ED. NOTE: Ian McEwan, who is living in France this month, sent the following email this afternoon from Paris which he asked us to share with the Edge community. And the community is responding - we are pleased to include a Reality Club discussion with contributions from: Scott Atran, Daniel L. Everett, Dan Sperber, James J. O'Donnell, Lawrence B. Brilliant, Lisa Randall, Lee Smolin, John Tooby, Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran. More to come....
IAN MCEWAN, the award-winning British novelist, is the author of The Child in Time (winner of the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award, 1987), Amsterdam (winner of the Booker Prize, 1998), Atonement, Sweet Tooth, and The Children Act. He lives in London. Ian McEwan's Edge Bio Page.
The death cult chose its city well—Paris, secular capital of the world, as hospitable, diverse and charming a metropolis as was ever devised. And the death cult chose its targets in the city with ghoulish, self-damning accuracy—everything they loathed stood plainly before them on a happy Friday evening: men and women in easy association, wine, free-thinking, laughter, tolerance, music—wild and satirical rock and blues. The cultists came armed with savage nihilism and a hatred that lies beyond our understanding. Their protective armour was the suicide belt, their idea of the ultimate hiding place was the virtuous after-life, where the police cannot go. (The jihadist paradise is turning out to be one of humanity’s worst ever ideas; slash and burn in this life, eternal rest among kitsch in the next).
That is basically what interests me—the double question of understanding our own biases, but also understanding the potential of using this indirect information and these indirect cues of quality of reputation in order to navigate this enormous amount of knowledge. What is interesting about Internet, and especially about the Web, is that Internet is not only an enormous reservoir of information, it is a reputational device. It means that it accumulates tons of evaluations of other people, so the information you get is pre-evaluated. This makes you go much faster. This is an evolutionary heuristic that we have, probably since the birth of the human mind.
Follow the people who know how to treat information. Don't go yourself for the solution. Follow those who have the solution. This is a super strong drive—to learn faster. Children know very well this drive. And of course it can bring you to conformism and have very negative side effects, but also can make you know faster. We know faster, not because there is a lot of information around, but because the information that is around is evaluated; it has a reputational label on it.
This Edge feature is our second foray into the idea of "reputation" in the age of the Internet. The first, in December 2004, "Indirect Reciprocity, Assessment Hardwiring, And Reputation": A Conversation with Karl Sigmund, occurred in another era (or was it another planet): no iPhones, no Facebook, no Twitter. We were sending faxes through our PCs and Macs attached to modems, and short messages through our pagers.
At that time Sigmund said, "In the early 70s, I read a famous paper by Robert Trivers, one of five he wrote as a graduate student at Harvard, in which the idea of indirect reciprocity was mentioned obliquely. He spoke of generalized altruism, where you are giving back something not to the person you owed it to but to somebody else in society. This sentence suggested the possibility that generosity may be a consideration of how altruism works in evolutionary biology."
"I am often thinking about the different ways of cooperating," he added, "and nowadays I'm mostly thinking about the strange aspects of indirect reciprocity. Right now it turns out that economists are excited about this idea in the context of e-trading and e-commerce. In this case you also have a lot of anonymous interactions, not between the same two people but within a hugely mixed group where you are unlikely ever to meet the same person again. Here the question of trusting the other, the idea of reputation, is particularly important. Google Page Rankings, the reputation of eBay buyers and sellers, and Amazon reader reviews are all based on trust, and there is a lot of moral hazard inherent in these interactions."
Gloria Origgi, whose previous Edge feature, "Who's Afraid Of The Third Culture?" appeared in these pages in 2006, is an exemplar of the Third Culture in Europe. According to philospher Daniel C. Dennett, she has completely mastered everything from philosophy to neuroscience, moving gracefully through the conceptual jungles of everything from neuroscience to cognitive science to anthropology. A Parisian, she is an antidote to that European genre of French thought that creates the illusion of depth and profundity that Dennett calls "Eumerdification"*.
In "What Is Reputation?" Origgi talks about "the double question of understanding our own biases, but also understanding the potential of using this indirect information and these indirect cues of quality of reputation in order to navigate this enormous amount of knowledge.
"What is interesting about Internet, and especially about the Web, is that Internet is not only an enormous reservoir of information, it is a reputational device. It means that it accumulates tons of evaluations of other people, so the information you get is pre-evaluated. This makes you go much faster. This is an evolutionary heuristic that we have, probably since the birth of the human mind.
"Follow the people who know how to treat information. Don't go yourself for the solution. Follow those who have the solution. This is a super strong drive—to learn faster. Children know very well this drive. And of course it can bring you to conformism and have very negative side effects, but also can make you know faster. We know faster, not because there is a lot of information around, but because the information that is around is evaluated; it has a reputational label on it."
GLORIA ORIGGI is a researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and a journalist. She is a best-selling novelist in the Italian language, a respected philosopher in French, a cognitive scientist in English, and the person you want to sit next to at a dinner party. Her latest book, La Reputation, was recently published in France. Gloria Origgi's Edge Bio Page.
[* Dennett writes in his book Breaking The Spell: "John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: 'Michel, you're so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?' To which Foucault replied, 'That's because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.' I have coined a term for this tactic, in honour of Foucault's candor: eumerdification."]
WHAT IS REPUTATION?
I'm a philosopher and I do some social sciences, but basically I stick to philosophy in my method, in my way of tackling questions. I was interested in epistemology, in questions about knowledge. At a certain point in the early 2000s, Internet became such a major phenomenon that I started to be interested in transformations of the ways in which we organize, access, produce, and distribute knowledge that was dependent on the introduction of Internet in our lives.
I was interested in the question of trust. It seems like a paradox. The traditional view of knowledge in philosophy and epistemology is that you should not trust, and you should be an autonomous thinker. You should have in your own mind the means to filter information, and to infer new knowledge from what you already know without taking into account the opinion of others. The opinion of others is doxa, and episteme—the true knowledge—is the opposite, being an autonomous knower. With Internet and this hyperconnectivity in which knowledge started to spin around faster than light, I had the feeling that trust was becoming a very important aspect of the way in which we acquire knowledge.
If you believe that you can harness empathy and make choices about when to experience it versus when not to, it adds a layer of responsibility to how you engage with other people. If you feel like you're powerless to control your empathy, you might be satisfied with whatever biases and limits you have on it. You might be okay with not caring about someone just because they're different from you. I want people to not feel safe empathizing in the way that they always have. I want them to understand that they're doing something deliberate when they connect with someone, and I want them to own that responsibility.
JAMIL ZAKI is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Jamil Zaki's Edge Bio Page.
REALITY CLUB DISCUSSION
Paul Bloom: "Zaki correctly describes my own position as “empathy is overrated”. I agree that empathy can sometimes motivate kind behavior. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is short-sighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many. It is capricious; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for hatred towards those who harm them. It is corrosive in personal relationships, exhausting the spirit and making us less effective at helping those we love. ..." [Read]
David DeSteno: "How do we go from wanting to harm someone to commiserating with them? The answer, I think, potentially offers a solution to the competing views of Zaki and Bloom. Whereas Zaki is right about empathy and compassion being partially subject to choice, the usefulness of such “choosing” can be called into question. After all, Bloom is quite correct in noting that our care for others is biased. Compassion isn’t dispassionate; even when people’s suffering is objectively equal, we feel more compassion for those like us. ..." [Read]
Daryl Cameron: "Jamil Zaki presents a compelling case that empathy is a choice: empathy fluctuates depending on what we want to feel. I largely agree with this perspective. Despite what some claim, this is a new and controversial framework: as I have suggested elsewhere, this framework implies that apparent limits of empathy actually result from choices to avoid empathy. Empathy may not be fundamentally biased—instead, we choose not to feel empathy in many cases. Is empathy only as limited as we want it to be? ..." [Read]
Dan Zahavi: "To move forward, it can sometime be useful to go backwards. One move that is surprisingly rarely made is to revisit the initial philosophical and psychological debate on empathy that took place during the first decades of the 20th century. Were one to do so, it would quickly become apparent that many contemporary theorists understand (dare one say misunderstand?) something very different by the term ‘empathy’ than the people who originally coined it. ..." [Read]
A Conversation with Jamil Zaki
I've been thinking an enormous amount about a puzzle concerning how empathy works. Before describing it, I should make sure that we're on the same page about what empathy is. To me, empathy is a useful umbrella term that captures at least three distinct but related processes through which one person responds to another person's emotions.
Let's say that I run into you and you are highly distressed. A bunch of things might happen to me. One, I might "catch" your emotion and vicariously take on the same state that I see in you; that's what I would call experience sharing. Two, I might think about how you feel and why you feel the way you do. That type of explicit consideration of the world as someone else sees it is what I would call mentalizing. Three, I might develop concern for your state, and feel motivated to help you feel better; that is what people these days call compassion, also known as empathic concern.
Philip Tetlock: If you turn to session six, slide 117-118, you’re going to see a little piece on the seductive power of scenarios. Imagine you’ve got one of these between subjects designs in which half of the people read the top slide, half of the people read the bottom slide, then they make a judgment about the plausibility or probability of this outcome.
Philip Tetlock: What I want to do today is three things: I want to clear up some confusion from last time about counterfactual reasoning and how it’s intertwined with superforecasting; I want to link up some of the things that are in the final sets of slides on sacred values and taboo cognition and superforecasting; Then, I want to give you some examples of superforecasting in action and talk about condensing it all into four big problems and one killer app solution.
Philip Tetlock: I was thinking over lunch about how to summarize or capture the essence of what went on this morning. There were certain key ideas I wanted to get across and for the most part they’ve gotten across, but some may have been miscommunicated a bit based on some feedback I’ve gotten.
You can look at the glass as either one-third full or two-thirds empty. Forecasting tournaments are in their infancy as a scientific method and as a tool for improving policy debate. We’ve gone through the first generation of tournaments, and we’ve made tangible progress. We’ve learned how to keep score; we have shown that it’s possible to measure the accuracy of probabilistic judgments, of messy real world events; we have shown that it’s possible to improve accuracy through a combination of selecting the right people, training them, teaming them, and using the right types of aggregation algorithms. Those are all achievements, but we’re still far short of what I’m going to call the “Bob Axelrod ideal” of a mechanism that can guide policy with evidence based precision. I don’t know if that’s a fair characterization of where you would want us to be, but we’re at least two-thirds short of that. We have made some progress, and we’re on the right path.
Philip Tetlock: I thought it might be a good idea before we go into the quality of questions that are input into tournaments to say a few more words about the nature of the Good Judgment Project and what it meant to win the forecasting tournament, how it won the forecasting tournament, and what inferences you might or might not want to draw from victory in forecasting tournaments in general.
If you were to turn to slide twenty-eight in the book, it raises the question, how much can the Good Judgment Project improve foresight?
For the psychology professor Philip Tetlock, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a classic example of the insufficiency of secret-service agencies. When Barack Obama gave the green light for that operation four years ago, he knew he was making one of the most difficult decisions in his life—one that would not only mean life or death for those involved, but also sway the course of history and help determine his legacy. The prognoses offered by the secret-service agencies were inconclusive: some put the likelihood for success at 40%, others at 80%. In the movie based on this operation, Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA agent Maya insists she is 100% certain of success. In reality, Obama determined the chances stood at fifty-fifty and gave the green light against the advice of his secretary of defense.
In Tetlock's view, such imprecisions present an unacceptable risk. Forecasts alleging complete certainty are, of course, unscientific. But Tetlock argues that a historic decision must not be based on imprecise reports. While Obama may have enjoyed luck on a historic scale, with his special task force finding Bin Laden and killing him, Tetlock insists that the work of secret-service agencies must change—fundamentally.
Since the eighties Tetlock has worked on precisely this endeavor. For four years now he has pursued research at the University of Pennsylvania at the behest of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which the NSA and the CIA, together with fourteen other American secret-service agencies, established in 2006, in order to develop new methods for secret-service work in the post-9/11 era. Among IARPA’s divisions are the Office for Anticipating Surprise, the Office of Smart Collection, and the Office of Incisive Analysis.
Psychologists' "forecasting tournaments" capture the interest of the NSA and the CIA
This past weekend Tetlock met with twenty scientists and engineers on a vineyard north of San Francisco. Two European journalists were invited; otherwise, the meeting was closed to the public. Tetlock wanted to discuss the results of his Good Judgment Project, which he has worked on for 24 years. The scientists discuss the project under ideal circumstances: sheltered from the summer heat in the cool living room of a stately Victorian house. With palms in the garden, a front porch and wainscoting, the house exudes colonial splendor. The air is redolent with the rose beds in front of the windows and the precious woods of the furniture. The host is John Brockman of Edge Foundation, Inc. (http://edge.org), which is the best network for such debates in the country. That explains the presence of such intellectual heavyweights as the Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman, the political scientist and National Medal of Science winner Robert Axelrod, the political scientist Margaret Levi, and Google Vice President Salar Kamangar. It isn’t easy to hold one’s own in such a group. Kahneman in particular, the cleverest of them all, is skeptical.
Tetlock begins by recounting the history of the Good Judgment Project. In 1984 he began holding "forecasting tournaments" in which selected candidates are asked questions about the course of events. In the wake of a natural disaster, what policies will be changed in the United States? When will North Korea test nuclear weapons? Candidates examine the questions in teams. They are not necessarily experts, but attentive, shrewd citizens. One of the best forecasters so far is Bill Flack, a former official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Nebraska.
This can't be the end of human evolution. We have to go someplace else.
It's quite remarkable. It's moved people off of personal computers. Microsoft's business, while it's a huge monopoly, has stopped growing. There was this platform change. I'm fascinated to see what the next platform is going to be. It's totally up in the air, and I think that some form of augmented reality is possible and real. Is it going to be a science-fiction utopia or a science-fiction nightmare? It's going to be a little bit of both.
JOHN MARKOFF is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covers science and technology for The New York Times. His most recent book is the forthcoming Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. John Markoff's Edge Bio Page
THE NEXT WAVE
I'm in an interesting place in my career, and it's an interesting time in Silicon Valley. I grew up in Silicon Valley, but it's something I've been reporting about since 1977, which is this Moore's Law acceleration. Over the last five years, another layer has been added to the Moore's Law discussion, with Kurzweil and people like him arguing that we're on the brink of self-aware machines. Just recently, Gates and Musk and Hawking have all been saying that this is an existential threat to humankind. I simply don't see it. If you begin to pick it apart, their argument and the fundamental argument of Silicon Valley, it's all about this exponential acceleration that comes out of the semiconductor industry. I suddenly discovered it was over.
Now, it may not be over forever, but it's clearly paused. All the things that have been driving everything that I do, the kinds of technology that have emerged out of here that have changed the world, have ridden on the fact that the cost of computing doesn't just fall, it falls at an accelerating rate. And guess what? In the last two years, the price of each transistor has stopped falling. That's a profound moment.
On the weekend of July 30th, Edge convened one of its "Master Classes." In the past, these classes have featured short courses taught by people such as psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman ("A Short Course in Thinking About Thinking"); behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Sendhil Mullainathan, again with Kahneman ("A Short Course in Behavioral Economics"); and genomic researchers George Church and J. Craig Venter ("A Short Course on Synthetic Genomics").
This year, the psychologist and social scientist Philip E. Tetlock presented the findings based on his work on forecasting as part of the Good Judgment Project. In 1984, Tetlock began holding "forecasting tournaments" in which selected candidates were asked questions about the course of events: In the wake of a natural disaster, what policies will be changed in the United States? When will North Korea test nuclear weapons? Candidates examine the questions in teams. They are not necessarily experts, but attentive, shrewd citizens.
Steven Pinker, who has written about Tetlock's work on Superforecasting, noted that "Tetlock is one of the very, very best minds in the social sciences today. He has come up with one brilliant idea after another, and superforecasting is no exception. Everyone agrees that the way to know if an idea is right is to see whether it accurately predicts the future. But which ideas, which methods, which people have an actual, provable track record of non-obvious predictions vindicated by the course of events? The answers will surprise you, and have radical implications for politics, policy, journalism, education, and even epistemology—how we can best gain knowledge about the world we live in."
Among Tetlock's "students" at the Edge weekend were many intellectual heavyweights including political scientist and National Medal of Science winner Robert Axelrod; psychologist, Nobel Laureate, and recipient of the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom Daniel Kahneman; the political scientist and Director of Stanford’s CASBS Margaret Levi; Google Senior Vice President Salar Kamangar; psychologist and National Medal of Science winner Anne Treisman; Roboticist Rodney Brooks, former head of MIT's Computer Science Lab; W. Daniel Hillis, pioneer in massively parallel computation; medical inventor Dean Kamen; and Peter Lee, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research, overseeing MSR NExT.
Over the weekend in Napa, Tetlock held five classes, which are being presented by Edge in their entirety (8.5 hours of video and audio) along with accompanying transcripts (61,000 words). Commenting on the event, one of the participants wrote:
"The interesting thing is that this is not about a latest trend that might scale in one or two years, but about real change that might take a decade or two. Also, these masterclasses are not only much more profound than any of the conferences popularizing contemporary intellectualism. The possibility to spend that much time with the clairvoyants in a setting like this also gives you a sense of community so much greater than any of the advertised."
PHILIP E. TETLOCK, Political and Social Scientist, is the Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with appointments in Wharton, psychology and political science. He is co-leader of the Good Judgment Project, a multi-year forecasting study, the author of Expert Political Judgment and (with Aaron Belkin) Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics, and co-author (with Dan Gardner) of Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction (forthcoming, US, Crown, September 29th; UK, Random House, September 24th). Further reading on Edge: "How To Win At Forecasting: A Conversation with Philip Tetlock" (December 6, 2012). Philip Tetlock's Edge Bio Page.