The Undoing Project

A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

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A few months ago, I read the wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, describing the research that led to his Nobel (in economics). This book, by famous non-fiction author Michael Lewis is the "outside view" of Kahneman's remarkable life and research, and that of his longtime collaborator Aron Tversky. (Kahneman and Tversky are referred to as "Danny" and "Aron" throughout; I'll return the favor by calling Lewis "Mike" here.)

Things are especially compelling in the early going: Danny was born in Tel Aviv in 1934, but spent his early childhood in France. He was Jewish. Friend, you can do the math here: much of his early life was spent close to horrible death. Lewis relates this dark story with many odd and compelling details.

Aron's background was slightly less hectic: he was born, and stayed in what-was-to-become-Israel during WWII. But (here's a story), while training with the Israeli army in the mid-50s, Arib was present when another soldier fainted on top of a bangalore torpedo he had just armed to clear a barbed wire barrier. Against orders, Aron trotted over to the doomed soldier, dragged him away from the torpedo, and fell on top of him before the explosion. Amos got a lifetime supply of shrapnel embedded in his back. And a medal. And advice from Moshe Dayan: "You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won't get away with it again."

Aron died in 1996 of cancer. They don't award the Nobel to dead people, unfortunately.

Anyway: Mike is one of the best at telling these stories that combine personal stories with a lot of geeky detail, in this case psychology. I'd recommend reading this book, before or after Danny's.

What I noticed: Mike notes the career progress of Don Redelmeier, a Candadian doctor who wound up doing some work with Aron. One of Don's insights was spurred by a brain-dead helmetless motorcyclist who'd run into a tree: people were bad at judging risks, "even when their misjudgment might kill them." And there's a small advocacy of mandatory helmet laws.

This is kind of a bugaboo of mine, that misses an important point: people have wildly differing appetites for risk. I'm wary of people who pretend there's a "right" level for acceptable risk, and want to back that up with legislation.

Worse: Danny's two-pack-daily cigarette habit is mentioned, without similar comment. How risky was that? (Note: Danny's still alive and kicking at age 83.)

URLs du Jour


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We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…

■ Proverbs 27:20 is insightful:

Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are human eyes.

Note: Don't show this to a Bible literalist simultaneously with Jesus' sermonic suggestion in Matthew 5:29.

■ My Google LFOD alert was triggered by Kurt Schlicter, writing at Town Hall: Liberals Want To Kill Free Speech, So We Patriots Must Fight Back. Now, be warned, his language is ill-tempered and immoderate, but he's not wrong:

Understand that if America is stupid enough to let liberals take power again, they will persecute and prosecute normal Americans like us who dare to dissent. That’s not a guess or a prediction – that’s a commitment they have made to their fascist followers. They’ve seen what the truth can do to their schemes. After 2016, there’s no way they are going to take a chance on another electoral rejection by us normals, so they don’t even pretend to support free speech anymore. It will be one gender neutral being-one vote, one more time, and then never again.

Kurt relates an impressive history of Democrat chin-pulling about how that whole First Amendment thing might need some fixin', one recent example being Howard Dean's Constitutional legerdemain declaring "hate speech" to be outside the umbrella of protection. Concludes:

That un-American, wannabe fascist Howard Dean need only look at a license plate from neighboring New Hampshire to understand how this is going to end. We’ll either live free or die.

There you go.

■ Another enemy of liberty was given a plum spot in the NYT the other day: Ulrich Baer, "vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University", also multi-thousand-dollar contributor to the Hillary campaign. Philip Greenspun takes on one of America’s greatest minds on display (and I'll quote the whole, priceless, thing):

[Baer's column] is interesting because it shows how one of America’s greatest minds (a professor of comparative literature at NYU who has been selected by peers to be “vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity”) restates the sentence “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.”

[The sheer length of the piece is fascinating, as though the professor had entered a contest for who could use the most words to restate “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.”]

Only quibble: neither Baer, nor Howard Dean, are pleading for self-protection against hearing those disagreeable voices. It's not so much "I don't want to hear from them". It's instead: "I don't want anyone to hear from them."

■ Professor Althouse is also (correctly) dismissive. After quoting a paragraph where Baer asserts that freedom of expression "requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters":

I don't think I have ever read 4 consecutive sentences containing as much bad writing and bad thinking. I'm a bit awestruck at the badness. I'm certainly glad that it was published. I was going to criticize it, but I think it speaks for itself. I'll just say thanks for hanging your ideas out where we can see them. I'm moving on, looking for other parameters to examine.

Let us do the same…

■ Well, after this one last thing. Wesley J. Smith at NR is also Baer-brutal: NYT Publishes Speech Suppression Advocacy.

I have been thinking for some time that on issues of speech, we are watching a contest between the American Revolution–that guarantees the right to express unpopular social and political views–and the French Revolution that unleashes Jacobins to suppress heterodoxy.

But after reading Uhlrich, I think we face something even more dangerous to liberty: A full-blown Mao-style Cultural Revolution is gestating on college campuses. If we don’t restore American ideals of speech freedom to those “snowflake” enclaves, we could well see a violent avalanche materialize that threatens the peaceability of our broader social discourse.

OK Ann, now we'll move on.

■ Jeremy Samuel Faust at Slate describes The Problem With the March for Science.

[T]he march revealed the glaring dissonance of opposing that trough of ignorance by instead accepting a cringe-worthy hive-mind mentality that celebrates Science as a vague but wonderful entity, what Richard Feynman called “cargo cult science.” There was an uncomfortable dronelike fealty to the concept—an oxymoronic faith that information presented and packaged to us as Science need not be further scrutinized before being smugly celebrated en masse. That is not intellectually rigorous thought—instead, it’s another kind of religion, and it is perhaps as terrifying as the thing it is trying to fight.

As previously noted, local "March for Science" featured speaker was non-scientist Carol Shea-Porter, who urged marchers to "take this country back from people who don’t believe in science".

Emphasis added. CSP's faith-based language demonstrates the nasty phenomenon Faust describes.

■ At Wired, Emma Pierson ("a computer science PhD student") harangues: Hey, Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities. What does she mean by that? Well, computer scientists are often less than respectful toward fuzzier disciplines. But that's not all!

The fact that so many computer scientists are ignorant or disdainful of non-technical approaches is worrisome because in my work, I’m constantly confronting questions that can’t be answered with code. When I coded at Coursera, an online education company, I developed an algorithm that would recommend classes to people in part based on their gender. But the company decided not to use it when we discovered it would push women away from computer science classes.

Note: Emma doesn't say whether she implemented a valid algorithm that offered good advice to students. That didn't matter. The important thing was: its results went against ideology. Lest there be any doubt, she doubles down:

It turns out that this effect—where algorithms entrench societal disparities—is one that occurs in domains from criminal justice to credit scoring. This is a difficult dilemma: In criminal justice, for example, you’re confronted with the fact that an algorithm that fulfills basic statistical desiderata is also a lot more likely to rate black defendants as high-risk even when they will not go on to commit another crime.

I think "fulfills basic statistical desiderata" means that the algorithm in question gave an accurate calculation of risk. I have my doubts that "the humanities" will provide any useful insight when deciding which algorithms to ignore when they give answers that collide with "thorny ethical questions".

■ What could go wrong? Former Obama Official Suggests ‘Opposing Viewpoints Button’ for Facebook.

Cass Sunstein, former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, suggested that Facebook experiment with an “opposing viewpoints button” in the website’s newsfeed but cautioned against the company curating content based on policy positions.

Sunstein is (I have to admit) just about the only ex-Obama Administration source from whom I'd seriously consider proposals to modify Facebook's efforts to shield its users from incorrect thought.

Last Modified 2019-11-07 2:51 PM EST