Professor Jim Flynn sets a clever trap in his latest book, “How To Improve Your Mind”. Promising that all readers will “be far more able to defend their position after reading it than before”, Flynn instead provides the critical tools necessary instead for reassessing the irrational beliefs each of us hold and, in so-confronting, end them. For your own good, you should let yourself be trapped. Jim Flynn is arguably New Zealand’s best social scientist. I disagree with him on some aspects of economic policy, but Professor Flynn is a truth-seeker. And, even better, he’s very often a truth finder. Here, he helps the rest of us be better truth-seekers. This is no mean task. Thinking rationally is hard and, often, unpleasant. Worse, there is no payoff to rational thinking in many areas of life; you will hardly be less successful in most occupations if it gives you pleasure to believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. But I’ll return to this.I should be reviewing Eliezer Yudkowski's "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" for a coming weekend's Press.
Flynn ably demonstrates the methods of rationality through a series of case studies of beliefs that contravene the methods. He also warns against the tricks used by policy advocates against those not appropriately armored against them.
I disagree with a few of the finer points in Flynn’s chapters on economics. For example, even if the reservation wages of second earners are lower than those of primary family earners, this will not drive down female wage rates unless we add assumptions around segmented labour markets. Further, decent labour standards seem to owe more to higher incomes and increased productivity than they do to Twentieth Century regulatory interventions. In developing countries, child labour is very sensitive to family income; when parents can afford to do so, they send their kids to school. And he is perhaps a bit too optimistic about the feasibility of ameliorative regulatory reform in financial markets. But Flynn has a sharp nose for the failures of rational thinking about economics among those whose values he shares – he correctly sees negative income taxes as better than a minimum wage for helping those he would wish to assist, though he misses that cleverer forms of the negative income tax solve some of the problems he highlights.
The bigger question, and the one harder to answer, is why to choose rationality in the first place. Flynn writes, “If you learn how to use logic and evidence to examine your own principles, and the principles other people urge upon you, you can enlist in the ranks of mature moral agents rather than in the army of stones.” But it’s an expensive endeavour – not unlike taking the Red Pill offered Neo in The Matrix. I’d be surprised if more than a quarter of the population even tries to choose rationality over comforting illusions. But if you’d like to try to try, Flynn’s book is a good start.
One bit that wasn't relevant for the Christchurch Press but I found awfully interesting was this observation:
"Academic competition for grades in a particular course selects out an elite that gets an A+. But within some areas, the correlation between courses is far more perfect than within others. Within mathematics, the best student in differential equations is likely to be the best student in algebraic geometry and in number theory, and so forth. Within political studies, the best student in political behaviour is less likely also to be the best student in areas as diverse as international relations, political philosophy, and quantitative methods. So, talented math students will come to scholarship committees with a string of A+s, and talented political studies students with a mix of A+s and As. Rather than putting all the math students at the top, the obvious thing would be to alternate science/math students with arts/social science students. Observe how quickly math professors forget what they know about regression to the mean when such a proposal is put."I'm on the Scholarships Advisory Committee as the Commerce rep; we help advise on policy around scholarships. I wonder how much this affects our University-wide awards. Economics probably doesn't do horribly out of this kind of overall effect: more than any of the other arts or social sciences, there's likely an underlying e-factor - thinking like an economist - that explains variance across students. At least in microeconomics. But arts and social sciences in general will do worse than the bench sciences and maths.
I wonder if anybody has run the test. If Flynn is right, then we expect lower variance in course grades for maths and science majors than for arts and commerce majors. We can use incoming high school grades as a measure of baseline ability. We could observe higher variance among the best students in arts courses than among the best students in maths courses simply because of grade truncation issues if the very best of all students pick maths over arts. I think I'll add the "future honours project proposals" tag; this seems testable.