Friday, April 03, 2020

If You're One in a Million...

Many of you are familiar with the saying "If you're one in a million, there are a thousand people just like you in China alone."

It helps illustrate that while one in a million is certainly very rare, on another way of looking it at it's also quite common. A thousand people! You could fill a high school gymnasium with that!

Push the proportion down a bit and things get even more stark. Imagine a political view held by only 1% of the population. That's pretty fringe, right (for reference, 33% of Americans believe that alien UFOs have visited Earth)? But it's also one in a hundred -- in America, that translates to well over three million people. That's a lot! (We explored this dynamic previously in my "how to tokenize with proportions" post.)

One thing I often think about is how modernity and modern technology, in conjunction with our decidedly pre-modern lizard-brains, don't always mesh well. We know, for example, that fat tastes delicious because in the primordial environment it was rare and vital, and thus highly desirable to consume -- unfortunately, this doesn't translate well to a contemporary context where calories and fat are plentiful and we can easily over-saturate ourselves.

I suspect there's something similar going on with political opinions. One of the oft-proclaimed virtues of the internet is it allows you to find communities of like-minded persons no matter how obscure or random the interest. Obsessed with underwater basketweaving? You can find dozens of people who share that passion with minimal effort!

What does it mean when the same is true for political opinions? I suspect our brains have a rough heuristic at the ready that correlates how difficult it is to find holders of a given opinion with how uncommon it is in society. If one struggles to come across individuals who believe ideology X, one assumes that X is rarely believed in a given society. If one comes across X-believers without too much trouble, one infers that X is a common ideology. If 1% of Americans hold a particular political stance, that may be three million people -- but (at least until recently) they're not going to be easy to find via the normal modes of political engagement. If you just read newspaper columns, chatted with your neighbors, watched TV pundits, and so forth, you'd probably come across it rarely, if ever. If one really wanted to find a sizable chunk of Americans who believe this 1% view, one would have to expend considerably more effort.

Now to be clear: what I'm describing is only a heuristic, which means it's imperfect -- there are all sorts of reasons why, for example, a rare opinion might nonetheless be easy to spot "in the wild" (it's favored among extroverts or celebrities, e.g.) or a common one might be rarely seen (it's embarrassing). But it has some logic as a rough-and-ready way of telling us which views are common in our social circle and which aren't. It's not quite the same as the availability heuristic, but it is similar. Call it the search heuristic. Something easy to find upon commencing a search for it is common; something hard to find even when searching for it is rare.

The problem is that if modern technology makes pretty much any opinion with even a speck of public salience "easy to find", that hijacks our heuristic circuitry to make all of these opinions register in our minds as "commonplace". What is the result of that?

One potentially positive result is that it might offset some mechanisms that serve to silence dissident views via the so-called "spiral of silence" -- they learn that they're not alone, and so they're more willing to air their dissident views knowing that there are peers who share their perspective.

But there are also some potential upshots that I'm more ambivalent about. One thing that we might experience is the erosion of perceived consensus -- a sense of widespread opinion balkanization and a corresponding vertiginous inability to tell when there is an opinion that carries significant social agreement. There's a push/pull on this -- sometimes, a feeling of "consensus" is dependent on wrongly not perceiving the existence of dissent, and so the elevation of dissident voices corrects a widespread social misperception. But, assuming "consensus" does not require universal agreement, sometimes, a feeling of dissensus is falsely inspired by the presence of high-profile but ultimately negligible dissenters. To the extent that modern technology makes very small ideological minorities loom larger, we might believe ourselves to be far more disunited than we actually are. And if the search heuristic causes a wide range of opinions (many mutually incompatible with one another) to register as "common", we may have trouble grasping onto distinctions between actually common versus fringe outlooks.

In a similar vein, it is at least plausible that in a democracy there is a prima facie obligation to consider and give airing to certain viewpoints simply by virtue of the fact that they're common. This wouldn't necessarily mean that uncommon views can be automatically rejected, only that they must "earn" their space on the democratic agenda by means other than "because many people believe it". If this is so, then the perception that more views are "common" mean that more views can claim access to this prima facie obligation of consideration. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as a bad thing -- but consider it in the case of, say, openly avowed racism or extremism -- views which might objectively be as rare as ever, but perhaps feel more common than they've been in recent memory.

There are also risks latent even for the holders of the dissident opinions themselves, for they as much as anyone might be mislead into thinking their views are more widely shared than they are. If someone holds a view they know is rare but wish was widely shared, they must endeavor to persuade others to adopt it. If they then, say, run for office on its platform whose tenets are held by only 10% of the population, if (or when) they lose they probably won't be happy but they at least probably won't be confused. Unpopular opinions don't win elections.

But things are different if the search heuristic misfires and makes the dissident believe they are actually expressing a very common view. If they nonetheless persistently lose in the democratic arena, they might suspect bias, corruption, institutional barriers, or other forms of foul play are obstructing them. To be clear: there are many cases where such things are at work; I'm not saying that everyone who believes their views are not carrying the democratic day because of various social biases is simply misleading themselves. But sometimes a democratic spade really is just a spade; and there is at least the potential for this sort of self-deception to accelerate -- the result being greater mistrust and resentment of social institutions.

It's worth noting that there isn't an "objective" way of declaring whether a view is "rare" or not. Much of it already lies in framing: "held by 1% of the population" sounds uncommon, "held by three million Americans" sounds reasonably common. So we can't quite say that, even if the search heuristic is misfiring, it is objectively causing us to label "uncommon opinions" as "common". But I do suspect that our wider net of appraisals around how we relate to an opinion based on its perceived "commonality" are tied to the same set of assumptions under which the search heuristic should function at least roughly well -- meaning that if we no longer exist in that social world, the whole edifice comes under serious strain (if it doesn't collapse outright).

These are preliminary thoughts; they are not wholly hashed out in my mind yet, and I'm curious to hear others' views. Here's the tl;dr

  1. The search heuristic tells us that, roughly speaking, a view that is hard to find upon searching for it is rare, and a view that is easy to find upon searching for it is commonplace.
  2. The social media revolution has drastically reduced the search costs required to find large absolute numbers of persons who hold any particular view, even when they are actually relatively uncommon.
  3. Together, (1) & (2) cause us to mentally code many viewpoints which we'd perceive as uncommon as quite common (since we are able to find examples of them with little effort).
  4. The effects of this are unclear, but may include (a) increased willingness to air dissident views; (b) decreased sense of social consensus; (c) decreased ability to distinguish relatively common versus uncommon views; (d) decreased trust that formal mechanisms for measuring public opinion reliably track actual public viewpoints (even when they are in fact doing so reasonably well).

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Advancing Downward

For your pleasure, a tiny example of academic absurdity I encountered today.

As many of you know, I'm completing my Ph.D in the UC-Berkeley Political Science department. Today, I was asked by the department if I would be interested in teaching a class for them this fall. I had a few logistical questions, but the important one for our purpose was how this job -- and in particular, its pay -- would be impacted if I filed my dissertation (and thereby finished the program over the summer).

To be clear: regardless of whether I was technically still a Ph.D. student or an actual, factual minted Ph.D., I'd be teaching the exact same class and doing the exact same work. I'd just have a different title: "Lecturer" if I have a Ph.D., "Acting Instructor" if I do not.

So you might be thinking that I shouldn't get a pay raise just because I've got some fancy new letters after my name (you might also think that, if one's job description is exactly the same as a "Ph.D. student" versus as a department lecturer, then such "students" are, in fact, employees and should be treated as such. But we'll leave that aside for now.).

But if I would just be paid the same for the same class before and after garnering the credential of Ph.D., I wouldn't find that absurd and I wouldn't be writing this post. No, the truth is that if I deign to file my dissertation and graduate, I'd be paid less as a Lecturer -- substantially so. I'd also lose my health insurance.

So as best I can tell, the best play for me is to just arbitrarily delay "finishing" my Ph.D., even if it is complete by this summer. Which seems foolish for a host of reasons -- but certainly not more foolish than nominally advancing up the ladder of academia resulting in somehow making less money with fewer benefits than a graduate student.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

My Encounters with Richard Epstein

Apropos of current events, I thought I might share my three encounters with Richard Epstein.

Normally, I'd say "interactions" rather than "encounters", but in this case it would not be accurate -- there was no "inter-", as I never got a word in edgewise.

The first time came while I was sitting in the University of Chicago Law School common area (Epstein was for many years a University of Chicago law professor, though these days he's more associated with NYU and the Hoover Institute at Stanford). The law school cafe does not have pizza, but that day I had gone to the main food court on campus to pick up a few slices which I had brought back to the law school to eat. Epstein spotted my pizza as he was walking across the room and, without breaking stride or taking a breath said something like the following:
Where did you get that pizza I like pizza you can't get good pizza around here it's not like New York maybe I'll get some pizza for lunch!
Despite the fact that the opener was at least nominally addressed as a question to me, he never glanced backwards and I never had a chance to speak. By the time he was finished with his train of thought, he was halfway across the room and out of earshot anyway.

The second encounter came while I was sitting in on a faculty workshop featuring a presentation by Bernard Harcourt (now at Columbia) on 19th century French grain market regulations (or something like that). Harcourt is a good old fashioned Foucault acolyte, which made him stand out a bit at Chicago in general, and the thesis of this paper was that there was no such thing as market "deregulation" only "reregulation", which made him a target of Epstein in particular. Epstein asked him how it could be that there was no such thing as "deregulation" -- what if you just repeal all the regulations? -- and Harcourt responded by saying that the market is its own form of regulation that can have just as much disciplining effect, so "repealing" the regulations just results in a different form of regulation emerging. This answer was not satisfactory to Epstein, and they went back and forth along this vein for a bit -- is this deregulation or reregulation? -- until Epstein got frustrated and exclaimed "well that's just a semantic game." And Harcourt responded, with the perfect serenity of a continental political theorist:
"Everything is just a semantic game."
Reports were that it was the only time most of Epstein's colleagues had actually seen him rendered speechless.

The third encounter was also at a faculty workshop, this one for M. Todd Henderson, a corporate law professor and bastion of the law school's right flank, whom I happened to know idolized Epstein. I forget what Henderson was presenting on, but it must have been some way of de-(or re-?)regulating corporate law so as to minimize the government's role, and one could tell from the puppy eyes that he was hoping for Epstein's approval. Alas, it was apparently still too much government for Epstein, who went on a sustained rant that concluded "and then we're on the path to totalitarianism!" All of Epstein's comments on the papers of others concluded with that, but Henderson was still crushed.

Finally, while not an "encounter" per se, there was a running joke around the law school while I was there, to the effect that if Richard Epstein wrote the Constitution it would have only one amendment which would read "Congress shall make no law." In a similar vein, his known status as a polymath who worked in a dizzying array of legal subfields was thought to be counterbalanced by the somewhat "thematic" link tying together the contribution he was said to bring to all of them: if it's communications law, abolish the FCC. If it's election law, abolish the FEC. If it's health care law, abolish the FDA. If it's environmental law, abolish the EPA .... you get the idea.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Best Epic Rap Battles of History (By Season)

Look, we're all bored here, so let's award the best Epic Rap Battles of History for each season.

Season One

Winner: Albert Einstein vs. Stephen Hawking
Honorable Mentions: Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare, Napoleon vs. Napoleon

The season that started it all. Honestly, though, I think only Einstein vs. Hawking can compete with the stronger entrants in later seasons. The creators -- reasonably enough! -- were still finding their rhythm (get it?).

Season Two
Winner: Michael Jackson vs. Elvis
Runner-up: Rasputin vs. Stalin
Honorable Mentions: Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates, Cleopatra vs. Marilyn Monroe

Now we're cooking. The kid who plays young Michael Jackson was superb, and carries his battle to victory. The Rasputin vs. Stalin (vs. Lenin vs. Gorbachev vs. Putin) battle was strong almost top-to-bottom (only Gorbachev was a bit of a sour note for me). Jobs vs. Gates was a ton of a fun (remember those Mac vs. PC ads?). And Cleopatra vs. Monroe was a superb all-women battle with some truly vicious disses. Freddie Mercury's performance over Frank Sinatra was also a stand-out, but he won so convincingly the battle was actually too one-sided to make this list.

Season Three
Winner: Isaac Newton vs. Bill Nye
Runner-up: Edgar Allen Poe vs. Stephen King
Honorable Mention: Bob Ross vs. Pablo Picasso 

It's tough to top getting Weird Al in one of these (though if Neil deGrasse Tyson had actually played himself -- which I've heard he was willing to do -- it would have been even cooler). Stephen King has one of the best closing lines in the whole series. Bob Ross vs. Picasso is relatively light, but consistent all the way through. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. their namesake Renaissance Artists was good, but the performance was a little short. I also suspect I'm virtually alone in thinking that Miley Cyrus beat Joan of Arc (and pretty decisively, frankly).

Season Four
Winner: Stan Lee vs. Jim Henson
Runner-up: Western Philosophers vs. Eastern Philosophers
Honorable Mention: Ellen vs. Oprah

If you forced me to pick my absolute, all-time favorite, I'd probably go with Lee vs. Henson -- but it'd be torture. If you asked to pick me single favorite verse, though, it'd be Walt Disney's intervention in Lee vs. Henson -- and it would not be close. It's brilliant from start to finish (and, to be clear, compliments very strong work from Lee and Henson). As a political theorist, I found the philosophy battle hilarious. Ellen vs. Oprah is also a very good, evenly matched battle (and one of the few "clean" ones on ERB).

Season Five
Winner: George R.R. Martin vs. J.R.R. Tolkien
Runner-up: Gordon Ramsay vs. Julia Child
Honorable Mentions: Tony Hawk vs. Wayne Gretzky, Ash Ketchum vs. Charles Darwin

This was an absolutely loaded season -- I think clearly ERB's strongest overall. Tolkien's final verse where he works in all the titles of the Lord of the Rings is just masterful. I'm a dedicated Gordon Ramsay fan but Julia Child completely kicked his ass. Tony Hawk's incredible first verse is matched by Wayne Gretzky's brutal last verse. And Darwin has one of the great one-liners of all-time calling Ash "Mighty Morphin' Michael Vick." All that talent means a ton of tracks I love don't even make it onto the honorable mentions list here: (Daniel Craig) James Bond vs. Austin Powers, Ivan the Terrible versus various "the Greats", Wonder Women versus Stevie Wonder, and Winston Churchill versus Theodore Roosevelt are all superb.

Season Six
Winner: Guy Fawkes vs. Che Guevara
Runner-up: Elon Musk vs. Mark Zuckerberg
Honorable Mention: Ronald McDonald vs. The Burger King

This was a shaky season on the whole, but Fawkes vs. Guevara is one of the best in the entire series -- a distinction based primarily around the dead-on Che Guevara portrayal (who knew he also looks exactly like Jon Snow?), but certainly with an impressive toe-to-toe performance from Fawkes. Musk vs. Zuckerberg has a wonderful subtle gag running through it in that Mark "I don't even fucking blink" Zuckerberg in fact never blinks during the whole video. The McDonald vs. Burger King rap sneaks into honorable mention, but not due to either of the titular characters -- Wendy steals the show. Wendy's the company actually tweeted about the rap, which is a bit gutsy given their mascot's line about how she's "exploiting you both like you were growing my tomatoes."