Incentives and knowledge work

A lengthy mea culpa recently appeared in the German newspaper Der Spiegel about the unmasking of one of their star reporters as a fraud.  Claas Relotius spiced up his stories with made-up or exaggerated details and people and quotes, and pulled it off for decades without being caught by the paper’s internal fact-checkers.  (It would be amusing and appropriate if he were to turn to fiction-writing now, since like top art forgers he’s a very talented man in his overall field, in this case writing.  Apparently he has an excellent eye for telling and poignant detail.)

On an immediate level I’m reminded of the replicability crisis in academia.  A very high percentage of papers, particularly in the social sciences, report finding results which were theoretically discovered using the scientific method– but which can’t be replicated by repeating the experiment.  That is of course a key component– arguably THE key component– of that method.  A related problem in science is p-hacking.  That’s the drive to find significance– the idea that what is being tested does actually make a serious difference– which is strong enough to lead some people to adjust the parameters of their experiment so significance is found.

To me the common thread appears to be the way incentives are set up in society in general.  Society rewards writing and other forms of storytelling that offer instructive narrative and confirmation bias, simply because there’s a market among human beings for reducing uncertainty.  You tell a story that makes people feel that we understand the world better, you get rewarded with grants and tenure and journalism prizes.  But life is messy and rarely comes in parable form.  It’s a lot of work to dig out the details that can be emphasized to serve as the components of a moral narrative.  And so people have a perennial temptation to solve the difficulty by cutting corners and manipulating anything they can control to evade the actions of fact-checkers.  Which there aren’t that many of anyway because there’s no money or glory in finding that we’ve been wasting our time.

Three kinds of corruption

Megan McArdle’s latest is on “Medicare for All”, the branding the Left seems to have settled upon to try once again to sell single payer.  Her point is essentially that the fantasies of the Left are poorly thought-through, with lots of handwaving about the cost when they bother to think about it at all.  Her streak of Irish skepticism never permits her to forget that, “people are why we can’t have nice things”.  Bernie Sanders and his ilk can ignore reality in their desperation to reach the pie-in-the-sky Automat.  Not her.  She can’t forget that someone has to pay for all this, and it won’t be that “magic pot of money” (to borrow her phrase), The Rich.  And most likely it’s not going to be the people who benefit most from the current scheme, like health care providers who won’t stand for any scheme cutting their incomes (as would have to happen) or the 70% of Americans who like the insurance they have.  You’d think it would be a nonstarter, right?

Nope.  Politics has become disconnected from facts or rationality.  On both sides.  I see three kinds of corruption: of language, of interpretation and of science.

The Left talks a lot about the supposed irrationality of everyone else, but the truth is that the Left contributed enormously to the killing of rationality as the basis for politics, by their corruption of language.  Once, everyone spoke the same language, and so could actually argue.  They might hate each other’s vision, but they actually understood it.  Today’s Left have proven themselves to be incapable of sticking to any definition whatsoever, and regardless of how noble the intention, the corruption of language is actually the corruption of rationality.  Democrats of the 1970s are practically alt-Right based on the definitions current among the Left on today’s college campuses.

Interpretation, too, has been corrupted.  The conclusion reached is today all that matters.  Activist morons lionize or apply the foulest of epithets to the interpreter based on quite literally nothing more than their own emotion about the conclusion being reached.  Feelings displace rationality.  Emotion is the primary consideration in politics today, with identity its child.  What goes around, comes around; politics like that on one side quickly spreads everywhere.

Science has been corrupted too.  Science didn’t save politics from irrationality, as certain eggheads must have thought must happen (sounds like the sort of thing Woodrow Wilson would have said).  Science and politics met in the middle.  Science improved politics somewhat, but politics corrupted science, as though Faust were a scientist being offered grant money for the finding of certain politically useful conclusions by a party National Committee chair named Mephistopheles.

The P-hacking frontier of rationality

Baltimore police have apparently stopped noticing crime.

There’s something called “drive-and-wave” policing, which is when the police cruise around just as much as ever, since there are surely GPS trackers in their cars.  But they make the decision not to get out of their cars to investigate this or that potentially suspicious thing.  They use their discretion on that, and they do it in a way that produces positive statistics.  They’re provably more present in high-crime areas, which is what their bosses need to see and their bosses need to grandstand about.  But it doesn’t produce civil-rights or police-brutality prosecutions of themselves.  That it produces fewer arrests and less protection of the population is a side effect which surely they must casually regret.

This practice is called p-hacking, in science.  Basically, it refers to manipulating the parameters of the experiment, or more broadly, the professional situation, in order to maximize the evidence for the desired outcome.

“Scientists aren’t supposed to desire a particular outcome!” I hear you cry.

Of course they aren’t.  Steering science, even when you can’t see it, makes it cease to be science.  And police are supposed to desire their job to be done properly, requiring a fair amount of investigating potentially suspicious behavior in person.  But when you set up the incentives badly, p-hacking occurs.  Scientists want headlines, which findings of null hypotheses and re-testing others’ results don’t bring, and they want tenure, and they want grants, and that means they aren’t permitted to find things that could be construed as racist or sexist.  The police want not to be hit with a discrimination or police-brutality lawsuit by people who have learned that politicians, with still other incentives, have established that as the fastest way to victory.

So both scientist and cop use professional discretion– in this case, to stop at a certain point in the process– to avoid bad results for themselves.  It’s akin to the agency problem in business, in which CEOs and investment advisors make decisions for others, like churning their accounts, that are defensible on the surface but which are actually taken to serve the purposes of the agent (the advisor or executive)– maximizing commissions, for example, or producing “accomplishments” to point to.

More broadly, then, this is a structural problem with rationality.  When you mix rationality with politics, yes, politics does become more rational.

But rationality, in turn, becomes more political.