Naïvely Dialectic Belief Formation

I have a new working paper up today on my writing page on dialectic belief formation. It’s a model of a person who forms beliefs based on a heuristic that takes a weighted average of the best and worst case explanations for observed data. The weights carry a penalty for the more unlikely explanation, captured in the model by a skepticism parameter. 

I’m arguing that a person who is excessively credulous of far-fetched explanations looks a lot like the type of exploitable, behaviorally anomalous person we see in data across a few superficially different applications: non-Bayesian belief formation, subjective probability assessment, and political spin. 

As an added bonus, I cite, among others, Stephen Colbert, the NPR Code Switch podcast, Hegel, and the Supreme Court!

And it’s called north

There is a restaurant in Providence that means an awful lot to me in a lot of different ways. It’s not a secret, it’s north. The place is long since famous, to whatever degree that means here in wee Rhode Island, and critically acclaimed to the maximum. I’m not treading new ground here, is what I mean, and anyway I’m not here to, god forbid, recommend where a person should go eat.

I keep starting and abandoning writing something about north—it always starts to feel a bit over the top, more earnest than I really mean, so I just give up and I think, it’s just a place you like to eat, you know? And what’s the sense in getting weird with that? But it’s an itch I can’t scratch and as I said there’s something about it all that I don’t know what it is, so here we are. I’m not the only one who feels that way about the place, not even the only one I know.

So what’s the deal?

north opened in 2012, when I was in the middle of living mostly in Toronto but still a lot in Providence, where my partner lived. I was constantly getting seriously worked up about border crossings and immigration rules and sort of still mourning having to have uprooted from Providence in the first place but not getting over it because I was back every other week. It was a tricky time. Lots of people have similar stories after grad school because you’ve got a proper grown-up life in a city and then you have to take a job wherever you get it. But that’s a story for another day.

I don’t remember when I first went to north, but right away it became weirdly tied in to my relationship with the city. I’d go “home” and see my friends and go there with them, the tiny, welcoming, happy place. So it was an important place to keep me sane and grounded when other things were so uncertain and contingent. But beyond that, right from the beginning it was just obviously the best. It sounds so cheap to say that it was fucking delicious but of course it was, and the drinks were great, and it was always maybe going to be exactly what you expected or maybe something weird would be going on. It was the best combination of extremely high quality and extremely loose.

[ Interlude for a requiem for the country ham… how long did it stay on the menu? It looked like a real pain in the ass to prepare but hey we always ordered it because it was damn good while it lasted. Also can we do a requiem here for the booze slushie machine, R.I.P. ]

By 2013 we were evangelizing, which I know because I looked it up in my email just now, and this probably seems like the moment to say I have dragged a lot of people to north over the years and everyone has loved it, so there. They all loved it even after however long waiting for the table, which was one hundred percent an important feature, because I can’t imagine what it would have been like with reservations. Anticipation with a bit of uncertainty.

We’re now I think up to two ways so far that north changed the way I think about stuff. It made me rethink how things taste, because I didn’t know that things could taste like several of the many ways things tasted there. It made me rethink going out to eat, because I saw the value of no reservations and the waiting and the way that everyone being happy to be there elevated everything else.

In 2015 I moved back to Providence full time. I finally got some stability and it was quite a relief. It turned out that I still wanted to go to north all the damn time, so it was never just about the dislocation thing. I’m extremely lucky that I could and can afford to eat there regularly, and that I had friends who wanted to do the same. When we’d want to get together and go somewhere, it was always north. A couple drinks across the street waiting for the table, family style so everyone can eat however much they want and actually share a meal like share a meal, and a tiny space that always felt easygoing. Oh, and the tiny ham biscuits, oh god.

When I travel somewhere I’ve never been before I think about where I want to eat differently now too. I think about it a lot more, for one. And north definitely had a part in that too, because it made me want to find similarly joyful spots on the road. I love seeking out places and north elevated my awareness and, I think, my taste too. I feel like I’m getting a better knack for guessing a place’s vibe from clues and telltale signs and I’m always thinking now about how a hundred structural choices ultimately manifest as a feeling. Maybe with a bit of alchemy. Integrity and daring, trust and talent.

Pause here for the Falling Sakura (when did it show up on the menu? Somewhere around here?), a cocktail so perfect and smart that I am jealous as hell that I didn’t think of it, but how could I when the ingenuity and the work is in the time, as ever the hardest corner to cut, in the ingredient that gives it its name.

I’ve taken seminar speakers and job candidates to north now too. What better way is there to show off weird little Providence than a restaurant that seems so clearly Rhode Island but is just as hard to define? It’s a risk, I suppose, not just in the obvious ways but also because I get so weirdly protective of the place that if I thought they didn’t like it I’d never look at them the same way again. They like it, though, or at least they see the look in my eye.

In 2017 it was me in a period of rest in Providence and north itself that was on the move. The last couple of visits to the old place were especially joyous and if memory serves we even might have taken a couple of photos of ourselves to commemorate the end of a little era. Not the end, of course, of north, which is old and new and still changing all the time at the new location, like seeing your cool friend in a well-tailored grown-up suit for the first time, and not the end of the old space, now big king, which I am as of this moment extremely impatient to try as soon as possible. But a nice little ending of something or other.

By then we’d seen exciting collaborative dinners, whole fried fish heads, countless bowls of dan dan noodles, and every vegetable under the Rhode Island sun elevated to high art. We never got tired of any of it, not a bit. By then we knew—from public stances and statements—that we were supporting a place that cared and shared about the hidden sides of the business, wages, diversity, symbiosis with the community and the supply chain, dialogue with customers. Is it just ex post reasoning to think that maybe we could tell all along?

I guess after all that it’s just my favorite place to eat, but I don’t think that’s a small thing. I’ve been glad it’s there ever since visit number one. I did a bad job just now of explaining myself and I think it might be because I don’t really know. As I said at the top, north is not an establishment short of fans. You may agree by this point that I am worryingly attached to it. I’m choosing for now to be OK with that because it’s fun to celebrate something once in a while and it might as well be something awesome. north has been there for me for nigh on six years now and I’ll be there for it too, damn it.

Kindness in the economics profession

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Economics Twitter spent some of the past week reacting to a new paper reporting survey results on how economists evaluate peers’ publication lists. Here’s a description of the results from the authors:

highlights

I’m not here to stop anyone from evaluating publication lists however they see fit. There have definitely been some snotty responses on Twitter that of course this is the right way to judge the publications of others, and that wouldn’t it be good if other disciplines did the same. I find that a little tactless and bratty, but fair enough. If you feel like you want a mechanism to sort your peers and you feel like this is the right one, knock yourself out. Maybe be a little more tactful about it, but okay.

Another class of response has been much gentler: not all strands of research pan out or are super groundbreaking, but they may still be worth publishing somewhere rather than being trashed. This is arguing against the attitude in the survey and against the kind of incentives those attitudes might generate. In a similar spirit lots of folks have been making good sport out of pointing out examples of ultra-influential papers outside of the “top” journals.

These seem a lot kinder in spirit than the “yeah, so?”, but they still make me a bit uncomfortable. The problem here isn’t merely that some not-so-brilliant research is buried or that some not-immediately-influential research upends the conclusion. To my ears the problem here is the erasure of vast numbers of hard-working economists.

The majority of professional economists don’t publish regularly or at all in “top” journals. There are countless reasons why some economists may not be willing or able to conduct research that will be accepted there. And being willing and able is in any case not enough to guarantee that it will happen. (For one thing, let’s recall another paper that had Economics Twitter buzzing recently on the importance of social ties in the publication process.)

Are the people who happily brag about their distaste for research outside of “top” journals ignorant or cruel? I take for granted that they do not consider someone a true colleague if they are not “good enough”, but what I do not easily understand is whether they don’t comprehend what they are implying or if they don’t care.

Pages in “top” journals are finite and the number of Ph.D. economists grows. How can you ask for nothing but “top” publications and sustain the industry as it is now? You cannot. If economists whose job requires research output refuse to publish outside of the “top” journals, they will lose their jobs. If instead they continue to publish outside of the “top” journals, then not one of their colleagues should treat them unkindly for it. Naturally there is a role for systems to identify great, broadly interesting research, and naturally such a system tends towards elitism, with all the pros and cons that implies. But it needn’t be toxic.

Once again: I’m not the thought police, and it is your right to look down on others if you want. But my advice, if you want it, is to shut up about it. I’ve argued before that economics is structurally not very good at supporting the average economist, and this is another manifestation of that.

If all economists who were not willing, not able, or not lucky enough to place research in a “top” journal were to leave the profession, what would you have? The graduate students you rely on, the citations you covet, the undergraduate enrollments you are enriched by, and the textbook royalties you enjoy would disappear with them. May you get what you wish for.

Efficient outrage

Matt Damon put yet another foot in his already quite full mouth this week. In an interview with ABC, he was invited to discuss the reckoning of sexual harassment and assault in his and other industries. He decided, for some reason, to go to bat for the idea that not enough is being made of what he perceives as a gradation of harm across different manifestations of workplace misogyny. Implicit is an attack on those who would advocate swift and severe punishment for what Damon would have us believe are minor sins.

I want to make the case that textbook economic theory will firmly reject Damon’s line of reasoning. Outrage of the type that Damon describes is more than justified, it is efficient. The market and the law don’t have the tools to reckon with the full, true cost of misogyny. This market failure makes for fertile soil for institutions that force perpetrators and enablers to internalize some of those costs. Outrage-of-the-day culture invites a lot of criticism from those looking to score a cool, contrarian take, but it is smart economics.

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