have to make the ultimate value decisions but what about when someone has to?

Second problem is more of epistemological. I think a lot of knowledge is tacit. Take for example music. Since formalism or music notation was developed it became much more easier to understand logic of music, but even today, a lot of knowledge how to produce music is tacit. Sure I do believe this knowledge is at least in some form in our brains stored in neural networks which can be expressed in language of mathematics but even it were it might be just a huge mess of details.

Thirdly, I think our disagreements, while fundamentally logical are not that obvious and easy to solve even with the best intentions. Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson disagreed on cryonics here. Why? Tyler said the disagreement was more on a meta-level. I've had many this kind of disagreements myself in good faith, and just by talking, it seemed hard if not impossible to solve it even we both had great knowledge about the subject. Having some kind of verification mechanism seemed the best idea around this. In sports for example, if a player has an idea, he can test it and get instant feedback. No need for a lengthy biased debate. This is I think because a lot of knowledge is tacit, and words only capture part of information.

I must say, I've seen smart people apply to this pyramid model of knowledge. It makes a lot of sense in hard sciences like mathematics. Younger pupils know basic arithmetic, academic students might know differential equations, professors know number theory and so on. Then when it comes things like social sciences, aesthetics or generally solving coordination problems, a great deal of knowledge is actually local and tacit, someone who is very accustomed to reductionist thinking has a hard time appreciating this. It is not that I don't believe in reductionism,  because I do, but all abstractions leak.

I'll want to emphasize that I do not believe in supernatural explanations. Fundamentally I'm a reductionist but in practical sense I think there're many heuristics and models that are not recorded anywhere on scientific papers. Maybe they will be in the future. Another problem is complexity problem. It is one thing to say why a frog has green skin and another thing to say what it should have because of the massive computational requirements to verify answer. There're certainly is global knowledge. We can say some leaders are corrupt, some people have very sub-optimal incentives, but I just find fixing things much harder.

To illustrate, if an expert came to tell us how to live a good life or run a family. Should we take his advice? I don't have an easy answer even if he faced very good incentives and claimed to be totally neutral; at least we should listen to him.

One way to approach this question of economics is just to ask what kind of diversity would we have in terms of countries if we took strong economic advice everywhere where possible, or would we end up with more of the same? It is not that I want diversity per se, but can we say that what we would end up would desirable as a whole? It could be we just run into Arrow's theorem somewhere and have to make judgement calls on what kind society we want.

We're likely loaded with bias as our experts tell we are, and our low-hanging fruit is acknowledge this and allocate resources to solve this. Prediction markets are one of the smartest ideas because they show a lot of promise to remove loads of bias and generally aggregate beliefs. Making us accountable for our beliefs is probably the best way to improve our society that that runs over few values. Ignoring this for some silly signalling benefits seems very sad.

Now I want to emphasize that this is just some skepticism of economics being a final word in many matters. Overall I think economics can improve on margin in many things, and economists deserve higher status. People should listen to more to them than themselves or anyone else in social science (on margin). We waste awful lots of resources for apparently useless reasons, and economists could improve a lot on that. It could make a massive difference over longer time, because like Einstein said, there's nothing as powerful as compound interest.

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