Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit. Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.

In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the latest thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.

Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind.  It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:

Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.

Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.

As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach - which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. the word Nietzsche is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking. The lack of irony and self-insight with which people imagine they are on a search for truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.

As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:  Continue reading

All that was implicit was made explicit

Wendy Bacon Wendy_Bacon
Talk about clamping down on Pub Servants’ social media reminds me of how as journos we used to interview them before access to info stopped
10/04/2014 10:09 am

This tweet reminds me of something I’ve pondered for some time. The modern craze for making the implicit explicit. Its everywhere. Firms and other organisations didn’t have mission statements for most of time, and then began acquiring them starting around the 1980s(?).

Were firms hopelessly adrift before then? We introduced Freedom of Information legislation (about a decade behind the US) in the Fraser years. Has freedom of information improved. Well it’s hard to say – one’s formal rights to information have improved vastly – we had barely any before legislation like the Fraser Government’s legislation and its more recent replacement. And yet journos could ring up public servants and find out what was happening. There would have been strong (implicit) codes of conduct. Public servants wouldn’t be ‘outed’. They would likely have expressed personal views without having to explicitly go ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record as they talked.

Yet we are in a world where government is endlessly performed. And in this world the performer finds the velvet glove of formal transparency requirements the perfect accoutrement to the iron fist inside – the instinct for concealment. Today in most organisations any contact with the media will go through communications people who are trained not to answer questions. And who can blame the organisations? For on the other end of the phone acknowledge little common interest with those they interview beyond the commonplace narcissism which they may share with, or project onto their interviewee. The journalist on the other end is after something to entertain – a ‘story’ – not an explanation of what’s happening.  As Malcolm Turnbull puts it engagingly, they’re the hounds, he’s the fox, their job is to find and kill him and his job is to stay alive.

But the thing I always think of when I think of our mania for making things explicit is disability.  There are any number of ‘rights’ we’ve given the disabled. And we’ve done great things compared to what went before. We’ve made buildings, car parks, all manner of things more accessible to the disabled. We’ve passed laws to prevent discrimination against the disabled. But before all that, in a old world where there was no transparency,  the press engaged in a conspiracy of concealment – but one that was on behalf of the common good, of good government. Remarkably – it’s so far from our current circumstances I must say I can barely imagine it – in a world recognisably modern, in a world full of gutter journalism and dirty political tricks, no-one let on that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a paraplegic. Continue reading

Operation 2770: TACSI’s Family by Family expands to Mt Druitt

Family by Family about which Troppodillians have heard before is spreading its wings. We’ve started in Mt Druitt where we’ve scoped the program which means investigating how it should be changed to optimise it to the local community. Here’s the Scoping Report which I think makes interesting reading.

Anyway we launched the scoping report with the Minister who’d commissioned us to establish the program – Pru Goward. And here’s my speech at the function. One thing that got my attention was the fact that, according to the scoping report, quite a few people from the area have tattooed their postcode – 2770 – to themselves. And the supporters of Greater Western Sydney take signs of their postcodes to fixtures against Sydney Football Club – which is now more explicitly the team from the leafy suburbs.  I’m thinking that that pride about their postcode has the same kind of glorious defiance in it that Nicky Winmar showed one day at Victoria Park, when he pulled up his jumper and pointed to the colour his own skin to insist that it wasn’t his problem – it was the Collingwood outer’s problem.

Here also is the audio of a recent interview on this by Alex Sloan.

Notes for a Speech by Nicholas Gruen, Chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation at the launch of the Family by Family Scoping Report for Mt Druitt, 12th March, 2014

I

Welcome to our modest function at Postcode 2770

Still, I’m reliably informed that from little things big things grow.

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

This example is not from NSW, but it’s not such an extreme example for those who know the system. And this is after what must be a decade, perhaps two of talking about “citizen centric services”!

II

Family by Family is different.

Continue reading

What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?

Enjoy.

PPPs 2.0: the presentation

Above is my presentation to the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society – the background blurb of which is here. You’ll find the first half of the presentation on the fractal ecology of public and private goods is effectively the same content as the first half of this presentation from late last year. However where the first presentation takes the introductory framework as a basis for talking about social capital, the same framework is used as a basis for sketching out a terrain for public-private partnerships. Anyway, I mention this to save you time. I’m not much of a fan of watching videos, as it’s more efficient to read something but in case you’re OK with them – here’s another. But if you want to read the ideas presented you can read them in very summary form in the column here. But I’ve also completed a draft paper on the whole thing. If you’re interested, please email me at ngruen AT gmail and I’ll send you a copy on which I’d be grateful to receive comments and suggestions for improvement.

 

Ethics Committees

The excesses of ethics committees are a pet hate of mine, but I’d always thought that for instance the Stanley Milgram experiment was an example of the kind of experiment where genuine ethical issues arose that might justify not going ahead.

But now I read on Wikipedia that:

In Milgram’s defense, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding).[13] Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants. Six years later (at the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:

While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…[14][15]

Milgram argued that the ethical criticism provoked by his experiments was because his findings were disturbing and revealed unwelcome truths about human nature.

Jeff Sachs’ ego to the rescue: or maybe not . . .

Jeffrey Sachs [Photo by World Economic Forum/ Flickr]“as much as I don’t understand it, Jeffrey Sachs really, really, really doesn’t understand it.” Nina Monk, author of The Idealist

“I don’t want to argue with you Jeff, because I don’t want to be called ignorant or unprofessional. I have worked in Africa for 30 years. My colleagues combined have worked in the field for one hundred plus years . We don’t like your tone. We don’t like you preaching to us. We are not your students. We do not work for you.” USAID head Pamela White to Jeff Sachs.

I just listened to yet another excellent EconTalk, this time with the author of The Idealist, which is about Jeffery Sachs’ efforts to end poverty and how they ran into well known problems. Problems that not only could have been predicted in advance, but problems that were predicted in advance.

I started tweeting words to the effect that “I’d always thought Jeff Sachs was a snake oil salesman”. Then conscience clicked in.  I thought I’d better check Troppo to see if I was right – as H.L. Mencken says “conscience is that little voice inside you that tells you someone might be watching”. In any event, I’m not unhappy with my response to Sachs before the data was in.

In many ways this story is of a piece with my dyspeptic take on Red Tape and Political Correctness.

One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. In the case of regulation, we really need the people at the coalface to be thinking about the efficiency of what they’re doing within a larger whole. It’s very difficult for the top, or the centre to get this to happen – as it has to happen at the periphery, but no matter. We’ll issue instructions.

Enough said – or enough said for now - I’m quite busy.

Estimating Habit Formation in Voting. Thomas Fujiwara, Kyle C. Meng, Tom Vogl

Abstract:

We estimate habit formation in voting–the effect of past on current turnout–by exploiting transitory voting cost shocks. Using county-level data on U.S. presidential elections from 1952-2012, we find that precipitation on current and past election days reduces voter turnout. Our estimates imply that a 1-point decrease in past turnout lowers current turnout by 0.7-0.9 points. Consistent with a dynamic extension of the Downsian framework, current precipitation has stronger effects following previous rainy elections. Further analyses suggest that this habit formation operates by reinforcing the intrinsic satisfaction associated with voting.

Paper available here. Which puts me in mind of the great William James – I guess Hume got this sort of talk going – though that’s a guess: Continue reading