Epistemic Self-Improvement

Epistemic Self-Improvement

Is epistemic self-improvement possible? That is, can we individually improve the ways we think to become more conducive to knowledge? If we can’t, does that mean we are stuck with epistemic vices, unable to improve our thinking to become epistemically virtuous?
These are important questions because they determine whether we can progress as a collective and overcome ways of thinking that hinder knowledge. Gullibility, arrogance, and closed-mindedness are a few epistemic vices that I have written about recently that demonstrate how hard epistemic self-improvement can be. If you are gullible it is hard to make a change on your own to be less easily fooled. If you are arrogant it is hard to be introspective in a way that allows you to see how your arrogance has limited your knowledge. And if you are closed-minded then it is unlikely you will see a need to expand your knowledge at all. So can we really improve ourselves to think better?
Quassim Cassam seems to believe that we can. He identifies ways in which people have improved their thinking over time and how humans within institutions have become more epistemically virtuous throughout our history. After running through some examples and support for epistemic self-improvement in Vices of the Mind, Cassam writes, “none of this proves that self-improvement in respect of thinking vices is possible, but if our thinking can’t be improved that would make it one of the few things that humans do that they can’t do better with practice and training.”
I am currently reading Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World and he argues that human psychology both shapes and is shaped by institutions. I think he would agree with Cassam, arguing that individual self-improvement is possible, and that it can contribute to a positive feedback loop where people improve their thinking, improving the institutions they are a part of, which feeds back into improved thinking. I agree with Cassam and would find it surprising if we couldn’t improve our thinking and become more epistemically virtuous if we set about trying to do so with practice. Viewing this idea through a Henrich lens also suggests that as we try to become more epistemically virtuous and focus on epistemic virtuosity, we would shape institutions to better support us, giving us an extra hand from the outside to help us improve our thinking. Individually we can become better thinkers and that allows us to create better institutions that further support better thinking, creating a virtuous cycle of epistemic self-improvement. There are certainly many jumping off points and gears that we can throw sand into during this process, but overall, it should leave us feeling more epistemically optimistic about humans and our societies.
Transformational Insights - Joe Abittan - Vices of the Mind - Quassim Cassam

Transformational Insights

In my last post I wrote about self-deceptive rationalization. The idea was that even when trying to critically reflect back on our lives and learn lessons from our experiences, we can error and end up entrenching problematic and inaccurate beliefs about ourselves and the world. I suggested that one potential way to be bumped out of the problem of inaccurate self-reflection was to gain transformational insights from an external event. Wishful thinking might come to an end when you don’t get the promotion you were sure was coming your way. Gullibility can be ended after you have been swindled by a conman. The arrogant can learn their lesson after a painful divorce. However, Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind suggests that even transformational insights triggered by external events might not be enough to help us change our internal reflection.
In the book Cassam writes, “this leaves it open, however, whether self-knowledge by transformational insight is as vulnerable to the impact of epistemic vices as self-knowledge by active critical reflection. … Transformational insights are always a matter of interpretation.” Even external factors that have the potential to force us to recognize our epistemic vices may fail to do so. The wishful thinkers may continue on being wishful thinkers, believing they simply hit one blip in the road. The gullible may learn their lesson once, but need to learn it again and again in different contexts. And the arrogant may not be able to recognize how their arrogance played into a divorce, instead choosing to view themselves as unfortunate victims. The matter of interpretation of transformational insights, shocks from the outside that make us consider our epistemic vices, means that they cannot be a reliable way to ensure we eliminate epistemic vices.
Again, this seems to leave us in a place where we can not overcome our epistemic vices without developing epistemic virtues. But this puts us back in a circular problem. If our epistemic vices prevent us from developing and cultivating epistemic virtues, and if we need epistemic virtues to overcome our epistemic vices, then how do we ever improve our thinking?
The answer for most of us is probably pretty boring and disappointing. Incrementally, as we gain new perspectives and more experience, we can hopefully come to distinguish between epistemic virtues and epistemic vices. Epistemic vices will systematically obstruct knowledge, leading to poorer decision-making and worse outcomes. As we seek more positive outcomes and better understanding of the world, we will slowly start to recognize epistemic vices and to see them in ourselves. Incrementally, we will become more virtuous.
This is not an exciting answer for anyone looking to make a dramatic change in their life, to achieve a New Year’s Resolution, or to introduce new policy to save the world. It is however, practical and should take some pressure off of us. We can work each day to be a little more self-aware, a little more epistemically virtuous, and to better how to cultivate knowledge. We can grow overtime, without putting the pressure on ourselves to be epistemically perfect all at once. After all, trying to do so might trigger self-deceptive rationalization and our transformational insights are subject to interpretation, which could be wrong.
Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

How we think, what we spend our time thinking about, and the way we view and understand the world is important. If we fail to develop accurate beliefs in the world then we will make decisions based on causal structures that do not exist. Our actions, thoughts, and behaviors will inhibit knowledge for ourselves and others, and our species will be worse off because of it.
This idea is at the heart of Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Throughout our human history we have held many beliefs that cannot plausibly be true, or which we came to learn were incorrect over time. Cassam would argue (alongside others such as Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Joseph Henrich) that adopting more accurate and correct beliefs and promoting knowledge would help us systematically make better decisions to improve the life of our fellow humans. Learning where we were wrong and using science, technology, and information to improve our decision-making has helped our world become less violent, given us more opportunity, provided better nutrition, and allowed us to be more cooperative on a global level.
This is why Cassam addresses paranormal beliefs, superstitions, and conspiratorial thinking in his book. While examining conspiracy theories in depth, he writes, “studies have also found that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with superstitious and paranormal beliefs, and it has been suggested that these beliefs are associated because they are underpinned by similar thinking styles [italicized text is cited with Swami et al. 2011].  Cassam argues that conspiracy theories are different from the other two modes of thinking because they can sometimes be accurate in their descriptions of the world. Sometimes a politician truly is running a corruption scheme, sometimes a group of companies are conspiring to keep prices high, and sometimes a criminal organization is hiding nefarious activities in plain sight. Conspiratorial thinking in some instances can reveal real causal connections in the world.
However, conspiratorial thinking is often bizarre and  implausible. When our conspiratorial thinking pushes us off the deep edge, then it does share important characteristics with superstitious and paranormal thinking. All three can be described by positing causal connections that cannot possibly exist between phenomena happening or imagined in the real world. They create explanations that are inaccurate and prevent us from identifying real information about the world. Superstitions posit causal connections between random and unconnected events and paranormal thinking posits causal connections between non-existent entities and real world events. Conspiratorial thinking seems to fall in line with both ways of thinking when it is not describing reality.
Over the last few years we have seen how conspiratorial thinking can be vicious, how it can inhibit knowledge, and how it can have real life and death consequences when it goes wrong. Superstitious thinking doesn’t generally seem to have as severe of consequences, but it still prevents us from making the best possible decisions and still drives us to adopt incorrect worldviews, sometimes entrenching unfair biases and prejudices. Paranormal thinking has been a foundation of many world religions and fables used to teach lessons and encourage particular forms of behavior. However, if it does not describe the world in a real way, then the value of paranormal thinking is minimized, and we should seriously consider the harms that can come from paranormal thinking, such as anxiety, suicide, or hours of lost sleep. These ideas are important to consider because we need to make the best possible decisions based on the most accurate information possible if we want to continue to advance human societies, to live sustainably, and to continue to foster cooperation and community between all humans on a global scale. Thinking accurately takes practice, so pushing against unwarranted conspiracy theories, superstitions, and paranormal beliefs helps us build our epistemic muscles to improve thinking overall.
Risk literacy and Reduced Healthcare Costs - Joe Abittan

Risk Literacy & Reduced Healthcare Costs

Gerd Gigerenzer argues that risk literacy and reduced healthcare costs go together in his book Risk Savvy. By increasing risk literacy we will help both doctors and patients better understand how behaviors contribute to overall health, how screenings may or may not reveal dangerous medical conditions, and whether medications will or will not make a difference for an individual’s long-term well being. Having both doctors and patients better understand and better discuss the risks and benefits of procedures, drugs, and lifestyle changes can help us use our healthcare resources more wisely, ultimately bringing costs down.
Gigerenzer argues that much of the modern healthcare system, not just the US system but the global healthcare system, has been designed to sell more drugs and more technology. Increasing the number of people using medications, getting more doctors to order more tests with new high-tech diagnostic machines, and driving more procedures became more of a goal than actually helping to improve people’s health. Globally, health and the quality of healthcare has improved, but healthcare is often criticized as a low productivity sector, with relatively low gains in health or efficiency for the investments we make.
I don’t know that I am cynical enough to accept all of Gigerenzer’s argument at face value, but the story of opioids, the fact that we invest much larger sums of money in cancer research versus parasitic disease research, and the ubiquitous use of MRIs in our healthcare landscape do favor Gigerenzer’s argument. There hasn’t been as much focus on improving doctor and patient statistical reasoning, and we haven’t put forward the same effort and funding to remove lead from public parks compared to the funding put forward for cancer treatments. We see medicine as treating diseases after they have popped up with fancy new technologies and drugs. We don’t see medicine as improving risk and health literacy or as helping improve the environment before people get sick.
This poor vision of healthcare that we have lived with for so long, Gigerenzer goes on to argue, has blinded us to the real possibilities within healthcare. Gigerenzer writes, “calls for better health care have been usually countered by claims that this implies one of two alternatives, which nobody wants: raising taxes or rationing care. I argue that there is a third option: by promoting health literacy of doctors and patients, we can get better care for less money.”
Improving risk and health literacy means that doctors can better understand and better communicate which medications, which tests, and which procedures  are most likely to help patients. It will also help patients better understand why certain recommendations have been made and will help them push back against the feeling that they always need the newest drugs, the most cutting edge surgery, and the most expensive diagnostic screenings. Regardless of whether we raise taxes or try to ration care, we have to help people truly understand their options in new ways that incorporate tools to improve risk literacy and reduce healthcare costs. By better understanding the system, our own care, and our systemic health, we can better utilize our healthcare resources, and hopefully bring down costs by moving our spending into higher productivity healthcare spaces.
The Dominance of Loss Aversion - Joe Abittan

The Dominance of Loss Aversion

Loss aversion is a dominant force in many of our individual lives and in many of our societies. At this moment, I think it is one of the greatest barriers to change and growth that our entire world needs to overcome in order to move forward to address climate change, to create more equitable and cohesive societies, and to drive new innovations. Loss aversion has made us complacent, and we are feeling the cost of stagnation in our politics and in our general discontent, but at the same time we are paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. As Tyler Cowen wrote in The Complacent Class, “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things. In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger.”

 

My argument in this post is that much of the complacency and stagnation that Cowen has written about stems from loss aversion. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals.” Additional research in the book shows that the pain and fear of loss is generally at least two times greater for most people than the pleasure and excitement of gain. Before we make a bet, the payoff has to be at least twice what we could stand to lose. If we are offered $10 or a gamble for more money, we prefer the sure $10 over the gamble, until the payoff of the gamble far outweighs the possible loss of the guaranteed $10.

 

I believe this is at the heart of the trite saying that people become more “conservative” as they get older. The reality is that as people get older they acquire more wealth, are more likely to own a home, and secure their social standing. People are not “conservative” in some high-minded ideological sense of “conservativism,” they are self-interested and risk averse. They don’t want to risk losing their wealth, losing value on their home, or losing social status. To me, this more plausibly explains conservatism and complacency than do political ideology explanations or cultural decadence.

 

To me, Kahneman’s quote is supported by Cowen’s thoughts. Institutions are built and run by people. People within institutions, especially as the institutions have become well established, become risk averse. They don’t want to lose their job, their position as the office veteran who knows how to do everything, and their knowledge and authority in their field. As the potential for loss increases, people become increasingly likely to push back against change and risk, ensuring that we cannot lose what we have, but also forgoing changes that could greatly benefit all of us in the long run. Loss Aversion has come to dominate how we organize our societies, and how we relate to one another, at individual, social, and political levels in the United States.
Capitalism and Externalities

Capitalism and Externalities

Capitalism has come under fire in the recent years in ways that I would not have predicted as I completed my college degree and entered the workforce. For so many years the idea of capitalism has been central to the American story and to American identity. It may not be perfect, but it has always been held above other economic systems as the best option available. However, recently, people have taken a new look at capitalism to ask if it can be maintained without the plundering of others. Can there be a reasonable sense of equity or equality within a system of capitalism? And in the United States, do we really have a meritorious system of capitalism, or is the American system of capitalism overrun with grift and graft?

 

Allowing people to flourish based on their own talents, allowing people to pursue their own interests, and to accumulate wealth can be a good thing, but it can also be done to excess. Like alcohol, chocolate cake, or Netflix, our pursuit of wealth can essentially be an addiction, and the costs can be born on all of society, not just on ourselves. Our actions and the systems and structures within which we operate have unintended consequences. These consequence, or externalities, can be positive or negative. Within capitalism, positive externalities include new technologies that improve our lives, more efficient markets which minimize waste, and hopefully more goods and wealth for everyone. But negative externalities related to capitalism include pollution, corruption, and extractive processes that harm individuals, communities, and environments.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius, “I myself pray rather that you may despise all those things which your parents wished for you in abundance. Their prayers plunder many another person, simply that you may be enriched.”

 

Seneca is acknowledging that when one person gains resources, often times it is at the expense of another person. The goal of capitalism is for our economic system to be positive sum, meaning that everyone is better off in an exchange – a state known as a Pareto Efficiency. However, this is not always the case. Seneca sees exchanges, or maybe more precisely the accumulation of resources and wealth, as zero sum, meaning that there is a fixed amount of stuff, and that anything that one person accumulates is taken away from another person. This, in my opinion, is where so much of our discontent in the United States and across the globe with capitalism lies.

 

Seneca may not always be correct. There may be Pareto Efficiencies out there and there may be situations in which capitalism builds a positive sum economic system. But it does seem like moderation in our approach to capitalism and wealth accumulation is warranted. At a certain point, for us to have more necessarily mean that we are extracting wealth and resources from other places. Mining, logging, and cattle grazing can have damaging effects on local environments and communities, even if they do help develop industry or increase GDP in the places we take resources from. Beyond a certain level, continuing this trend is likely to make our lives marginally better, while potentially making the lives of others much worse. We should constantly ask ourselves if we are nearing that point, and try to limit our need for more stuff and more wealth when we are at sufficient level where the marginal gain for us is meaningless and effectively just plunders others for our own enrichment. It seems reasonable if we should ask whether limitless growth is really possible, or if capitalism ends in a state of plunder, in which nothing is left for a sustainable existence for everyone.
Scale versus replication

Replication Versus Scale

I used to work for a healthcare tech company based out of San Francisco, and the word scale was almost a mantra. Whenever we did anything, from a small policy to the introduction of a new product or service, the question was always, will this scale? It is an important and crucial question for a growing organization. Before anything was introduced, we always considered the future, whether the new process would work if we had more customers, more covered lives, more emails, and more work. If the amount of effort, oversight, and individual contribution was too high, then we new we were not looking at something that would scale. We needed processes where the amount of additional work would be negligible as we grew, that was the key to scale.

 

For many organizations, however, scale isn’t necessarily the most important goal. Instead, the focus is on replication, to grow and expand in new spaces, new markets, and new products. Replication is something different than scale. While scale sought to reproduce the same outcome, the same process, and the same expectations in all settings, replication takes a slightly different approach to the same end goal. We still want the same successful outcome, but the goal doesn’t include having mirrored consistency in approach with diminishing marginal effort for each new customer. Replication is adaptable to changing local conditions.

 

Dave Chase describes it like this in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, “Replication varies from application to application; scalability seeks to apply the same things everywhere. This distinction is a subtle but absolutely critical success factor.”

 

In retail, social media, and chain restaurants, scale is crucial. You want every coffee you order at Starbucks to be the same, regardless of whether you are at the first Starbucks in Pike Place, or a brand new Starbucks in a Las Vegas suburb. You want your eggplant Parmesan at Olive Garden to be the same today and next month, and social media companies want everyone to have the same account set-up and access settings so that it is easier to manage all the companies, individuals, and organizations that create accounts. Scale makes things consistent, reduces administrative burden, and keeps costs down.

 

Replication is more adaptable from region to region, setting to setting, and industry to industry. The goal might be very similar, say to reduce healthcare costs, but the organizations and spaces might vary dramatically, say from nursing homes to companies offering remote medical second opinions. What Chase argues is that many healthcare organizations shouldn’t get too caught up on scale, and should focus more on replication. Hospitals can learn from nursing homes and replicate the approaches they take to improve patient adherence to medication regimens, knowing that there is some overlap and some divergence in their patient populations. Health plans can replicate patient education models that hospitals find successful, even though the patient education from the health plan will take place in a different form and space.

 

Scale dictates what should be done to create exact copies of a process with diminishing marginal costs, but replication is necessary when dealing with multiple confounding variables in dynamic and ever changing spaces. Scale might be needed for economic success at national and multinational levels, but replication provides the flexibility and creativity needed for success when a cookie-cutter model can’t be followed.
Developing Self Esteem

Developing Self-Esteem

One of the reasons I write this blog is because I believe that we need deeper conversations about minor aspects of our lives. I think we need to be more considerate about what is truly important, and we need to think more deeply about how we can remove some of the less important things, so that we spend more time engaging with what is meaningful. I want to pull out the crucial ideas within the aspects of our lives that go overlooked and that are under-discussed so that hopefully someone can have a more thoughtful conversation about these important topics.

 

One topic, which came to mind from Sam Quinones’s book Dreamland, is the development of self-esteem for adolescents. I’m not a parent, so I am sure that I am missing some important points here and I’m sure that my perspective is limited, but from my experience and observations I feel  confident to say that important conversations about meaning, value, and expectations are not taking place with adolescents. What I’m thinking about now is how parents, coaches, and people in society can help young people develop a sense of self-esteem aligned around meaningful values that help make the world a better place.

 

Quinones quotes Ed Hughes, the former executive director of The Counseling Center in Portsmouth, OH, “You only develop self-esteem one way, and that’s through accomplishment.” Quinones himself is critical of parenting in the 90’s and 2000’s writing, “Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments – all as they had less time for their kids.”

 

The critique that Quinones and Hughes make is that parents have gone through great lengths to give their kids everything and to try to ensure that their children are never bored, never unhappy, and never potentially harmed – either physically or mentally. The result, according to Quinones and Hughes, is that children are unprepared for real life. They lack self-esteem because any accomplishments that they have are minor, and were parent assisted or directed. Many kids did not struggle on their own, did not learn from mistakes, and were propped up with empty praise. This left them feeling bored, empty, vulnerable, and inadequate, which made drug addiction all the more likely.

 

What I hope we can do, not just as parents but as a society, is talk about real opportunities for taking meaningful actions in our lives. I hope we can back away from terrible work schedules and the pursuit of ever more money and consumer goods, and move toward a society which encourages real interaction and contribution toward involvement and engagement. This can be done starting with our youth, with the opportunities we provide them to be engaged in something meaningful, and with the conversations we have with them about what is important in life.

 

If we don’t have these conversations with our youth, if we don’t help give them opportunities to do something meaningful, then they will look to TV, celebrities, and our own actions to determine what is good and important. Often that will be the same empty vision of happiness presented in our consumer culture focused on buying products and showing off our wealth. Quinones and Hughes would likely argue that this is only going to exacerbate our loneliness, emptiness, and the potential for drug use and despair.

Trying to Improve Others?

We spend a lot of time criticizing other people and trying to change those around us, and that energy might be misplaced. Instead of spending so much time thinking about others, worrying about their decisions and choices, and trying to get them to act differently, we should look inward, and consider if we are living up to the standards we are trying to set for someone else.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others-yes, and a lot less dangerous.”

 

Carnegie seems to suggest that we should be thinking about how we can help other people become better versions of themselves, but that we should first focus on making ourselves the best version of who we are. The gains that we will see in life will be greater if we focus on self-improvement rather than trying to change others. By focusing on ourselves we can improve our effectiveness, ensure we are engaging in the world in a meaningful way, and become more self-aware of the things we could do better. All of the gains in these areas will help us be the kind of role model that other people can look to when they try to make their own lives better.

 

It is through starting with ourselves that we can have an impact in the lives of others. Once we have made meaningful changes in who we are and what we do, once we have established habits of greatness, we can share what we have learned with others and provide them with advice regarding the things we have done to become successful, more engaged in the world, and more connected to the people around us. This will help us to change people and further the positive impact we have on the world. It all starts, however, with changing ourselves first.

Prioritizing Complacency

I studied political science during my Masters degree at the University of Nevada, and an important thing that we discussed in our classes early on is to think of a country by thinking of its voting constituents. Governments are ideally representative of all people in a society, but in reality, they are representative mostly of the people who vote for them. If you want to understand a society, think of its most likely voting groups, and their preferences and values are the ones you are most likely to see expressed in public policy.

 

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University understands this and writes about it in his book The Complacent Class. Cowen recognizes that the voters matter because they influence the elected officials who make decisions, and voters are more likely to elect people who are like themselves. The class of voters in our country now, and the class of elected officials, Cowen argues, is relatively homogeneous, especially in regards to complacency. He writes,

 

“So overall, America is building its core culture and norms and politics more and more around people and families who just aren’t that mobile across the generations and who have a relatively static and stratified sense of how things work, which indeed is a pattern they see in their own lives. In other words, we are building our core norms and culture around the complacent class, even though some very different tendencies exist in the America of today.”

 

Our biggest voting block in the US is older, whiter, wealthier, more likely to be retired, and less likely to move across state borders in a given year than the general public. Those who can vote consistently, participate in town halls, and write letters to elected officials are the ones who have more time to spend tracking politics and attending events. They are more likely to have been rooted in a specific community for a longer period of time, and are more likely to have more wealth, equating to more vested interests in maintaining a status quo.

 

Our key electorate, is not a very dynamic group.

 

Cowen contrasts this group with immigrants, who have less free time, are likely to be working more to earn more, and are more likely to have dynamic lives that include moving from one place to another, starting a new business, or trying a new approach to something that has existed before. Additionally, younger generations show similar patterns of more dynamic lifestyles than our main electorate.

 

However, many immigrants cannot vote if they have not obtained citizenship, and younger people are less likely to vote and less likely to have a strong sense of what is happening in government, especially local government in a new region they have moved to.

 

So in the end, the strongest voice in our politics is likely the most risk averse, homogeneous, and complacent segment of our population. The dynamic people that our country relies upon in order to push the economy forward and deliver new innovations is not prioritized in our government and public policy. The voices of those who benefit from the status quo are usually the loudest. Cowen is concerned, and I think rightfully so, that we may be headed in the wrong direction by deprioritizing the most dynamic segment of our population and over-representing the least dynamic people in our country. We will have to make big changes to address the challenges we face in our new globalized world economy, and that will require thinking dynamically about growth, the future, and life in general.