Keeping up with the FITs, No. 12

Starting with Scott Alexander reviewing Julia Galef

Scott Alexander pens a review of Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset. Scott writes,

I think she learned pretty much the same thing a lot of the rest of us learned during the grim years of the last decade. Of the fifty-odd biases discovered by Kahneman, Tversky, and their successors, forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization. This last one is confirmation bias - our tendency to interpret evidence as confirming our pre-existing beliefs instead of changing our minds. This is the bias that explains why your political opponents continue to be your political opponents, instead of converting to your obviously superior beliefs. And so on to religion, pseudoscience, and all the other scourges of the intellectual world.

On the topic of the case for scout mindset, on Yascha Mounk’s Persuasion substack, Zaid Jilani writes,

While we all have our own ideological preferences, we should always want truth to win in any conflict with a political agenda. Understanding the facts is the first step to making social change, and we shouldn’t bend them to fit our beliefs. It shouldn’t take a social media uproar for an organization as prestigious as the Urban Institute to affirm its commitment to truth and to practices like objectivity and rigor.

…If institutions continue to undermine their own credibility, people may start going to less reliable sources for information instead. When the Urban Institute publishes a blog post criticizing fundamental research practices, it undermines its legitimacy as an arbiter of the truth. The same is true when, for instance, Princeton University’s president writes a letter telling the world that “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton” and that racism is “embedded in structures of the University itself.” Why would the public trust information coming from a racist institution, or one labeling itself as racist when it really isn’t? 

Bari Weiss interviews Glenn Loury. Loury says,

I think standards have gone down. You ask me, I'm going to tell you. I think, for example, in math education we're not serious. We in the United States of America are losing our edge. When I speak to one of my classes, if I do anything, that's the least bit demanding of abstract, analytical, logical framing, I'm looking at their faces and I'm made to dumb down, in effect, what I want to say. I'm not doing this subject justice, but I don't think we expect as much of our students. I don't think we demand as much. Grade inflation is a horrible corruption.

…You can't do affirmative action, maintain black dignity, and maintain the standards at the same time.

As with Weiss and Loury, I’m seeing a lot of content featuring two stars of Fantasy Intellectual Teams. I worry that this is a bad sign—that the best thinkers travel in narrow circles, either by choice or because they are excluded by the intellectual establishment.

Finally, Noah Smith talks about productivity in construction and finds it difficult to measure.

When Eddy M. Rojas set out to measure construction productivity in a 2003 paper, he ended up throwing up his hands:

The main conclusion of the study is that the raw data used to calculate construction productivity values at the macroeconomic level and their further manipulation and interpretation present so many problems that the results should be deemed unreliable. The uncertainty generated in the process of computing these values is such that it cannot be determined if labor productivity has actually increased, decreased, or remained constant in the construction industry for the 1979-1998 period.

Oh dear. Perhaps this is why there’s so little published research on construction productivity! It’s hard to write about something you can’t even measure. But let’s assume Rojas is being too pessimistic here, and that measurement is difficult but possible.

Over time, the quality of a good can change, and we don’t have direct measures of that. If the newer building is more structurally sound, or uses fewer materials known to be toxic, how do we account for that? If a newer building costs more because of new regulations, how do we know how consumers value the regulated changes?

Also, “construction” is an aggregate, and if over time we construct different mixes of structures (single-family, multi-family, commercial) that may affect measured productivity.

But construction output is relatively easy to measure. (I should put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence, in order to write like most other Substackers.) At least there, output is tangible. As the economy becomes more heavily weighted toward services, notably health care and education, output is hard to define. And the more that you aggregate output into “total productivity” the more chances for mix shifts to affect your estimate.

I discount nearly all claims about aggregate productivity trends. You would not pay attention to “trends” in a poll for a political contest if the differences over time are smaller in magnitude than the margin of error. But economists commit that sin all the time with productivity data.