The Game of Acquiring Status
Be careful what you reward for
Robin Hanson writes,
Status is respect, shared at a distance. And one of our main ways to create shared distant respect estimates is to accept the gossip-shared judgements of high status people, especially on who else to respect. Furthermore, as we all judge those who are most closely connected to high status people as being higher status themselves, we often try to create closer connections to high status people by blindly trusting them.
Hanson is concerned about the trust that we place in elites. I think the problem is not that we trust too much, as if trust were a dial that we turn one way to be more trusting and the other way to be less trusting. I think that the problem is to make sure that the game that determines who is considered elite works well at sorting the wise from the fools.
Humans are social learners. We have to trust other people in order to gain knowledge and to make decisions. Our social epistemology will not get better by simply showing less deference to people who have a reputation for expertise.
I believe that the fundamental issue in social epistemology is the process by which people climb the status hierarchy. If the process is meritocratic, as in a chess tournament, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top. If the process is corrupted, by rules that are unfair or easily gamed. then the high-status people are not so worthy of our trust. But the solution to corruption is to improve the process, not (just) to belittle high-status people.
As I have written before, the whole point of the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project was to try to create a different reward system for public intellectuals. Instead of rewarding tribalism, the idea was to reward rational discourse.
There is no perfect system for creating a hierarchy. The system for chess works as well as it does because of the way that skill determines results and cheating is relatively easy to prevent. In other realms, it becomes more difficult.
How do I determine that you are knowledgeable in a field? If I knew enough to independently verify your knowledge, then I would not need your expertise. Since I cannot personally evaluate your knowledge, I rely on a signal. The fundamental social challenge is to make sure that these signals are accurate.
Incumbents with high status in a field usually participate in setting up and operating the signaling system in their field. To at least some degree, this is desirable. You want doctors involved in the system that decides the qualification for who becomes a doctor.
But you also need a system that is open to innovation and capable of discarding conventional views that turn out to be wrong. If there is insufficient competition, an entire field can decay. I saw this happen in macroeconomics in the 1980s, as Stanley Fischer all but monopolized the placement at prestige universities of young macroeconomic specialists. Students who did not want to conform to Fischer’s approach ended up avoiding macroeconomics and/or accepting low-status placements. The result, in my opinion, was the atrophy of macroeconomics. See my memoir of a would-be macroeconomist.
Recently, to get into certain elite circles you have to signal that you are “woke.” I see this as a most unfortunate development. People who are good at signaling woke values are not necessarily experts in their fields. And people who refuse to get good at are not necessarily lacking in expertise. Wokeness is a game that I think is rotting the institution of higher education.
One response to the corruption of the elite signaling game is to follow Hanson’s suggestion and trust elites less. But a more powerful response would be to try to reconfigure the game.
The issue is that expertise in reconfiguring the game is precisely what wokesters are expert at! That is why they are gaining power, and those you favor are losing it. The right approach is to figure out not just what the game should be (trivial), but how to get to that game without suffering defectors (people more interested in pulling the ladder up than enacting fair meritocracy, even if it hurts them).
Hayek answered this question in "The Use of Knowledge in Society" but I am not yet sure we understand what he wrote.
Knowledge services two important functions:
Type 1) It creates a standard of thinking, that may be wrong, but serves as a scaffold to develop other knowledge. The derivative may be accurate even if the predicate was wrong.
Type 2) It equips someone to understand new information. i.e. a physicist can observe more things about physics and explain new phenomena.
In the context of "Knowledge in society" there are people who can interpret data and generate new novel innovations (Type 2). But price, which is imperfect, also helps "The coordination problem" using a Type 1 approach. So price is imperfect but sufficient to improve knowledge.
Clayton Christensen described a form of disruptive innovation. Specifically when customer requirements change, in a manner that disadvantages incumbents. An example would be a shift from faster processors to more battery efficiency. There came a time when computers were fast enough, and then we wanted portable. I personally think incumbent knowledge is more type 1 behavior. And disruptive is more type 2.
The rate of change to disruptive innovation, or type 2 knowledge, is captured in part by Kurzweil's The Law of Accelerating Returns. The rate of change represents A) there is unmet latent demand B) knowledge and demand are shifting at an accelerating pace.
So how does this relate to your article? The accumulation of social cred around type 1 or type 2 cohorts is probably fine. Its ok for a Type 1 bandwagon, with low substance, if it helps set standards (i.e. does it matter what the gauge of railroad is, or what phone platform people use, if the benefit generates positive externalities like interoperability).
I personally find type 2 more vexing. If we could build quality social cred around type 2 behavior (knowledge of new domains) that would advance society in a manner that solves the coordination problem perhaps better than price. Understanding this sort of social cred probably relates to knowledge graphs and/or information flows in conjunction with feedback from end-users in the manner Hayek articulated in his paper.