Some questions that I find interesting. (Pointers to interesting readings on these topics are always welcome, as are pointers to responses.)
What is school for, and how can we best reach that goal? What’s the successor to the current educational system? Like many people I know, I felt that the only skill my undergrad taught me was how to reproduce unusable information at a pre-determined time — I could make tests. That’s about it. Research confirms my experience: much of what schools bother to teach is of little use in real jobs, even when useful material is taught students don’t retain it long enough to apply it later in life, and even if we could remember what we learn in school, decades of research have shown that we’re bad at transferring our knowledge to the real world. Education these days, it seems to me, isn’t just about learning; it’s largely about getting graded, ranked, and credentialed, stamped for the approval of employers. It’s about signaling and does a bad job at training useful skills and at fostering curiosity and personal development. As Einstein said “It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” So: how can we do better?
What is the successor to the traditional sense-making institutions, and how can they better fulfill their role? “The newspaper of record” may have been an artifact of the print era, when newspapers wanted everyone in some region as a subscriber, and thus had to at least seem neutral. Now that papers get their revenue from online subscriptions, being neutral is not only unnecessary, but would harm them. Outrage is the biggest driver of clicks, and the things that outrage the left have no overlap with those that outrage the right. In fact, for a great many readers, consuming the news was never about gaining information. People don’t pick up a daily newspaper to learn new things, but to have their habits, lifestyles, values, and identities validated and reinforced. So should we just give each group its echo chamber that reinforces its chosen visions, selects what to accept as true, and amplifies its biases? Perhas that gives us the mental comfort we want, but it seems undesirable. Yet it also seems that given both the vastness and the wildness of the online information landscape, as historian Sophia Rosenfeld writes, “the only way most of us can navigate its byways is not by seeking out a range of views but by creating ever-tighter information bubbles“. So it seems we need to redesign our mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge to deal with this. Preferably before we lose the ability to establish a common set of facts from which to conduct the big debates of living together. After all, truth as intersubjective agreement on conditions for the production of knowledge is possible only when publics have shared epistemologies. For truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices. The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy, and to place a measure of shared trust in institutions meant to vouchsafe evidence and accuracy. How can we restore a public consensus on the method of validating propositions?
Do facts change minds? How can we preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement? We know from research that people dig in when evidence challenges a belief that is close to their social identity. But also that evidence can change people’s minds, even on highly politicized issues, such as whether there has been a rise in global temperature (among people on the right) or whether George W. Bush’s military surge in Iraq in 2007 reduced terrorist attacks (among people on the left). When the facts were presented in clear graphs, even the partisans in these studies changed their minds. This raises the question: What’s the best way to stop the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact to values that define their cultural identities from activating? Unfortunately, it seems to me that, today, many politicians try to make everything about social identity, sacred values, and us vs them. Hence the polarization and the “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”, as the famous Harpers “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” pointed out. This letter, signed by many of the most popular writers and academics online, worries that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” How do we deal with this?
How polarized are we? This is related to the above worry: is it true that the idea that politics is not about reasoned dispute towards constructive policy but is in fact fundamentally about friends and enemies is increasing in popularity and influence? If so, what should we do about this, and how can we do that? Consider some data points. Pew data, collected over the past 25 years, shows that the gap between the viewpoints of Democrats and Republicans has grown on issues across the board. There’s also the well-known narrative of The Big Sort, about how Americans have shifted geographically in relation to political leaning and have been sorting themselves into like-minded communities by race, class, and ideology, creating more in-group homogeneity and cultural “bubbles”. Yet there’s also a fascinating report called The Hidden Tribes of America which found that two-thirds of Americans fall into what they call the “Exhausted Majority.” They believe we can find common ground and are willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs. Similarly, where I’m from, in The Netherlands, members of the Senate agree on roughly three-quarters of all bills. Still, back in the U.S., the consistency of partisan voting is also at an all-time high. And the extent of polarization between congressional Republicans and their Democratic counterparts is consistently increasing. What’s going on here?
What’s the status of the Enlightenment-ideal of thinking for yourself in an ever-more-complex world? Many people have observed that in our post-truth age with its vast and diluted informational landscape, the Enlightenment ideal of intellectual independence seems outdated. For example, philosopher John Hardwig has called Immanuel Kant’s advice to think for oneself “a romantic ideal which is thoroughly unrealistic and which, in practice, results in less rational belief and judgment.” And Inadequate Equilibria notes that “for many people … an attempt to identify [who they think is right when they’re not simply following the consensus] ends with them trusting faith healers over traditional medicine.” So what should the updated version of the Enlightenment ideal be? Philosopher Steve Fuller interestingly holds that “our trust in experts in modern democracies has led to a moral dumbing down of the population, as people are encouraged to let authorized decide for them what to believe, even when the consequences of those decisions directly affect people’s lives and sense of self.” Is this trend actually happening? Regardless, a cultural of intellectual deference doesn’t seem quite right either. What’s the middle road? Steven Pinker makes an interesting point when he argues “we should retire the post-truth cliché [chiefly because] it’s corrosive, perhaps self-fulfilling. The implication is we may as well give up on reason and truth and just fight the bad guys’ lies and intimidation with lies and intimidation of our own. We can aim higher.” This is so, Pinker claims, because “there are prods and nudges and norms and institutions that allow us to be more rational collectively than any of us is individually.” How can we do this, exactly? And would people want this?
How can we better understand the dynamics of progress in science, technology, and society? Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen make an eloquent case for a new field of progress science, since “humanity needs to get better at knowing how to get better.” We haven’t yet cured all diseases, we could be far better than we are educating the young, a lot of people still live in poverty, etc. – the list of improvements is still very long. Yet the determinants of progress are understudied and there are no scientific object-level causal models of why, for instance, some environments are better at generating advancements. Why did Silicon Valey happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong? Can we deliberately engineer the conditions most hospitable to this kind of advancement or effectively tweak the systems that surround us today?
What’s the successor to the book? And how could books be improved? As everyone who has tried to explan some explanatory non-fiction book he just read to a friend knows, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge. Humans simply don’t absorb information by reading sentences. Books, like lectures, are based on flawed cognitive models of what helps us understand. How might books improve as a medium to lighten the metacognitive burden, and how can we weave unfamiliar new forms of knowledge transmission? Which metacognitive skills should we teach, and how can we do so?
What does GDP value? How can we do better? It seems that what GDP chiefly captures is how much consumer surplus were companies able to capture. Is there not a better measure of social welfare available? The academic literature on happiness seems to be mostly based on surveys which ask people how happy they are. This seems like a very bad way to study happiness. And if we could ‘solve for happy‘, should we? Would we even want to?
Will there be a “useless class”? How should we deal with this? Is UBI a desirable and viable solution? Automation will soon eliminate millions upon millions of jobs, and while new jobs will certainly be created, it is unclear whether people will be able to learn the necessary new skills fast enough. Yuval Noah Harari, for one, fears that whereas in the past human had to struggle against exploitation, in the twenty-first century the really big struggle will be against irrelevance. Those who fail in the struggle against irrelevance would constitute a new “useless class” – people who are useless not from the viewpoint of their friends and family, but useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system. Are these fears justified? If so, how should we organize society in light of them? Is Universal Basic Income a viable and desirable solution to the (predicted) fight against irrelevance?
Are people doing what they want they do? Why not? How can we encourage and enable more people do spend their days doing things they are passionate about? Many people today get burn-outs, and are busy, and so forth. Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider speculates: “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter … Yes, I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cell phones stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?” Similarly, writer Mark Manson contends that “many [folks] have been caged into the same day-to-day grind, wasting away, spending their life doing things they don’t truly enjoy and that don’t truly express their identity and personality.” Is this true? The literature on ‘bullshit jobs’ is interesting, but noisy. Still, one comes across theories about labor and capital competing for rents and being employed in unproductive roles that in themselves reduce happiness a little too often. To what extent is all this true? And what can we do about this?
How much do parents matter? The Nurture Assumption makes the case that what our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us. Psychologists are constantly unable to find any effect of parents on their childrens’ personalities or actions. This is sufficiently distressing that most people refuse to believe it, but it keeps being confirmed again and again. About 50% of the variation in personality is genetic (actually, pretty much every study on personality seems to converge around this number) and the other half is not-genetic. But the not-genetic half has nothing to do with parenting – identical twins raised by the same parents have just as many not-gentic differences as identical twins raised apart, and the same is true of fraternal twins. Is all this true?