A Vice Doom Loop

A Vice Doom Loop

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks if we can escape our epistemic vices. He takes a deep look at epistemic vices, how they impact our thinking and behavior, and asks if we are stuck with them forever, or if we can improve and overcome them. Unfortunately for those of us who wish to become more epistemically virtuous, Cassam has some bad news that comes in the form of a vice doom loop. He writes,
“One is unlikely to take paraphrasing exercises seriously unless one already has a degree of intellectual humility. If one has the requisite degree of humility then one isn’t intellectually arrogant. If one is intellectually arrogant then one probably won’t be humble enough to do the exercises. In the same way, the epistemically lazy may well be too lazy to do anything about their laziness, and the complacent too complacent to worry about being complacent. In all of these cases, the problem is that the project of undoing one’s character vices is virtue-dependent, and those who have the necessary epistemic virtues don’t have the epistemic vices.”
The epistemic vice doom loop stems from the fact that epistemic vices are self-reinforcing. They create the mental modes that reinforce vicious thinking. Escaping from epistemic vices, as Cassam explains, requires that we possess epistemic virtues, which by default we do not possess. Virtues take deliberate effort and practice to build and maintain. We need virtues to escape our vices, but our vices prevent us from developing such virtues, and causes a further entrenchment of our vices.
So it seems as though epistemic vices are inescapable and that those with epistemic vices are stuck with them forever. Luckily, Cassam continues and explains that this is not the case. The world that Cassam’s quote lays out presents us with a false dichotomy. We are not either wholly epistemically vicious or epistemically virtuous. We exist somewhere in the middle, with some degree of epistemic viciousness present in our thinking and behavior and some degree of epistemic virtuosity. This means that we can ultimately overcome our vices. We can become less epistemically insouciant, we can become less arrogant, and we can reduce our wishful thinking. The vice doom loop is escapable because few of us are entirely epistemically vicious, and at least in some situations we are more epistemically virtuous, and we can learn from those situations and improve in others.
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.
Acquiring Virtues

Acquiring Virtues

In The Better Angles of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes about the civilizing process that humans have gone through to be less impulsive, less vulgar, and less violent over time. We are less likely to lash out at people who offend us or minorly inconvenience us today than people of 500 years ago. We have created spaces of privacy for personal grooming or using the bathroom and in 2020 we made such an effort to limit the spread of bodily fluids that wearing masks in public has become second nature to many of us. Beyond these niceties, we are also less likely to murder someone who has seriously wronged us or our family and political leaders (despite the feeling we often get in the news) are less likely to send their countries to war. But what was the process that humanity went through in acquiring virtues that Pinker praises us for in his book?
Pinker spends hundreds of pages demonstrating the declines of violence alongside the civilizing process I mentioned before. What Pinker uses a full book to explain, Quassim Cassam sums up in a single line, “How are virtues acquired? By training, habituation, and imitation.”
In the book Vices of the Mind, Cassam generally takes a consequentialist view when thinking about virtues and vices. He specifically examines epistemic vices, which are thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically obstruct knowledge. They don’t necessarily need to be evil or clearly dangerous on their own, but what is important, and what characterizes them as an epistemic vice, is that they systematically result in the obstruction of knowledge and information. He characterizes vices based on their real world outcomes. To contrast this view, we can look at virtues as thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically lead to more positive outcomes for individuals and society. Beyond the realm of epistemology, we can see that Pinker’s praise of impulse control, civilizing forces in history, and reductions of violence are praises of specific virtues.
These virtues did not spring up over night, as Pinker demonstrates with graphs stretching back hundreds of years showing declines in all forms of violence. These virtues were built over time through training, habituation, and imitation, the civilizing process that Pinker refers to throughout his book.
This means that the positive trends identified by Pinker on a global scale can be understood at individual levels, and it means that we can become more virtuous people through our own efforts. By increasing our self-awareness and thinking critically about our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we can direct ourselves toward ways of being that will systematically produce better outcomes for ourselves and humanity as a whole. By training ourselves to avoid things like epistemic vices, we can put ourselves on a path to be better. We can become habituated toward virtues, and other people can imitate our behaviors to expand the civilizing process and the spread of virtues. Our virtues, and presumably our vices, don’t exist in isolation. They have real world consequences that can be studied and examined in context, and our virtues can be strengthened, harnessing the better angles of our nature, if that is what we set our minds to.
We Bet on Technology

We Bet On Technology

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now and he makes a good case for being optimistic about human progress. In an age when it is popular to write about human failures, whether it is wealthy but unhappy athletes wrecking their cars, the perilous state of democracy, or impending climate doom, the responsible message always see ms to be warning about how bad things are. But Pinker argues that things are not that bad and that they are getting better. Pinker’s writing directly contradicts some earlier reading that I have done, including the writing of Gerd Gigerenzer who argues that we unwisely bet on technology to save us when we should be focused on improving statistical thinking and living with risk rather than hoping for a savior technology.
In Risk Savvy, Gigerenzer writes about the importance of statistical thinking and how we need it in order to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world. He argues that betting on technology will in some ways be a waste of money, and while I think he is correct in many ways, I think that some parts of his message are wrong. He argues that instead of betting on technology, we need to develop improved statistical understandings of risk to help us better adapt to our world and make smarter decisions with how we use and prioritize resources and attention. He writes, “In the twenty-first century Western world, we can expect to live longer than ever, meaning that cancer will become more prevalent as well. We deal with cancer like we deal with other crises: We bet on technology. … As we have seen … early detection of cancer is also of very limited benefit: It saves none or few lives while harming many.”
Gigerenzer is correct to state that to this point broad cancer screening has been of questionable use. We identify a lot of cancers that people would likely live with and that are unlikely to cause serious metastatic or life threatening disease. Treating cancers that won’t become problematic during the natural course of an individual’s life causes a lot of pain and suffering for no discernable benefit, but does this mean we shouldn’t bet on technology? I would argue that it does not, and that we can see the current mistakes we make with cancer screening and early detection as lessons to help us get to a better technological cancer detection and treatment landscape. Much of our resources directed toward cancer may be misplaced right now, but wise people like Gigerenzer can help the technology be redirected to where it can be the most beneficial. We can learn from poor decisions around treatment and diagnosis, call out the actors who profit from misinformation, uncertainty, and fear, and build a new regime that harnesses technological progress in the most efficient and effective ways. As Pinker would argue, we bet on technology because it offers real promises of an improved world. It won’t be an immediate success, and it will have red herrings and loose ends, but incrementalism is a good way to move forward, even if it is slow and feels like it is inadequate to meet the challenges we really face.
Ultimately, we should bet on technology and pursue progress to eliminate more suffering, improve knowledge and understanding, and better diagnose, treat, and understand cancer. Arguing that we haven’t done a good job so far, and that current technology and uses of technology haven’t had the life saving impact we wish they had is not a reason to abandon the pursuit. Improving our statistical thinking is critical, but betting on technology and improving statistical thinking go hand in hand and need to be developed together without prioritizing one over the other.
Regression to the Mean

Praise, Punishment, & Regression to the Mean

Regression to the mean is seriously underrated. In sports, stock market funds, and biological trends like generational height differences, regression to the mean is a powerful, yet misunderstood phenomenon. A rookie athlete may have a standout first year, only to perform less spectacularly the following year. An index fund may outperform all others one year, only to see other funds catch up the next year. And a tall man may have a son who is shorter. In each instance, regression to the mean is at play, but since we underrate it, we assume there is some causal factor causing our athlete to play worse (it went to his head!), causing our fund to earn less (they didn’t rebalance the portfolio correctly!), and causing our son to be shorter (his father must have married a short woman).

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman looks at the consequences that arise when we fail to understand regression to the mean and attempt to create causal connections between events when we shouldn’t. Kahneman describes an experiment he conducted with Air Force cadets, asking them to flip a coin backwards over their head and try to hit a spot on the floor. Those who had a good first shot typically did worse on their second shot. Those who did poor on their first shot, usually did better the next time. There wasn’t any skill involved, the outcome was mostly just luck and random chance, so if someone was close one time, you might expect their next shot to be a little further out, just by random chance. This is regression to the mean in an easy to understand example.

 

But what happens when we don’t recognize regression to the mean in a random and simplified experiment? Kahneman used the cadets to demonstrate how random performance deviations from the mean during flight maneuvers translates into praise or punishments for the cadets. Those who performed well were often praised, only to regress to  the mean on their next flight and perform worse. Those who performed poorly also regressed to the mean, but in an upward direction, improving on the next flight. Those whose initial performance was poor received punishment (perhaps just a verbal reprimand) between their initial poor effort and follow-up improvement (regression).  Kahneman describes the take-away from the experiment this way:

 

“The feedback to which life exposes us is perverse. Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty.”

 

Praise a cadet who performed well, and they will then perform worse. Criticize a cadet who performed poorly, and they will do better. Our minds overfit patterns and start to see a causal link between praise and subsequent poor performance and castigation and subsequent improvement. All that is really happening is that we are misunderstanding regression to the mean, and creating a causal model where we should not.

 

If we better understood regression to the mean, we wouldn’t be so shocked when a standout rookie sports star appears to have a sophomore slump. We wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon when an index fund had an exceptional year, and we wouldn’t be surprised by phenotypical regression to the mean from one generation to the next. Our brains are phenomenal pattern recognizing machines, but sometimes they see the wrong pattern, and sometimes that gives us perverse incentives for how we behave and interact with each other. The solution is to step back from individual cases and try to look at an average over time. By gathering more data and looking for longer lasting trends we can better identify regression to the mean versus real trends in performance over time.
Healthcare Stagnation

Healthcare Stagnation

We are facing a disastrous healthcare stagnation in the United States. Our hospitals are getting older, Medical providers are aging with too few young providers to replace them, and the quality of care that many of us experience is not getting much better. Despite this, the cost of healthcare has been soaring. Healthcare expenditures, including the costs of our deductibles, co-pays, and what our insurance pays out, has been going up at a rate reliably above inflation.

 

In The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, Dave Chase writes the following about our healthcare stagnation, “Unlike virtually every other item in our economy, where the value proposition improves every year, the norm in health care for decades has been to pay more and get less. Also, unlike nearly every other industry, healthcare hasn’t had a productivity gain in 20 years.”

 

Productivity is how much we produce per unit of time spent on production. A factory that makes 5,000 widgets per hour is more productive than a factory that makes 1,000 widgets per hour. Automation and new technologies have helped factories and offices become more productive, but our healthcare stagnation is evidence that we are not seeing the same gains in healthcare. Technology has improved, but not in areas that seem to produce more healthy patients given the same amount of time and effort from our medical providers. We have some new technologies, but somehow those technologies have not translated into a healthcare system that supports the same number of people with fewer resources.

 

Chase continues, “In other words, for the last two decades, there has been a redistribution tax from the working and middle class and highly efficient industries to the least productive industry in America.” 

 

As your job has become more efficient and more productive, your healthcare costs have risen. Chase equates this healthcare stagnation price increase to a tax. Factories that can work with fewer employees, software engineers, and other employees form highly productive sectors are paying more in healthcare for services that haven’t kept the same pace as the industries of the patients they treat. This is the cost of healthcare stagnation that chase wants to push back against by demanding better systems and structures from healthcare providers, insurance companies, and benefits brokers. Chase believes we can find a way to improve our healthcare system and help people live healthier lives for less cost, if employers are willing to make real investments in their employees healthcare, and are willing to hold their brokers and insurance providers accountable for the value their products provide.
Developing Willpower Muscles

Developing Willpower Muscles

My last post wrote about the idea that our willpower is limited, and that as we become tired and move through different points of the day, we find ourselves with varying levels of willpower. This post continues on that idea with more thoughts from Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

“Your will, in other words,” Writes Newport, “is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; Its instead like a muscle that tires.”

 

We can try our best to improve our willpower, but like any muscle, our willpower can only do so much for us. Perhaps through continual practice and focus we can improve our willpower in certain ways, but it is likely that we are going to fail often in our demand of our own willpower. What is important, is how we structure our world to be successful in the times that demand strong willpower. Newport continues,

 

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

 

If we think about willpower like a muscle, we can see that the proper techniques, approaches, and tools are necessary for us to build the right strength. If we are lifting, we might need the right dumbbells for an exercises. If we are stretching, we need to make sure we put our body in the right position to stretch the right muscles. If we are working on focused concentration and willpower to support it, we must build the right environment for the mind.

 

A specific routine makes it easier for us to set into a long stretch of unbroken attention on a single item. If we ritualistically end our day in reflection, writing down what we accomplished and where we will pick up the following day, it makes it easier for us to start our day with productive focus, demanding less of our willpower to avoid or pull away from social media. If we have a habit of reading for a long stretch, then not reading during that time and feeling distracted will be abnormal and uncomfortable, where the state of concentration will feel normal, increasing our willpower to avoid the distractions in the first place.

 

Thinking about improving our willpower isn’t just a matter of intention and deciding to be better. It is a matter of setting ourselves up for success, and developing the right environments, habits, and rituals to make the process easy.

Elevating Reason

This blog is a place for me to return to specific quotes and thoughts that stood out to me in books that interested me. The blog, on its face, is mostly about me trying to remember key insights from books, to formulate my thoughts, and share them with others. Another goal of the blog, if I am honest, is to attempt to elevate reason in our lives. I believe that we must live in a way that attempts to look at the world as clearly and objectively as possible, all while understanding that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world in this way.

 

By highlighting the benefits of rational thought, I hope to raise the status of those who try to be rational and encourage more people to think deeply about their world. It is no surprise then, that a sentence I highlighted in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reads, “People who are able to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and discuss them dispassionately can show a combination of honesty, intellectual ability, and perhaps even courage (or at least a thick skin).”

 

That quote is from a short section that focuses on why someone might want to acknowledge the elephant in the brain. Which is to say, why anyone would want to acknowledge that much of their behavior is likely driven by selfish self-interested motives and not by the high-minded reasons we like to project? Our brains seem to be very good at deceiving even ourselves about our behaviors and choices (so that we can better lie to others), and our high minded reasons for doing things make us feel good about who we are. Why would we want to look past that into less pretty parts of our inner workings?

 

I believe that acknowledging our true motives will help us better understand humanity, develop better institutions, and in the long run function better together. One way to make that happen is to prop up the social status of people who think rationally about the universe and their existence within the universe. By acknowledging truths that tear down the stories we tell about how amazing and special we are, and by being able to look at issues dispassionately and as objectively as we can get ourselves to look at an issue, we can hopefully start to pursue better policy and better general debates and discussions. Making rational thinking interesting and helpful in our daily lives will encourage more people to be honest about the world and will hopefully lead to more rewarding lives for those who cultivate these important yet undervalued intellectual abilities.

Training Daily

Life is hard and each day can be its own struggle and battle, but learning measured approaches to life can give us the tools and training that we need to face those challenges successfully. We all hope to have success, to have an easy life with plenty of opportunities, but we know we will face failures, frustration, confusion, and stagnation. If we can build a solid routine, we can face these obstacles nobly and act accordingly to move forward.

 

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes about the daily effort to prepare ourselves for the challenges life will present us with. Holiday writes, “My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean for ever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.”

 

Anyone who has ever gone to the  gym knows you don’t leave looking like an Avenger after just one workout. It is continual effort that slowly gets us where we need to be. Accordingly, for us to build our mental fortitude and prepare for failures and successes, we must build our self-awareness, focus on disarming our ego, and concentrate on growth, learning, and improvement daily. If we do not, the skills that will help us climb from our low point will grow dusty and be buried in the daily grit of life. Each day doesn’t need to be a grueling exercise, but we do need to continually dust off our skills for approaching life.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.