The “Manual for Civilization” Project: A Library for the End of the World

With the subtitle, “How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch,” you can probably guess the genre of The Knowledge. I read this ambitious book over the holidays, hoping that I could learn some of the basics of fields I’m less familiar with such as organic chemistry and medicine. On that front the book delivers, but does it live up to its title?

Some parts of the book were very practical while others seemed superfluous. Purifying water with bleach (p. 37) could be useful in even a small-scale disruption. But in the wake of a larger disaster I find it hard to believe that knowing how to build an internal combustion engine (p. 199) or mix gunpowder (p. 232) would be near-term priorities. (As an aside, the book contains a one-decimeter line segment from which you can reconstruct the entire metric system, but I happen to think that less formal systems of measurement such as the acre–the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day–would become popular in apocalyptic scenarios.)

The Knowledge is a fun read and contains some useful tips, but I would not want it to be my go-to book for emergencies. That is why I was interested to learn of the “Manual for Civilization” initiative, started by The Long Now Foundation.  This is a library of books that were listed by domain experts and Long Now staff and donors in answer to the question “If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?

After reading through the answers I have compiled a short list of my own with the additional qualification that the book offers knowledge that is beneficial even if disaster doesn’t strike. The name after the title is the first recommender on whose list I noticed the book, with a link to their full list of recommendations. (Kevin Kelly’s compilation seemed especially good; his book Cool Tools would likely fit in the list below).

Risk, Overreaction, and Control

11-M_El_How many people died because of the September 11 attacks? The answer depends on what you are trying to measure. The official estimate is around 3,000 deaths as a direct result of hijacked aircraft and at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Those attacks were tragic, but the effect was compounded by overreaction to terrorism. Specifically, enough Americans substituted driving for flying in the remaining months of 2001 to cause 350 additional deaths from accidents.

David Myers was the first to raise this possibility in a December, 2001, essay. In 2004, Gerd Gigerenzer collected data and estimated the 350 deaths figure, resulting from what he called “dread risk”:

People tend to fear dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events, such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. If Americans avoided the dread risk of flying after the attack and instead drove some of the unflown miles, one would expect an increase in traffic fatalities. This hypothesis was tested by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 3 months following September 11. The analysis suggests that the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights. I conclude that informing the public about psychological research concerning dread risks could possibly save lives.

Does the same effect carry over to other countries and attacks? Alejandro López-Rousseau looked at how Spaniards responded to the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. He found that activity across all forms of transportation decreased–travelers did not substitute driving for riding the train.

What could explain these differences? One could be that Americans are less willing to forego travel than Spaniards. Perhaps more travel is for business reasons and cannot be delayed. Another possibility is that Spanish citizens are more accustomed to terrorist attacks and understand that substituting driving is more risky than continuing to take the train. There are many other differences that we have not considered here–the magnitude of the two attacks, feelings of being “in control” while driving, varying cultural attitudes.

This post is simply meant to make three points. First, reactions to terrorism can cause additional deaths if relative risks are not taken into account. Cultures also respond to terrorism in different ways, perhaps depending on their previous exposure to violent extremism. Finally, the task of explaining differences is far more difficult than establishing patterns of facts.

(For more on the final point check out Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, which motivated this post.)

Five Lessons on Strategic Thinking from Jane Austen

austen-game-theoristOn Monday I mentioned Michael Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. In this post we take a deeper look at Chwe’s argument: that Jane Austen was teaching lessons about strategic thinking through her novels in what he calls “folk game theory.” We will do that by going through chapters nine and ten in which Chwe examines five lessons on strategic thinking found in Austen’s six novels. I will focus here on examples from Pride and Prejudice as a way of narrowing the field and because it is probably the most popular of the six; page numbers refer to Chwe’s book.

1. Strategic thinking can lead to strong partnerships

One of Chwe’s goals in his book is to help dispel the notion that game theory is strictly atomistic. Austen does a good job of this because some of the strongest couples in her novels result from two characters jointly strategizing. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are first in conflict because they are strategizing differently (Mr. Darcy cannot imagine Elizabeth turning down his proposal of marriage; p. 146). Austen is shows the importance of choice and in particular the choice of a woman to accept to reject a proposal. As they encounter other strategic situations throughout the novel, though, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy gradually establish a pattern of working together. By learning how the other thinks, they engage in what for Austen is the height of intimacy. This type of joint strategizing can also strengthen female friendships (for Austen females are the more strategic of the two genders; p. 151).

2. You can strategically manipulate yourself

Another matter of choice–again, a primary theme in Austen’s work–is the decision to engage in “self-management” (156). An individual can have multiple “selves,” some of which are more in line with her long-term goals than others. Temperament alone is not sufficient to maintain commitment to your long-term interests, so you must allow your more rational self to override your short-term interests. This strategy can also be used to work against your own biases if you are aware of them (157-8). Mr. Darcy argues in a letter to Elizabeth that he was aware of his bias and was able to avoid letting it influence him: “That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain,–but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influence by my hopes or fears.–I did not believe her indifferent because I wished it.”

3. Preferences can be changed

Most social science models take preferences as given, but Austen is interested in how they can be shaped. One mechanism for changing preferences is gratitude (158-9). When Elizabeth learns that Mr. Darcy helped support the marriage between her sister Lydia and Wickham she becomes much more open to the idea of a relationship with him  (telling him that “her sentiments had undergone so material a change… as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances”). Love in Austen’s novels is a coordination problem, and being in love can also affect individuals’ preferences (160). A third factor that influences preferences is reference dependence: to what baseline are you comparing your current options (161-2).

4. Commitment requires strategic thinking

As discussed above, understanding how someone makes decisions–their preferences and strategies–is for Austen the basis of intimacy. By understanding another, you can view subsequent choices that might otherwise seem inconsistent as flowing from the same strategic point of view. This allows you to understand their goals and recognize their commitments (169). It also helps you to predict how they will react in changing circumstances, allowing you to assess whether and how committed they are to you.

5. Strategic thinking has its disadvantages

This final lesson is truly an innovation on Austen’s part, since contemporary game theory does not often consider downsides to rational thinking. Several complications may arise if you are known to be a strategic thinker. First, others might rely on you too heavily to make decisions for them (172). It may also lead to moral complications if others ask you to engage in strategic actions on their behalf, such as deception. Others might be less willing to help you if they know you are thinking strategically (173). If they view you as always looking for your own most preferred outcome, they may also become less trusting (175-6).

Through these lessons we can see that the manner in which an individual engages in strategic thinking can either strengthen or weaken her social interactions. Austen’s “folk game theory” helped to teach a disadvantaged social class how to outthink their counterparts and end up in more desirable circumstances. She also showed that game theory need not be individualistic, and how strategic thinking can be used to help others. If you enjoyed this post, there is much more to learn from Austen and Chwe does a great job of drawing out those lessons from all six of her novels. One of the biggest lessons in Austen’s novels–that others think differently from you–is still valuable today.

What Can Novels Teach Us?

Is it worthwhile for a social scientist to read fiction? What can novels teach us about human behavior? This post summarizes the work of several authors who would answer the first question with a resounding “yes,” and describes their arguments about how novels help us understand social behavior.

Most recently I had the pleasure of reading Michal Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Austen herself likely would have preferred the term “imaginist,” which is how the title character in Emma describes herself, referring to her strategic thinking abilities. Chwe’s argument in the book is that Austen is systematically analyzing strategic thinking through her novels. Austen certainly understood that novels could help teach social behavior: she writes in Northanger Abbey that novels contain “the most thorough knowledge of human nature [and] the happiest delineation of its varieties.” On Wednesday we will take a more detailed look at Chwe’s argument. In the meantime you can find a presentation summarizing the book here.

Austen would be in good company with Ariel Rubinstein. The central thesis of his recent book, Economic Fables, is straightforward: “Economic models are not more, but also not less, than stories–fables.” (You can read the book for free here, or see Ariel explain the motivation behind the book in this video.) Rubinstein’s view is actually the converse of Austen’s: he is not arguing that works of fiction are illustrative of human behavior, but that many social science models are themselves useful fictions. (Ed Leamer has advanced a similar view with a more practical twist in his book, Macroeconomic Patterns and Stories.)

Tyler Cowen helps to identify the key differences and similarities between models and novels in his paper, “Is a Novel a Model?” Here is the abstract:

I defend the relevance of fiction for social science investigation. Novels can be useful for making some economic approaches — such as behavioral economics or signaling theory — more plausible. Novels are more like models than is commonly believed. Some novels present verbal models of reality. I interpret other novels as a kind of simulation, akin to how simulations are used in economics. Economics can, and has, profited from the insights contained in novels. Nonetheless, while novels and models lie along a common spectrum, they differ in many particulars. I attempt a partial account of why we
sometimes look to models for understanding, and other times look to novels.

This interview with Tyler contains a summary of his perspective on novels and much more.

Cowen’s former GMU Economics colleague Russ Roberts also agrees that novels are useful for understanding social behavior–so much so that he has written three of them. Each of the novels illustrates one main economic lesson, and all of them support the idea of free markets for solving problems. Roberts interviewed Rubinstein the Econtalk podcast, in which they discuss some of the ideas that led to Rubinstein’s new book.

Overall this attention to useful fictions is a positive development for social science. Novels can help reach a much wider audience than journal articles and many nonfiction books. One danger–which we are far from now but still exists–is that we value the elegance of the novel itself (the language it uses) rather than the lessons it teaches. Another downside is that it is difficult to convey the policy relevance of a novel. Nevertheless, teaching lessons about human behavior in an enjoyable and memorable form is a huge step forward from most contemporary social science.

New Feature: Reading Lists

Several colleagues have recently asked me to curate reading lists for them, either to brush up on an unfamiliar subject or as the basis for part of a survey course. I have decided to include these lists on a new page, and to generate new lists from time to time.

To kick off this feature, I have included two lists. The first is a basic overview of economics and economic history. This list is intended for someone who already has a basic familiarity with the topic, but wants to refresh their knowledge or consider some other perspectives. The second is a brief survey of the security studies literature, with multiple options in each sub-category. It is intended as an introduction to the topic at the undergraduate level. Graduate students or professors who use this list should note that many of the works on the list are controversial.

Suggestions for amending the existing lists or topics for future lists are welcome in the comments section.

The Politics of Children’s Literature

From Tales for Little Rebels:

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ […] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.

[Via Brain Picker.]

Wednesday Nerd Fun: Literary Recipes

The blog is Paper and Salt, and it is described thusly in its inaugural post:

A love of good books often comes with a love of good food.  It’s in the many mouth-watering descriptions we encounter in novels, the wealth of new food memoirs, and the explosion of incredible food writing and blogging online. But it isn’t just today’s writers that have a personal obsession with food. We hear about it in Ted Hughes’ letters, see it in Emily Dickinson’s recipes, and imagine it in Hemingway’s cafés. And when I hear about the food that inspired them, I want to eat it too.

One of the early recipes is salmon croquettes, accompanied by an amusing anecdote debunking the myth that William Faulkner lived entirely on a liquid diet.

For more foodie fun check out Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch. The book has been reviewed widely, including by The Atlantic, which is the source of the video below.

Reading in Graduate School

Caveat: this is a skill that I am working to develop over the next few years, not one that I have mastered.

Reading in graduate school is different from that required for undergraduate coursework. This is true not only of the sheer quantity (it has been likened to drinking from a firehose) but also the types of readings assigned. As Thomas Kuhn has noted, most of the readings assigned to undergraduates are in textbook form. The advantage to this approach is that the reading is comprehensive, or at least provides most of the requisite information for the course.

But there is also a key disadvantage: the textbook is given as ‘received wisdom’ from sages of ages past without any indication that those findings were not uncontroversial at the time, or indeed even presently. This is like a movie: we see the final product, but we don’t know which scenes ended up on the cutting room floor (or at least are being saved for the DVD), which changes were made to the script, and so on.* These differences are apparent sometimes in movies that are adapted from books, but often they are invisible to the major audience. (Have you heard many favorable comparisons between movie adaptations and the original book? I haven’t.)  The movie analogy shows that while the final product is often perfectly fine in its own right, it is usually lacking the substance or nuance of the original.

This difference between watching the movie and reading the script is similar to the change from undergrad to graduate course readings.** Rather than having a nice, clean package of information in the form of a textbook, you spend much more time reading journal articles and short papers. Often you will read opposing viewpoints on the same issue/question, either in the same week or over the course of this semester. This type of reading has the impact, on me at least, of showing that science*** is a fluid process. It is not a collection of right answers, it is a resource of ideas that seem to fit with certain facts when they are viewed in a certain way.

Jeff Ely put it very well recently:

My tests don’t contain any information in them that isn’t in the raw data.  My tests are just a super sophisticated way to summarize the data.  If I just showed you the tables it would be too much information.  So really, my tests do nothing more than save you the work of doing the tests yourself.

But I pick the tests.  You might have picked different tests.  And even if you like my tests you might disagree with the conclusion I draw from them.  I say “because of these tests you should conclude that H is very likely false.”  But that’s a conclusion that follows not just from the data, but also from my prior which you may not share.

What if instead of giving you the raw data and instead of giving you my test results I did something like the following.  I give you a piece of software which allows you to enter your prior and then it tells you what, based on the data and your prior, your posterior should be?  Note that such a function completely summarizes what is in the data.  And it avoids the most common knee-jerk criticism of Bayesian statistics, namely that it depends on an arbitrary choice of prior.  You tell me what your prior is, I will tell you (what the data says is) your posterior.

Pause and notice that this function is exactly what applied statistics aims to be, and think about why, in practice, it doesn’t seem to be moving in this direction.

First of all, as simple as it sounds, it would be impossible to compute this function in all practical situations.  But still, an approach to statistics based on such an objective, and subject to the technical constraints would look very different than what is done in practice.

A big part of the explanation is that statistics is a rhetorical practice.  The goal is not just to convey information but rather to change minds.  In an imaginary perfect world there is no distinction between these goals.   If I have data that proves H is false I can just distribute that data, everyone will analyze it in their own favorite way, everyone will come to the same conclusion, and that will be enough.

Like reading the script of a movie and seeing how ideas change, graduate school offers the chance to peek behind the curtain of the scientific process. We can discover many things, some of them profound and some of them fundamental. But hopefully through it all we can remember something that we should not have forgotten in the first place: we are only human.


*Another way that this is sometimes apparent is in closed captioning. When a movie’s subtitles don’t match up precisely with what’s being said on screen it is often because the CC is based on a version of the script rather than someone actual viewing the movie and captioning it.

** If you have some interest in reading movie scripts, see here here and here.

*** By “science” here I mean simply the organized, falsifiable pursuit of human knowledge.