Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The World's Most Potent Opportunity for Doing Good

Robin Hanson's "Idea Futures" as the Number One World's Most Potent Opportunity:

I am always looking for ways to optimize leverage in doing good. Any system that provided much higher quality information and much more accurate understandings of complex phenomena than we have at present may result in extraordinary large leverage opportunities.

Science, in those fields in which decisive experimental findings are available, is a pretty good system for discovering "truth" in the sense of useful, reliable understandings that allow us to make correct decisions. The reason that we have been so successful in technological innovation since the late 19th century is because we have a reliable body of science and engineering. Engineers can build a bridge and know pretty darn well that it will work.

In those fields in which decisive experimental findings are not available (including climatology and most of social science), the scientific approach might be imitated, but the external anchor of experimental verification is absent. If the institutions which produce knowledge (largely the universities) have non-optimal incentive systems (which they do; see the Hanson quote below), then non-experimental fields may drift in inaccuracy, incompleteness, and inapplicability for many decades. We spend many billions of dollars on universities and rely on them almost exclusively for expertise in many fields. If an academic field is largely defective for decades at a time, the result will be that educators, reporters, political leaders, philanthropic professionals, political leaders, NGO leaders, etc. will be making faulty decisions.

If 90-99% of the decisions being made regarding, say, global economic development are simply false, the result will be that many trillions of dollars might be spent on global economic development ineffectively. If engineers tried to build bridges using calculations in which each calculation along the way was 30% or more off the mark, the result would be bridges that rarely worked. Do-gooders might complain that more bridges were needed, and that "people didn't really care" about building bridges, forcing more people to spend more money on bridges that continued to collapse. Philanthropy based on faulty understandings is largely money being flushed down toilets (or dropped into gorges, if you prefer).

Transparency International is "the leading global NGO devoted to fighting corruption." They just announced that Bangladesh and Chad are the two most corrupt countries on earth.

Vernon Smith has pointed out that corruption in the developing world is grossly exacerbated by, and perhaps largely due to, over-regulation. As a consequence, Smith points out that deregulating economies is one of the most important pre-requisites to eliminating corruption. Although I did not read Transparency's website thoroughly, in half an hour of browsing I discovered no indication that they were aware of Smith's insight.

Mohammad Yunus, father of micro-credit and Bangladesh's most famous citizen, largely understands Smith's point:

"Policies are made in such a way that the fate of a citizen depends on the whims and fancies of an official or an officer. . . . The government officials are not officials any more, they are businessmen. They are involved in the trade of power market. . . Rules, regulations, laws are the ingredients of that trade."


Why doesn't Transparency International launch a global "de-regulate economies" campaign if they really care about eliminating corruption?

Last spring, Changemakers.net sponsored a campaign for proposals to end human trafficking. Their campaign explicitly excluded proposals that involved increasing economic growth. What if policies that increased economic growth reduced human trafficking faster and more effectively than did the other "social entrepreneurship" projects? If one cares first and foremost about human trafficking, why exclude what might be the most effective set of policies of all?

It really might be true that, had Friedman and Hayek been the most highly respected authorities on economic growth in 1950, that poverty would not exist today - that that one change in perception of opinion could have eliminated numerous wars, billions of human beings in poverty, sickness, and death, human trafficking, child prostitution, etc. Had a futures market in ideas revealed these insights to the wider public in 1950, rather than the gruellingly slow process of academic debate, more human lives could have been improved than by any other plausible philanthropic intervention. Worse yet, although the ideas of Friedman and Hayek were gaining ground in the 1970s when they won their Nobel laureates, their ideas really gained momentum through empirical events in the last forty years - stagflation, the rise of the Asian tigers, the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial explosion, and the fall of Communism, and sustained economic growth in Chile, China, and India in order to become more widely believed.

The Transparency International and Changemakers.net examples are two of many thousands of examples of anti-market bigotry that remains pervasive. But rather than continue to argue, and then engage in costly political warfare, and sponsor philanthropic projects that often cancel each other out (or are merely ineffective), we should support Hanson's ideas so that we have a quick, responsive, and valid means of obtaining important truths concerning complex realities.

Part of Robin's superb analysis of the problem:

"Academia is still largely a medieval guild, with a few powerful elites, many slave-like apprentices, and members who hold a monopoly on the research patronage of princes and the teaching of their sons. Outsiders still complain about bias, saying their evidence is ignored, and many observers [Gh,Re,Syk,Tu] have noted some long-standing problems with the research component of academia. (Teaching is not considered here.)

Peer review is just another popularity contest, inducing familiar political games; savvy players criticize outsiders, praise insiders, follow the fashions insiders indicate, and avoid subjects between or outside the familiar subjects. It can take surprisingly long for outright lying by insiders to be exposed [Re]. There are too few incentives to correct for cognitive [Kah] and social [My] biases, such as wishful thinking, overconfidence, anchoring [He], and preferring people with a background similar to your own.

Publication quantity is often the major measure of success. This encourages redundant publication of "smallest publishable units" by many co-authors. The need to have one's research appear original gives too little incentive to see if it has already been done elsewhere, as is often the case, and neglects efforts to integrate previous research.

Perhaps the core problem is that academics are rewarded mainly for telling a good story, rather than for being right. (By "right" I include not only being literally correct, but also being on the right track, or enabling work on the right track.) Publications, grants, and tenure are based what other insiders think today, independent of whether one's ideas and results are proved correct or valuable later. Even for researchers with a good track record, grant proposals must usually describe in some detail exactly what will be discovered and how; true exploratory work is done on the sly. This emphasis on story-telling rewards the eloquent, who know how to persuade by ignoring evidence that goes against their view, and by other standard tricks [Ci]."

for references and the rest of the article, see Robin Hanson, "Could Gambling Save Science?"


see also "Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs?"