Network Propaganda: Institutions and technology

I highly recommend the book Network Propaganda. I’ve written recently about institutions and technology, so wanted to highlight this bit from the end of that book:

Our study suggests that we should focus on the structural, not the novel; on the long-term dynamic between institutions, culture, and technology, not only the disruptive technological moment; and on the interaction between the different media and technologies that make up a society’s media ecosystem, not on a single medium, like the internet, much less a single platform like Facebook or Twitter. The stark differences we observe between the insular right-wing media ecosystem and the majority of the American media environment, and the ways in which open web publications, social media, television, and radio all interacted to produce these differences suggest that the narrower focus will lead to systematically erroneous predictions and diagnoses.

 

Redistribution vs. predistribution

There’s an ongoing debate in left-of-center policy circles between redistribution and “predistribution”, and it’s often framed like this:

The redistribution camp wants to let the market do its thing and then if (when) it creates winners and losers that camp suggests we should redistribute those gains using the tax system and various kinds of spending programs. Doing so would mean getting the best of both worlds, the thinking goes: the efficiency of the market with the welfare gains of redistribution.

The predistribution camp raises a number of objections to this and suggests that instead policy should directly aim to transform the market so that its outcomes are more just, even before taxes and transfers. The predistribution camp has a few different arguments; my list is certainly not comprehensive:

  1. Political economy: a society full of rich people will fight tooth and nail against redistribution.
  2. Fairness, dignity, and trust: People don’t want to be marked as an economic “loser” and then compensated for it. They want to feel they’ve earned a good living and they will lose trust in a system that doesn’t offer them that.
  3. Growth: Markets are highly imperfect and we’re actually leaving growth on the table when we sit back and leave things to “the market”, which is itself highly contingent.

These are good critiques, and I’m quite open to lots of predistribution ideas. The easy response is to say we need some of both.

But I do think this debate can sometimes misunderstand the role of redistribution. Specifically, it misses the sense in which today’s redistribution is tomorrow’s predistribution.

To see what I mean it’s easier to start in a very different context: cash transfers in developing countries. I have no strong view on the efficacy of cash transfers relative to other development interventions; my point is just to note that the argument for cash transfers in this context is that they spark economic development. Here’s economist Chris Blattman, who studies this, in 2013 (if you want more recent information on the effectiveness of cash transfers for development try here):

So how do you create “good” jobs and productive work? Another way of asking this question is “what is holding young people back?” or “what constrains them?”…

More and more, economists think that the real constraint is capital. Studies show that the poor, on average, have high-earning opportunities if they get a little cash or equipment. Studies with existing farmers or businesspeople have seen returns of 40 to 80% a year on cash grants.

This gels with economic theory, which says that infusions of capital should expand people’s choice of occupations, self-employment, and earnings. People can’t get access to that capital through loans because credit markets are so broken and expensive. This can be a development trap, or at the very least a drag on growth.

Redistribution in the U.S. is taking place in a very different context, of course. What’s true in developing countries might not be in developed ones. But when we talk about redistribution’s merits (or lack thereof) in the U.S. we ought to consider its ability to change economic fundamentals. And we have evidence that this sort of thing happens. Welfare state programs — including transfers like food stamps — increase entrepreneurship by helping to de-risk it. Likewise, Raj Chetty and colleagues have demonstrated that the combination of school performance and parents’ income predict the likelihood that a child will go on to file a patent. The “Einstein gap” that Chetty points to is an income gap. It’s at least plausible (if not likely) that if you substantially raised the incomes of parents, their kids’ likelihood of being a (well-compensated) inventor would increase dramatically. Today’s redistribution is tomorrow’s predistribution.

Of course, most left-of-center policy people get all this. And politicians in particular are keen not to pitch redistribution programs simply as static subsidies. Several 2020 primary candidates are doing a good job of proposing redistributive policy ideas in the context of a broader economic transformation. It’s when the more philosophical redistribution vs. predistribution debates get going that the problematic framing I’ve described typically seems to occur.

For example, when we frame the basic income as simply a way to subsidize a permanent underclass in the face of automation or when we treat the welfare state as merely a way to placate those who’ve lost the lottery of winner-take-all capitalism we miss at least part of redistribution’s potential. Transferring money from richer to poorer people changes the economy in important ways, and that’s a big part of its appeal.

That doesn’t mean we should rely solely on redistribution and neglect predistributionist ideas. Many of those ideas are great! And the predistributionists are right to have drawn the lesson that we’ve been too deferential to market outcomes, as if they were delivered from on high. Furthermore, none of what I’ve said addresses the political economy critique that certain market outcomes make certain policy changes harder.

Nonetheless, redistribution should be an important part of any economic policy agenda. And it shouldn’t be framed as simply a static transfer from “winners” to “losers” because that’s not what it is.

Too much entertainment

Here’s Matt Yglesias of Vox on The Weeds podcast, discussing the recent social media study I mentioned here:

The optimistic case is always ‘Well, it’s crowding out television’… But what you see in this study is that, while making people not use Facebook did crowd in extra television watching, it also crowded in extra socializing and extra exercising.

And:

You just put more stuff on the entertainment-options bus and this is what you get. It’s just kinda not great. To have so much of the innovation and progress… happening just specifically in the entertainment zone is maybe not actually great for peoples’ lives.

These are both really good points. I used to trot out the (important!) finding that internet users watched less television, usually sourcing it to Yochai Benkler’s book The Wealth of Networks which reviewed that evidence (p. 361).

But we’re past that. Social media isn’t just crowding out TV; it’s crowding out important stuff, too. As I wrote in my post What the Internet is Good For:

It may be that by the time we had email, we more or less had the big benefits we were going to gain from cheap communication.

Another theory would be that, whereas early internet communications were a substitute for TV but still a very different activity, much of today’s “communication” technologies like social media are more or less a TV equivalent. (In the language of economics, the internet has evolved to be a more-perfect substitute for TV.) In this view, we’re spending more and more time on media, much of it mindlessly entertaining ourselves watching videos and scrolling through photos…

The internet made communication and entertainment cheap, and put endless information at our fingertips. It seems likely that we’ve overdone it on cheap communication and entertainment, and underdone it on instant access to other forms of information.

The next phase of the internet needs to be less about entertainment and more about other things.

On fake news

Just clipping a couple things that caught my eye on this recently:

Why do people fall for fake news?

Much of the debate among researchers falls into two opposing camps. One group claims that our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions: that is, we’re prone to rationalization. The other group — to which the two of us belong — claims that the problem is that we often fail to exercise our critical faculties: that is, we’re mentally lazy.

And from Nieman Lab:

Building on a draft paper from last year, psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand have a new study showing that people across the political spectrum rate mainstream news sources as more trustworthy than hyperpartisan and fake news sites — and that “politically balanced layperson ratings were strongly correlated with ratings provided by professional fact-checkers.”

And the sites fact checkers trust:

Screen Shot 2019-02-01 at 12.17.04 PM

And (from Nieman also):

I know that you’re right, but I don’t care. What do people do when their favored presidential candidate gets fact-checked? They do not change their minds, according to a new study in Political Behavior from Brendan Nyhan, Ethan Porter, Jason Reifler, and Thomas Wood. They conducted two studies of voters during the 2016 election, fact-checking Trump’s claims about crime and unemployment. They found that “people express more factually accurate beliefs after exposure to factchecks. These effects hold even when factchecks target their preferred candidate.” But “we find no evidence that changes in factual beliefs in a claim made by a candidate affect voter preferences during a presidential election.”

On social democracy

Two narratives commonly emerge in answer to this question. The first focuses on the struggle between democracy and its alternatives, pitting liberalism against fascism, National Socialism, and Marxist-Leninism. The second focuses on competition between capitalism and its alternatives, pitting liberals against socialists and communists. Democratic capitalism is simply the best, indeed the “natural” form of societal organization, these stories assert, and once Western Europe fully embraced it, all was well. This account obviously contains some truth: the century did witness a struggle between democracy and its enemies and the market and its alternatives. But it is only a partial truth, because it overlooks a crucial point: democracy and capitalism were historically at odds. An indispensable element of their joint victory, therefore, was the discovery of some way for them to coexist. In practice, that turned out to mean a willingness to use political power to protect citizens from the ravages of untrammeled markets. The ideology that triumphed was not liberalism, as the “End of History” folks would have it, it was social democracy.

Correctly understood social democracy should be seen as a distinctive ideology and movement all its own, built on a belief in the primacy of politics and communitarianism and representing a non-Marxist vision of socialism. The term social democracy has thus been incorrectly applied to a wide range of groups, with unfortunate consequences for an understanding of the movement’s true history and rationale. In addition, social democracy should also be seen as the most successful ideology and movement of the twentieth century: its principles and policies undergirded the most prosperous and harmonious period in European history by reconciling things that had hitherto seemed incompatible—a well functioning capitalist system, democracy, and social stability.

That’s from a paper by Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard. Here’s one of her books on the topic, and a series of responses to it by the Crooked Timber folks.

More on social media and happiness

From NYT:

So what happens if you actually do quit [Facebook]? A new study, the most comprehensive to date, offers a preview.

Expect the consequences to be fairly immediate: More in-person time with friends and family. Less political knowledge, but also less partisan fever. A small bump in one’s daily moods and life satisfaction. And, for the average Facebook user, an extra hour a day of downtime.

The study itself.

Previous posts on this here and here.

Update 10/2/19: Another study, covered by Nieman Lab.

The forced week off Facebook had an impact on the restricted group. In addition to seeing less news, they also self-reported more “healthy behavior” (they said they ate out less, made fewer impulse purchases, were more efficient with time, and so on) and reported feeling significantly less depressed: “Our results suggest that using Facebook induces feelings of depression,” the researchers write. This could be because the students were doing more healthy things. It could also be because they were reading less news.

Update: and evidence on the other side.

The case for technology

I tend to be optimistic about technology, and so I’m often asked by friends… Um, why? I haven’t always answered that question as well as I would have liked and so I wanted to try to do so here. To make the case for technology as a driver of human welfare, I’ll start with the macro-historical view. I’ll suggest that the world is improving and that technology appears to be playing a central role. Then I’ll get into why economists expect technology to be a key driver of economic growth, in line with the broader historical picture. Next, I’ll present some more direct, plausibly causal evidence for technology’s benefits. Finally, I’ll discuss the role of institutions, culture, and policy. And I’ll end with a short case study.

The big picture

 

life-expectancy-globally-since-1770.png

Human welfare has improved in any number of ways over the past two hundred years, whether measured through life expectancy, GDP per capita, homicide rates, or any number of other variables. (I’m borrowing charts from the excellent site OurWorldInData.) Not everything is improving, of course, and this sort of progress can’t be cause for complacency. But it is real nonetheless.

As the economic historian Robert Gordon writes, “A newborn child in 1820 entered a world that was almost medieval: a dim world lit by candlelight, in which folk remedies treated health problems and in which travel was no faster than that possible by hoof or sail.” But things changed, not so much gradually as all at once. “Some measures of progress are subjective,” Gordon continues, “but lengthened life expectancy and the conquest of infant mortality are solid quantitative indicators of the advances made over the special century [1870-1970] in the realms of medicine and public health. Public waterworks not only revolutionized the daily routine of the housewife but also protected every family against waterborne diseases. The development of anesthetics in the late nineteenth century made the gruesome pain of amputations a thing of the past, and the invention of the antiseptic surgery cleaned up the squalor of the nineteenth-century hospital.”

GDP-per-capita-in-the-uk-since-1270.png

What changed? The short answer is the industrial revolution. A series of what Gordon calls “Great Inventions,” like the railroad, the steamship, and the telegraph set off this transformation. Electricity and the internal combustion engine continued it. And though these “Great Inventions” were perhaps most central, countless other technologies made life better in this period. The mason jar helped store food at home; refrigeration transformed food production and consumption; the radio changed the way people received information.

Gordon’s book The Rise and  Fall of American Growth, from which I’m quoting, is rich with detail and data and well worth a read. Its conclusion, and my point here, is that the rapid rise in living standards over the past two hundred years is directly linked to new technologies. Technology isn’t the only thing that has driven progress, of course. More inclusive political institutions have obviously driven tremendous progress, too. But technology is a central part of progress, and without it our potential to improve human welfare would be more limited.

The theory

Technology has long played a central role in economic theory. How much an economy can produce depends in part on the availability of inputs like workers, raw materials, or buildings. But what determines how effectively these inputs can be combined — how much the workers can produce given a certain amount of resources and equipment? The answer is technology, and for a long time economists thought of it as outside the bounds of their models. Technology was this extra “exogenous” thing. It was “manna from heaven” — critical to explaining economic growth but not itself explained by economic models. As economic historian Joel Mokyr wrote in 1990, “All work on economic growth recognizes the existence of a ‘residual,’ a part of economic growth that cannot be explained by more capital or more labor… Technological change seems a natural candidate to explain this residual and has sometimes been equated with it forthwith.”

But around the time he was writing that, economists’ theory of technology was starting to change. Paul Romer, among others, started publishing models of economic growth that more directly accounted for technology. In these models, “ideas” were the source of economic growth, and the growth of ideas depended in part on how many people went into the “ideas producing” sector, sometimes called R&D. In 2018, Romer won the Nobel Prize in economics for this work. David Warsh’s book Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations is a wonderful read on this shift in growth theory.

My point here is simply to note that economic theory suggests that for sustained economic growth to happen, we need a steady stream of new ideas and new technologies. A theory is not evidence per se, but it fits with the point of this essay: if we want to improve living standards over time, technology will likely be important.

The evidence

If both the broad historical picture and economic theory support the idea that technology is essential for rising living standards, what about more micro-evidence? One wonderful study of this, written about by my former colleague Tim Sullivan, measured subscriptions to Diderot’s Encyclopedie, to measure how the spread of technical knowledge effected economic growth in Enlightenment-era Europe:

 “Subscriber density to the Encyclopedie is an important predictor of city growth after the onset of industrialization in any given city in mid-18th century France.” That is, if you had a lot of smarty pants interested in the mechanical arts in your city in the late 18th century (as revealed by their propensity to subscribe to the Encyclopedie), you were much more likely to grow faster later on. Those early adopters of technology – let’s call them entrepreneurs, or maybe even founders – helped drive overall economic vitality. Other measures like literacy rates, by contrast, did not predict future growth. Why? The authors hypothesize that these early adopters used their newly acquired knowledge to build technologically based businesses that drove regional prosperity.

Another study of U.S. inventors from 1880 to 1940 links patenting to GDP at the state level. Yet another links a city’s innovation-oriented startups to its future economic growth. Another paper confirms that the rapid economic growth in the 1990s was due to technical change. This one links venture capital funding to economic growth. I could go on.

Policy, institutions, and culture

People often say that technology is a tool, and so neither inherently good or bad. That’s true enough, but what I’m arguing is that it’s an essential part of progress. If we want to improve human welfare, using technology well is going to be a big part of that at least in the long run.

Whether technology improves human welfare depends on a lot of things, including policy, institutions, and culture. Economists Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson write:

Economic institutions matter for economic growth because they shape the incentives of key economic actors in society, in particular, they influence investments in physical and human capital and technology, and the organization of production. Although cultural and geographical factors may also matter for economic performance, differences in economic institutions are the major source of cross-country differences in economic growth and prosperity.

In terms of policy, Gordon does a good job explaining how regulations around food quality helped improve welfare, limiting one of the major downsides to the mass production of food. Likewise, regulation was essential to the spread of the electric light, again to limit its downsides in the form of accidents. Mokyr has written extensively on the role of culture in promoting innovation and growth.

Being good at technology — being a society that harnesses it well — depends on much more than technical progress. But that’s part of what I’m arguing for when I lay out the optimistic case for technology. My hope is not just that we’ll blindly embrace new tech, but that we’ll build reliable, trustworthy institutions, create a culture that embraces innovation but acknowledges its risks, and regulate technology wisely with an eye towards both its benefits and its costs.

The electric light

Light used to be fabulously expensive.

the-price-for-lighting-per-million-lumen-hours-in-the-uk-in-british-pound.png

Over time, though, technology changed that. Humans gained control over their environment, opening up new possibilities in terms of how we work, how we entertain ourselves, the communities we live in, and more. I’ve written a lot about the electric light, based in large part on the book Age of Edison. And I see in that story the big points I’ve laid out here. The chart above gives the macro-historical story of light. It used to be wildly expensive, and now it’s something most people at least in developed countries can afford. It’s clear that it transformed societies for the better:

The benefits of electrical power seemed widely democratized. By the early twentieth century, all American town dwellers could enjoy some of the pleasure and convenience of an electrified nightlife and a brighter workplace, while domestic lighting was coming within reach of many middle-class consumers and a growing number of urban workers… In this respect, what distinguished the late nineteenth century technological revolution was not its creation of vast private wealth but the remarkable way its benefits extended to so many citizens. The modern industrial system built enormous factories for some but also served a more democratic purpose, improving ‘the average of human happiness’ by providing mundane comforts to the multitude. (Age of Edison 234-235)

But culture, institutions, and policy all mattered. Electric light caused accidents and required regulation. It created new opportunities for capitalists to exploit workers. It contributed to a growing urban-rural divide. The answer, I think, quite clearly is not to denounce the electric light or to roll the clock back to gas lighting. Rather it’s to acknowledge that maximizing the electric light’s benefits required more than technical change. America and the world were better off for that invention, but making the most of it required new rules and norms.

The future

Robert Gordon is skeptical about information technology, in terms of its potential to replicate the benefits of the industrial revolution. And in recent years key areas of the internet have not turned out well; I’m thinking of social media. Why be optimistic? Partly, I simply don’t see an alternative. I’ve argued that technology is one of the major forces for human progress and so without it the scope for improvements to human welfare is significantly diminished. But partly I’m optimistic because regulation, culture, and institutions can help make IT and the internet better. They can help us maximize the benefits we receive from them (which are already substantial). I have some thoughts as to what that might look like but the history of technology suggests that to get the most from any new invention requires participation from all of society. We need inventors, surely, and entrepreneurs. But we need critics, too, as well as politicians and regulators and activists. We need people to recognize the potential and the risks simultaneously, rather than focusing only on one or the other. What we need to make the most of technology is a well-functioning democracy.

Update: A literature review on technological innovation and economic growth.

Who uses social media well?

There is a sort of elitism that attaches itself to every kind of media. TV is an opiate of the masses — unless you watch the sort of prestige stuff that’s well-reviewed in The New Yorker. There’s a version of that for social media, too. Most people are wasting time, the thinking goes, but I’m using it for important stuff. Contrast that with this bit from Tyler Cowen, part of his predictions for the next 20 years:

Social media has become a kind of opiate of the intellectual class. So, grandparents use social media to track what their grandkids are doing — that’s nice and wonderful. But people who keep on refreshing Twitter for the latest developments in the Mueller investigation — frankly, I think it’s a big waste of time. I think there has been great wrongdoing. I fully support what Mueller is up to. But, at the end of the day, following it moment-to-moment is a kind of trap.

This is almost the opposite view. The everyday usage of social media might actually be good for you, whereas the intellectualized version of it may be terrible!

Now, I don’t think either half of that view is quite right. If most people were using social media well and its ill effects were just a problem for intellectuals, you wouldn’t see the broader evidence that it’s making people less happy.

Moreover, I suspect Cowen would agree that there is an even more intellectualized way of using social media that can be quite good for you: using it to become a wiser and more productive consumer of information, in the spirit of Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy. For instance, try redoing your Twitter feed to follow mostly academics — not just the ones who double as public intellectuals — and watch how things change.

So, there are better and worse ways of using social media — that much is obvious. What I like about Cowen’s line is that it reminds us that intellectuals and journalists aren’t immune from tremendously unproductive social media habits. If they want to get more from social media, they ought to rethink what they’re using it for.

But when you step back and do that rethinking, I suspect it still leads you to less social media overall. Yes, redoing your Twitter feed might help. But at that point why not spend more time on Coursera or listening to podcasts? Why not go back to your RSS reader and follow dozens of great blogs? Why not invent some other kind of internet/media product entirely? The more you think about what you like best about social media, the more you remember the other great stuff the rest of the internet can do for you.

Taxes, innovation, and value

Everything that follows is even more provisional than usual…

Krugman has a good piece making the case for much higher income taxes for the very rich. John Cochrane has a rebuttal. He points to this paper by Charles Jones on innovation and top tax rates:

When the creation of ideas is the ultimate source of economic growth, this force sharply constrains both revenue-maximizing and welfare-maximizing top tax rates. For example, for extreme parameter values, maximizing the welfare of the middle class requires a negative top tax rate: the higher income that results from the subsidy to innovation more than makes up for the lost redistribution. More generally, the calibrated model suggests that incorporating ideas and economic growth cuts the optimal top marginal tax rate substantially relative to the basic Saez calculation

I haven’t looked at the paper closely, hence the caveat at the top. I’ve posted about taxes and innovation here, and about taxes and growth here.

Anyway, my quick thought reading these posts and the abstract and summary of Jones’ paper is that we perhaps spend too little effort distinguishing innovative activities from everything else. This idea is discussed in Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, which I just started. Here’s a bit from one review:

When value extraction is masquerading as value creation, we can end up praising and rewarding non-productive activities while ignoring productive sectors. As a result, GDP rises although an economy does not make anything new and people do not feel better off. Prosperity is thus concentrated in the hands of the rich few, and inequality tends to rise. If it is a value creator that deserves a higher proportion of national income, it is now time to reopen the debate about the ‘value of everything’.

In the same vein, here’s what I wrote in a post last year:

When we talk about “creating value” in this context, it’s not just about financial value; it’s really shorthand for organizing resources in a useful way to achieve some social goal. An organization’s mission is supposed to be the ambition; profits are supposed to be the incentive; and, at least in a competitive market, innovation is the way you get it done.

Meanwhile, keeping capital gains taxes low, for instance, is a pretty inefficient way to encourage innovation.

All of which is to say, we can argue about the ideal optimal top tax rate. But what if we did a better job making it profitable to innovate and not profitable to do things that don’t create actual social value — or even destroy it? And yes, tax avoidance is a thing. So putting all of this on tax policy is probably a bad idea. But in our broader economic policy discussions, we could do a better job of differentiating what adds value and what doesn’t.

Changing your mind

Over the past year or so, I kept a list of articles where I noticed someone admitting they’d changed their mind about something, or discussing the idea of changing your mind in general. I wrote this week about how I was wrong about paywalls. So I figured I’d put the various links I found here on the blog, too. Here goes, in no particular order:

Tyler Cowen, on what it would take to convince him to support net neutrality, a position he once supported but no longer does:

Keep in mind, I’ve favored net neutrality for most of my history as a blogger.  You really could change my mind back to that stance.  Here is what you should do…

Akshat Rathi in Quartz, on coming to appreciate the merits of so-called “clean coal”:

As I began to report on the technology, it became clear I hadn’t looked beyond my own  information bubble and may have been overtly suspicious of carbon-capture technology. By meeting dispassionate experts and visiting sites, for the first time, I began to grasp the enormity of the environmental challenge facing us and to look at the problem in a new light.

David Brooks on a new book by Alan Jacobs called How to Think:

Jacobs mentions that at the Yale Political Union members are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.

How many public institutions celebrate these virtues? The U.S. Senate? Most TV talk shows? Even the universities?

Conor Friedersdorf on taking on the best form of an argument you disagree with, and quoting Chana Messinger:

And America would benefit if our culture of argument elevated the opposite approach, steel-manning, “the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.” … In short, she says, “Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.”

Tyler Cowen, speaking on the longform podcast:

“I think of my central contribution, or what I’m trying to have it be, is teaching people to think of counter arguments. I’m trying to teach a method: always push things one step further. What if, under what conditions, what would make this wrong?”

A study by Alison Gopnik and co-authors on becoming more close-minded as we get older:

As they grow older learners are less flexible: they are less likely to adopt an initially unfamiliar hypothesis that is consistent with new evidence. Instead, learners prefer a familiar hypothesis that is less consistent with the evidence. In the social domain, both preschoolers and adolescents are actually the most flexible learners, adopting an unusual hypothesis more easily than either 6-y-olds or adults.

Chadwich Matlin: I was a meditation skeptic until I tried to make my case. At FiveThirtyEight:

Skepticism is a FiveThirtyEight staffer’s currency. The only mantras we chant around the office are: Wait for the evidence; wonder if the evidence has something wrong with it; trust the good evidence only until better evidence comes along.2 I was especially distrustful because mindfulness and meditation have been having a moment — meditation apps occupy some of the top spots on the App Store’s rankings of most popular health and fitness apps; Anderson Cooper has profiled the merits of mindfulness on “60 Minutes”; mindfulness is being used in schools as a way to help manage classrooms. Given the hype and this publication’s natural aversion to health trends, I figured I was safe disregarding my therapist’s big claims.

But as FiveThirtyEight’s science team assembled the junk science we wanted to shed in 2018, I started to wonder whether mindfulness really was bunk. So I dove into the scientific literature and discovered I was wrong: There is some limited evidence to suggest that meditation might help with some ailments and may produce measurable changes in the brain. It’s no miracle cure, and there’s still a lot of science left to do, especially about the kind of casual meditation people may fit into a busy day.

Julia Galef: Not all disagreements are opportunities to change your mind.

This is kind of a funny thing for me to be pushing back on, since I so often write and speak about the virtues of trying to change your own mind. But I want to push back on it anyway. I think that “trying to change your mind” is a great goal we should be striving for, but that most debates have a pretty low probability of succeeding at that, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Here are some examples to illustrate the difference…

Bryan Cantrill, on Twitter:

How about a conference called “In Retrospect” in which presenters revisit talks they’ve given years prior — and describe how their thinking has evolved since?

Conor Friedersdorf on Eric Liu’s Better Arguments Project:

Be Open: “You cannot possibly change another person’s mind,” Liu said, “if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed. You may be able to rack up debater’s points. But you won’t change their mind if they sense you aren’t willing to have your mind changed. It’s a matter of mindset but also ‘heart-set.’”

Brian Resnick at Vox on intellectual humility:

Even when we overcome that immense challenge and figure out our errors, we need to remember we won’t necessarily be punished for saying, “I was wrong.” And we need to be braver about saying it.We need a culture that celebrates those words.

A challenge from David Leonhardt:

Pick an issue that you find complicated, and grapple with it.

Choose one on which you’re legitimately torn or harbor secret doubts. Read up on it. Don’t rush to explain away inconvenient evidence.

Then do something truly radical: Consider changing your mind, at least partially.

Agnes Callard on Pascal’s Wager and convincing yourself to believe something:

This argument has produced few converts, as Pascal would not have been surprised to learn. He knew that people cannot change their beliefs at will. We can’t muscle our mind into believing something we take to be false, not even when the upside is an eternity of happiness. Pascal’s solution is that you start by pretending to believe: attend church, speak the prayers, adopt religious habits. If you walk and talk like a believer, eventually you’ll come to think as one. He says, “This will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

Paul Krugman:

“what is remarkable is how small a role evidence has played in changing
minds. This is clear with respect to fiscal policy, where the strong association between austerity and economic contraction has made little dent in anti-Keynesian views. It’s even clearer with respect to monetary policy, as illustrated by a clever 2014 article in Bloomberg. The reporters decided to follow up on a famous 2010 open letter to Ben Bernanke, in which a number of well-known conservative economists and other public figures warned that quantitative easing would risk a “debased dollar” and inflation. Bloomberg asked signatories about what they had learned from the failure of inflation to materialize; not one was willing to admit they were wrong.”

What have you been wrong about? And what are you doing to improve your thinking process to ensure you’re willing to change your mind?

Update: I’ll ad more links as I can…

‘Change My View’ Reddit Community Launches Its Own Website